Along with 17 other journalists, I spent much of last week at the Shale Country Institute hosted by the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources, which takes reporters into the field so they can better understand the subjects they're covering.
Fifteen years ago this month, gasoline from a burst pipeline spilled into a Bellingham, Wash. creek and exploded, killing three boys: ten-year-olds Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King, and 18-year-old Liam Wood. The tragedy opened the nation's eyes to dangers lurking in the labyrinth of pipelines underground and spurred Bellingham residents to launch SAFE Bellingham, a group that would later morph into America's first pipeline safety watchdog.
Front and center in the leadership of SAFE Bellingham was Carl Weimer. By 2003, when the Justice Department reached a settlement with Olympic Pipeline, Weimer had become so informed and passionate about pipeline safety that he was picked to lead the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nationally focused organization established with a $4 million endowment from the settlement.
At the time, the Trust's role in challenging the powerful oil and gas industry was described as "Bambi taking on Godzilla."
More than a decade later, the tiny Bellingham-based group still faces an uphill fight. But its influence is outsized and unmatched—especially as pipeline concerns move into the mainstream, partly due to the raging debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Weimer is now the go-to person to represent the public during Congressional hearings, industry conferences and meetings with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
In an extensive interview, Weimer spoke with InsideClimate News about the 15-year anniversary of the Bellingham tragedy and his group's challenges and successes. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Public protests, legal tussles and delays have plagued the Keystone XL pipeline for years.
Now TransCanada, the company behind the project, faces another hurdle when the permit it needs to build in South Dakota expires on June 29.
The reapplication process will open the door for public comments and could lead to a hearing—adding further delays to the pipeline's review, now in its sixth year.
Much is up in the air, but pipeline opponents are cheering.
KARNES COUNTY, Texas—After 23 years living on the South Texas prairie, Lynn and Shelby Buehring are looking for a new home, far from the fumes, traffic and noise of the Eagle Ford Shale boom.
It will mean leaving the white house beneath the oak trees where they expected to live out their retirement. The decision, said Lynn, 58, was a measure of last resort, dictated by her deteriorating health and failed attempts to get help from state regulators.
"We're not anti-drilling at all," she said. "My complaint is they need to do it in a responsible way... It's just causing me a lot of medical issues, and I can't have it."
Buehring's symptoms began when the drilling rigs arrived in late 2011. Her asthma worsened from a seasonal nuisance to the point where she needed two rescue inhalers and made frequent use of a breathing machine. She also developed chest pains, dizziness, constant fatigue and extreme sensitivity to smells.
4/23/2014: An update has been added at the bottom of this story to include events at today’s AACOG meeting.
A few casual words and the early release of some scientific data have cost the San Antonio region much-needed state funds to battle its growing air pollution problem. The misstep, which appears to have been unintentional, highlights the sensitivity of studying oil and gas pollution in business-friendly Texas.
The dispute began after the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG)—a coalition that oversees 13 counties in the San Antonio region—launched a two-part study to determine how oil and gas drilling was affecting the city's air quality.
San Antonio's air quality has been deteriorating since 2008, the same year drilling began in the nearby Eagle Ford Shale, site of one of the nation's biggest energy booms. The air pollution is now so bad that metropolitan San Antonio could soon be declared in nonattainment with federal standards for ozone, the main component of smog. If that happens, it could be subject to sanctions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including increased EPA oversight for new development projects.
Industry analysts and others who have wondered whether ExxonMobil will restart the broken Pegasus pipeline that leaked Canadian oil across an Arkansas suburb should get their answer in 2014.
The 65-year-old pipeline hasn't shipped any oil since it ruptured on March 29, costing Exxon as much as $450,000 a day in lost revenue, or up to $124 million as of Jan. 1. It's unclear when exactly the company might resume pumping oil through the 858-mile line that crosses dozens of waterways, farms and residential neighborhoods on its way from Illinois to the Texas Gulf Coast—though a decision is underway.
Exxon spokesman David Eglinton said the company "will not restart it until we are satisfied it is safe to do so and have the approval of [federal regulators]."
Several other major pipeline projects could be affected by the Pegasus outcome, because operators are planning to reverse the flow inside older, existing pipelines to carry dilbit from Canada's tar sands. That is exactly what Exxon did to the aging Pegasus in 2006. Some experts believe the extra pressure swings required to move dilbit could have contributed to the line's failure. The Pegasus was already prone to rupture due to a faulty 1940s-era construction technique as well as flawed maintenance and operations.
When a 65-year-old ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured on March 29 and spilled 210,000 gallons of oil in Mayflower, Ark., it opened the nation's eyes to the potential dangers lurking in the thousands of miles of aging and overlooked pipelines buried beneath neighborhoods and farms.
The spill also brought fresh attention to the debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and the inherent risks of transporting Canadian tar sands across America's heartland. Exxon's Pegasus pipeline was carrying dilbit when it split open on Good Friday, the same type of tar sands oil that would run through the Keystone. A separate, much larger dilbit spill in Michigan is still being cleaned up more than three years later.
When ozone pollution skyrocketed in the tiny town of Boulder, Wyo., in 2008, it was relatively easy to identify the culprit as oil and gas drilling, the only major industry in the rural area.
Today, a similar situation in San Antonio, Texas, will be more difficult to resolve. The city has violated federal ozone standards dozens of times since 2008, but with so much industrial activity in and around the city—including the Eagle Ford shale drilling boom south of San Antonio—local officials are waiting for the results of a state-funded study to pinpoint the source of the pollution.
San Antonio's ozone problem is so serious that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could designate the city a nonattainment area for ozone, a hazardous air pollutant that can cause serious respiratory problems. If that happens, the growing city would likely be saddled with additional air quality regulations, including stricter pollution controls on vehicles and industrial plants.
A little-known pipeline could win the race to ship heavy Canadian crude oil from the Midwest to the U.S. Gulf Coast if it comes online as planned in 2015.
Called the Eastern Gulf Crude Access Pipeline Project, the 774-mile line would be capable of carrying almost as much oil as the Keystone XL, the controversial pipeline mired in its fifth year of federal review.
The Eastern Gulf would run from Patoka, Ill. to St. James, La., carrying oil from North Dakota's Bakken formation as well as Canadian oil sands crude. Both types of oil are creating a bottleneck in the Midwest, which doesn't have the refining or pipeline capacity to handle the large amounts of oil now being produced.
When Diane Wilson complained of headaches and coughs after an oil pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Ark., her doctor treated her for allergies.
When Genieve Long came down with nausea, rashes and a fever, her doctor couldn't provide a diagnosis.
When Ann Jarrell's 6-month-old grandson began wheezing, a doctor sent him home with asthma medication.
All three families live within a few hundred yards of the March 29 oil spill that sent more than 200,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil through Mayflower. Their experiences offer a snapshot of the confusion surrounding the health impacts of the spill, an uncertainty created by limitations in the science, physicians' lack of training in environmental health and a communication gap between local health officials and the people they are meant to serve. Like families who lived near two other large oil spills—the June 2010 spill in Salt Lake City, Utah and the July 2010 spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River—they are still searching for answers.