Nobody really needs a sense-of-the-Senate resolution to figure out whether climate change is real, or what is causing it.
So what can we learn from the past week or so of debate around the Keystone XL pipeline, and the shadow-boxing amendments it inspired?
One lesson seems to be that the climate crisis, with all its complicated energy policy baggage, is back on the Congressional agenda.
Another is that the Congress remains institutionally incapable of addressing the problem head on.
Hence the convoluted debate unfurling, ostensibly over whether the Keystone XL line, meant to carry high-carbon tar sands fuel from Alberta, Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, is in the national interest.
For weeks, the earth shook regularly outside David Gallagher's house as the Canadian company Enbridge Inc. replaced its aging oil pipeline known as 6B.
The giant trenching tractors, bulldozers and trucks that once shook his house with the intensity of a small earthquake have disappeared and oil now pulses through the pipeline that runs 14 feet from his house near Ceresco, Mich.
The shaking stopped months ago, but Gallagher remains perhaps even more shaken by the emotional aftershocks of the experience.
Gallagher, a 45-year-old custom cabinet maker and interior contractor, said memories of living in the house will be spoiled by damage done to the land. His wife's parents built the house in 1973, five years after the original Line 6B had been buried under open farmland.
Now that the machines are gone, Enbridge has vowed to heal the landscape this spring with grass, trees and other native plants destroyed by the years of construction all along the course of the new 285-mile pipeline that stretches from Griffith, Ind. across southern Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. Enbridge is deactivating the old Line 6B since the new $2.6 billion pipeline and infrastructure went fully operational late last year.
This article has been updated on Jan. 22 at 7:00 PM to reflect new information about the pipeline segment that failed.
The aging Poplar Pipeline that spilled oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana on Saturday was built with pipe made using faulty welding techniques, and its owner has had a series of spills on the line. These two factors put the pipeline at a higher risk for problems.
First, the pipeline's owner, Bridger Pipeline LLC, has had nearly double the number of incidents per mile of pipe than the average company with pipelines carrying oil, gas or other hazardous liquids over the last six years, according to data compiled by the Pipeline Safety Trust. Federal records suggest that most of Bridger's incidents occurred on the Poplar line and were preventable.
As Senate votes were rolling in Wednesday—declaring climate change real, but denying mankind's role in it—President Barack Obama was issuing a different kind of decree. In the first executive order after his State of the Union address, the White House created the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which will attempt to wrangle the numerous agencies in charge of Arctic programs and better coordinate their work in the face of climate change.
"Over the past 60 years, climate change has caused the Alaskan Arctic to warm twice as rapidly as the rest of the United States," Obama said in the order, "and will continue to transform the Arctic as its consequences grow more severe."
In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama made some of his most forceful comments to date about global warming, mocking the Republican reluctance to acknowledge man-made climate change and warning Congress against attacking his efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.
Obama spoke about climate change late in the 63-minute long speech. But his rhetoric was blunt. "No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change," he said. "That's why, over the past six years, we've done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it...And that's why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts."
The president derided as a "dodge" the new, stock response Republicans use to deflect questions about climate change, that they can't assess the issue because they're not scientists. "Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities," he said.
Obama's pointed climate change comments were in keeping with a defiant tone he struck across a range of issues, from immigration reform to childcare to negotiations with Iran.
This article has been updated on Jan. 22 at 4:00 PM to reflect more recent estimates on the maximum amount of oil that could have spilled in the Yellowstone River.
In eastern Montana, an oil spill under the Yellowstone River over the weekend has tainted the water supply of Glendive, a nearby town of about 6,000 people. The river's thick ice cover, which is two feet in places, is complicating the cleanup efforts.
"My gosh, I know what diesel smells like...and we had a definite diesel smell in our drinking water," said Glendive City Councilman Gerry Reichert. "We sort of have a mess."
Around 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 17, a stretch of the Bridger Pipeline LLC's Poplar Pipeline that crosses the Yellowstone River cracked, for reasons still unknown. Company workers in Wyoming detected a drop in pressure and shut off the pipeline by 11 a.m. During that time, between 300 to 954 barrels (or 12,000 to 40,000 gallons) of oil were released.
Four days after the spill, the Poplar Pipeline, which transports crude oil across Montana, is still shut down. The section of the 50-year old pipeline measures 12 inches in diameter and is a half-inch thick.
According to Bill Salvin, a public relations specialist hired by the pipeline company, the size and the type of the rupture is unknown and it's in a stretch of pipe directly underneath the riverbed. That means most of the oil likely leaked into the water. A 2011 leak from Exxon's Silvertip Pipeline spilled 63,000 gallons of crude oil in the same river—very little of it was recovered.
As debate intensifies over oil and gas drilling, most states with frackable reserves are already fracking—or making moves to do so in the near future.
That translates to 22 states, from California to Texas, Michigan to West Virginia, currently employing this high-intensity form of energy extraction, and five others may soon follow. Called high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial process became commercially viable in the late 1990s. It generally involves injecting millions of gallons of water, along with sand and chemicals, down a well to extract oil-and-gas reserves that were previously hard to access.
InsideClimate News compiled a comprehensive map of the nation's fracking activity. This state-by-state breakdown will be periodically updated.
The Obama administration's new plan for reducing the oil and gas industry's methane emissions will drive down releases of the potent greenhouse gas despite a heavy reliance on voluntary measures, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency said.
Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator since 2013, defended the plan, issued this week, against criticism by environmentalists that it is too cautious because regulations would apply only to new oil and gas sources. The industry argues that the new rules aren't needed because methane emissions have already been declining.
The year 2014 was officially the hottest year since records began, federal scientists announced on Friday, part of a long-term warming trend driven by the burning of fossil fuels.
Ten of the warmest years ever have occurred since 1997. Global ocean and land temperatures, which have been calculated since 1880, measured 1.24 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average temperature in 2014, and 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial averages. December also marked the 358th consecutive month—nearly 30 years—of above-average global temperatures.
"This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades," said Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist and director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases."
The warming contributed to dozens of extreme weather and climate events last year, including severe hurricanes, drought, flooding and heat waves.
The first air monitor in the heart of the fracking-intensive Eagle Ford Shale region of south Texas has been installed and will be in operation following calibration tests to assess its accuracy.
The 40-foot-by-40-foot monitor that looks like a cargo trailer with antennas was set in place on the grounds of the Karnes County courthouse on the main street of Karnes City last month by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Placing the air monitor in Karnes County follows a recent air-quality study that tracked hydrocarbon emissions on the fringe of the region, pressure from local officials, news reports and residents worried about the air they breathe.
Yet even when the monitor begins producing air quality data, that information may not spark official concern because Texas adheres to air quality guidelines that permit exposure to higher amounts of some chemicals than other states.