The devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy a year ago today thrust the issue of climate change into the center of the presidential campaign and to the top of the national political agenda.
And yet in the mayoral race for New York City, one of the epicenters of the tragedy, talk of climate is practically nowhere to be heard.
In nearly all of the mayoral debates and forums held this year, the issues of global warming and Superstorm Sandy have not come up. That is despite New York's struggles to recover from the storm, the city's vulnerability to future climate disasters and its reputation as a global warming leader under Michael Bloomberg.
A long-awaited study led by the University of Texas at Austin shows that methane emissions from natural gas drilling sites are about 10 percent lower than recent estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The research adds fresh fuel to the debate over whether natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal. Although natural gas power plants emit smaller quantities of greenhouse gases than coal-fired plants, the production and distribution of natural gas release large amounts of methane, creating uncertainty about the fuel's overall climate impact. Methane is 20 to 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
The new study is significant because the scientists had direct access to production sites, allowing them to measure methane emissions from hundreds of wells across the United States. Previous studies by independent scientists largely relied on data gathered on publicly accessible land close to company property.
The study had been viewed with skepticism before its release because 90 percent of the $2.3 million in funding came from nine energy companies, including Encana, Chevron and a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. The remaining 10 percent came from the Environmental Defense Fund, which, unlike many other environmental groups, has a history of working with the oil and gas industry.
The participating companies gave the researchers access to their facilities, but the scientists controlled the study design, data collection and analysis. The results were published today in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Jeffrey Wiese, the nation's top oil and gas pipeline safety official, recently strode to a dais beneath crystal chandeliers at a New Orleans hotel to let his audience in on an open secret: the regulatory process he oversees is "kind of dying."
Wiese told several hundred oil and gas pipeline compliance officers that his agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA), has "very few tools to work with" in enforcing safety rules even after Congress in 2011 allowed it to impose higher fines on companies that cause major accidents.
"Do I think I can hurt a major international corporation with a $2 million civil penalty? No," he said.
Because generating a new pipeline rule can take as long as three years, Wiese said PHMSA is creating a YouTube channel to persuade the industry to voluntarily improve its safety operations. "We'll be trying to socialize these concepts long before we get to regulations."
Wiese's pessimism about the viability of the pipeline regulatory system is at odds with the Obama administration's insistence that the nation's pipeline infrastructure is safe and its regulatory regime robust. In a speech last year, President Obama ordered regulatory agencies like PHMSA to help expedite the building of new pipelines "in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people."
This is Part 2 of a series looking at the people and scenery along the route of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline, which spilled an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the town of Mayflower, Ark. Read Part 1.
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—At sunset one evening, Ryan Senia, a displaced former resident of the Northwoods subdivision, walks around his side yard, and into a wide orange clayscape. This area used to be backyards, until crude oil swamped it and Exxon's crews stripped away trees and exhumed tons of earth.
"This is all new dirt," Senia says over the thrum of a generator powering a tall light. He walks behind a neighbor's empty home where the remnants of a former yard—a bike, a hose, a lawnmower, a propane grill, part of a birdbath—clutter the back porch. "Come up over here, you can see they've dug up under the slab," he says. "You can see how deep they've dug it. So you know the oil is underground."
Senia turns to another home's foundation. There, in a grey puddle a foot beneath the brick, floats a glossy black blob the size of a fried egg. "It's eye-opening to see the oil right there," he says. "I know it's not a large amount, but that's only what you can see. The oil's under the house."
This is Part 1 of a series looking at the people and scenery along the route of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline, which spilled an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the town of Mayflower, Ark. Read Part 2.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—The oil that erupted in the town of Mayflower back in March began its trip in an Illinois hamlet named Patoka, 90 minutes east of St. Louis. It shot down ExxonMobil's 20-inch Pegasus pipeline, under farms and forests, over the Mississippi River via a state highway bridge, through the Missouri Ozarks, across the Arkansas state line and, a few miles later, near the workplace of one Glenda Jones, whom you can find on a summer Saturday at her bar job, watching the Cardinals thump the Cubs.
The other bartender here at the Rolling Hills Country Club in the town of Pocahontas is named Brenda, so anyone visiting the golf course in far Northeast Arkansas is bound to meet one of the Endas, as they're known around the club. At 5 p.m. it's quiet in the 10-table lounge but for a Fox broadcaster making Jones's day: "Molina deep ... back to the wall ... it's gone!" Jones, the proud Enda and part-time house cleaner who refers to the Cardinals as "we," hollers, "Yes, finally!"
The 1940s-era construction process that ExxonMobil said caused an oil pipe to rupture in Arkansas earlier this year is a common and well-documented problem the pipeline industry has battled for decades—and one the industry believes can be detected and controlled with appropriate vigilance.
"With proper inspection and maintenance, these catastrophic events can be prevented," said Mohammad Najafi, a pipeline construction expert and engineering professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. "As pipelines exceed their design lives, they need more maintenance and a proper asset management strategy to prevent or minimize these ruptures."
That leaves the public and regulators with two critical questions: Did Exxon manage and test its broken Pegasus pipeline according to established guidelines? And, if it did, is the Arkansas accident a warning that other pipelines might be at risk?
When a broken pipeline spills oil into a residential neighborhood, the most immediate health concerns are those caused by volatile chemicals—airborne toxins that leave people complaining of symptoms like headaches and nausea and worrying about long-term problems like cancer.
But crude oil also contains small amounts of heavy metals that rarely evaporate into the air. Instead, they stay with the oil as it spills onto the ground and into waterways. These compounds, which include mercury, manganese, nickel and chromium, are toxic at high doses, and some, like arsenic and lead, can damage the nervous system even at relatively low doses. Yet little is known about the potential health risks to people who live near oil spill sites.
In Arkansas, regulators are testing for heavy metals in the city of Mayflower, where more than 210,000 gallons of Canadian oil spilled on March 29. But at this point there are still more questions than answers.
In a long-awaited, 50-minute speech Tuesday President Obama made clear what his plans are for tackling climate change—except on one major issue.
No one could divine what Obama meant when he talked about the Keystone XL pipeline.
"Both pipeline proponents and pipeline haters cheered his remarks—an unusual reaction," Reuters wrote.
Obama's roughly 150 words (about a minute and a half) on the pipeline—his most noteworthy discussion of the project to date—have been parsed by media outlets and pundits across the globe. It was the first time Obama linked the Keystone XL decision to global warming. Because of that, some observers said the president seemed to be considering rejection of the pipeline—a claim that puts a stake through the heart of a common narrative that has Obama trading a Keystone XL approval for carbon cuts at existing power plants. Others saw the speech as a pipeline greenlight.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to protect New York City from future superstorm Sandys and other climate-related threats is the most ambitious and scientifically accurate plan of its kind in the world. But as global warming intensifies and sea levels rise, even this strategy may not be enough to flood-proof the city for very long, experts say.
The climate adaptation plan, unveiled last week, would funnel $19.5 billion into more than 250 initiatives to reduce the city's vulnerability to coastal flooding and storm surge. It comes eight months after Sandy engulfed 1,000 miles of the Atlantic coastline—delivering a 14-foot storm surge to New York and crippling the nation's financial capital. The storm showed just how unprepared New York and other coastal cities are to handle flooding from weather disasters.
China and the United States, the world's two largest economies, are responsible for emitting nearly half the planet's carbon dioxide emissions. China overtook the United States in 2006 as the world's biggest CO2 polluter due to its hardening coal addiction. Per capita, however, America's carbon footprint is far bigger.
Both countries still have large fleets of coal plants and growing, but relatively tiny, renewable electricity sectors. Both have goals for lowering their global warming emissions—though none would match the scale of the climate threat. Scientists say the world's output of greenhouse gases must peak around 2016, and then decline to stop at the critical 2-degree Celsius temperature increase by century's end. Projections show both countries' emissions will peak sometime after the mid-2030s.
Using the latest figures available, InsideClimate News culled federal and international energy data to tell the story of the world's two biggest polluters.