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."
WASHINGTON—When the State Department hired a contractor to produce the latest environmental impact statement for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, it asked for a Web-based electronic docket to record public comments as they flowed in each day. Thousands of comments are expected to be filed by people and businesses eager to influence the outcome of the intense international debate over the project.
But the public will not find it easy to examine these documents.
A summary of the comments will be included in the final version of the environmental impact statement when it is released, said Imani J. Esparza of the Office of Policy and Public Outreach in State's bureau of oceans, environment and science.
But the only way to see the comments themselves is by filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, a process that can take so long that the Keystone debate could be over before the documents are made available.
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.
As part of its effort to persuade the United States to accept the Keystone pipeline and the oil sands fuel it would carry from Canada, the province of Alberta is advertising itself as an environmental leader at the cutting edge of clean energy development.
On Sunday, the province took out a half-page ad in the New York Times asserting that it is "committed to raising the bar higher on its leading climate change policy."
"Our past, present and future environmental management actions—including the fact that Alberta already has a price on carbon and was the first place in North America to legally require all large industry to curb emissions—are unmatched by any oil producing region in the world," Premier Alison Redford said in a companion statement.
"To ignore the good work done in Alberta to begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—while others around the world simply talk—is disingenuous in the extreme," she added in a speech the next day.
Alberta's talk about its actions to address the climate issue came as Redford prepares for a trip to Washington next month to lobby for the project—her fourth such visit in 18 months.
But the ad, which the opposition immediately said was misleading, was a lobbying tactic, not a diplomatic overture. Indeed, many experts see the long-running Keystone saga as a failure of diplomacy on all sides.
Despite little success so far and growing support nationally for clean energy, a multi-pronged campaign to undercut renewable power mandates in the states is showing no signs of letting up.
Over the past few years, a rising tide of legislation has sought to repeal or weaken renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which require a certain share of a state's electricity supply to come from sources like solar and wind. Lesser known are the few lawsuits filed to challenge the constitutionality of these laws.
Many of these attempts have fizzled, but some are being revived this year. In total, 42 separate efforts are wending their way through legislatures and courts in more than two dozen states, according to the North Carolina Solar Center, a clearinghouse for state renewable energy policies.
"The danger of some of these [RPS laws] being repealed is a little bit greater this year than it was last year," said Justin Barnes, a senior policy analyst at the center.
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.
Prominent Canadian economist Robyn Allan made waves in Canada last year with papers claiming that rapid oil sands growth would do more economic harm than good for her country.
Allan's controversial analyses focused on the Northern Gateway pipeline, a proposal to carry raw tar sands bitumen through British Columbia for shipment to Asia. One of her main points was that shipping raw crude for upgrading and refining in other countries also means exporting those industries—and jobs—abroad.
She also warned that increased oil sands exports would drive up the value of Canada's currency. Already, an inflated "petro-dollar" is making it tough for Canadian goods to compete in export markets and is "hollowing out" manufacturing sectors, she said.
Now, Allan is making the same arguments about an even bigger and more contentious export pipeline: the Keystone pipeline. If approved by the Obama administration, the Keystone pipeline would send 830,000 barrels of bitumen a day from Alberta to the Texas refining hub.
Allan, a former CEO of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, one of Canada's biggest insurance firms, says that through presentations, meetings and op-eds she's trying to "balance out" the economic debate on the Keystone pipeline, which she claims has been reduced to a simple choice between jobs and the environment.
"There are economic costs that haven't been considered," she says.
In an extensive interview, Allan—who supports measured oil sands development—explains her position on the Keystone pipeline and discusses potential economic risks to Canadians if it's approved.
WASHINGTON—The surprising message of the State Department's latest Keystone review—that the decision whether to approve the disputed pipeline won't have much effect on the environment—can be traced to the way the agency framed the report.
The study presents an analysis of how markets will adjust if the pipeline isn't built. But lawyers and pipeline opponents say that approach allowed the State Department to dodge the central question that the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, poses about major federal decisions: What would it mean for the environment, including for climate change, if the project is built?
Instead, the report looked at what might happen if the pipeline is rejected and declared that any benefits to the global climate would be trivial. Canadian producers would continue to ship oil sands products to U.S. refineries by other means, such as rail, the report concluded, and greenhouse gas emissions from this unusually dirty oil would continue more or less unabated.
That approach "is not in keeping with the letter or the spirit of NEPA," said Pat Parenteau, an environmental lawyer at the Vermont Law School. "It stands the whole concept of examining the consequences of your actions on its head, it really does."
Calling the State Department's approach "highly suspect," "very questionable," and "very disingenuous," Parenteau predicted: "There is going to be litigation if this is approved."
Two advocacy groups have come up with a new tactic to show how climate change—and laws to deal with it—could make investments in fossil fuel companies riskier and rock financial markets.
In a pair of first-of-their-kind shareholder resolutions, the groups have asked two of the nation's largest coal producers to report to investors how much of their coal assets would be left "stranded" in the ground if the United States were to pass sweeping greenhouse gas regulations.
As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group for environmental issues, filed a resolution with CONSOL Energy late last year. The Unitarian Universalist Association, a religious organization that promotes social justice, filed a similar resolution with Alpha Natural Resources.
The groups' point is that coal and other energy companies would be dangerously overvalued in a carbon-regulated world, thus creating a "carbon bubble" that could one day pop.
"This carbon bubble is so big, it's going to make the housing bubble look like chump change," Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow, said in an interview. "It's another order of magnitude."
The carbon bubble concept is relatively new, born out of a recent scientific paper that has united climate change activists and some in the financial community in a common pursuit: to rethink the value of investments in coal, oil and gas.
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."