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Will Climate Change Denial Become a Political Liability? U.S. Treaty Envoy Thinks So

Todd Stern says that mounting public pressure could rapidly force GOP to address global warming, and urged people to demand action.

By Katherine Bagley and John H. Cushman Jr.

Oct 15, 2014

Climate change denial will switch from being a litmus test for major Republican politicians to a liability in the near future.

At least that's the hypothesis that Todd Stern, the United States envoy on climate change, shared with a packed auditorium at Yale Law School in New Haven on Tuesday.

"We have all seen in recent years the abruptness with which hot-button issues can suddenly become the stuff of consensus," Stern told students, faculty and members of the public. "I doubt, even a year from now, whether major political candidates will consider it viable to deny the existence of climate change."

Stern's visit to Yale comes three weeks before a midterm election that has serious implications for U.S. involvement in climate treaty talks taking place in Lima this year and Paris in 2015.

Republicans and Democrats are fighting fiercely for control of the Senate. If the Senate falls into the hands of a Republican majority—as many analysts predict—the body charged with ratifying treaties would be led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who seeks to block EPA climate change regulations.

Small Study May Have Big Answers on Health Risks of Fracking's Open Waste Ponds

A first of a kind study from West Virginia will help Americans inside the fracking boom understand the dangers of exposure to VOCs.

By Zahra Hirji, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer

Oct 10, 2014

When Mary Rahall discovered that oil and gas waste was being stored in open-air ponds less than a mile from a daycare center outside Fayetteville, W. Va., she started digging for information about the facility's air emissions and protections for a nearby stream.

She wasn't satisfied with the answers she got from state regulators and politicians, so the mother of two set out to find a scientist who could help. Eventually her questions found their way to William Orem, a chemist at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Reston, Va., and he began collecting air and water data at the site last fall. 

Orem's small study could have implications far beyond Fayetteville, because it's among the first scientific efforts directed at how air emissions from oil and gas waste could be affecting human health. He suspects waste disposal might turn out to be "the weakest link of all" in the oil and gas extraction and production cycle.

Under Pressure, Texas to Install Air Monitor in Heavily Fracked County

Investigation by ICN and the Center for Public Integrity helped spur Karnes County commissioners to think seriously about fracking's toxic air emissions.

By Lisa Song and David Hasemyer

Oct 7, 2014

Backed by results of a recent air-quality study, mounting pressure from local officials, news reports and the simmering discontent of residents, Texas regulators have decided to install an air monitor in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will install the air monitor in Karnes County, the epicenter of one of the fastest-growing drilling regions in the nation. More than 10,000 oil and gas wells have been sunk in the region since 2008, and residents have complained of breathing difficulties and other health problems.

In February, an investigation by InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity and the Weather Channel revealed that the TCEQ knows almost nothing about air quality in the area. The series, "Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil & Bad Air on the Texas Prairie," found that from September 1, 2009, through August 31, 2013, there was a 100-percent increase statewide in unplanned, toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production and that companies were rarely fined, even when inspections revealed they were operating equipment improperly.

In Fracking's Wake: Vast Open Pits of Chemical Sludge - MULTIMEDIA

By David Hasemyer and Zahra Hirji

Oct 6, 2014

Big Oil + Bad Air is an 18-month investigation by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity.

The latest installment tackles a little-covered issue: air emissions from the waste that America's drilling boom has created.

How Oil & Gas Waste Became Exempt From Federal Regulation: A Timeline

Key event was in 1988, when the EPA decided to classify most oil and gas waste as 'non hazardous,' even though it contains dangerous chemicals.

By Zahra Hirji and Paul Horn

Oct 6, 2014

In the small town of Nordheim, Texas, residents are trying to stop a commercial oil and gas waste facility proposed for a large plot of land less than a mile away. They worry that the Texas wind will carry toxic air emissions into the town and across the campus of the local school.

The residents' effort is hampered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's decision in 1988 to classify most oil and gas waste as "non hazardous," even though it contains chemicals, including benzene, that are known to cause health problems. The industry lobbied hard for the non-hazardous classification, arguing that the cost of treating the waste as hazardous would be exorbitant.

Here's a look at how the exemption came about, and a recent effort to repeal it.

Open Pits Offer Cheap Disposal for Fracking Sludge, but Health Worries Mount

A1988 federal rule exempts oil waste from a 'hazardous' designation, allowing for lax disposal methods that could expose people to dangerous emissions.

By David Hasemyer and Zahra Hirji

Oct 2, 2014

NORDHEIM, Texas—School Superintendent Kevin Wilson tugged at his oversized belt buckle and gestured toward a field less than a mile from Nordheim School, where 180 children attend kindergarten through 12th grade.

A commercial waste facility that will receive millions of barrels of toxic sludge from oil and gas production for disposal in enormous open-air pits is taking shape there, and Wilson worries that the ever-present Texas wind will carry traces of dangerous chemicals, including benzene, to the school.

"Many of these students live outside of where they could be exposed," said Wilson, a contemplative man with a soft Texas accent. "But we are busing them to the school, putting them in the direct path of something that could be harmful to them. It makes you think: Are we doing what's best for the students?"

Along with Nordheim's mayor and other angry residents, Wilson is trying to stop the 204-acre facility, but he faces an uphill battle. In Texas, as in most states, air emissions from oil and gas waste are among the least regulated, least monitored and least understood components in the extraction and production cycle. Although the wastewater and sludge can contain the same chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and other processes—chemicals known to affect human health—little has been done to measure waste emissions or determine their possible impact on nearby residents.Nordheim School Superintendent Kevin Wilson surveys the site of a proposed oil and gas waste facility. Credit: Eleanor Bell/Center for Public IntegrityNordheim School Superintendent Kevin Wilson surveys the site of a proposed oil and gas waste facility. Credit: Eleanor Bell/Center for Public Integrity

GRAPHIC - Fracking's Waste Pit Emissions: The Big Unknown

Here's what we know about the potential health impacts of airborne chemicals released from fracking's vast waste pits.

By Paul Horn and Zahra Hirji

Oct 2, 2014

As oil and gas drilling spreads across the United States, scant attention has been paid to air emissions from the waste the boom has created. InsideClimate News and The Center for Public Integrity examine these emissions in the latest installment in their 18-month investigation, Big Oil and Bad Air on the Texas Prairie.

3 Lessons to Winning the War on Global Warming

OP-ED: 'We can’t count on a dysfunctional Congress. Regulation is the key. It can supply the needed muscle against coal-loving electric utilities.'

By Dan Becker and James Gerstenzang

Sep 30, 2014

Dan Becker directs the Safe Climate Campaign, which advocates strong measures to fight global warming. James Gerstenzang, the campaign's editorial director, formerly covered the environment and the White House for the Los Angeles Times.

The Dumpster may be nearly full.

A World Meteorological Organization report has led scientists to fear that the Earth is losing its capacity to absorb heat-trapping gases, the Washington Post reported.

With greenhouse gas emissions rising, we don't know whether we can hold warming to two degrees Celsius, the goal of UN negotiations. But we can't if the United States ignores its critical leadership role.

For more than two decades, environmentalists fought for tough auto pollution standards. We won rules that will halve emissions and gasoline use—President Obama’s signature effort to fight climate change. They will deliver a new-car fleet that averages 54.5 mpg in 2025 and cut carbon dioxide pollution by six billion tons.

As the world faces an accelerating climate challenge, the mileage-and-emissions fight presents a hopeful lesson: The United States can cut fossil fuel emissions.

The fight that produced the biggest single step any nation has taken against global warming can guide us as we embark on the next critical measures: cutting power plant emissions and oil use.

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 Lisa Song and Jim Morris

Jul 24, 2014

Update: On Aug. 11, 2014, Ron Curry, EPA regional administrator in Dallas, did an on-the-record interview with the Center for Public Integrity about environmental issues associated with oil and gas production. Some material from that interview may be used in a future article or articles.

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?