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.
In the northwestern corner of Indiana a major pipeline project is planned that will carry vast quantities of heavy Canadian crude oil across four rivers that flow into Lake Michigan, where 10 million people get their drinking water. The pipeline will cross one river just 11 miles from the lake. It crosses the other three rivers less than 20 miles from the lake.
Because the pipeline runs so close to Lake Michigan—and because it is being built by a company with a history of pipeline spills in the region—a growing coalition of environmental groups is demanding that it be given extraordinary oversight and protection.
But getting those protections will be almost impossible.
No federal or Indiana agency has authority to require the pipeline's Canadian operator, Enbridge, Inc., to move the line out of the Lake Michigan watershed—or to add extra safeguards, including sophisticated technology that can detect even minor spills.
A week after superstorm Sandy left a huge swath of the East coast without electricity, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unleashed a blistering critique of his state's utilities, calling their restoration efforts inadequate and deriding the electric system as "archaic and obsolete."
The vast and lengthy power outage isn't the first disaster to expose weaknesses in the nation's aging electric grid. But Sandy—and the prospect of climate change fueling more storms like her—has added a sense of urgency to fixing the power system and has drawn politicians and the public into the debate over how to do it.
"We need to seriously overhaul the energy regulatory and power distribution in this state," Gov. Cuomo said last month as he announced an investigation into utilities' storm preparations. "Let's make the changes we need to make, and let's do it while we are still in the moment."
Cuomo's post-Sandy wish list is sure to include transforming the state's antiquated power network to a smart grid that's capable of sensing, reporting and automatically adapting to problems anywhere in the electrical system. Such upgrades are a complex and costly undertaking. But the need for them—in New York and across the country—is becoming hard to ignore.
When the National Transportation Safety Board released a scathing report this month faulting Enbridge for its Michigan oil spill, speculation began instantly about whether it would harm the company's chances for its Northern Gateway pipeline to the Pacific Coast of British Columbia.
Even without the report, however, the project's prospects have long been slim at best.
That's because most First Nations in B.C.—where more than half the pipeline would pass—never signed treaties ceding their lands to the Canadian government. Despite offers from Enbridge that would give them a 10 percent equity stake worth millions of dollars and other cash benefits, many still refuse to give the needed right of way, setting up a legal clash that could end up at the Supreme Court.
A single holdout could delay the pipeline for many years, if not indefinitely—even if the project wins approval from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government.
The debate over the Gateway mirrors that of the Keystone XL pipeline fight in the United States, with one major difference: While U.S. opponents of the Keystone XL are in a David and Goliath contest with TransCanada, that pipeline's builder, the power wielded by the First Nations has made the battle over the Gateway much more even.
WASHINGTON—Efforts to beef up oversight of the nation's oil pipelines are progressing so slowly that it's unlikely any additional safeguards will be in place before construction begins on thousands of miles of new pipelines, including the proposed Keystone XL.
Part of the delay stems from how slowly the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)—the federal agency with the authority to issue new regulations—is moving on its rulemaking process. For instance, PHMSA began examining at least six safety regulations in October 2010, three months after a ruptured pipeline spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. None of those changes is in effect nearly two years later.
Congress's latest pipeline safety bill, which was signed into law in January, did little to speed up the process.
The measure did not address two of the key regulatory failures that InsideClimate News found during a recent seven-month investigation of the Michigan spill. It did not force PHMSA to enforce deadlines for repairing pipeline defects or require that pipeline operators identify exactly what type of oil is flowing through their lines. Both of those failures were also detailed in a report released this month by the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Tens of thousands of miles of new pipelines are going into the ground, and there aren’t going to be regulations that make them safer for years," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Bellingham, Wash.