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Elizabeth Douglass's articles

Pipeline Alert From Federal Regulator Is First of Its Kind

Reversing oil and gas pipelines or changing the product they're carrying can have a 'significant impact' on the line's safety and integrity.

Nov 17, 2014

Reversing oil and natural gas pipelines or switching the product they're carrying can have a "significant impact" on the line's safety and integrity—and "may not be advisable" in some cases, federal regulators told pipeline companies in a recent advisory.

The alert is the first time the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has officially cautioned the industry about potential safety threats from restarting, reversing or reworking pipelines to handle Canadian tar sands oil and the surge in U.S. oil and natural gas supplies. If not handled properly, those changes can increase the risk of pipeline leaks and ruptures, the Sept. 12 notice said.

The PHMSA bulletin validates the concerns of communities and pipeline safety experts who have pressed for more details and assurances about pipeline reversals and other changes. The proliferation of those changes has also frustrated environmentalists because they have provided routes for tar sands headed to the Gulf Coast in the absence of the Keystone XL pipeline.  

PHMSA said the advisory was triggered in part by last year's oil spills involving two reversed pipelines, ExxonMobil's Pegasus tar sands line in Arkansas and the Tesoro Logistics line in North Dakota. Those accidents, as well as "other information PHMSA has become aware of" led the agency to issue the alert, the bulletin said. 

Ahead of Global Talks, All Eyes on U.S. Contribution to Climate Fund

'It's like dominos. This is the first domino, and in order to get everything to fall in the right place, you have to start here.'

Nov 10, 2014

Next month's climate talks in Peru are a pivotal point in the push for global action on climate change. But it's a far less publicized gathering in Berlin that holds the key to whether the Lima negotiations succeed—and whether a useful climate treaty might be possible in the end. 

That's because the Berlin meeting, set for Nov. 20, is the first formal pledging conference for the Green Climate Fund. The fund's job is to collect hundreds of billions of dollars promised to developing countries to help them limit or cut emissions and withstand the effects of global warming.  

At the meeting, the United States and other wealthy nations will announce multiyear contributions to the fund, and the size of those pledges is crucial. Many less-developed countries have warned that they cannot—and will not—offer meaningful emissions reductions without substantial funding from developed countries. The Lima meeting is to lay the groundwork for a climate treaty to be signed in Paris in late 2015.

Berlin "is a good litmus test for Lima, because finance is really half of the equation to getting a climate deal," said Karen Orenstein, a senior analyst at Friends of the Earth. "It's like dominos. This is the first domino, and in order to get everything to fall in the right place, you have to start here."

Exxon Fighting to Keep Public From Seeing 900,000 Pages of Documents in Oil Spill Lawsuit

Unprecedented secrecy in a class action suit that is seeking to determine if oil giant was negligent in upkeep of burst pipeline.

Oct 31, 2014

Oil giant ExxonMobil is seeking "unprecedented secrecy" by labeling nearly 900,000 pages of documents as confidential in a class action lawsuit over an oil pipeline rupture in Arkansas, an attorney said in a new court filing.

The attorney, Tom Thrash, said Exxon's blanket assertion of confidentiality prevents affected property owners and the public from learning whether Exxon had properly maintained and repaired the 1940s-era Pegasus oil pipeline at the heart of the case, and it has forced him to file his arguments under seal.

The 858-mile Pegasus, which stretches from Patoka, Ill. to Nederland, Texas, was carrying Canadian diluted bitumen (dilbit) when it burst open in Mayflower, Ark. on March 29, 2013. An estimated 210,000 gallons of thick oil oozed into a neighborhood and waterway, sickening residents and forcing the evacuation of 22 homes. Exxon later bought most of the houses because the owners didn't want to return.

Oil-Price Plunge Gives New Ammo to Divestment Activists

'There's definitely going to be less money flowing into [oil stocks] than we've seen in the last couple years,' says Phil Flynn, senior oil analyst.

Oct 28, 2014

The recent dive in oil prices is undermining oil company earnings, projects and stock prices—at least for now—giving new ammunition to climate action groups pushing pensions, universities and others to purge their fossil fuel holdings.

By themselves, the lower oil prices aren't likely to convince institutions to divest from fossil fuels, especially since price swings are common in oil markets. But the unexpected dip could help the cause by casting doubt on the investment case for keeping them, according to Jamie Henn, communications director at 350.org, a leader in the growing divestment campaign.

"The primary reason to divest remains the moral and political one—that if it's wrong to wreck the planet, then it's wrong to profit from that wreckage," said Henn. "But the recent news about oil prices is a reminder that it's a market that fluctuates wildly...and [oil company stocks] are not the secure investment that people often see them as."

The price of U.S. benchmark crude has been trading near $80 a barrel of late, a substantial slide from this year's high of more than $108 a barrel in June. Oversupply and slower demand growth could force the cost of crude down $10 more before it stabilizes or reverses course, according to Fadel Gheit, senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. Recently, Goldman Sachs lowered its 2015 oil price estimate to $75, down from $90.

Q&A With SolarCity's Chief: There Is No Cost to Solar Energy, Only Savings

'How long will the world and the U.S. continue to tolerate being able to pollute for free?'

Oct 17, 2014

SolarCity Corp., the nation's largest residential solar service provider, has a history of pushing the envelope. It introduced the industry's first leasing program for homeowners, offered discounted solar installations through Groupon, and is pouring money into a solar manufacturing plant in the United States.

In the last two weeks, the company added two financial innovations: a first-of-its-kind nationwide solar bond program to sell bonds directly to individual investors who want to support the spread of clean energy; and a hybrid financing program (MyPower) that gives customers lease-like payments as well as ownership of the solar system.

San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity, founded in 2006 by brothers Lyndon and Peter Rive, has grown to more than 6,000 employees. It is a full-service solar provider—including design, permitting, financing, installation, monitoring and maintenance—with operations in 15 states. So far, the company has installed more than 750 megawatts of photovoltaic solar systems for homes, businesses, governments and schools.

Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Motors, is chairman of the SolarCity board—and cousin to the Rive brothers. All three share a sense of urgency about the threat of climate change.

Limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius will require reworking how nations produce and use energy—away from fossil fuels to a mix of aggressive energy efficiency, nuclear power, carbon capturing technologies, and renewable power. The International Energy Agency estimates that renewable power will have to supply 65 percent of the world's power supply.

That makes solar a crucial part of the effort to avoid the worst effects of a warming climate. Federal tax credits, which have been a big driver in solar growth, are set to expire at the end of 2016.

Following the launch of MyPower, Lyndon Rive, SolarCity's chief executive, talked to InsideClimate News about the company, the MyPower program and the challenge of spreading solar far and fast enough.

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40% Drop in Solar PV Cost is Brightest Spot of Global Energy Picture

$44 Trillion is needed to make the transition to clean energy, IEA expert tells ICN, but will yield $115 trillion in savings.

Oct 10, 2014

In a world wrestling with climate change and the need to phase out fossil fuels, nothing is more critical than making sure there are reliable and cost-effective clean energy technologies ready to fill the void.

In FERC's Approval of Gas Exports, Climate Effects Get Glossed Over

Environmental groups vow legal action after regulators approve an LNG export project without doing a rigorous environmental impact statement.

Oct 1, 2014

Environmental and community groups on Tuesday assailed federal approval of the Cove Point liquefied natural gas export project, arguing that regulators glossed over the climate change consequences. They vowed to challenge the decision through a regulatory appeal or in the courts.

"The groups that have been opposing this facility for more than a year have no intention of quitting and conceding this," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, one of several nonprofit groups fighting the Lusby, Md. LNG project. "There are legal steps before us next."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the Cove Point LNG export project late Monday. It imposed 79 conditions on its construction that regulators said would mitigate potential adverse environmental impacts. Those conditions were based on an environmental assessment of the project, a less-rigorous review than what is called for in an environmental impact statement.

FERC's action allows Dominion Cove Point to liquefy and export as much as 5.75 million metric tons of U.S. gas per year from the terminal. The commission said project owner Dominion Resources Inc. proposes to complete construction in time to begin exports in June 2017. In separate actions, the Department of Energy conditionally approved gas exports from the terminal to any country, providing there are no U.S. trade prohibitions.

Big Business Climate Change Movement Grows in Size and Heft

The business presence at this year's Climate Week went well beyond the 'green bubble' that has long surrounded such climate advocacy.

Sep 29, 2014

Climate Week presented a two-front push for nations to take action on climate change. The moral case was emphatically made by a record-setting, 400,000-person march through Manhattan. What followed was a similarly unprecedented barrage from investor groups and corporations to convince world leaders that there's also a compelling economic case for taking steps against global warming.

The business presence last week was particularly striking because of its breadth and heft, and because of its extension well beyond the so-called "green bubble" that surrounds companies, investors and advocacy groups who embraced the cause long ago.

Signatories representing $26 trillion in investment funds called on world leaders to enact strong policies, cut fossil fuel subsidies and make polluters pay for the effects of their emissions. There were commitments and pledges from the likes of General Motors, food makers Mars Inc. and Nestle, and consumer products giant Unilever. And a string of corporate CEOs joined early-adopters like Ikea Group in supporting renewable energy and citing proof that companies and countries can tackle climate change and prosper at the same time.

"More and more businesses are coming forward and saying look, we can do this. We can cut energy use, we can become more efficient, and we can provide solutions—and this represents an enormous biz opportunity," said Paul Simpson, chief executive officer of London based CDP, a company that collects corporate climate change data on behalf of shareholders. "That's not a completely new message, but I think there are far more companies on board with saying it, and that's really a fundamental shift."

Ground Zero for Climate Change: 14 Carbon Hot Spots — Interactive Graphic

What we do with the world's 14 biggest reserves of carbon will help determine the pace and depth of climate change and the fate of future generations.

Sep 25, 2014

It took hundreds of millions of years for Earth's fossil fuel deposits to form, but mankind has burned much of it in just a couple centuries—in geologic terms, that amounts to an explosion of carbon emissions.

Climate Primer: Explaining the Global Carbon Budget and Why It Matters

Once the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere tops 3.2 trillion metric tons, chances dim to avoid climate disaster, according to new calculations.

Sep 22, 2014
Carbon budget graphic

For as long as scientists and policymakers have been grappling with climate change, they've been up against two critical questions: How much extra carbon has mankind sent into the atmosphere? And how much more can be added before global warming becomes disastrous? 

Climate researchers have spent decades tracking and quantifying the complex flows of carbon into and out of the atmosphere, but those questions couldn't be answered convincingly until 2009. That's when a group of European scientists published a groundbreaking and highly credible global carbon budget that filled the information void. Using a comprehensive climate model, the scientists determined the maximum amount of greenhouse gases mankind could send into the atmosphere without triggering catastrophe—and then found that more than a quarter of that budget had been spent by 2006.