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Guest Writers's articles

Runaround: Three Months of Correspondence With the EPA

EPA's non-responsiveness in the Texas air pollution story is troubling because it keeps taxpayers in the dark about a critical issue.

By Jim Morris and Lisa Song

Jul 24, 2014

For more than a year, InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity have been reporting on air pollution caused by the fracking boom in the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas. Despite hundreds of complaints from residents, many of them about noxious air emissions, we discovered that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution and rarely fines companies for breaking emission laws. On our 11 trips to Texas we encountered many residents who asked what seemed to be a reasonable question: If a state regulatory agency—in this case the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality—isn't doing much to curb the industry's air pollution, why isn't the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepping in? The EPA, after all, is ultimately responsible for enforcing the federal Clean Air Act.

In February, after we published our first stories on the Eagle Ford, we began trying to answer that question by seeking on-the-record interviews with EPA officials in Washington, D.C., and Texas. Five months later, no such interviews have been granted.

Instead, EPA press officers have told us to put our questions in writing, an increasingly common response from federal agencies under the Obama administration. The process usually goes like this: A journalist calls the press office to schedule an interview but instead is told to submit written questions. Once these are in, a press officer gets answers from scientists or other officials and then crafts a written response. In most cases, nobody involved in the process—not even the EPA press officers—will agree to be quoted by name.

The Koch Brothers v. Tom Steyer: Whose Carbon Footprint Is Bigger?

The Koch brothers built their first fortune on the particularly dirty form of oil mined in Alberta's tar sands, and they remain deeply invested there.

By David Sassoon and Zahra Hirji

Jul 15, 2014

The libertarian conservative Koch brothers and the progressive liberal Tom Steyer are in a billionaire's showdown in the current election cycle, spending heavily in Congressional races across the country on their favorite candidates.

In an odd twist, the counterpunching last week was over culpability for carbon pollution.

The Koch brothers got to watch Steyer take an uppercut from an unexpected source—the New York Times. The paper took aim at Steyer—climate champion and Keystone XL pipeline foe—for having profited handsomely in the not-too-distant past from financing coal plants.

It was a bitter irony for Steyer's climate activist supporters that he emerged from the ring bruised as a carbon polluter. They blamed the Times for delivering the Kochs' sucker punch.

Tom Steyer/Credit: Fortune Brainstorm Green 2013Tom Steyer/Credit: Fortune Brainstorm Green 2013A blog called Powerline with ties to Charles and David, the activists said, was the source of the Times story, and they faulted the paper for doing a hit piece on a man who has repented his history with coal and has since made tackling climate change his life's goal.

Steyer's turnaround took moral courage, they argued, and asked: What about the Koch brothers? What is their history with global warming emissions?

Keystone XL: Bush's No-Brainer, Obama's Dilemma — In Infographics

By John H. Cushman Jr. and Paul Horn

May 8, 2014

Today InsideClimate News is publishing a new e-book, Keystone and Beyond: Tar Sands and the National Interest in the Era of Climate Change. The book provides the most definitive account yet of the Keystone XL pipeline saga.

It is available for one week as a FREE download here, and can also be read in any web browser.

The book includes several infographics to illuminate the major issues and history behind the Keystone XL decision, including: the Bush-Cheney energy strategy; the changing economics of U.S. energy production; the emerging science on the social costs of carbon and the global carbon budget; and more.

Here is a sampling of the graphics (all enlargeable and attached for download below):

Report Offers Grim Predictions for South Texas Air Quality Amid Eagle Ford Oil Boom

State-funded study projects dramatic increase in emissions from oil and gas development by 2018.

Jim Morris, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer

Apr 11, 2014
Flaring in the Eagle Ford Shale's Karnes County

What might the oil- and gas-rich Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas look like in 2018?

A newly released but largely unnoticed study commissioned by the state of Texas makes some striking projections:

  • The number of wells drilled in the 20,000-square-mile region could quadruple, from about 8,000 today to 32,000.

  • Oil production could leap from 363 million barrels per year to as much as 761 million.

  • Airborne releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could increase 281 percent during the peak ozone season compared to 2012 emissions. VOCs, commonly found at oil and gas production sites, can cause respiratory and neurological problems. Some, like benzene, can cause cancer.

  • Nitrogen oxides—which react with VOCs in sunlight to create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog—could increase 69 percent during the peak ozone season.

Toxic Emission Spikes at Fracking Sites Are Rarely Monitored, Study Finds

Gas drilling facilities have sporadic emission spikes that spew toxins harmful to human health, but states rarely monitor these fleeting events.

By Lisa Song and Jim Morris

Apr 3, 2014

People in natural gas drilling areas who complain about nauseating odors, nosebleeds and other symptoms they fear could be caused by shale development usually get the same response from state regulators: monitoring data show the air quality is fine.

A new study helps explain this discrepancy. The most commonly used air monitoring techniques often underestimate public health threats because they don't catch toxic emissions that spike at various points during gas production, researchers reported Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Reviews on Environmental Health. The study was conducted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit based near Pittsburgh.

A health survey the group released last year found that people who live near drilling sites in Washington County, Pa., in the Marcellus Shale, reported symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, breathing difficulties and nosebleeds, all of which could be caused by pollutants known to be emitted from gas sites. Similar problems have been reported by people who live in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, the subject of a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel.

Colorado's Tough New Drilling Rules Make an Impact in Texas

The possibility that Texas would adopt oil and gas rules for methane control and leak detection and repair 'is at least thinkable now.'

Zahra Hirji, Lisa Song and Jim Morris

Mar 20, 2014

Colorado's tough, new air pollution rules for the oil and gas industry were approved only a month ago but they're already making an impact in Texas, where lawmakers and energy companies have long resisted tightening air standards. 

Several companies have approached the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and expressed interest in discussing whether Colorado's rules make sense for Texas, according to Jim Marston, a vice president at EDF. Marston didn't name the companies. 

"The companies are often ahead of the Texas state government," said Marston, who works in the group's Austin office. "If some important industry leaders like the idea, it might move state government."

EDF played a leading role among the environmental organizations that helped craft the Colorado rules. Many energy companies also participated in the rule-making process, but only four of them—Anadarko Petroleum Corp., DCP Midstream, Encana Corp. and Noble Energy, Inc.—fully support the new regulations.

Electric Cars Have a Dirty Little Secret

Like most of the world's billion cars, they use a potent super greenhouse gas in their air-conditioning systems.

By Maria Gallucci and Bob Port

Mar 19, 2014

America's electric cars are better for the environment, but they share a dirty little secret.

The Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster all use a super greenhouse gas known as HFC 134a as the refrigerant for their air conditioners. The liquid coolant is so potent that when it leaks into the atmosphere it traps 1,400 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time horizon.  

For automakers and advocates of green transportation, it poses an uncomfortable truth: Vehicles touted as a solution to climate change carry a hairspray-sized canister loaded with a chemical that significantly contributes to warming of the earth's climate. As much as half of current HFC emissions, a small but fast-growing source of global warming pollution, come from leaks out of the air conditioners in cars.

Already a number of Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac gas-powered cars use an alternative climate-friendlier coolant called HFO 1234yf, as carmakers confront growing pressure from environmentalists and as regulations are developed by governments. Climate experts say it's clear that all electric automakers should get on board soon. "It makes sense for electric vehicles to use [alternatives], and to reduce their overall global warming potential," said Don Anair, deputy director of the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group.

But among 16 EV models on America's roads, only two—Chevy's newest model of its all-electric Spark and the leaseable Honda Fit—have ditched the super greenhouse gas HFC 134a for the climate safe alternative so far.

Oil Train Explosions: The Importance of Removing Volatile Gases - INFOGRAPHIC

Oil producers may be failing to properly separate fiery gases like propane from the crude. Graphic explains how separation works and why it matters.

By Marcus Stern and Paul Horn

Mar 7, 2014

About 70 percent of Bakken crude is shipped by rail to refineries in other regions of the country, passing through the heart of urban centers and environmentally sensitive wetlands. Three of those oil trains have exploded in the past year raising questions about the volatility of the Bakken crude and the safety of shipping it by rail.

After eight months of searching, regulators and industry still have not come up with an answer. Some oil and gas experts suspect producers might be failing to properly separate flammable "wet" gases like propane from the crude before shipping it. They cite three possible reasons: a shortage of gas-processing plants in the area; added profitability for producers if they "fluff up" their crude shipments with natural gas liquids, which are worth less per-barrel than crude; and/or carelessness.

Too Much Propane Could Be a Factor in Exploding Oil Trains

Producers are supposed to strip out volatile gases before transporting oil. But experts say some may have been 'cheating' and leaving in large amounts.

By Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones

Mar 5, 2014

As federal regulators continue investigating why tank cars on three trains carrying North Dakota crude oil have exploded in the past eight months, energy experts say part of the problem might be that some producers are deliberately leaving too much propane in their product, making the oil riskier to transport by rail.

Sweet light crude from the Bakken Shale formation straddling North Dakota and Montana has long been known to be especially rich in volatile natural gas liquids like propane. Much of the oil is being shipped in railcars designed in the 1960s and identified in 1991 by the National Transportation Safety Board as having a dangerous penchant to rupture during derailments or other accidents.

While there's no way to completely eliminate natural gas liquids from crude, well operators are supposed to use separators at the wellhead to strip out methane, ethane, propane and butane before shipping the oil. A simple adjustment of the pressure setting on the separator allows operators to calibrate how much of these volatile gases are removed. The worry, according to a half-dozen industry experts who spoke with InsideClimate News, is that some producers are adjusting the pressure settings to leave in substantial amounts of natural gas liquids.

Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Air Emissions on Texas Residents

Eight-month investigation reveals that the Texas State Legislature is more intent on protecting the industry than protecting residents' health.

Lisa Song, Jim Morris and David Hasemyer

Feb 18, 2014

KARNES CITY, Texas—When Lynn Buehring leaves her doctor's office in San Antonio she makes sure her inhaler is on the seat beside her, then steers her red GMC pickup truck southeast on U.S. 181, toward her home on the South Texas prairie.

About 40 miles down the road, between Poth and Falls City, drilling rigs, crude oil storage tanks and flares trailing black smoke appear amid the mesquite, live oak and pecan trees. Depending on the speed and direction of the wind, a yellow-brown haze might stretch across the horizon, filling the car with pungent odors. Sometimes Buehring's eyes burn, her chest tightens and pain stabs at her temples. On those days, she touches her inhaler for reassurance.

In another five miles Buehring, 58, passes into Karnes County, where she was born and once figured on living out her retirement, surrounded by a calm broken only by an occasional thunderstorm.

Today, however, the ranch-style house she shares with her 66-year-old husband, Shelby, is at the epicenter of one of the nation's biggest and least-publicized oil and gas booms. With more than 50 wells drilled within 2.5 miles of their home, the days when the Buehrings could sit on the deck that Shelby built and lull away an afternoon are long gone. The fumes won't let them.

Known as the Eagle Ford Shale play, this 400-mile-long, 50-mile-wide bacchanal of oil and gas extraction stretches from Leon County, Texas, in the northeast to the Mexico border in the southwest.