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Maine Port Votes to Block Tar Sands Exports. But Will It Matter?

South Portland’s Clear Skies Ordinance may block pipeline plan, but industry vows political and legal fight and may have other options.

Jul 28, 2014

Environmentalists claimed victory last week when a small coastal town in Maine voted to block heavy crude exports from its harbor. The South Portland city council's decision is the result a long-running campaign by green groups to prevent the flow of oil from Canadian tar sands through a pipeline to the port.

While petroleum industry groups have vowed a political and legal fight to overturn the town's ban, securities analysts dismissed the significance of the measure, known as the Clear Skies Ordinance, altogether. They argued that there are other routes to get the oil to the East Coast.

"It is a hollow victory, almost meaningless," said David McColl, an analyst who focuses on oil sands and pipelines for the investment research company Morningstar.

Obama's Safer Oil Train Plan Faces Rulemaking Hurdles

It could take more than three years to fully halt the shipment of the most flammable liquids in the most dangerous rail cars.

Jul 25, 2014

The Obama Administration's proposal Wednesday for making oil-laden railcars safer runs 203 pages and includes a host of new rules for carrying flammable fuels by train—but they come with caveats.

The most important caveat is that they're not final regulations, and it's not uncommon for proposed safety requirements to get weakened and postponed following objections from the industries involved.

What comes next is a 60-day period for accepting comments from the public and the various industries that will be affected by the Department of Transportation's proposed rules. Then the government has to issue the final versions and give the industries time to comply. It could take more than three years to fully halt the shipment of the most flammable liquids in the most dangerous railcars.

The government's "comprehensive rulemaking proposal" also leaves two critical elements unsettled. The DOT offers three different safety standards for making new oil railcars stronger—and asks for public comments on which one should prevail. The agency also offers several variations on rail speed limits, leaving that issue unresolved.

Colorado: Judge Strikes Down Town's Fracking Ban

Sixty percent of Longmont, Colo. voters favored the ban in a 2012 ballot measure. Activists say they will appeal.

Jul 25, 2014

A Colorado court has ruled that the city of Longmont's ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is invalid.

The Boulder suburb—and the affiliated local and environmental groups that later joined the case—now have 44 days to appeal the decision. During that time, fracking will be prohibited across Longmont's 22 square miles.

The city has not yet decided whether to appeal. However, the activist groups supporting the ban will appeal, according to their attorney from the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law.

Kaye Fissinger, a Longmont resident who had worked on the town's frack-ban campaign, previously told InsideClimate News: "We are going to take it all the way to the [state] Supreme Court."

Longmont, a middle-class community of 86,000, is one of the first Colorado cities to push back against the controversial practice of oil and gas extraction that has becoming increasing popular in the state, and nationwide. Around 60 percent of the voters favored the ban in a November 2012 ballot measure. The town has already spent more than $61,000 in legal fees to protect the ban.

Runaround: Three Months of Correspondence With the EPA

EPA's non-responsiveness in the Texas air pollution story is troubling because it keeps taxpayers in the dark about a critical issue.

By Lisa Song and Jim Morris

Jul 24, 2014

For more than a year, InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity have been reporting on air pollution caused by the fracking boom in the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas. Despite hundreds of complaints from residents, many of them about noxious air emissions, we discovered that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution and rarely fines companies for breaking emission laws. On our 11 trips to Texas we encountered many residents who asked what seemed to be a reasonable question: If a state regulatory agency—in this case the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality—isn't doing much to curb the industry's air pollution, why isn't the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepping in? The EPA, after all, is ultimately responsible for enforcing the federal Clean Air Act.

In February, after we published our first stories on the Eagle Ford, we began trying to answer that question by seeking on-the-record interviews with EPA officials in Washington, D.C., and Texas. Five months later, no such interviews have been granted.

Instead, EPA press officers have told us to put our questions in writing, an increasingly common response from federal agencies under the Obama administration. The process usually goes like this: A journalist calls the press office to schedule an interview but instead is told to submit written questions. Once these are in, a press officer gets answers from scientists or other officials and then crafts a written response. In most cases, nobody involved in the process—not even the EPA press officers—will agree to be quoted by name.

New Data on Extreme Temperatures Underscore Planet's Warming Trend, Scientists Say

'It is more often the climate extremes that noticeably impact society, infrastructure, and ecosystems,' a new report warns.

Jul 23, 2014

This past June was the warmest ever recorded by scientists since record keeping began in the 19th century. The average surface temperature of the earth was 61.2 degrees Fahrenheit, up 1.3 degrees from the 20th century's typical June.

May 2014 set a comparable new record. That month, too, the planet's average surface temperature was about 1.3 degrees above the normal warmth of May.

It's reasonable to expect that the whole year may end up with the warmest surface temperatures ever recorded—especially if El Niño, the periodic shifting of warm waters in the Pacific now thought to be incipient, develops robustly.

On the face of it, data like this, reported Monday by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, might seem powerful enough evidence that climate change has indeed arrived, as is widely accepted by mainstream scientists.

But lately, climate scientists have felt the need to explore the emerging evidence in more sophisticated ways.



Families Sick From Fracking Exposure Turn to Concerned Scientists

Instead of waiting years for studies, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project is using best available science to help people with ailments.

Jul 22, 2014

This report is part of a joint project by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity.

Like people in other regions transformed by the shale energy boom, residents of Washington County, Pennsylvania have complained of headaches, nosebleeds and skin rashes. But because there are no comprehensive studies about the health impacts of natural gas drilling, it's hard to determine if their problems are linked to the gas wells and other production facilities that have sprung up around them.

A group of scientists from Pennsylvania and neighboring states have stepped in to fill this gap by forming a nonprofit—apparently the first of its kind in the United States—that provides free health consultations to local families near drilling sites. Instead of waiting years or even decades for long-term studies to emerge, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP) is using the best available science to help people deal with their ailments.

"As far as unconventional natural gas drilling goes, we are the public health service of the United States right now," said Michael Kelly, the media liaison for the EHP.

David Brown, a toxicologist and the group's co-founder, said government agencies haven't done enough to study, analyze and mitigate the risks people face from drilling.

Small Colorado Town Picks Big-Time Fight Over Fracking

Sixty percent of the people of Longmont voted to ban fracking, and they're being told by industry and state regulators they can't do that.

Jul 22, 2014

When the people of Longmont voted in 2012 to ban fracking in their Colorado community, they knew it would put them in the cross hairs of powerful oil and gas interests.

The City Council had already been sued by the industry's trade group as well as the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state's oil and gas regulator, for trying to restrict the controversial drilling technique.

How a Sudden Flood of Oil Money Has Transformed North Dakota

The clout and swagger of the oil companies in politics has unsettled this traditionally amicable and moderate state of just 725,000 people.

By Nicholas Kusnetz

Jul 21, 2014

This report is part of a joint project by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News.

BISMARCK, N.D.— North Dakota's Heritage Center makes for a jarring sight in this Midwestern prairie capital. The newly-expanded museum consists of four interlocking cubes of stone, steel and glass, a gleaming architectural statement poking out of the otherwise drab Capitol grounds. Each cube features a gallery devoted to an era of North Dakota’s history, but the state’s present is everywhere.

The legislature approved the dramatic $52 million expansion in 2009, but required the museum to come up with $12 million of that to supplement state money, and more than half has come from energy companies—including a $1.8 million gift from Continental Resources Inc. that put its name on one of the galleries. The gifts have "given us a chance to do some things that we've never really had a chance to do," said Merl Paaverud, director of the State Historical Society.

Oil development has transformed this state to the point where it's hard to find a place or person that hasn't been touched by the boom. Energy companies have drilled more than 8,000 wells into western North Dakota's rugged prairie since the beginning of 2010, quadrupling the state's oil production. From July 2011 through June 2013, the state collected $4 billion in oil taxes, and is expecting a $1 billion surplus for the current biennium, not including an oil-funded sovereign wealth fund that will approach a balance of $3 billion. North Dakota is in the uncommon position of facing a labor shortage, spurring a state-run campaign to attract workers, paid for in part by Hess Corp.

In addition to the tax revenue they've brought, the oil companies have showered the state with additional money—new millions for universities, museums, hospitals and other charitable causes. They've also given hundreds of thousands to politicians, making the sector the largest single source of those contributions. The oil industry is the top contributor to Gov. Jack Dalrymple, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, and gave money in all but 10 of the 75 legislative races held in 2012.

"I don't think most people know how pervasive the influence of the oil industry is in the Capitol," said Jim Fuglie, a former state tourism director and former head of the state Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party. "Nothing this big has happened since homestead days. This is a game changer for North Dakota."

U.S. Ranks Near Bottom on Energy Efficiency; Germany Tops List

Overall dismal report shows the U.S. outperformed only three of the world's largest economies on energy efficiency—Russia, Brazil and Mexico.

Jul 18, 2014

Germany leads the world in harnessing the benefits of energy efficiency, followed by Italy, the European Union, China and France, according to a new ranking of the world's 16 largest economies. The United States was near the bottom, placing 13th.

'Saltwater' From North Dakota Fracking Spill Is Not What's Found in the Ocean

The salty drilling waste is said to contain heavy metals in concentrations that might not meet drinking water standards, as well as radioactive material.

Jul 16, 2014

 In early July, a million gallons of salty drilling waste spilled from a pipeline onto a steep hillside in western North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation. The waste—a byproduct of oil and gas production—has now reached a tributary of Lake Sakakawea, which provides drinking water to the reservation.

The oil industry called the accident a "saltwater" spill. But the liquid that entered the lake bears little resemblance to what's found in the ocean.

The industry's wastewater is five to eight times saltier than seawater, said Bill Kappel, a hydrogeologist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey. It's salty enough to sting the human tongue, and contains heavy metals in concentrations that might not meet drinking water standards. The briny mix can also include radioactive material. Heavy metals and radioactive materials are toxic at certain concentrations.

"You don't want to be drinking this stuff," Kappel said.