If all goes well, the next oil removal operation on Michigan's Kalamazoo River will mark the beginning of the end for the cleanup of the largest oil pipeline spill in U.S. history
The spill, which occurred in July 2010, already has cost pipeline operator Enbridge Inc. more than $820 million in cleanup expenses. That figure could top $1 billion by the time the latest operation is carried out.
The goal of the new effort is to dredge three areas of the river where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says oil is still accumulating. When the EPA first proposed the idea in October, Enbridge asked the agency to delay its decision until it conducted more scientific studies. But Enbridge agreed to comply after the EPA issued an order on March 14.
The EPA fears that if the oil isn't removed, it could continue to spread and contaminate parts of the river that are currently clean.
Surveys "show that submerged oil can now be detected throughout the 2 mile long, 700 acre expanse of [Morrow] lake," the EPA said in a letter that accompanied the order. "By contrast, only 189 acres showed submerged oil impact in Fall 2011. In Spring 2012, the area of impact had progressed to 325 acres."
By 2050, New York State could run entirely on energy produced from wind, water and sunlight. That radical finding, which goes further than any other clean energy plan envisioned for New York, comes from a peer-reviewed study published last week in the journal Energy Policy.
The 13 scientists who wrote the report analyzed the technical and economic feasibility of meeting the state's energy needs solely through renewable energy. They concluded that moving to renewables would stabilize energy prices, decrease power demand through efficiency and reduce health impacts from air pollution.
Lead author Mark Z. Jacobson spent more than two years figuring out the details of the proposal, which includes wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal energy but no fossil fuels or nuclear power. Biofuels are used as a transitional power source and eventually phased out.
A recent industry-backed study of diluted bitumen, the Canadian crude oil that would be shipped through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, contradicts what environmentalists have said for years—that diluted bitumen, or dilbit, sinks in water and is much more difficult to clean up than conventional crude oil.
Instead, the study found that dilbit floats when it spills into water, a claim that contradicts what happened during a major dilbit spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010. The cleanup of that spill already has cost more than $810 million, and the Environmental Protection Agency is still struggling to figure out how to remove the submerged oil.
The study is important because there is little scientific research on how dilbit reacts in water, and because the Keystone would cross thousands of U.S. waterways, including the critically important Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska.
But five scientists interviewed by InsideClimate News say the study was so narrowly constructed that it shouldn't be used to draw conclusions about dilbit. The experiment's laboratory conditions didn't reflect most real-life situations, they said, and the study ignored the consequences of the Michigan spill.
The State Department's recent conclusion that the Keystone XL pipeline "is unlikely to have a substantial impact" on the rate of Canada's oil sands development was based on analysis provided by two consulting firms with ties to oil and pipeline companies that could benefit from the proposed project.
EnSys Energy has worked with ExxonMobil, BP and Koch Industries, which own oil sands production facilities and refineries in the Midwest that process heavy Canadian crude oil. Imperial Oil, one of Canada's largest oil sands producers, is a subsidiary of Exxon.
ICF International works with pipeline and oil companies but doesn't list specific clients on its website. It declined to comment on the Keystone, referring questions to the State Department.
EnSys president Martin Tallett said he couldn't talk about the proposed pipeline, but he pointed out that in addition to working for the oil industry, his company also works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and the World Bank.
"We don't do advocacy," Tallett said. "Our goal is to tell it like it is, to tell the way we see it… If we were the pet of government agencies or oil companies, the other side wouldn't come to us."
President Obama's expected choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency is Gina McCarthy, who as an assistant EPA administrator has shaped some of the agency's most contentious rules, including greenhouse gas regulations for new cars and power plants and air pollution standards for oil and gas drilling.
McCarthy, 58, hasn't made any public statements about what she would do if confirmed as EPA administrator, and the Office of Air and Radiation—which she currently heads—didn't return a request for comment. To get an idea of how she might lead the agency, we examined some of the speeches she's given over the past four years.
McCarthy's record shows she's a strong supporter of climate action. In 2009, when Congress was debating a carbon cap-and-trade bill (which died in 2010), she told a group of Connecticut energy experts that the country needs a "comprehensive energy bill moving forward that provides a cap-and-trade system" to deal with climate change.
The likely nomination of nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz to lead the Department of Energy has drawn criticism from some environmentalists who say his support for natural gas and close ties to industry would undermine efforts to tackle climate change. Moniz strongly favors natural gas as a "bridge fuel" and directs the MIT Energy Initiative, a research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that is funded by some of the world's largest fossil fuel companies.
"His appointment to the DOE could set renewable energy development back years," said a statement released by Food and Water Watch. The environmental group is circulating a petition opposing Moniz's nomination.
But an examination of Moniz's public record indicates a more nuanced outlook. Moniz did not return requests for an interview. However, in speeches and reports over the past few years, he has expressed concern for climate change, proposed additional funding for renewable energy and recommended more stringent regulations for natural gas production. He even hinted that he might support a tax on electricity to fund clean energy research.
In October 2011, when most politicians were doing everything they could to avoid speaking publicly about climate change, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse gave a 23-minute speech on the Senate floor detailing the perils of carbon pollution.
"Virtually all of our most prestigious scientific and academic institutions have stated that climate change is happening and that human activities are the driving cause of this change," said the Democrat from Rhode Island. By failing to act, he warned, the Senate was "earning the scorn and condemnation of history."
Since then, Whitehouse has continued to address the issue, and over the past year has made a point of discussing climate change in weekly 20-minute speeches whenever the Senate is in session.
Michigan regulators agreed last week to allow Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge Inc. to replace a 160-mile segment of an aging line that in 2010 spilled more than a million gallons of crude oil.
The decision by the Michigan Public Service Commission disappointed local landowners who had hoped for more scrutiny and oversight of the project.
"I am concerned with the haste with which this project has proceeded," said Jeff Insko, an English professor at Michigan's Oakland University who started the Line 6B Citizens' Blog for concerned landowners. "It's been fast-tracked both by Enbridge and the regulatory body here in Michigan. And given Enbridge's history in our state, it seems to me prudence and caution ought to guide us, and they haven't."
The 2010 spill from Line 6B contaminated 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River and has been difficult to clean up. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently asked Enbridge to remove submerged oil from several miles of the riverbed, a task that Enbridge is resisting. The price tag for the cleanup has already reached $810 million, making it the most expensive oil pipeline spill in U.S. history.
2/5/13: This story has been updated to include information from PHMSA received after publication.
Oil and gas pipelines could be made safer if pipeline operators had clear guidelines for how quickly they must respond to accidents—but federal regulators don't have the data they need to establish those rules, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent arm of Congress.
The first few minutes and hours after a pipeline accident are considered crucial for effective cleanup and damage prevention. But the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates the nation's 400,000-mile network of large volume transmission pipelines, requires only that operators respond in a "prompt and effective" manner.
The GAO urged the agency to replace this open-ended regulation with performance-based standards—specific, measurable goals that would make it easier to determine when operators have been negligent. To do that, PHMSA would have to set different rules for different types of pipelines depending on their contents, location, operating pressure, pipeline diameter and other factors.
Matthew Cook, a GAO senior analyst and a co-author of the report, said that to create those rules, PHMSA must first determine how fast operators are currently responding to accidents. But the GAO report warned that PHMSA's existing database, where pipeline accident information is filed, is incomplete and often inaccurate.
1/31/13: The story has been updated with comments from industry.
1/30/13: This story has been updated to include information from the EPA that was received after publication.
One of the biggest unknowns in the unfolding Keystone XL debate is the role the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might play.
Because the Canada-to-Nebraska oil pipeline crosses an international border, the State Department, not the EPA, will decide whether to give the project the federal permit it needs. But the EPA will weigh in during the review, and its opinion will carry new weight now that the Obama administration has vowed to make climate change a national priority.
The EPA's position will become clearer when the State Department releases its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the project, which it is expected to do any day now. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to review and comment publicly on the SEIS, and the agency has not been shy about criticizing earlier drafts.
"The EPA actually could assert a fair amount of power depending on, basically, how much they want to stick their necks out," said Jim Murphy, senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, which opposes the pipeline. "The level of scrutiny this is going to get is pretty intense. With each iteration this goes through, the number of eyes increases."