Elizabeth Douglass writes about energy for InsideClimate News. She worked for more than two decades as a business writer at daily newspapers, including a ten-year stint at the Los Angeles Times, where she spent the last half of her tenure covering energy. Her stories followed developments in the oil market, alternative fuels, and renewable energy, and exposed long-running performance problems at California's San Onofre nuclear power plant. She also chronicled how a power company falsified data to win customer-funded performance bonuses and how oil refiners and others in California created one of the nation’s most profitable fuel markets.
While covering telecommunications, she was the first to report financial sleight-of-hand at fiber network company Global Crossing, and uncovered Pacific Bell's boiler room-style sale of add-on features. At the San Diego Union-Tribune, she co-wrote an investigative series on government contractor Science Applications International Corp. that was a finalist for the 1996 Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism.
She holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
So far, 2015 has not been good to the oil industry. In just the last two weeks, the bad news included two fiery oil railcar accidents, a refinery explosion, a scandal involving an industry-funded climate skeptic, a high-profile setback for an oil-by-rail project, a big retrenchment in Canada’s oil sands, and the president's veto of the Keystone XL oil import pipeline.
And that’s not all. Those events have come on top of industry-wide ripple effects from the recent plunge in crude prices. In the last two months, a string of oil companies announced disappointing earnings, workforce layoffs and sharp spending cuts. On Feb. 1, union leaders began strikes at many U.S. refineries after contract talks stalled.
"It's a mess...it's like a perfect storm," said Fadel Gheit, senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. He expects even worse earnings and layoff news ahead if oil prices stay in its current range of around $50 per barrel. On Jan. 28, the price of U.S. benchmark crude closed at a low of $45.23 a barrel, down more than 43 percent since the end of October.
The investigation into last month's oil pipeline spill in the Yellowstone River will be stalled until at least next fall because the most critical piece of evidence—the failed segment of pipe—can't be safely retrieved from the river until after snow-melt flooding is over, according to the pipeline's owner.
The 193-mile Poplar Pipeline, meanwhile, could be repaired and re-opened as soon as March 31, according to Bill Salvin, spokesman for Bridger Pipeline LLC, which owns the ruptured oil line.
The company is preparing to install a replacement pipe segment that would cross the Yellowstone deeper below the riverbed, though it wasn’t immediately clear what the depth would be. The Poplar was eight feet under the river in late 2011, but at the time of the spill, river forces had eroded away all of that cover in places.
The Poplar breach has renewed concerns about the safety of oil pipelines that cross rivers and other bodies of water in more than 18,000 places nationwide. Many of them are buried just a few feet below the water—and it's increasingly clear that pipelines should be installed much deeper.
The other day, Leslie Samuelrich got a call from a financial adviser looking for investments that matched his clients' wishes. "I have two sisters who came in that inherited money from their dad," the adviser told her. "And they both absolutely do not want any of their money in fracking companies."
Other callers just say "I want to invest fossil fuel free," said Samuelrich, president of Green Century Capital Management, a 20-year-old company with two diversified mutual funds that exclude fossil fuel companies. "Those are the words they're using, so the divestment movement has resonated with people."
The increased business for Samuelrich and others offering fossil-free investments is a secondary benefit of the fast-growing divestment movement that has members hanging giant banners and staging protests, street theater, sit-ins and other actions as part of the first Global Divestment Day on Friday.
Hundreds of divestment campaigns are underway around the world, with most of them targeting big-money investors such as university endowments and pension funds. Some are targeting banks and governments that support harmful fossil fuel projects. Today, they are all trying to make themselves heard, from Alaska to Florida, and in Toronto, Sydney, Australia and many other major cities.
Their message is this: Climate change is an urgent and moral matter. Having investments in oil, natural gas and coal companies is a de facto endorsement of the companies' push for more supplies and their efforts to derail efforts to tackle climate change. The groups want investors to stop adding fossil fuel stocks and bonds to their portfolios, and to sell off existing fossil fuel holdings over a five-year period.
Such highly publicized campaigns may be aimed at mega-money managers, but combined with other climate change initiatives, they have helped convince a growing wave of smaller players and individuals to rethink their investments too.
The fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement is marshalling forces for this week's Global Divestment Day—an event organizers hope will strengthen the crusade's reach around the world and prove that it's "a force to be reckoned with."
Fossil Free, which has sister groups in Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, said divestment day will feature a day-long series of actions on Feb. 13 in the U.S. (which will be Feb. 14 in some regions). So far, the schedule includes 326 events spread across six continents and 48 countries, including flash-mobs, street theater, elaborate props, sit-ins, vigils, dancing, a huge parade of bicycles, social media blitzes and more.
"There are going to be folks in a multitude of countries demanding action on the climate in the form of divestment," said Jay Carmona, a California-based community divestment campaign manager with 350.org, a nonprofit group that sponsors the Fossil Free divestment campaign as well as other climate-related initiatives.
"We want to send one clear message, that now is the time to end the age of fossil fuels," Carmona said.
Bridger Pipeline LLC was so sure its Poplar oil line was safely buried below the Yellowstone River that it planned to wait five years to recheck it. But last month, 3.5 years later, the Poplar wasn't eight feet under the river anymore. It was substantially exposed on the river bottom—and leaking more than 30,000 gallons of oil upstream from Glendive, Montana.
An ExxonMobil pipeline wasn't buried deeply enough for the Yellowstone River, either. High floodwaters in 2011 uncovered the Silvertip pipe, leaving it defenseless against the fast-moving current and traveling debris. It broke apart in July, and sent 63,000 gallons of oil into the river near Laurel, Montana.
Both companies underestimated the river's power and its penchant for scouring away the earth that's covering and protecting their pipelines. That miscalculation led to the Exxon Silvertip spill and it's likely to be declared a significant factor, at a minimum, in the Poplar spill.
Such misjudgments have potentially troubling implications nationwide, since pipelines carrying crude oil and petroleum products pass beneath rivers and other bodies of water in more than 18,000 places across America. Many of them are buried only a few feet below the water.
"There were a lot of people who wanted to think that the last pipeline spill in the Yellowstone River in 2011 was a freak accident that would never happen again. After this most recent spill, no one believes that anymore," said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for American Rivers. "The truth is, there are probably hundreds of pipelines across the country that are at considerable risk of rupturing under our rivers."
U.S. wind energy installations grew more than four-fold in 2014, according to a new report, but the growth was well short of its 2012 peak, and uncertainty over a key industry tax credit is dampening prospects for growth beyond this year.
New onshore wind energy projects added 4,850 megawatts to U.S. power supplies during the year, up from an increase of 1,087 megawatts in 2013, according to a report this week from the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group. With those additions, the U.S. has 65,879 megawatts of wind power capacity.
The big year-over-year increase in 2014 is partly a function of being compared to 2013, a down year for the industry because many projects weren't started until after Congress belatedly extended a critical tax credit to the end of 2013. To qualify for the reinstated credit, wind projects had to begin construction in 2013. That led to a rush to get projects underway before that deadline, and the 2013 construction push, in turn, led to the surge of completed wind projects in 2014, according to the Washington-based industry group.
Texas, already the nation's largest wind energy producer, installed more than 1,800 megawatts of new capacity last year—more than the nationwide total in 2013. The state will host the majority of the 12,700 megawatts of wind energy under construction at the beginning of 2015, but 21 other states had projects underway, according to trade group's report.
"Wind is gaining strength, but as recent history shows, we can do a whole lot more," said Tom Kiernan, AWEA's chief executive officer.
This article has been updated on Jan. 22 at 7:00 PM to reflect new information about the pipeline segment that failed.
The aging Poplar Pipeline that spilled oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana on Saturday was built with pipe made using faulty welding techniques, and its owner has had a series of spills on the line. These two factors put the pipeline at a higher risk for problems.
First, the pipeline's owner, Bridger Pipeline LLC, has had nearly double the number of incidents per mile of pipe than the average company with pipelines carrying oil, gas or other hazardous liquids over the last six years, according to data compiled by the Pipeline Safety Trust. Federal records suggest that most of Bridger's incidents occurred on the Poplar line and were preventable.
The yearly battle over the U.S. budget officially begins on Feb. 2, when the president plans to send his fiscal 2016 funding proposal to Congress, where it will be torn to shreds or ignored entirely.
While the annual drama involves trillions of dollars, it's usually of limited interest to far-flung governments around the world. Not this year, though, thanks to a budget line item whose fate will be closely tracked by an international audience.
The line item of interest is President Barack Obama's expected request for money for the Green Climate Fund, which is a key component in the push for a global agreement this year to limit global warming. The fund is meant to collect and distribute money from developed nations to help poorer and developing countries lower future carbon emissions and prevent further damage from the effects of climate change.