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Documents Show Drillers Cheating Landowners and Government Out of Billions

Thousands are receiving far less money than they were promised by energy companies to drill their properties. Some are being paid virtually nothing.

By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

Aug 19, 2013
Drilling for natural gas on the Pinedale Anticline in Wyoming

Don Feusner ran dairy cattle on his 370-acre slice of northern Pennsylvania until he could no longer turn a profit by farming. Then, at age 60, he sold all but a few Angus and aimed for a comfortable retirement on money from drilling his land for natural gas instead.

It seemed promising. Two wells drilled on his lease hit as sweet a spot as the Marcellus shale could offer—tens of millions of cubic feet of natural gas gushed forth. Last December, he received a check for $8,506 for a month's share of the gas.

Then one day in April, Feusner ripped open his royalty envelope to find that while his wells were still producing the same amount of gas, the gusher of cash had slowed. His eyes cascaded down the page to his monthly balance at the bottom: $1,690.

Chesapeake Energy, the company that drilled his wells, was withholding almost 90 percent of Feusner's share of the income to cover unspecified "gathering" expenses and it wasn't explaining why.

"They said you're going to be a millionaire in a couple of years, but none of that has happened," Feusner said. "I guess we're expected to just take whatever they want to give us."

Like every landowner who signs a lease agreement to allow a drilling company to take resources off his land, Feusner is owed a cut of what is produced, called a royalty.

Persisting Impact of Ark. Oil Spill Tears Community and Family Fabric

"There was a real good sense of community in Mayflower before all this happened," said one resident. "And now it's like everybody picked a side."

By Sam Eifling, Arkansas Times

Aug 8, 2013

Part 2 of a two-part series on the residents of Mayflower, Ark., who live a short distance from the homes that were evacuated after Exxon's oil spill and who feel neglected. Read Part 1.

MAYFLOWER, Ark.—The Pegasus pipeline runs between Illinois and Texas, over streams, under rivers, through wilds, and under relatively few homes. The fact that it split open underneath a housing development was a twist of bad luck. An independent forensic metallurgical report on the faulty stretch of pipe made note of that coincidence, and gave a half-nod to possible causality: "During construction of the homes, the pipeline may have experienced vehicle loadings caused by construction equipment and/or vehicles crossing the pipeline at multiple locations, including over the fractured segment." All else equal, humans are safer keeping a distance from pipelines, and vice-versa.

Ark. Spill Victims on 'Wrong' Side of Fence Left to Fend for Themselves

People who live close to the ruptured Pegasus pipeline say they weren't told of health risks and have been ignored by Exxon and government officials.

By Sam Eifling, Arkansas Times

Aug 7, 2013

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."

Wyo. Fracking Study to Be Funded by Industry After EPA Pulls Out

Environmentalists see EPA's move as part of a systematic disengagement from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of drilling.

By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

Jul 23, 2013
Protester holds a sign at an anti-fracking rally.

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 Team Wins Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting

ICN is the third web-based news organization to win national reporting honors, and the smallest among a trio that includes ProPublica and Huffington Post.

By InsideClimate News Staff

Apr 15, 2013
InsideClimate News Wins Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting

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."

EPA Lets Energy Firms Pollute America's Underground Water Supply

'It's short-sighted. It's something that future generations may question.'

By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

Dec 11, 2012
Ranchers and USDA employee at a Texas ranch affected by the 2011 drought.

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."

Can the U.S. Create Its Own Clean Energy Revolution?

Clean Break: Chapter 6 in the story of Germany's switch to renewables

By Osha Gray Davidson

Nov 20, 2012
Electric car outside of EWS, Germany's first green power cooperative utility.

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.

Germany's Clean Energy Shift Transformed Industrial City of Hamburg

Clean Break: Chapter 5 in the story of Germany's switch to renewables

By Osha Gray Davidson

Nov 19, 2012
Electric trolley in Vauban, a car-free, energy-efficient zone in Freiburg.

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.

So Far So Good for Germany's Nuclear Phase-Out, Despite Dire Predictions

Clean Break: Chapter 4 in the story of Germany's switch to renewables

By Osha Gray Davidson

Nov 16, 2012
Anti-nuclear protest in Freiburg, Germany, in March 2011.

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.

In Germany, Everyone Can Be an Energy Producer

Clean Break: Chapter 3 in the story of Germany's switch to renewables

By Osha Gray Davidson

Nov 15, 2012
Markus Bohnert, co-director of Bürger Energie St. Peter.

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.