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John H. Cushman Jr.'s articles

In Northern Gateway Pipeline Decision, Economics Trumped All Else

Canadian panel approves Enbridge's tar sands pipeline to Pacific Coast. If the project goes ahead, it could have ramifications for the Keystone XL.

Dec 19, 2013
Demonstrators protest against Northern Gateway pipeline

WASHINGTON—An independent Canadian federal panel on Thursday approved Enbridge's proposal to build a new pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the British Columbia coast, a significant gain in the industry's long campaign to find export markets for the nation's abundant but carbon-heavy form of crude oil.

The panel set 209 conditions on the project as a way to overcome environmental and safety concerns. Even that, it said, would not guarantee that there would be no environmental harm.

But its central message was that the economic interest in building the line was paramount—"that Canadians will be better off with this project than without it."

"We are of the view that opening Pacific Basin markets is important to the Canadian economy and society," the panel declared. "Societal and economic benefits can be expected from the project.

Need for More Tar Sands Imports Called Into Question With Latest U.S. Energy Data

In 2040, domestic crude oil output will still be higher than it is today. Will the country's shifting energy picture affect Keystone XL's prospects?

Dec 17, 2013

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Energy Department has sharply cut its forecast for crude oil imports in the next several years, saying that domestic oil will replace imports at a much faster rate than it expected just a few months ago.

Imports in 2016 will be one million barrels a day lower than it projected in April, the department's Energy Information Administration (EIA) said Monday in its preliminary annual energy outlook for 2014 and beyond.

"With growth in both oil and natural gas production, we see the U.S. moving closer toward self-sufficiency, and there are some very interesting economic and geopolitical implications to all that," said Adam Sieminski, the EIA's administrator, at a briefing.

The rapidly changing energy picture could relieve some of the pressure on President Obama to approve one major new conduit for crude oil imports, the Keystone XL pipeline. If built, the project would carry 860,000 barrels a day of crude oil, mostly from Canada's tar sands, to U.S. refineries on the Texas coast, starting as early as 2016.

Obama's New Special Adviser Is Outspoken Foe of Keystone XL and Tar Sands

'Oil extraction from tar sands is polluting, destructive, expensive, and energy intensive,' John Podesta said in a speech in 2010.

Dec 10, 2013
John Podesta

WASHINGTON—By asking John Podesta to come to the White House as a special counselor at a time of turmoil and tough choices, President Obama has created an unusually close tie to an outspoken critic of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Canadian tar sands it would carry.

Podesta is a Washington policy insider who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff and whose Center for American Progress, or CAP, is an influential voice of liberalism. He has kept climate change high on his agenda for years and will continue to do so in the White House, reported The New York Times, which broke the news of his new assignment.

His arrival comes just as the decision on TransCanada's proposal to build a controversial pipeline to deliver tar sands crude from Alberta across the midsection of the United States approaches a critical turning point: the completion of a final environmental impact statement by the State Department. That will be followed by a crucial 90-day period in which Obama must decide whether the pipeline is in the U.S. national interest.

Global Boom in Coal Plants Begs for Carbon Capture Solution

The CCS drumbeat builds during Warsaw climate talks, as data reveal nearly 1,200 coal-burning plants are on the drawing boards amid record warming.

Nov 22, 2013
Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon

The smoldering debate over whether coal has a future in a low-carbon world has flared up with new intensity in Warsaw, the site of this month's annual United Nations negotiations toward a global climate treaty.

With world coal use growing at a staggering pace, top climate diplomats have used the global stage to take a much more aggressive stance against the coal industry. They are demanding that companies move quickly to leverage technology to capture and bury their planet-heating emissions or risk putting the world on a dangerous and irreversible path.

In a stern address to the World Coal Association on the sidelines of the summit, Christiana Figueres, head of the UN's Climate Change Secretariat, made several demands of industry: leave "most existing reserves in the ground," shut down the dirtiest coal-fired facilities and use carbon capture and storage (CCS) on "new plants, even the most efficient."

IEA: Tar Sands Export Pipelines Needed for Canada's Oil to Boom

Report thrusts the prominent energy institute into a critical part of the debate over the Keystone XL—whether the pipeline would worsen global warming.

Nov 14, 2013
Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine/Credit: Elias Schewel. T

Growth in the Canadian oil sands industry will depend on the construction of major new pipelines, including the disputed Keystone XL across the United States, according to a report by a prominent energy institute.

The faster new pipelines are approved, the more rapid the increase in tar sands production over the next two decades, the International Energy Agency said in its annual World Energy Outlook, released on Nov. 12. Accelerated growth would mean a surge in global greenhouse gas emissions, which the IEA has said are already on a "dangerous" course.

The finding thrusts the IEA into a critical part of the debate over the proposed Keystone XL—whether the project would worsen global warming. The IEA's conclusion contrasts with what the U.S. State Department said in its high-profile draft environmental impact study.

According to the State Department, tar sands production would increase with or without the Keystone XL, and therefore the pipeline wouldn't exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The question is important because Obama has said his decision will hinge on the "net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate."

Keystone XL Study Warns of Defective Segments on Pipeline's Southern Leg

Report by advocates says at least 125 sections on the southern portion of the Keystone have had to be repaired. Expert says concerns exaggerated.

Nov 12, 2013
Replacement work on the southern leg of the Keystone XL

Story updated on Nov. 13 at 2:30 a.m. EDT to include content of warning letters obtained by CBS from federal regulators to TransCanada.

Story updated on Nov. 12 at 3:20 p.m. EDT to include comments from TransCanada.

A group of environmental advocates and Texas landowners is urging federal regulators to block TransCanada from starting the southern leg of its Keystone XL pipeline, while new inspections are conducted and the company's construction and safety practices are investigated. The Oklahoma-to-Texas oil pipeline is nearly completed.

The activists, led by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, allege in a report released Tuesday that shoddy construction on the new line has caused more than a hundred defects that TransCanada has had to fix. They believe the "anomalies," even after repairs, could leave the pipeline vulnerable to breaks and spills.

They called on the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, to require comprehensive retesting and reinspection of the line before its scheduled startup around the end of this year.

The critics also want regulators to investigate TransCanada's construction and quality assurance records to see why so many repairs were needed and whether the company's practices, which have been criticized by Canadian regulators in the past, met safety standards. They are urging Congressional committees to hold oversight hearings into the matter.

Climate Talks in Poland Will Open Amid Flurry of New Scientific Warnings

All the reports sound a common theme: more needs to be done, and faster.

Nov 7, 2013
UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres

As delegates from around the world descend on Warsaw for talks toward a new climate treaty, scientists are issuing more and more dire warnings that time is running out to avoid dangerous global warming.

In the past week, several new reports echoed the common theme that urgent action is required to reverse emission trends. Otherwise, greenhouse gas accumulations will surely break through the threshold that scientists say will lock in unacceptable warming—with the attendant droughts, floods, storms, sea rise and damage to ecosystems.

Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to set records, a Nov. 6 report by the World Meteorological Organization confirmed. The gap between a safe track for emissions and the business-as-usual track continues to widen, another organization's report said on Nov. 5.

Yet another, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, foretold consequences including disruption to food supplies and possibly rising violence.

Canadian Gov't Emissions Report Undermines Keystone Pipeline Pitch

The U.S. and Canada are going in opposite directions on CO2 emissions, data reveal, with possible implications for Obama's Keystone pipeline decision.

Oct 31, 2013
Prime Minister Stephen Harper on a tour of CO2 Solutions Inc., a Quebec company

When Alberta Premier Alison Redford came to Washington this year to urge approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, she argued that producing tar sands oil generates much less global warming pollution today than it did two decades ago.

It would be wrong, Redford reasoned, for the U.S. to block the project on climate change grounds.

But a new Canadian government report on the country's greenhouse gas emissions tells a different story. The federal data reveal that the carbon dioxide emissions associated with a barrel of tar sands bitumen have been rising, not falling, in recent years—a trend that may well continue.

The report got scant attention in the United States, but its findings could spell trouble for Canada as government leaders lobby the Obama administration to approve the Keystone, intended to carry growing supplies of tar sands crude to refineries in Texas.

Alberta's Current Carbon Strategy No Match for Keystone's Emissions, Figures Show

The pipeline would increase carbon emissions by 20M tons a year. Despite claims, Alberta's offset schemes would negate just a fraction of those emissions.

Oct 10, 2013
View of tar sands operations in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

In the tiny hamlet of Hairy Hill, Alberta, a highly energy-efficient grain-fed distillery does what it can to offset some of the greenhouse gas emissions spewed by the province's dirtier industries—mainly the tar sands.

The upstart company called Growing Power Hairy Hill turns grain, manure and household waste into liquid fuel and electricity while emitting essentially no greenhouse gases. It says it is Canada's first "integrated biorefinery."

Hairy Hill is one small gear in Canada's carbon-control strategy as the nation struggles to rein in its soaring greenhouse gas emissions. And it is one among more than four dozen government-funded projects that officials hope will help persuade President Obama to approve the Keystone XL, the cross-border pipeline that has been immobilized for years as the Obama administration considers its environmental and climate consequences.

But despite its low carbon footprint, the emissions credits the plant earns under Alberta's complex carbon offsetting scheme are a drop in the bucket compared to what the Keystone would add to the atmosphere.

EPA Claims New Power Plant Emission Regs Offer Lifeline to Coal

Technology to capture and store carbon seen as indispensable for coal to compete with cleaner natural gas in a low-carbon era.

Sep 23, 2013
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy

WASHINGTON—Two days before Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, presented her landmark proposal to regulate carbon emissions from future electric plants, one of her main allies in Congress walked her down memory lane.

Rep. Henry Waxman reminded her that he once tried to help the coal industry pay for costly technology to capture carbon dioxide from power plants and pump it deep underground.

"In 2009, the president supported market-based legislation to make major carbon pollution reductions while investing $60 billion to develop clean coal technologies like carbon capture and sequestration. Isn't that right?" Waxman asked.

"That's my recollection," McCarthy replied wryly.

McCarthy knew full well that the California Democrat was inquiring about his own cap-and-trade bill, which included huge subsidies and bonuses for CCS. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate, where coal-state senators would not even debate it.

"At the time our bill was criticized for being too generous to the coal industry," said Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which was holding a hearing on the administration's climate plan. "But virtually all the Republicans on this committee and the coal industry opposed the legislation despite its massive investment in that industry. We wanted to invest in innovative approaches so that coal could still be used. But Republicans opposed us."

Now, with no prospect for legislation to tackle climate change in sight, McCarthy and other Obama administration officials are pressing ahead with new regulations to reduce emissions from the power sector—and they're making the case that the requirements are an opportunity, not a burden, for the coal and utility industries.