WASHINGTON—A popular and longstanding trade show that connects alternative energy contractors with federal projects is evidently a victim of government employees' past spending shenanigans, not election-year politics and ideological disputes over clean energy spending.
"House Republicans have politicized this issue to the point where [people] are understandably asking these questions ... That's really too bad. Nowhere else in the world is clean energy controversial," said Josh Freed, vice president for clean energy at Third Way, a Washington-based, centrist think thank. "But sometimes a canceled conference is just a canceled conference."
Dan Tangherlini, acting chief of the General Services Administration, called off GovEnergy barely a month before the four-day gathering was scheduled to kick off Aug. 19 in St. Louis.
"After rigorous review ... GSA has found that the conference structure does not meet the standards that GSA has put in place for conferences and contracts," the agency said in a statement circulated to reporters last week. "There were many unanswered questions about how the conference was structured and there was not sufficient time to address the problems raised."
WASHINGTON—The most expensive oil pipeline spill in U.S. history could have been prevented if the pipeline operator had repaired known defects on the line, a federal agency said on Tuesday after a two-year investigation of the spill.
The accident occurred near Marshall, Mich. on July 25, 2010, when a ruptured pipeline owned by Enbridge, Inc. sent more than one million gallons of diluted bitumen (crude oil from Canada's tar sands) into the Kalamazoo River and surrounding wetlands. Cleanup of the river is ongoing, and total costs have reached more than $800 million.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Enbridge's integrity management program—the system used to respond to cracks and corrosion defects—was inadequate for pipeline safety.
NTSB investigators also cited factors that they said worsened the spill and increased the amount of oil that leaked into the river. Mistakes in the company's Alberta-based control room allowed the leak to go undetected for over 17 hours as oil continued to flow through the line. And once it was detected, the company's initial response was ineffective due to a lack of equipment and trained personnel.
"This investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge," Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said during Tuesday's NTSB meeting. "Their employees performed like Keystone Kops and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured and continued to pump crude into the environment. Despite multiple alarms and a loss of pressure in the pipeline…they failed to follow their own shutdown procedures."
WASHINGTON—The federal government today proposed a record $3.7 million civil penalty against Enbridge Inc. for the 2010 oil spill that closed 36 miles of Michigan's Kalamazoo River for nearly two years.
At least 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen, tar sands oil from Canada, spilled into wetlands near Marshall, Mich., after pipeline 6B ruptured on July 25, 2010. A small section of the river remains closed while the cleanup continues.
In a document that was delivered to Enbridge Monday, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, listed 22 probable violations and the penalty each could carry. The violations include failure to follow operational and management procedures, as well as failures to meet reporting and operator qualification requirements.
What fines could Enbridge face for its oil spill in Marshall, Mich.?
The size of any fines will depend, in part, on how much oil was spilled when Pipeline 6B ruptured.
The EPA's latest estimate, released on June 7, is that 1,148,229 gallons (or 27,339 barrels) have been recovered since the cleanup began on July 26, 2010.
Enbridge maintains that it spilled only 843,444 gallons (20,082 barrels), an estimate the company hasn't changed since November 2010.
The discrepancy between these numbers matters, because penalties levied under the Clean Water Act are figured on a per-barrel basis.
Enbridge's civil penalties could reach $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled if the government can prove gross negligence under the Clean Water Act. If gross negligence can't be proved, civil penalties could still be as high as $1,100 per barrel. Criminal penalties under the Clean Water Act could be up to twice the losses associated with the spill.
Defining those losses is a gray area because no case law exists, said David Uhlmann, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and former chief of the U.S. Department of Justice’s environmental crimes section. Losses incurred by victims of the spill and the cost of the cleanup are likely to be counted, but lost revenue to Enbridge would not.
As the fall of 2010 approached, John LaForge could still smell tar when he drove by his old house with the windows of his truck rolled down.
LaForge had lost hope that he and Lorraine would someday return to the house on Talmadge Creek where they had raised four children. Tire tracks from heavy equipment had scarred and muddied the lawn LaForge once tended so carefully.
The cleanup of North America's biggest dilbit pipeline spill was behind schedule and LaForge's property in southwestern Michigan, about a quarter mile from where an Enbridge pipeline had split open on July 25, was ground zero. More than 2,050 workers had flocked to Marshall, a community of 7,400. Parking was such a hassle at Kate's Diner, where he ate breakfast before work, that he worried regulars would stop patronizing the restaurant.
LaForge began negotiating with Enbridge for the company to buy his property. In September, he and Lorraine, along with their daughter and her three young children, left the two hotel rooms they'd shared for 61 days and rented a house while they looked for a place to buy. Enbridge footed the $12,000 hotel bill and agreed to pay their rent. All the moving was taking a toll on Lorraine. She was still recovering from the emergency gallbladder surgery she'd undergone while they were living in the hotel.
The LaForges salvaged photographs, dishes and hardwood furniture from their home of 28 years. But the oil stink had permeated their mattresses, clothing, books, toys, rugs and upholstered furniture. They left it all behind.
On Tuesday, July 27, 2010—the day after the biggest pipeline spill of Canadian dilbit in North America was detected—oil was still streaming from Talmadge Creek into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, a community of 7,400 in southwestern Michigan. Some people had fled their riverside homes because of the overwhelming smell, like burning tar.
Six inches of rain between Thursday and Sunday had turned the normally sedate river into a roiling brown torrent that overflowed its banks by several feet. The creek, usually only five or six feet wide and a foot deep, was at least 100 feet wide.
The EPA officials who had gathered in Marshall still thought they were dealing with the light crude oil that usually flows through U.S. pipelines. As veterans of other spills, they were certain they were prepared for this one.
What they didn't know yet was that 6B, the pipeline that ruptured, was carrying bitumen from Canada's tar sands region. Bitumen is the heaviest oil in use today and is too thick to flow through pipelines. To remedy that problem it is thinned by about 30 percent with liquid chemicals, usually including benzene, which can cause cancer in humans.
This diluted bitumen, or dilbit, is the same type of oil that would be carried on the 1,702-mile Keystone XL pipeline if the controversial project is approved. When dilbit spills, most of the added chemicals evaporate, leaving the heavy bitumen to sink in water.
MARSHALL, Mich.—An acrid stench had already enveloped John LaForge's five-bedroom house when he opened the door just after 6 a.m. on July 26, 2010. By the time the building contractor hurried the few feet to the refuge of his Dodge Ram pickup, his throat was stinging and his head was throbbing.
LaForge was at work excavating a basement when his wife called a couple of hours later. The odor had become even more sickening, Lorraine told him. And a fire truck was parked in front of their house, where Talmadge Creek rippled toward the Kalamazoo River.
LaForge headed home. By the time he arrived, the stink was so intense that he could barely keep his breakfast down.
Something else was wrong, too.
Water from the usually tame creek had inundated his yard, the way it often did after heavy rains. But this time a black goo coated swaths of his golf course-green grass. It stopped just 10 feet from the metal cap that marked his drinking water well. Walking on the tarry mess was like stepping on chewing gum.
LaForge said he was stooped over the creek, looking for the source of the gunk, when two men in a white truck marked Enbridge pulled up just before 10 a.m. One rushed to LaForge's open front door and disappeared inside with an air-monitoring instrument.
The man emerged less than a minute later, and uttered the words that still haunt LaForge today: It's not safe to be here. You're going to have to leave your house. Now.
In a first, federal environment officials Thursday scientifically linked underground water pollution with hydraulic fracturing, concluding that contaminants found in central Wyoming were likely caused by the gas drilling process.
The findings by the Environmental Protection Agency come partway through a separate national study by the agency to determine whether fracking presents a risk to water resources.
In the 121-page draft report released Thursday, EPA officials said that the contamination near the town of Pavillion, Wyo., had most likely seeped up from gas wells and contained at least 10 compounds known to be used in frack fluids.
"The presence of synthetic compounds such as glycol ethers ... and the assortment of other organic components is explained as the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracturing fluids with ground water in the Pavillion gas field," the draft report states. "Alternative explanations were carefully considered."
The agency's findings could be a turning point in the heated national debate about whether contamination from fracking is happening, and are likely to shape how the country regulates and develops natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale and across the Eastern Appalachian states.
Some of the findings in the report also directly contradict longstanding arguments by the drilling industry for why the fracking process is safe: that hydrologic pressure would naturally force fluids down, not up; that deep geologic layers provide a watertight barrier preventing the movement of chemicals towards the surface; and that the problems with the cement and steel barriers around gas wells aren’t connected to fracking.
Environmental advocates greeted today’s report with a sense of vindication and seized the opportunity to argue for stronger federal regulation of fracking.
A deal with a native chief that Enbridge Inc. held up last week as an example of rising support of their planned oil pipeline to the Pacific appears to be unraveling as the community battles over who has the authority to negotiate.
Enbridge touted the Gitxsan agreement to take an equity stake in the Northern Gateway pipeline as the first public display of what it says is substantial support for the $4.5 billion project among British Columbia's First Nations, the aboriginal groups whose traditional territories make up vast swaths of the province.
Enbridge signed the deal with Hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick, chief negotiator for the Gitxsan Treaty Society (GTS), an embattled organization that is facing a legal challenge to its authority from four of the five community bands that make up the first nation.
Some other hereditary chiefs, community members and the three clans that form the complex structure of Gitxsan First Nation oppose the deal and met on Monday to try to shut down the treaty office and fire Derrick and other staff.
The U.S. government on Thursday delayed approval of a Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline until after the 2012 U.S. election, bowing to pressure from environmentalists and sparing President Barack Obama a damaging split with liberal voters he may need to win reelection.
The decision to explore a new route for TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL oil pipeline to avoid fragile territory in the Sand Hills of Nebraska dismayed the Canadian government, which had lobbied assiduously for the $7 billion project.
It also drew a harsh reaction from the oil industry and from Republicans in Congress who accused Obama of sacrificing jobs for the sake of his reelection.
The State Department suggested that looking at new routes for the pipeline within the state of Nebraska would take until at least the first quarter of 2013, well beyond the November 6, 2012 U.S. election. The department had previously said it hoped to make a final decision by the end of this year.
TransCanada, which proposes to build and operate the pipeline, said it remained confident that it would ultimately win approval. Industry analysts had previously said a significant delay could kill the project.
The Obama administration said U.S. domestic politics played no part in the decision. Analysts suggested the delay may actually be an effort to split the difference.