The federal regulator for petroleum pipelines and oil-toting railcars is offering employee buyouts that could shrink the agency's staff by 9 percent by mid-June—a step that has confounded observers because the agency is widely regarded as being chronically understaffed.
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) spokesman Damon Hill said the buyout offers are meant to "help the agency manage attrition in areas where a large and growing number of employees are eligible for retirement by offering an inducement for a limited number of employees to voluntarily retire or resign."
Hill said PHMSA is continuing to hire in key areas at the same time. "I understand how some folks may be looking at [the buyout effort], but it's part of an overall plan to retain expertise and plan for retention and things like that," he said. "There is some good that comes out of this."
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.
By delaying a final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until Nebraska devises a legally valid route across the state, the Obama administration may have pushed the question off for months—most likely until after the November mid-term elections. That lets the president ride out the hotly contested campaign for control of Congress without having to decide whether the controversial pipeline is in the national interest.
But the most important effects of the postponement might not be about politics at all. Rather, the passage of time may well highlight two substantive issues for all to see that will factor significantly into the national interest determination: the pipeline's significance for America's oil supply and demand and for the world's climate conundrum.
As rapid changes in the oil markets continue, and as developments occur in urgent international climate change negotiations, they could significantly influence President Barack Obama's ultimate decision on the project. The Keystone would carry diluted bitumen, or dilbit, from the tar sands of Canada toward refineries on the Gulf Coast.
A spunky little environmental organization, essentially a one-man show with a small supporting cast, continues to battle a Canadian company's effort to establish the nation's first sizeable tars sands strip mine on an arid plateau in eastern Utah.
The issue, as always, is water. And the oratories, as always, are impassioned.
John Weisheit, the conservation director of Moab, Utah-based Living Rivers, and his allies at Western Resource Advocates, a non-profit environmental law and policy organization with offices in seven states, are still trying to convince state officials that there is water in the Book Cliffs region—and that it should be protected from the planned tar sands mine.
Now they've got a new study that they say further supports their position.
Russia's brazen move into Ukraine has triggered a reaction from supporters of America's oil and natural gas industries. To diminish Vladimir Putin's clout in Europe and pressure him on Ukraine, they want the Obama administration to fast track a host of U.S. energy industry priorities. By doing so, they say, the United States can increase fuel supplies to Ukraine and much of Europe, which depend heavily on Russian oil and natural gas.
The industries' priorities include quickly approving more facilities to export liquefied natural gas, removing restrictions on domestic crude oil exports, and approving the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would carry Canadian crude oil to the Gulf Coast.
Energy—and especially oil—has a long history of being at the forefront of foreign policy and territorial conflict. But in this case, many analysts question whether the energy industry's wish list of policy actions would have a timely and meaningful impact on Russia, Europe or the situation in Ukraine.
The most curious item on the list is the Keystone XL pipeline.
What might the oil- and gas-rich Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas look like in 2018?
A newly released but largely unnoticed study commissioned by the state of Texas makes some striking projections:
The number of wells drilled in the 20,000-square-mile region could quadruple, from about 8,000 today to 32,000.
Oil production could leap from 363 million barrels per year to as much as 761 million.
Airborne releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could increase 281 percent during the peak ozone season compared to 2012 emissions. VOCs, commonly found at oil and gas production sites, can cause respiratory and neurological problems. Some, like benzene, can cause cancer.
Nitrogen oxides—which react with VOCs in sunlight to create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog—could increase 69 percent during the peak ozone season.
There will be a lot on the line in a few weeks when Enbridge Inc. hits the start button on its new 6B oil pipeline across southern Michigan.
The company is banking on the line to more than double the amount of oil it pumps from Griffith, Ind., to Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.
Residents along the pipeline's 285-mile path also have a stake in the project. They're counting on it to be safer than the old 6B that it replaces—the one that spilled more than a million gallons of oil from Canada's tar sands region into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010.
"We have to live with the pipeline and all of the what-ifs," said David Gallagher, who lives in the town of Ceresco. "We hope everything is going to be everything they say it will be, but we just don't know."
The new line runs just 14 feet from Gallagher's house, so close that Enbridge had to take special precautions to make sure his foundation wasn't damaged during construction. Gallagher captured dramatic video of huge pieces of equipment rumbling by his living room windows.
A new study charges that government regulations for biomass plants are riddled with loopholes that allow wood-burning facilities to spew more toxic emissions in the air than coal-fired power plants.
The findings are refueling a controversy over whether biomass should be treated as a renewable energy fuel and able to qualify for green incentives, or as a fossil fuel like coal.
The study, conducted by the Massachusetts-based Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), found that biomass facilities release as much as 50 percent more carbon dioxide than coal plants per megawatt-hour, and as much as 100 percent more than other air pollutants. The contaminants include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Biomass plant emissions "could be dramatically improved," said Mary Booth, the study's author who is the director of PFPI, a nonprofit environmental consultancy critical of biomass plants. She pinned the problem on so-called loopholes in federal and state environmental laws, which she said give biomass operators a way out of meeting strict standards.
The 120-year-old U.S. environmental movement has undergone a tectonic shift and resurgence over the last several years, spearheaded by the failed legislative effort to cap carbon emissions in 2010. In the aftermath of that debacle, some the biggest environmental groups reshaped their missions—supplementing inside-the-Beltway campaigning with grassroots organizing and civil disobedience action not seen in this country since the 1970s. New groups from the hyperlocal to the national and global were born.
Today the 10 organizations driving the modern green wave—profiled in the infographic below—collectively have 15 million members, 2,000-plus staffers and annual budgets of more than $525 million to advance environmental agendas at the local, national and international levels.
People in natural gas drilling areas who complain about nauseating odors, nosebleeds and other symptoms they fear could be caused by shale development usually get the same response from state regulators: monitoring data show the air quality is fine.
A new study helps explain this discrepancy. The most commonly used air monitoring techniques often underestimate public health threats because they don't catch toxic emissions that spike at various points during gas production, researchers reported Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Reviews on Environmental Health. The study was conducted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit based near Pittsburgh.
A health survey the group released last year found that people who live near drilling sites in Washington County, Pa., in the Marcellus Shale, reported symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, breathing difficulties and nosebleeds, all of which could be caused by pollutants known to be emitted from gas sites. Similar problems have been reported by people who live in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, the subject of a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel.