Part 1 of a two-part series on the residents of Mayflower, Ark., who live just a short distance from the homes that were evacuated following Exxon's oil spill. Read Part 2.
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—In the week after an oil spill strangled the air in Ann Jarrell's neighborhood, tens of thousands of her bees either died or went mad.
Jarrell has kept bees in her backyard since she moved to Mayflower almost two years ago. Living in the hamlet between Little Rock and Conway has afforded her the chance to be close to her daughter, Jennifer. Behind her three-bedroom brick home, at the corner of her small fenced-in yard, she tended to two beehives. Apiarists select and breed passive bees, and Jarrell's were no different, until they were.
ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured March 29, pouring what the company says was at least 200,000 gallons of oil into Mayflower. For days, the stench blowing from the sour heavy Canadian crude was rank. It was the familiar smell of oil, intensified. "Burning tires," Jarrell said. "It was just putrid. You'd smell it and you would gag." But no one told her it could be any more worrisome than the oil-stink of hot asphalt. Early on, Jarrell called the Mayflower police to ask whether she was in danger. A man on the other end told her she was merely noticing an additive meant to alert people to a leak, like the artificial chemical that gives natural gas its distinct aroma. (That was flatly wrong.) A few days later, an Exxon employee working on the cleanup came near her house, and Jarrell asked about the smell. The woman told her not to fret. "I didn't know what we were breathing in was toxic," Jarrell said recently. "Nobody was giving us any information."
When the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly retreated on its multimillion-dollar investigation into water contamination in a central Wyoming natural gas field last month, it shocked environmentalists and energy industry supporters alike.
In 2011, the agency had issued a blockbuster draft report saying that the controversial practice of fracking was to blame for the pollution of an aquifer deep below the town of Pavillion, Wyo.—the first time such a claim had been based on a scientific analysis.
The study drew heated criticism over its methodology and awaited a peer review that promised to settle the dispute. Now the EPA will instead hand the study over to the state of Wyoming, whose research will be funded by EnCana, the very drilling company whose wells may have caused the contamination.
Industry advocates say the EPA's turnabout reflects an overdue recognition that it had over-reached on fracking and that its science was critically flawed.
But environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.
InsideClimate News reporters Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer are the winners of this year's Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
The trio took top honors in the category for their work on "The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of," a project that began with a seven-month investigation into the million-gallon spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It broadened into an examination of national pipeline safety issues, and how unprepared the nation is for the impending flood of imports of a more corrosive and more dangerous form of oil.
The Pulitzer committee commended the reporters for their "rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation's oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), a controversial form of oil."
A primary concern about the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline is that a leak would contaminate the Ogallala aquifer, one of the nation's most important sources of drinking and irrigation water. InsideClimate News is republishing this investigative story from ProPublica because it highlights another risk to U.S. aquifers: The EPA is allowing some of them to be used as dumping grounds.
Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation's drinking water.
In many cases, the Environmental Protection Agency has granted these so-called aquifer exemptions in Western states now stricken by drought and increasingly desperate for water.
EPA records show that portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds.
"You are sacrificing these aquifers," said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado and a member of a National Science Foundation team studying the effects of energy development on the environment. "By definition, you are putting pollution into them. ... If you are looking 50 to 100 years down the road, this is not a good way to go."
Phoenix, Arizona—From a block away, the house was hardly visible, hidden by a dense stand of native mesquite and palo verde trees and tall clumps of prickly pear cactus. Close up, you could see the concrete block structure, built a half century ago when acres of citrus groves were broken into parcels and replaced by homes.
Turning the site back into desert took some work, Brock Tunnicliff explained, standing outside his house on a typical September morning in the Sonoran desert, temperatures in the mid-80s under a nearly cloudless sky. It also took some courage, because desert landscaping isn't popular in Phoenix. Most people here still prefer a lawn out front and a swimming pool in the back.
For Tunnicliff, who works in natural resource management, adopting native landscape was a logical choice in a desert climate. Bolted to his roof was another rational choice: a solar photovoltaic system that supplies most of his family's electricity needs. He installed the system even though he estimates it will take 12 years to break even on the investment.
"That is the future of energy," he said, pointing to the dark blue panels on his roof.
How far in the future is anyone's guess, however. Four years after Tunnicliff installed the system, a satellite image reveals no other solar panels in his neighborhood. In America's sunniest and driest big city, swimming pools still outnumber solar panels by a thousand to one. In fact, Germany—which receives only half as much sunlight as Arizona—has four times as much solar power installed per capita as the Grand Canyon state. Compared nation-to-nation, Germany's advantage is even more lopsided: This darker, cloudier central European country has 23 times more solar power per capita than the United States.
Hamburg, Germany—It was late morning when I stepped out of my hotel lobby and into the jostle of Kirchenallee Street in Hamburg's city center. I checked my watch, jotted down the time in my notebook and set out for the nearest subway station (U-Bahn in German).
The sidewalks were packed with people enjoying the glorious spring weather on May Day, a public holiday similar to Labor Day in the United States. When I arrived at a stairway beneath a large "U," I checked the time. The walk from my hotel to Hauptbahnhof Süd station had taken one minute and 30 seconds. Seven minutes later I was on a subway car speeding smoothly south.
A trip across Hamburg is like visiting the launch pad of Germany's renewable energy revolution, or Energiewende. Planners call it the "built environment," a term that includes buildings, parks and the transportation system that connects them. How a city handles these ho-hum elements determines everything from energy usage to greenhouse gas emissions to the quality of life enjoyed by residents.
Bonn, Germany—On the afternoon of April 29, 1986, West Germany's Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann walked out of a meeting with the Commission on Radiological Protection and spoke to a TV reporter.
"There is no danger," Zimmermann assured millions of anxious viewers. "Chernobyl is 2,000 kilometers away."
Zimmermann's words carried authority—and not just because of his high office. He looked authoritative, dressed in a dark gray suit, white shirt, matching dark tie, and steel-framed aviator glasses on his plump face. He also spoke with the cold command of a lawyer, which he had been before entering politics.
The only element out of place in his reassuring performance that day was a large oil painting on the wall behind him. It depicted storm clouds gathering above churning seas and its omen of dread proved to be the most accurate part of the interview. Chernobyl, in Soviet Ukraine, was 300 miles closer than Zimmermann had said. Even as he spoke, a radioactive cloud released by the worst nuclear power disaster in history was over East Germany and drifting west.
Like all revolutions, the German Energiewende was set in motion by many factors and its course altered by a multitude of events and actors along the way. A few key moments stand out, however, and the Chernobyl catastrophe is one of them. To fully understand the Energiewende, and to anticipate its future twists and turns, it's essential to understand the role Chernobyl played in shaping the German public's view of nuclear power.
Sankt Peter im Schwarzwald, Germany—The Abbey of St. Peter in the Black Forest has had its ups and downs since its founding in 1090. It burned to the ground in 1238. It was rebuilt, only to be destroyed by fire in 1437, establishing a pattern that would be repeated for several centuries. In 1727, after it went up in flames yet again, citizens of this close-knit mountain village decided to try something different. They built a new church from blocks of fireproof sandstone, creating an imposing structure that still dominates their postcard-perfect village.
Today, the Abbey is known as one of Germany's most exquisite Baroque buildings. What isn't widely known is that it's also a vivid example of Germany's recent Energiewende and how the energy revolution was built from the bottom up.
The Abbey complex was originally heated by fireplaces, which were eventually replaced with a central heating system that consumed 34,000 gallons of heating oil a year. But on the chilly day I visited the magnificent church, not ein Fingerhut (one thimbleful) of oil was burned to keep me toasty. The heat came from water that had been brought nearly to a boil in a state-of-the-art furnace fueled by wood chips. Somewhere between the size of an SUV and a school bus, the furnace sat in a concrete building a few hundred yards from the Abbey. From that non-descript building, hot water was pumped through four miles of insulated pipes that connect the Abbey to most of the shops and houses in St. Peter, as well as to the school, public swimming pools, the town hall, a spacious community center and other assorted buildings.
Zingst, Germany—"What an eyesore, huh?" the man standing next to me on the beach said, nodding in the direction of a little girl flying a kite. The man, in his mid-40s, seemed to enjoy my confusion. He waited a beat before pointing beyond the girl, far out into the Baltic Sea. "There," he said, smiling to make sure I understood his sarcasm. "The 'ugly' wind farm."
Staring hard, it was barely possible to make out the turbines on the horizon. Ten miles from shore, the Baltic 1 Wind Farm seemed as small and insubstantial as the scruffy grass along the coast. But, in fact, each of the nearly two dozen turbines is as tall as a 27-story building and has fiberglass epoxy blades nearly 150 feet long. Work has already begun on wind farms with even larger turbines that will generate twice the power of those at Baltic 1, enough to supply 250,000 households with electricity.
Wind turbines produce 10 times more electricity in Germany today than they did in 1999. What's even more remarkable is that this expansion is modest compared to the growth of solar power. In 1999, Germany had an installed solar capacity of 32 megawatts. In 2012, that figure was 30,000 megawatts—a nearly 1,000-fold increase in a nation that gets roughly as much sunlight as Alaska. On a sunny day that's as much electricity as 13 nuclear power plants would produce.
Berlin, Germany—The view from the Reichstag roof on a sun-drenched spring afternoon is spectacular. Looking out over Berlin from the seat of the German government, you can see the full sweep of the nation's history: from Humboldt University, where Albert Einstein taught physics for two decades, to the site of the former Gestapo headquarters.
I'm not here to see this country's freighted past, however. I've come to learn about what a majority of Germans believe is their future—and perhaps our own. There is no better place to begin this adventure than the Reichstag, rebuilt from near ruins in 1999 and now both a symbol and an example of the revolutionary movement known as the Energiewende. The word translates simply as, "energy change." But there's nothing simple about the Energiewende. It calls for an end to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power and embraces clean, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass. The government has set a target of 80 percent renewable power by 2050, but many Germans I spoke with in three weeks traveling across this country believe 100 percent renewable power is achievable by then.
This is Chapter 1 of a six-part series on Germany's remarkable clean break with coal, oil and nuclear energy. Click to read Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5 and Chapter 6. You can read it all now as a Kindle Single ebook on Amazon for 99 cents.
Such a massive power shift may sound impossible to those of us from the United States, where giant oil and coal corporations control the energy industry and the very idea of human-caused climate change is still hotly contested. Here in Germany, that debate is long over. A dozen years of growing public support have driven all major political parties to endorse the Energiewende. If a member of parliament called climate change a hoax or said that its cause is unknown, he or she would be laughed out of office.
"The fight now, to the extent that there is one, is over the speed of the transition," Jens Kendzia told me as we stood on the Reichstag roof. Kendzia is chief of staff for a leader of the center-left Green Party, which crafted the legislation responsible for the Energiewende's success.