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Maryland Fracking Study Cites Toxic Air Emissions as Top Concern

Drilling-wary Maryland is one of several East Coast states considering whether to open their lands to fracking as public health concerns mount.

Aug 21, 2014

A state-commissioned report found that air emissions trump water pollution and drilling-induced earthquakes as a top public health threat posed by future fracking projects in Maryland.

For nearly a year, experts at the University of Maryland's School of Public Health examined past research into the link between oil and gas activity and health. The findings, released Monday, stand in stark contrast to public concern in heavy-drilling states such as Maryland's neighbor Pennsylvania. Those concerns have tended to focus on tainted water, not air.

And in some major fracking states, including Texas, residents have been vocal about air concerns, but their complaints have largely been ignored, as an eight-month joint investigation by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity revealed.

According to the Maryland study's principal investigator, Donald Milton, existing data show a clear trend: oil and gas activity can spew significant levels of toxic chemicals into the air—and that pollution consistently makes people sick.

Q&A: How a SuperPAC on a Shoestring Is Taking on Congress' Climate Apathy

"What is effective is talking to voters," says a founder of Climate Hawks Vote in an interview. "Luckily, that kind of work doesn't take a lot of money."

Aug 20, 2014

Earlier this month, Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz won his party's primary race by just 1,769 votes in a hotly reported contest that lasted two years and saw millions in spending from special interests. But little reported was the 11th-hour entrance into the campaign by a tiny new SuperPAC that just may have helped seal the election for Schatz: Climate Hawks Vote.

Formed in May to help get climate-conscious legislators elected to Congress, the group forewent expensive TV and print ads for old-fashioned electioneering. Volunteers made thousands of phone calls and peddled Schatz's climate credentials on sidewalks, at environmental conferences and debate viewing parties.

"Hawaii was a close enough race that we really made a difference," according to R.L. Miller, the tireless climate advocate at the helm of the group, who's also a lawyer, chair of the California Democratic Party's environmental caucus and a blogger. Schatz is expected to beat his Republican challenger in November.

With Wind Energy Prices at All-Time Lows, DOE Is Cautiously Optimistic

Wind electricity costs have dropped to about 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour, a highly competitive price in some parts of the country.

Aug 19, 2014

With new wind power installations rebounding from last year's free fall, there's still a chance that wind could provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030, the Department of Energy projected on Monday.

But that will probably require a favorable mix of market developments, technology progress  and regulatory policies, suggested DOE's annual wind technologies market report.

Amid turmoil over tax incentives, barely 1,000 megawatts of new capacity was added in 2013, just 8 percent of the previous year's record-setting total. "All signals point to more robust growth in 2014 and 2015," the report said. But beyond that, things get murky again.

The most positive sign for the wind power industry in the 82-page report was that both the cost of wind turbines and the price of wind-powered electricity continue to fall.



In 'After Water' Project, 12 Writers Imagine Life in Climate Change-Altered Chicago

Ecoterrorists, saboteurs, orphans, activists muck through their separate realities. 'This project is terrifying—the idea of what the world would become.'

By Hannah Robbins

Aug 19, 2014

Four emaciated boys share a canteen of fresh water. They pass the stolen treasure around as they huddle on a raft made of broken furniture, drifting on toxic flood waters. The future has come to Chicago—or at least one future imagined by Abby Geni, a fiction writer in Illinois. 

Geni's story, "World After Water," follows four brothers growing up in a world irrevocably altered by climate change. Drinkable water is scarce, the Great Lakes are polluted, and only the rich can afford purified water.

"World After Water" is one story in a series of podcasts produced by WBEZ, a public radio station in Chicago. The series, called After Water, seeks to blend science and storytelling to create new shades of understanding about what the Great Lakes region could look like in the future. To do this, WBEZ reporter and project producer Shannon Heffernan approached fiction writers in Chicago and across the country. She gave them research papers and connected them with scientists, advocates and policymakers who could answer their questions. She then issued the 12 writers one challenge: to take what they had learned and create a story that reflects the difficulties Chicago and the Great Lakes region may face in the decades to come.

"This project is terrifying—the idea of what the world would become," Geni (pronounced GEE-nie) told Heffernan. (Geni usually writes fiction about the connection between humans and the natural world and stages her work in the present.)

Wall Street Warned About $91 Billion of High-Risk Oil Megaprojects

Tar sands, deepsea drilling and other projects would lose money if lower demand, CO2 restrictions or other factors forced crude prices below $95.

Aug 18, 2014

Critics of environmentally risky oil projects proposed for deep undersea and Canada's tar sands got new ammunition last week when a report labeled those ventures and others as the industry's most financially questionable pursuits.

The new report, published by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI), identifies a host of drawing-board oil projects that would cost a combined $91 billion over the next decade—and that would lose money if lower demand, carbon restrictions or other factors forced crude prices below $95 a barrel. Many of the projects need oil prices to settle substantially higher than $110 a barrel to break even, CTI said.

It's the latest in a string of offerings from London-based CTI, a non-profit that has been highlighting climate-related risks and costs that they believe are not being addressed by fossil fuel companies or reflected in financial markets. Through a pair of earlier reports, the group helped popularize the notion that fossil fuel companies could end up with valueless "unburnable carbon," or stranded assets, if governments move to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

By highlighting the financial risk of specific mega-projects in its latest work, CTI hopes to convince more Wall Street analysts and oil company investors to pressure ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and others to justify the expenses or cancel development.

MIT Study: Climate Talks on Path to Fall Far Short of Goals

Under countries' current climate pledges, greenhouse gas concentrations would exceed 530 or 580 parts per million by the end of the century.

Aug 18, 2014

Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology using a sophisticated computer model examined what they think is the most likely outcome of UN climate treaty negotiations and found that the talks are likely to come up short.

Facing a deadline to reach a new treaty by the end of next year in Paris, the world's nations seem unwilling to make the kind of pledges that would rein in global warming to safe levels by century's end, the researchers concluded.

"Our analysis concludes that these international efforts will indeed bend at the curve of global emissions" of carbon dioxide and other planet-warming greenhouse gases, they said. "However, our results also show that these efforts will not put the globe on a path consistent with commonly stated long-term climate goals."

The MIT team reviewed the pollution-reduction commitments that climate delegates from around the world seem likely to bring to the negotiating table. They then cranked those measures through models and found that the atmosphere's blanket of CO2 would continue to rise much higher than 450 parts per million, the level that might keep the planet from warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius.



Judge Throws Out Texas Family's Fracking Pollution Case

Dismissal is in contrast to a case in which a jury awarded $2.9 million to a family who also claimed to be sickened by fracking's emissions.

Aug 15, 2014

A Texas judge has dismissed a million dollar lawsuit filed by a Karnes County, Texas, family who say their lives have been ruined by noxious emissions from oil and gas facilities near their home.

District Judge Stella Saxon apparently accepted the argument made by Marathon Oil Corp. and Plains Exploration & Production (PXP) that Mike and Myra Cerny didn't have enough medical and scientific evidence to prove to a jury that they have been sickened by oil field emissions.

Marathon applauded the ruling, while the Cernys' attorney said he'll file an appeal. Legal experts say the dismissal could have a chilling effect on others who may be considering legal action against the oil and gas industry.

The dismissal in Karnes County stands in stark contrast to a case in Dallas County earlier this year in which a jury awarded $2.9 million to a family who also claimed to be sickened by emissions. That two similar cases could have such different outcomes highlights vagaries of both the justice and regulatory system in Texas, where the oil and gas industry is widely praised and supported.

Alaska's Financial Future at Center of Battle Over Oil Tax

Grassroots groups fight to reverse an oil industry tax benefit worth $1 billion to $2 billion a year and to return the money to state coffers.

Aug 15, 2014

After decades of relative harmony between citizens and fossil fuel companies in Alaska, tensions are ratcheting up in advance of an Aug. 19 referendum on the state's oil taxes.

Voters will decide whether to repeal Alaska's year-old oil tax system, which cuts taxes on the fossil fuel industry by $1 billion to $2 billion a year. If Alaskans approve the ballot proposal, the state will reverse the tax reductions now enjoyed by ConocoPhillips, Exxon and BP and revert to a previous system that helped the state bank a $17 billion surplus.

At the heart of the fight is concern over Alaska's financial future.

A coalition of grassroots activists argues that the tax cuts introduced in 2013 would devastate the state's budget. With no income or sales tax, Alaska gets 90 percent of its revenue from the oil industry. But the financially and politically powerful fossil fuel industry says the previous, higher taxes choked its ability to invest in new oil fields and increase production.

Christie Vetoes Popular Fracking Waste Ban, Saying It's Unconstitutional

Christie's national ambitions seen by critics as a factor in fracking greenlight.

Aug 14, 2014

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's recent veto of a bill that would have banned the treatment, storage and disposal of fracking waste in the state thrusts the Republican presidential contender and head of the Republican Governors Association into the national debate over fracking, the controversial practice that blasts chemicals, sand and water into a well to crack open bedrock and extract fossil fuels. Christie said the bill was unconstitutional. 

The anti-fracking bill had passed New Jersey's Senate and Assembly with more than 80 percent support in the spring. It's unclear if legislators will take the rare step of overriding the veto—a move supported by green groups that say this isn't the first time the governor has favored the oil and gas industry over the environment.

Fracking Companies Fight Texas Families' Air Pollution Suits, Fearing Precedent

If two Texas couples win their cases, it could change the assumption that ordinary people can't stand up to the industry, legal expert says.

Aug 13, 2014

Two major oil companies have asked a Texas judge to dismiss a civil lawsuit that could draw new attention to the toxic air emissions from oil and gas production.

The lawsuit was filed last year by Mike and Myra Cerny, who say they can't enjoy the use of their home because of the benzene, toluene and other toxic chemicals released from nearby facilities owned by Marathon and Plains Exploration & Production (PXP). The Cernys are using the same argument that helped another Texas family, Bob and and Lisa Parr, win a groundbreaking, $2.9 million judgment against Aruba Petroleum last April: That the emissions created a nuisance that made their lives unbearable.

Air emissions are increasingly recognized as a problem in drilling areas throughout United States, with residents complaining of coughing, headaches, nosebleeds, rashes and dizziness. But lawsuits linking gas and oil production to health problems have been considered almost unwinnable, because few scientific studies have been done on how the industry’s emissions might affect human health.

Jane Barrett, director of the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Clinic, said that if the Parrs and Cerneys succeed, their cases could change the assumption that ordinary people can't stand up to the industry.

Barrett compared the two Texas cases with early lawsuits filed against the tobacco industry, which was once seen as immune to charges that it was responsible for the harmful effects of cigarettes.