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Elizabeth Douglass's articles

Deepening Ties Between Exxon and Russia Run Counter to U.S. Efforts to Punish Putin

As its interests deepen in Russia, Exxon also stands to profit from the U.S. effort to fast-track oil and gas exports to 'stick it' to Putin.

Aug 27, 2014

As tensions mount and U.S. lawmakers push for stiffer sanctions on Russia for its role in the Ukraine crisis, oil giant ExxonMobil wants no part of it.  

On the contrary, America's second-largest public company recently deepened its ties to Russia and its vast energy deposits with a new natural gas export venture and by providing Russian President Vladimir Putin with enthusiastic—and very public—support.

The incongruity of Exxon's business-as-usual approach in Russia while U.S. officials talk of punishing Putin highlights a reality that politicians and the public tend to overlook: Corporate interests and the needs of the nation can—and do—sometimes diverge. Barring legal prohibitions, Exxon and other public companies are duty-bound to put shareholder interests first.  

It's a reality that remains obscured as energy lobbyists and Congressional lawmakers campaign for sweeping policy shifts and controversial projects, such as construction of the Keystone XL oil import pipeline, fast-tracking natural gas export plants and removing limits on domestic oil exports.

Wall Street Warned About $91 Billion of High-Risk Oil Megaprojects

Tar sands, deepsea drilling and other projects would lose money if lower demand, CO2 restrictions or other factors forced crude prices below $95.

Aug 18, 2014

Critics of environmentally risky oil projects proposed for deep undersea and Canada's tar sands got new ammunition last week when a report labeled those ventures and others as the industry's most financially questionable pursuits.

The new report, published by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI), identifies a host of drawing-board oil projects that would cost a combined $91 billion over the next decade—and that would lose money if lower demand, carbon restrictions or other factors forced crude prices below $95 a barrel. Many of the projects need oil prices to settle substantially higher than $110 a barrel to break even, CTI said.

It's the latest in a string of offerings from London-based CTI, a non-profit that has been highlighting climate-related risks and costs that they believe are not being addressed by fossil fuel companies or reflected in financial markets. Through a pair of earlier reports, the group helped popularize the notion that fossil fuel companies could end up with valueless "unburnable carbon," or stranded assets, if governments move to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

By highlighting the financial risk of specific mega-projects in its latest work, CTI hopes to convince more Wall Street analysts and oil company investors to pressure ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and others to justify the expenses or cancel development.

In San Bruno Gas Blast Case, Cozy Emails Between Judge and Defendant

Loss of confidence in important utility regulator adds pressure for accountability from overseers of pipelines, drilling operations and oil-by-rail.

Aug 4, 2014

The release last week of possibly improper emails between a utility and the California Public Utilities Commission has caused further damage to the credibility of the state's energy regulator and sparked a renewed push to oust the commission's powerful longtime president.

The mounting crisis of confidence at one of the nation's most influential state utility commissions comes as communities around the country are demanding more transparency and accountability from the regulators who oversee pipelines, oil and gas hydraulic fracturing wells and oil-filled trains.

Pressure on California's utility commission intensified last Monday, when the City of San Bruno—site of a horrific gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people in 2010—released emails and documents that appear to show illegal communications about the ongoing San Bruno case and a pattern of coziness with Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility responsible for the tragedy.

Q&A: Why First Nations Are Stopping Enbridge's Tar Sands Pipeline

'We're serious about our economy. We want to make sure that it's self-sufficient and doesn't harm the environment—so it lasts forever.'

Jul 31, 2014

British Columbia's First Nations have fought the proposed Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline that would cross their land for years, and they have no intention of letting up just because the federal government recently approved it. They've ignored the wishes of Canadian Prime Minister Harper, shrugged off oil industry promises of local jobs, and rejected offers of part ownership in what could be a lucrative and long-lived project.

In short, they've been impervious to the kinds of political pressure and financial enticements that routinely succeed in smoothing the way for oil-related projects in the United States. How come?

A big part of the defiance comes from the Coastal First Nations, an alliance of aboriginal groups in British Columbia that has no interest in allowing diluted bitumen from Alberta's oil sands to pass through their territories or get shipped through their fishing grounds. The environment is too important to their culture, to their economy and to a succession of generations to come.

Obama's Safer Oil Train Plan Faces Rulemaking Hurdles

It could take more than three years to fully halt the shipment of the most flammable liquids in the most dangerous rail cars.

Jul 25, 2014

The Obama Administration's proposal Wednesday for making oil-laden railcars safer runs 203 pages and includes a host of new rules for carrying flammable fuels by train—but they come with caveats.

The most important caveat is that they're not final regulations, and it's not uncommon for proposed safety requirements to get weakened and postponed following objections from the industries involved.

What comes next is a 60-day period for accepting comments from the public and the various industries that will be affected by the Department of Transportation's proposed rules. Then the government has to issue the final versions and give the industries time to comply. It could take more than three years to fully halt the shipment of the most flammable liquids in the most dangerous railcars.

The government's "comprehensive rulemaking proposal" also leaves two critical elements unsettled. The DOT offers three different safety standards for making new oil railcars stronger—and asks for public comments on which one should prevail. The agency also offers several variations on rail speed limits, leaving that issue unresolved.

U.S. Ranks Near Bottom on Energy Efficiency; Germany Tops List

Overall dismal report shows the U.S. outperformed only three of the world's largest economies on energy efficiency—Russia, Brazil and Mexico.

Jul 18, 2014

Germany leads the world in harnessing the benefits of energy efficiency, followed by Italy, the European Union, China and France, according to a new ranking of the world's 16 largest economies. The United States was near the bottom, placing 13th.

America's Oil Consumption Is Rising, Not Falling, Outpacing China's

For the first time in 14 years, the nation's increase in crude oil consumption in 2013 was higher than China's, new figures show.

Jul 14, 2014

U.S. oil demand reversed course in dramatic fashion in 2013, as the nation's growth in crude consumption outpaced perennial leader China for the first time since 1999, according to oil company BP's annual compendium of world energy statistics.

The U.S. increase follows two years of declines, and dampens hopes that the world's largest oil guzzler was permanently reining in its appetite for crude. The nation's oil use rose by 400,000 barrels per day to a daily draw of 18.9 million barrels; China's oil consumption grew by 390,000 barrels a day, to 10.8 million barrels a day, according to the BP figures released last month.

"Are these data points a harbinger of things to come or just an aberration?" asked Christof Rühl, group chief economist at BP. "Too early to tell is the appropriate response."

Exxon's Burst Pipeline Could Restart Within a Year, but Repair Plan May Be Inadequate

Exxon's pipeline stress test plan, obtained by ICN through a FOIA request, may leave crack threats lurking in the 1940s-era pipe, expert says.

Jul 7, 2014

ExxonMobil could restart the northern leg of its Pegasus oil pipeline within a year, but the company's pre-startup tests could leave behind threats large enough to endanger the public, according to a review of Exxon's proposal.

Those details and others are laid out in Exxon's repair plan for the Pegasus northern segment, a document that was submitted to federal pipeline regulators at the end of March. The so-called "integrity verification and remedial work plan" was not publicly released, but InsideClimate News obtained a copy through a public records request.

Exxon plans to conduct stress tests on the pipeline to prove that it can be safely restarted. But the company also said if high-pressure tests trigger a significant number of pipeline failures, it might lower the pressures—a downgrade that could leave dangerous cracks in the pipe. The Pegasus split apart in Mayflower, Ark. in March 2013, and sent a flood of Canadian diluted bitumen into a neighborhood.

Arkansas Spill Pollution Case Against Exxon Can Proceed, Court Says

Potentially potent lawsuit claiming Exxon violated pollution laws after its 2013 Mayflower oil pipeline spill survives dismissal attempts.

Jun 30, 2014

Federal and state attorneys who sued ExxonMobil Corp. over its Arkansas pipeline spill have won court rulings to keep the lawsuit alive and to deny the company's attempt to limit the information it must provide in the case.

The rulings, which came earlier this month, represent a critical step forward for a case that has moved slowly since it was filed a year ago. The lawsuit, filed June 13, 2013 in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, Ark., accuses Exxon of violating federal and state air and water pollution laws as well as Arkansas' hazardous waste regulations.

U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker on June 9 rejected Exxon's request to have the lawsuit dismissed, concluding that the governments had sufficient grounds to proceed with the case. In a separate ruling, she ordered the oil company to provide opposing attorneys with overdue documents and other requested information by July 10. Baker also said that Exxon must disclose its current estimate for how much oil was spilled, and must comply with requests for information about the entire length of the 858-mile Pegasus pipeline, not just a portion of it.

First Nations Being Courted to Back Tar Sands Refinery Projects on Their Land

Companies behind refining proposals are trying hard to avoid the mistakes Enbridge made on Northern Gateway pipeline—but an uphill fight awaits.

Jun 23, 2014

Despite last week's approval from the Canadian government, uncertainty still dogs Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline largely because of a vow from key aboriginal communities to block it.

Others in the oil industry are trying hard to avoid the mistakes Enbridge made when it comes to approaching Canada's powerful First Nations about projects that could contaminate their lands and waterways.

Pacific Future Energy Corp.'s recent refinery proposal is the latest example.

Earlier this month, the company unveiled plans for a $10 billion refinery in British Columbia that would convert Alberta's tar sands bitumen into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for export to Asia and other markets. Pacific Future Energy pledged to form a "full partnership" with affected First Nations, provide permanent jobs and build the "greenest refinery in the world."