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Elizabeth Douglass's articles

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."

Exxon Eyes July Restart for Ruptured Pipeline's South Leg, Worrying Residents

Residents living along the Texas portion of the Pegasus have questioned the safety of reopening any part of the line without extensive testing.

Jun 18, 2014

ExxonMobil intends to restart the southern portion of its Pegasus oil pipeline on July 1, ending a 15-month shutdown that began when the pipeline ruptured and flooded a residential street in Arkansas with crude.

The move is a disappointment to Texans like Barbara Lawrence, who said the 1950s-era southern leg of the Pegasus runs under the Richland-Chambers Reservoir, where she lives on the shore. She and others worry about potential oil spills in reservoirs and other waterways, and have questioned the safety of reopening any part of the Pegasus line without extensive testing.

"I think that's too bad, and I really think it's short-sighted," Lawrence said of the pipeline restart. Noting that the Richard-Chambers Reservoir is a source of drinking water, she added, "You'd think that other people, particularly in a drought situation, would want to protect the water supply."

2 States Beef Up Oil-by-Rail and Pipeline Safety After String of Accidents

Other states that have surging oil-by-rail traffic and pipelines carrying tar sands are expected to consider similar safety requirements.

Jun 16, 2014

Alarmed by a string of explosive and disastrous oil spills, two states recently passed laws aimed at forcing rail and pipeline companies to abide by more rigorous emergency response measures instead of relying on the federal government.

The moves by New Hampshire and Minnesota reflect a desire for more control over in-state hazards, as well as mounting frustration over gaps in federal law involving oil pipelines and oil trains, superficial federal reviews and the secrecy surrounding spill response plans submitted to U.S. regulators.

"At this point, lots of states are looking at oil-by-rail and thinking about how they would respond—whether they have the resources, whether their first responders have the resources, and whether their laws are sufficient to protect their communities," said Rebecca Craven, program director at the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group based in Washington State.

Exxon to Challenge Ark. Oil Spill Fine at Hearing, but Public Not Allowed to Listen

'What gets everybody really suspicious is that you don't have access to watch it, which raises all kinds of issues about transparency.'

Jun 11, 2014

Federal pipeline regulators and ExxonMobil lawyers will spar Wednesday in Houston over a proposed $2.7 million fine and allegations that the company delayed crucial inspections, skewed risk data and ignored warning signs before its Pegasus oil pipeline ruptured in Arkansas last year.

The two sides are presenting evidence for and against the fine and allegations in an "informal" administrative hearing that's closed to the public. It is being heard by a presiding officer from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), according to Damon Hill, spokesman for the regulatory agency. A final ruling could take six months or longer.

PHMSA's Pegasus case is being closely watched by pipeline opponents who question the government's ability to stand up to oil company pressure and protect the public from harmful—and sometimes deadly—incidents involving oil pipelines and railroad cars filled with crude.

"What gets everybody really suspicious is that you don't have access to watch it, which raises all kinds of issues about transparency," said Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant who serves on PHMSA’s safety standards advisory board for oil pipelines. "The pipeline is owned by the company, but it's running through public assets, so [the closed process] tends to be frustrating."