WASHINGTON—By asking John Podesta to come to the White House as a special counselor at a time of turmoil and tough choices, President Obama has created an unusually close tie to an outspoken critic of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Canadian tar sands it would carry.
Podesta is a Washington policy insider who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff and whose Center for American Progress, or CAP, is an influential voice of liberalism. He has kept climate change high on his agenda for years and will continue to do so in the White House, reported The New York Times, which broke the news of his new assignment.
His arrival comes just as the decision on TransCanada's proposal to build a controversial pipeline to deliver tar sands crude from Alberta across the midsection of the United States approaches a critical turning point: the completion of a final environmental impact statement by the State Department. That will be followed by a crucial 90-day period in which Obama must decide whether the pipeline is in the U.S. national interest.
Jerry Skinner stands in his garden, looking into the distance at the edge of a forested mountain. Amid the lush shades of green, a muddy brown strip of earth stands out. It's the telltale sign of a buried pipeline.
"The pipelines are all around this property," Skinner said. "When I came here, the county had an allure that it doesn't have anymore. I'm not sure I want to live here anymore."
Skinner is the resident naturalist at the Woodbourne Forest and Wildlife Preserve, a 650-acre forestland that runs through parts of northeastern Pennsylvania that are experiencing intensive gas drilling because of a hotly contested method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Around his house, in the town of Dimock, gas wells have sprung up and a vast network of interconnected pipelines transports the gas underground. Skinner worries that as drilling activity heads deeper into forests and pipelines chop up large blocks of land, rare species native to Pennsylvania will be driven out.
In recent years, Pennsylvania has become ground zero for fracking, along with neighboring states that sit atop a large shale reserve known as the Marcellus Formation. Pennsylvania has more than 6,000 active gas wells, and Marcellus-related production has soared to 12 billion cubic feet per day, six times the production rate in 2009.
As Mayor Michael Bloomberg winds down his last month in office, his plan for protecting New York City from the threats of climate change has received an important boost. But there is still uncertainty over whether his successor, Bill de Blasio, has any interest in carrying forward Bloomberg's legacy on combating global warming.
New York last week was one of 33 cities worldwide selected to participate in the first round of the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities Network. The initiative grants cities undetermined portions of a $100 million pot of money for hiring a "chief resilience officer" and developing long-term resiliency plans to assess and tackle risks they face from climate and other disasters.
New York is ahead of the curve on both issues. It already has a director of resiliency in the Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, as well as a comprehensive strategy in its Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR)—a $19.5 billion plan unveiled in June in response to Superstorm Sandy. The plan includes 257 initiatives spread across the city, about one-quarter of which could be completed before Bloomberg leaves office.
As environmentalists began ratcheting up pressure against Canada's tar sands three years ago, one of the world's biggest strategic consulting firms was tapped to help the North American oil industry figure out how to handle the mounting activism. The resulting document, published online by WikiLeaks, offers another window into how oil and gas companies have been scrambling to deal with unrelenting opposition to their growth plans.
The document identifies nearly two-dozen environmental organizations leading the anti-oil sands movement and puts them into four categories: radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists—with how-to's for managing each. It also reveals that the worst-case scenario presented to industry about the movement's growing influence seems to have come to life.
The December 2010 presentation by Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor, a global intelligence firm based in Texas, mostly advised oil sands companies to ignore or limit reaction to the then-burgeoning tar sands opposition movement because "activists lack influence in politics." But there was a buried warning for industry under one scenario: Letting the movement grow unopposed may bring about "the most significant environmental campaign of the decade."
In a move that underscores Wall Street's growing unease over the business-as-usual strategy of the world's fossil fuel companies, Bloomberg L.P. unveiled a tool last week that helps investors quantify for the first time how climate policies and related risks might batter the earnings and stock prices of individual oil, coal and natural gas companies.
The company's new Carbon Risk Valuation Tool is available to more than 300,000 high-end traders, analysts and others who regularly pore over the stream of information that's available through Bloomberg's financial data and analysis service. The move significantly broadens and elevates the discussion of "stranded" or "unburnable" carbon reserves—expanding it beyond climate groups and sustainability investors to the desks of the world's most active and influential investors and traders.
"It demonstrates that there's demand for the information—more and more investors are interested in these issues," said Ryan Salmon, senior manager of the oil and gas program at Ceres, a nonprofit that organizes businesses, investors and public interest groups interested in climate change and other issues.
Michigan environmental officials are drafting a settlement with Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge, Inc. over a series of violations of the state's water laws that occurred earlier this year.
The settlement would keep Enbridge out of court while requiring the company to beef up its environmental practices when testing the new pipeline it is building to replace Line 6B, which ruptured in 2010.
That spill fouled nearly 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River with heavy crude oil from Canada's tar sands region. The cleanup effort, which is still on-going, has so far cost the company nearly $1 billion. Enbridge also was fined $3.7 million for breaking as many as two-dozen federal pipeline safety rules.
The 210-mile replacement line, which will run from Griffith, Ind. to Ontario, Canada, is almost a year behind schedule. The project will be further delayed because Enbridge recently decided to suspend work in three Michigan counties for the winter.
On March 29, 2013, ExxonMobil's 850-mile Pegasus oil pipeline split open and spilled 210,000 gallons of Canadian dilbit across an Arkansas suburb.
The oil spill was a wake-up call about aging pipelines and specifically about the Pegasus, a 65-year-old line that most people near the spill site didn't know existed. The pipe crisscrosses 13 Arkansas counties and 18 drinking water sources on its way to Texas—including the Maumelle watershed, a water source for 400,000 people in Central Arkansas. The rupture happened just eight pipeline miles from Maumelle.
In Part 2 of "Shattered by Oil"—an ICN co-production with This American Land—Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth McGowan talks with water utility officials, residents and others about the "what-ifs"—and about how they're working to get the pipeline relocated or shut down for good.
On March 29, 2013, an ExxonMobil oil pipeline that runs under a tiny residential neighborhood in Mayflower, Ark. split open and spilled 210,000 gallons of Canadian dilbit across backyards and streets and in waterways.
InsideClimate News spent months reporting the spill on the ground. In Part 1 of "Shattered by Oil"—an ICN co-production with This American Land—Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth McGowan returns to Mayflower, Ark., to explore the fate of residents who are living with the effects of the oil disaster and trying to piece together their lives.
American property owners battling to stop energy companies from snaking oil pipelines across their lands need only look to Mayflower, Ark., for a window into what can go wrong when pipelines burst in backyards.
Eight months after an ExxonMobil pipeline leaked Canadian oil across an Arkansas subdivision, a cloud of uncertainty looms large over the young families, singles and retirees who chose the affordable, decade-old Northwoods neighborhood to establish roots. Nearly half of them have put their houses up for sale in search of a fresh start they never wanted.
"The area is blanketed with 'For Sale' signs," said April Lane, a community health advocate who has worked with the spill victims. Twenty-nine of the development's 62 homes have either been sold to Exxon under its buy-out program or are on the open market.
The smoldering debate over whether coal has a future in a low-carbon world has flared up with new intensity in Warsaw, the site of this month's annual United Nations negotiations toward a global climate treaty.
With world coal use growing at a staggering pace, top climate diplomats have used the global stage to take a much more aggressive stance against the coal industry. They are demanding that companies move quickly to leverage technology to capture and bury their planet-heating emissions or risk putting the world on a dangerous and irreversible path.
In a stern address to the World Coal Association on the sidelines of the summit, Christiana Figueres, head of the UN's Climate Change Secretariat, made several demands of industry: leave "most existing reserves in the ground," shut down the dirtiest coal-fired facilities and use carbon capture and storage (CCS) on "new plants, even the most efficient."