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Elizabeth McGowan's articles

Plan to Build East Coast Gateway for Canada's Oil Sands Hits Legal Snag

Court of Quebec ruling could hinder plans to reverse the flow of a pipeline to carry oil sands from Montreal to Maine, environmentalists say.

Mar 20, 2012
Portland-Maine Pipeline

WASHINGTON—A little-publicized Canadian court decision has thrown a monkey wrench into an on-again, off-again proposal to transport oil from tar sands mines in Alberta to a U.S. seaport in Maine for export.

Last month, judges with the Court of Quebec rejected a Montreal-based oil pipeline company's request to construct a pumping station near the Quebec-Vermont border. The court case pitted environmentalists and Quebec citizens against the owners of a South Portland, Maine-to-Montreal, Quebec oil pipeline.

Halting the pumping station is part of an overarching strategy by environmentalists to challenge Canada's expansion of tar sands oil extraction. They fear the station is the linchpin in opening an eastern gateway for the flow of a dirtier grade of oil from western Canada to Maine. From there, it would likely be shipped to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

EPA Puts Greenhouse Gas Rules for Oil Refineries on Backburner

'There are no current rules under development on that issue,' EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson tells Congress.

Mar 8, 2012
Houston petroleum refineries

Election-year politics, $4-a-gallon gasoline and an anti-regulatory fervor on Capitol Hill have aligned to thwart EPA's vow to issue final carbon emissions standards for oil refineries this year.

Changing course puts the Environmental Protection Agency woefully behind schedule on curbing planet-warming gases from a major polluter.

The pullback on refineries—combined with an earlier and separate delay on regulating greenhouse gases from fossil fuel power plants—means EPA has yet to control emissions from a pair of sizable industrial sources. Together, refineries and power plants account for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse-gas pollution nationwide.

As part of a 2010 legal settlement with environmental organizations, EPA was on track to release draft regulations for oil refineries in December 2011 and final rules by November 2012. That timetable began to crumble last November when the agency announced it wouldn't meet the December deadline.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson hinted that the slowdown would delay final oil refinery standards until beyond 2012 when she told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week that "there are no current rules under development on that issue."

New Map Shows Location of Nation's Most Toxic Industrial Boilers

Most of the biggest polluting industrial boilers are in manufacturing states east of the Mississippi River, but 68 dot the West coast states.

Feb 29, 2012
U.S. Steel's Gary Works industrial power plant in Gary, Indiana

WASHINGTON—Industries in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and South Carolina will have the most catching up to do when—and if—EPA begins forcing factory owners to tackle toxic emissions from boilers powering their manufacturing plants.

That's what Earthjustice discovered recently by creating a map pinpointing the whereabouts of the 1,753 industrial boilers that would be forced to curb pollutants under new regulations crafted by the Environmental Protection Agency. The bulk of the "offending" boilers are operating in manufacturing-heavy states east of the Mississippi River.

"We've been scratching our heads figuring out how to make this conversation about industrial power plants more real," Jim Pew, a staff attorney with the nonprofit environmental law firm, told InsideClimate News. "The term boiler is misleading because people think it is what's in their own basement. But the scale of these on-site power sources is enormous.

People don't realize industrial power plants can be next door to their homes, Pew said. "Living near one of these plants, you are being exposed to a lot of pollution. People should know what these plants are emitting so they understand why they should be controlled."

Appeals Court to Hear Arguments over EPA Carbon Rules This Week

EPA’s endangerment finding and tailpipe, tailoring and timing rules to face legal challenges in a single case consolidated from dozens of lawsuits.

Feb 27, 2012
John E. Amos coal-fired power plant in West Virginia, owned and operated by Appa

WASHINGTON—Opponents intent on blocking EPA's "endangerment finding" and the agency's other efforts to regulate emissions of heat-trapping gases via the Clean Air Act will have their two days in court this week.

A three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals is slated to hear oral arguments on the legal challenges Tuesday and Wednesday in the nation's capital.

In addition to the endangerment finding, the court will be reviewing a trio of other regulations—abbreviated as the "tailpipe," "tailoring" and "timing" rules. Combined, they are the bedrock of the Environmental Protection Agency's attempts to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from vehicles and big industrial sources.

All four rules represent the agency's response to Massachusetts v. EPA. In that landmark 2007 decision, the Supreme Court gave EPA authority over carbon pollution. The high court justices also made it clear that agency officials could not shirk that authority unless they could provide a scientific basis for refusing to act.

The appeals court's rulings, expected to be issued this summer, are significant because they have the potential to halt, delay, modify or increase the scope of EPA's regulation of carbon under the Clean Air Act.

Dems Urge Hearing to Address Climate Change Skepticism on Capitol Hill

Since May 2011, Democrats have made at least seven other requests to GOP leadership for climate hearings. Thus far, none has been granted.

Feb 23, 2012
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.)

WASHINGTON—A remarkably balmy January—the fourth warmest on record—has prompted top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to prod Republicans into scheduling a congressional hearing to explore why winters are warmer than average.

Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Bobby Rush of Illinois cited recent data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as the basis for their hearing request.

During January, the average temperature in the United States—excluding Alaska and Hawaii—was 5.5 degrees above normal, according to NOAA.

NOAA reports show that above-normal temperatures are part of a global trend. For example, they pointed to NOAA statistics listing 2001-2011 as ranking among the 13 warmest years worldwide since recordkeeping began in 1880.

In a Wednesday letter addressed to GOP committee leaders, Waxman and Rush wrote that a hearing to discuss these findings would "provide members with a more robust understanding of the scientific consensus around rising temperatures."

Approval of Keystone XL Bill Would Open a Long Legal Mire, Experts Say

Court challenges likely if Congress passes legislation to dictate the pipeline’s future.

Feb 12, 2012
Rep. Lee Terry

WASHINGTON—Congressional Republicans are floating a handful of measures to override President Obama's January rejection of a permit for the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. But it's questionable whether any of these efforts, including a bill that could be debated in the House this week, would actually speed up approval of the Canada-to-Texas pipeline.

Legal experts agree that the Constitution allows Congress to bypass the president and legislate a permitting process for cross-border pipelines such as TransCanada's $7 billion project. But they also agree that it's a tricky endeavor likely to trigger a complex and drawn-out lawsuit.

For starters, a pro-pipeline measure focused solely on Keystone XL has only a tiny chance of passing muster in a Democrat-majority Senate. Plus, President Obama wouldn't sign such a bill into law.

If the GOP did somehow overcome those barriers, the law would almost certainly be challenged in federal court—probably by environmental organizations and/or landowners along the pipeline route. However, the nature of the lawsuit would depend upon the content of the law that passes.

Membership in Unions Supporting Obama on Keystone Rejection Outnumbers Those Against

Unions with a substantially larger membership base are supporting the president's environmental caution, despite partisan outcry.

Feb 7, 2012
Construction of a new pipeline

WASHINGTON—A barrage of industry-led advertising and lobbying urging President Obama to "put jobs ahead of politics" has fueled the impression that labor unions universally champion the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

But that myth was blown apart just minutes after the president rejected the $7 billion project on Jan. 18.

That's when five labor unions that had kept low profiles on the pipeline—including the 2 million-member strong Service Employees International Union—issued a joint statement backing Obama's decision. Not only did they laud him for acting "wisely," but they also emphasized the need to address climate change and find sustainable and secure energy sources.

Since then, a more nuanced snapshot has emerged of where labor unions stand on Keystone XL. That newer picture weakens industry's argument that the pipeline has broad union support. The handful of unions that praised the president and questioned the project’s merits represent close to 5 million members. Membership in the five unions publicly promoting the project is near 3.3 million. (See chart.)

Obama's Latest Energy Blueprint: Will Congress Go Along?

The president used his State of the Union address to set three energy goals. The challenge, though, will be navigating a bitterly divided Congress.

Jan 26, 2012
President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union, Jan. 24, 2012.

WASHINGTON—President Obama talked for one hour, four minutes and 15 seconds Tuesday night when he delivered his third State of the Union address. He devoted seven of those minutes to how Congress and his administration could and should press forward on energy and environmental issues.

Obama highlighted three issues as ready for immediate action: slashing oil subsidies, crafting a clean energy standard and requiring companies that drill on federal land to disclose the chemicals they pump underground.

Here, InsideClimate News summarizes where each of these topics stands today with Congress or the appropriate regulatory agency.

GOP's Keystone XL Gambit Leaves TransCanada, Other Oil Allies in the Lurch

Republicans' efforts to make the pipeline a top campaign issue against Obama could create new problems for TransCanada and the oil industry.

Jan 24, 2012
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), center, with fellow House Republicans

WASHINGTON—Now that President Obama has at least temporarily quashed the Keystone XL pipeline, TransCanada executives have to be wondering if they really need enemies when their supposed friends, the House Republicans, have placed them in such a financial and strategic bind.

Obama's Wednesday ruling not only means the Calgary-based company will have to reapply for a permit to construct the $7 billion hotly contested Keystone XL. But it has also sent rumblings of doubt through the entire oil industry and into boardrooms of other Canadian energy companies that are worried about progress on their own separate oil sands pipelines.

TransCanada opted not to discuss the Republicans' decision to force the president into giving its project a quick "yes" or "no."

"We are not going to comment on the politics of the Keystone XL application," TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said in an e-mail to InsideClimate News. "That is better left to others."

Fewer than 24 hours after Obama's announcement, TransCanada's chief executive officer Russ Girling assured investors that the permit denial—which he hopes will be reversed next year—should not cause the $60 billion company to fall behind its energy infrastructure competitors.

"Keystone is an important part of our business, but we're a large business," he said Thursday at a conference in Whistler, British Columbia, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. "We've got a lot of things going on right now. Thankfully, all of those other projects are not attracting the same level of attention as Keystone is right now. We’d never get anything done if that were the case."

Shortly after Obama's Wednesday announcement, the value of TransCanada stock shares dropped by as much as 4.8 percent, then rebounded after company officials said they would reapply for a permit. It climbed again Monday, trading at $41.83 per share in New York.

While TransCanada is trying to appear calm, its competitors admit to being flustered.

Keystone XL Tax Cut Rider: GOP's Cudgel or Black Eye?

Bungled strategy to fast-track oil sands pipeline likely to give Obama leverage.

Dec 22, 2011
Speaker John Boehner

(Editor's update: On Thursday evening, House Republicans capitulated to mounting pressure from the GOP and President Obama by agreeing to an up-down vote on a measure very similar to the bill the Senate passed last weekend. Briefly, it will allow for a seamless extension of the payroll tax holiday for two months—through February—and still require Obama to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days.)

WASHINGTON—House Republicans keep trying to give President Obama a political black eye by wielding the 36-inch diameter Keystone XL pipeline as a cudgel just before Christmas.

Instead, they could end up severely maiming only themselves if they persist with end-of-year legislative theatrics at what some are referring to as the "Capitol Hill Playhouse" this week.

"It's quite a sandbox, isn't it?" Pat Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor who specializes in Congress and environmental issues, told InsideClimate News. "I think their strategy has backfired and that they've roped themselves with this political gambit. This idea that you have to keep introducing ideology into every issue, that will be their undoing."

Parenteau is referring to House Republicans' insistence on gumming up a straightforward bill to extend a payroll tax break for 160 million Americans with language that would force Obama to fast-track approval or denial of the $7 billion, hotly contested pipeline.