Six years, two environmental reviews, one presidential delay, two Nebraska trials and innumerable rallies, commercials and op-eds later, the decision to grant a federal permit to the Keystone XL pipeline has now entered its home stretch, as the Obama administration moves to determine if the project is in the national interest.
The Congressional push to land a bill mandating approval for the Keystone XL has attracted most of the media attention, as has the president's vow to veto it. But parallel to the Congressional Keystone campaign, the State Department has quietly revived the national interest determination process after the Nebraska State Supreme Court tossed a challenge to the pipeline's route through the state. The administration had suspended the national interest determination process last spring while the case was pending.
The State Department asked eight federal agencies to weigh in on the national interest determination before Secretary of State John Kerry and, ultimately, the president determine the pipeline's fate. They are: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Pentagon and the Departments of Energy, Justice, Interior, Commerce, Transportation and Homeland Security. Their comments are due Monday, February 2.
What is the definition of "national interest?"
The moment the gavel hammered through Thursday's vote in Congress to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, some in the Senate were predicting that a bipartisan consensus on energy policy was just around the corner.
The Republican and Democratic senators who stage-managed the pipeline bill—Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Maria Cantwell of Washington—both surmised after the 62-36 vote that before long they might be working in tandem.
While President Barack Obama wants to protect young people from the catastrophic effects of global warming, school boards and lawmakers in some states are fighting to prevent students from learning the science of climate change.
In the most recent skirmish, parents and science educators in West Virginia blocked an attempt to weaken the teaching of climate change in elementary and secondary school classrooms. Responding to petitions and protests, the state Board of Education voted Jan. 14 to undo revisions to teaching guidelines that would have cast doubt on global warming and the reasons for it.
The West Virginia case is part of a long-running battle over the first set of national guidelines for science education to require that students be taught that climate change is a scientific fact and mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The guidelines, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, were developed by science-education groups and state school systems, led by the National Research Council. They have been adopted by 13 states and the District of Columbia, but face resistance in several states from climate skeptics on school boards and in legislatures.
"Climate is the major sticking point in the standards," said Lisa Hoyos, director and co-founder of the national activist group Climate Parents. "Even if a state has been involved in writing, they go home and the politics win out," she said. "Kids are caught in the crossfire."
Two days after a major New England blizzard contributed to the shutdown of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass., the facility remains closed.
Due to climate change, more of the most extreme precipitation events, such as this recent snowfall, are expected to slam the area in the coming decades. Nuclear power critics cite the Pilgrim shutdown as proof the industry isn't ready now—and won't be any time soon.
Federal regulators counter that several initiatives to improve nuclear plant responses to extreme weather and other natural hazards are already under way.
The region's first major nor'easter this winter, dubbed "Juno" by The Weather Channel, dumped up to 3 feet of snow in some places. Parts of the Massachusetts coast were wracked by hurricane-force gusts (up to 78 miles per hour). The culmination of high tide and storm-related winds produced a 2-5-foot storm surge that contributed to coastal flooding.
Although several nuclear power plants stood in Juno's path, only Pilgrim and New Hampshire's Seabrook station faced the full intensity of the storm. Seabrook was unscathed by the event and remained at full capacity throughout.
At Entergy Corporation's Pilgrim facility, however, staff moved to decrease the plant's operating capacity to 20 percent because of stormy conditions. During this process, according to a company statement, "the distribution lines that Pilgrim uses to send electricity to the grid became inoperable due to an offsite issue," the cause of which is still unknown. Following emergency procedures, the plant automatically shut down early Tuesday morning.
A coalition of environmental, community and animal welfare groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday in an effort to push the Obama administration to reduce air pollution, including greenhouse gases, from enormous livestock feeding lots that supply most of the country's meat, milk and eggs.
In two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., the groups said the EPA has failed to respond to two citizens' petitions delivered years ago urging greater regulation of air pollution from so-called concentrated animal feeding lots, or CAFOs. The EPA is supposed to respond to citizens' petitions within a reasonable time, though regulations do not define what such a period might be, said Tarah Heinzen, a lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project, one of the groups in the coalition.
"EPA has really gone awry by looking the other way regarding pollution from this industry," Heinzen said. "It shouldn't have to fall to citizens to petition EPA to do its job."
The Obama administration announced plans Tuesday to open up parts of the Arctic and waters off the mid- and south Atlantic coasts to drilling. The contentious new plan, unveiled by the Interior Department, proposes 14 potential leases between 2017 and 2022 in parts of the Arctic, Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The leases open up drilling on nearly 80 percent of undiscovered, potentially recoverable resources off the nation’s outer continental shelf.
Drilling remains off-limits off the Pacific coast, where political opposition to offshore oil and gas exploration has long been fierce. Some areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the Alaskan coast—which the administration deemed "simply too special to develop"—have also been banned from leasing.
Here's a map of the areas that were previously open to drilling and the new areas proposed for leasing. Click to enlarge.
Methane is leaking from natural gas infrastructure in Boston and the surrounding region at rates two to three times higher than government estimates, scientists at Harvard University and other institutions found.
Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week, the researchers' paper is the first peer-reviewed study that quantifies emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from natural gas installations in urban areas—including pipelines, storage terminals and power plants. The amount of methane lost over a year in the study area is worth $90 million, the authors wrote.
The research, which was supported by federal and private funding, is part of an ongoing effort to assess methane emissions during natural gas production, transportation and consumption. The answers are crucial to understanding how the current shale gas boom contributes to climate change. Earlier this month, the White House issued the first national regulations to curb methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.
Winter storm Juno is expected to dump as much as 3 feet of snow across parts of New England early this week. Media outlets have already dubbed the storm "a massive blizzard of epic proportions." Schools closed their doors, grocery stores had their shelves stripped and governors announced travel bans along most of the storm's path.
But on social media, Juno is being pointed to as the latest evidence that global warming is not happening, or that it's even a hoax or scam—an assertion that scientists said couldn't be further from the truth.
"That claim is nonsensical," said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo. "Yes, we have always had storms in the winter, but climate change is often the contributing factor that pushes these events over the edge to become record-breaking."
Here's why: As the oceans warm due to the burning of fossil fuels, the atmosphere above can hold more moisture, which in turn fuels the creation of the most intense precipitation events. The mid-Atlantic is currently 2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. In the spring, summer and fall, that translates into more of the most intense rainstorms. In the winter, when that moisture-rich air hits cold temperatures on the continent, heavier snowfall results.
A few minutes after the Senate's minority Democrats refused on Monday to silence debate and move along legislation approving the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, took to the floor and vented her frustration.
"I'm just not in a very good mood right now," fumed Murkowski, who as the new chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee is managing the Keystone bill.
What had her riled up was not the surprising failure of her side to win over enough Democrats to ram it through the Senate this week and on to President Obama, who is expected to veto it.
Rather, it was another hot-button energy issue that she found "so infuriating": the Obama administration's proposal to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, meaning no oil drilling there, as well as other anti-drilling steps the White House may take in Alaska and nearby waters. That, she said, amounted to economic warfare against her state.
"What is coming at my state, and the arrogance with which this administration is treating us, is something that will not stand," she warned.
The infrared video showed an eerie scene: waves of volatile chemicals floating from the vent pipes of an oil-and-gas processing plant in the Lost Hills region of Kern County, Calif. The gas wafting into the air looked like heat shimmering off asphalt on a hot summer's day.
The fumes are invisible to the naked eye, yet the special camera employed by researchers working with two environmental advocacy groups revealed the toxic emissions that flow from the facility every day it operates.
Based on the infrared camera video, air sampling and health surveys, a study by Earthworks and Clean Water Fund has concluded that the communities of Lost Hills and Upper Ojai in Ventura County are being exposed to dangerous air contaminants associated with oil-and-gas production.
These contaminants, which include toluene and methane, could pose a health risk based on long-term exposure, according to the 56-page report, "CALIFORNIANS AT RISK: An Analysis of Health Threats from Oil and Gas Pollution in Two Communities."
The findings also warn that people in other California communities could be subjected to similar emissions released during oil-and-gas development. The report says 5.4 million people, or 14 percent of California's population, live within one mile of a well.