As the deadline for public comment on the Keystone XL pipeline arrived on Mar. 7, environmental groups told the Obama administration that the State Department's analysis of the project was based on flawed assumptions that clash with the nation's commitment to mobilizing global action against climate change.
In its final environmental impact statement (EIS) issued on Jan. 31, the State Department asserted that no single project would have much effect on the growth of Canada's tar sands industry. It based its conclusions partly on business-as-usual projections that oil demand and prices would rise amid continued worldwide inaction on global warming.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said in wide-ranging comments that the EIS "makes a fundamental error by relying on energy consumption scenarios which assume a global failure to address climate change."
If the State Department stuck with its predictions that energy consumption and prices were destined to remain high, it would "undermine the nation's credibility" during United Nations talks aimed at heading off the worst effects of global warming, the advocacy group said.
About 70 percent of Bakken crude is shipped by rail to refineries in other regions of the country, passing through the heart of urban centers and environmentally sensitive wetlands. Three of those oil trains have exploded in the past year raising questions about the volatility of the Bakken crude and the safety of shipping it by rail.
After eight months of searching, regulators and industry still have not come up with an answer. Some oil and gas experts suspect producers might be failing to properly separate flammable "wet" gases like propane from the crude before shipping it. They cite three possible reasons: a shortage of gas-processing plants in the area; added profitability for producers if they "fluff up" their crude shipments with natural gas liquids, which are worth less per-barrel than crude; and/or carelessness.
Part 2 of 3 of a special report from the co-author of a forthcoming book, The People's Republic of Chemicals. Read Part 1.
China's plans to build remote industrial coal complexes to power its economy are putting the country on a trajectory to wipe out global gains in tackling climate change, scientists fear. But other nations share responsibility for China's fossil fuel binge and the toxic air people breathe as a result—especially the United States.
China's pollution scourge has its roots in trade agreements set in motion by President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s that allowed U.S. companies to take advantage of cheap labor and lax environmental standards in the world's most populous nation—where coal energy reigns supreme. Many times the United States helped China finance dirty sources of energy.
As much as one-third of China's carbon load on the atmosphere can be traced to exports of cheap clothes, electronics, machinery and other goods consumed by Americans and Europeans, experts say. And while free trade to the West has made China's economy boom, Chinese people have paid dearly due to the resulting smog from factories and coal-fired power plants.
"We made a big mistake" by not including environmental safeguards in trade policies with China, said Mickey Kantor, Clinton's chief trade negotiator and later Secretary of Commerce. Now a practicing attorney in Los Angeles with expertise in international relations, Kantor has been shuttling back and forth between the United States and China in one capacity or another for 20 years. He calls China's air "a disaster" and says that each time he visits "it's worse."
As federal regulators continue investigating why tank cars on three trains carrying North Dakota crude oil have exploded in the past eight months, energy experts say part of the problem might be that some producers are deliberately leaving too much propane in their product, making the oil riskier to transport by rail.
Sweet light crude from the Bakken Shale formation straddling North Dakota and Montana has long been known to be especially rich in volatile natural gas liquids like propane. Much of the oil is being shipped in railcars designed in the 1960s and identified in 1991 by the National Transportation Safety Board as having a dangerous penchant to rupture during derailments or other accidents.
While there's no way to completely eliminate natural gas liquids from crude, well operators are supposed to use separators at the wellhead to strip out methane, ethane, propane and butane before shipping the oil. A simple adjustment of the pressure setting on the separator allows operators to calibrate how much of these volatile gases are removed. The worry, according to a half-dozen industry experts who spoke with InsideClimate News, is that some producers are adjusting the pressure settings to leave in substantial amounts of natural gas liquids.
A new study has underscored just how little is known about the health consequences of the natural gas boom that began a decade ago, when advances in high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and directional drilling allowed companies to tap shale deposits across the United States.
"Despite broad public concern, no comprehensive population-based studies of the public health effects of [unconventional natural gas] operations exist," concluded the report published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Last week, InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel reported on the health data gap in the Eagle Ford Shale, where a lack of air monitoring and research is aggravated by a Texas regulatory system that often protects the gas and oil industry over the public.
Leading environmental organizations are pressing the White House not to bow to industry pressure to abandon the government's main method for measuring the future costs of global warming pollution and the benefits of new pollution controls.
At issue is an economic calculation known as the "social cost of carbon," or SCC, which estimates the cost in dollars that society will ultimately pay for the harm caused by each ton of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere.
That price tag helps policymakers decide how much economic sense it makes to impose costly emissions controls.
Oil, gas and other industry groups recently petitioned the White House Office of Management and Budget to prohibit the use of the cost-benefit tool, arguing that it was imprecise and needed additional peer review.
The sprawling hills of California's Altamont Pass are covered in thousands of wind turbines nearly three decades old. But many of those aging models are coming down as wind developers replace them with a smaller number of giant, more powerful turbines.
For Rick Koebbe, the switch spells opportunity.
Koebbe, president of PowerWorks, runs a sort of wind-turbine hospital from a manufacturing facility in the San Francisco Bay Area. The firm takes old, 100-kilowatt models that would otherwise head to the scrap yard and replaces their well-worn screws, gears, bearings and generators with gleaming new parts. The steel towers and blades are generally still in good shape, so they stay put. Koebbe said his second-hand turbines are an attractive bargain—they sell for as little as half the price of a fresh-off-the-assembly-line model.
"There are very few people doing this," he said.
PowerWorks is part of a niche global market that is emerging for used turbines. While earlier attempts by U.S. companies to sell the models at home have waned, demand appears to be picking up in developing countries and island nations—places where wind power costs far less than electricity from imported fossil fuels, but where ponying up millions of dollars for today's massive wind turbines doesn't make sense.
Two years ago, impatient advocates of the Keystone XL in Nebraska pushed through a series of hastily conceived laws to fast-track approval of the pipeline's route through that state.
Now it's clear that the legislative maneuvering has produced the exact opposite effect—threatening to delay a presidential decision even further and giving opponents more time to fight on.
On Feb. 19, Judge Stephanie Stacy of the Lancaster County District Court ruled that Gov. Dave Heineman's approval of the pipeline reroute by TransCanada, the project's builder, was executed under an unconstitutional statute he had signed into law in 2012, and "must be declared null and void."
The ruling has been seen as a slap at corporations' use of eminent domain powers to seize access to private land, and as a rejection of bills crafted to favor a single powerful special interest. But Judge Stacy's opinion makes clear that she did not intend it that way—nor as a verdict on the Keystone XL itself.
KARNES CITY, Texas—When Lynn Buehring leaves her doctor's office in San Antonio she makes sure her inhaler is on the seat beside her, then steers her red GMC pickup truck southeast on U.S. 181, toward her home on the South Texas prairie.
About 40 miles down the road, between Poth and Falls City, drilling rigs, crude oil storage tanks and flares trailing black smoke appear amid the mesquite, live oak and pecan trees. Depending on the speed and direction of the wind, a yellow-brown haze might stretch across the horizon, filling the car with pungent odors. Sometimes Buehring's eyes burn, her chest tightens and pain stabs at her temples. On those days, she touches her inhaler for reassurance.
In another five miles Buehring, 58, passes into Karnes County, where she was born and once figured on living out her retirement, surrounded by a calm broken only by an occasional thunderstorm.
Today, however, the ranch-style house she shares with her 66-year-old husband, Shelby, is at the epicenter of one of the nation's biggest and least-publicized oil and gas booms. With more than 50 wells drilled within 2.5 miles of their home, the days when the Buehrings could sit on the deck that Shelby built and lull away an afternoon are long gone. The fumes won't let them.
Known as the Eagle Ford Shale play, this 400-mile-long, 50-mile-wide bacchanal of oil and gas extraction stretches from Leon County, Texas, in the northeast to the Mexico border in the southwest.
KARNES CITY, Texas—In January 2011, with air quality worsening in Texas' booming oil and gas fields and the federal government beginning to take notice, state environmental regulators adopted rules to reduce harmful emissions.
The industry rebelled. So did the state legislature.
A few months later, the legislature overwhelmingly approved SB1134, a bill that effectively prevented the new regulations from being applied in the Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas, one of the fastest-growing oil shale plays in the nation. Since then, more than 2,400 air emissions permits have been issued in the Eagle Ford without additional safeguards that would have reduced the amounts of benzene, hydrogen sulfide, formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals that drift into the air breathed by 1.1 million people.
The Texas legislature's rush to protect the oil and gas industry reflects a culture in which politics and business are almost inseparable.
State Rep. Tom Craddick, who championed the House version of SB1134, owns stock in nine oil companies, five of which are active in the Eagle Ford. At the end of 2013, the stock was worth as much as $1.5 million. That year Craddick, and the partnerships and corporations he controls, received royalties of as much as $885,000 for mineral rights. For decades he had a lucrative partnership with Mustang Mud, an oilfield supply company. Corporations, along with unions, are banned from giving directly to state candidates in Texas, but since 2000, industry employees and related political action committees have contributed more than $800,000 to Craddick's campaigns, according to an analysis of data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.