Sometime before April 7, ExxonMobil will finally tell regulators and the public why its 1940s-era Pegasus oil pipeline split open in Mayflower, Ark. last March, spilling thick Canadian dilbit into a neighborhood and nearby cove.
Will Exxon just send out a statement announcing its conclusions about the cause or causes of the Pegasus spill? Or will it also make public the details and supporting evidence behind its determination? If Exxon doesn’t provide those details, will they be made available by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates most U.S. pipelines?
Actions to date aren’t encouraging, according to some pipeline experts and Arkansas officials. "It's been a constant process of trying to get information, trying to get data, trying to evaluate the tools and technology and processes that Exxon uses to ensure the integrity and safety of this pipeline," said John Tynan former watershed protection manager for Central Arkansas Water (CAW) and now its director of public affairs.
A State Department contractor for the Keystone XL that has been under attack for alleged conflicts of interest has withdrawn from contract negotiations to review a lesser-known but still controversial tar sands pipeline: Enbridge's Alberta Clipper.
The unusual move has led some legal and industry experts to question whether public and political pressure against the company might have played a role in the decision. "There's no doubt it is in the back of our minds," said David McColl, an energy analyst for Morningstar, an investment research company, who focuses on Enbridge. Federal contracts for major projects can be lucrative—potentially worth into the millions, depending on the scope and scale of the work and the agency involved—and are often the bread-and-butter of consulting firms' business.
On March 15, 2013, the State Department announced it had chosen ICF International, a technology and policy consulting group based in Fairfax, Va., to carry out the environmental review of Enbridge's proposed expansion of the Alberta Clipper oil pipeline to transport 880,000 barrels a day from Canada to Wisconsin.
The southern leg of ExxonMobil's idled Pegasus oil pipeline, a segment regulators say is susceptible to seam ruptures, might be restarted as early as this week. Residents along the pipeline and others, however, have no idea whether—or how—the pipeline has been made safe because the information is not publicly available.
"We're all still in the dark," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Bellingham, Wash.
In a Jan. 31 letter seeking clearance to reopen the 63-year-old Pegasus southern section, Exxon told the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) that it "intends to initiate restart activities no later than March 28, 2014." A copy of the two-page letter was provided to InsideClimate News by PHMSA, but it is one of many important documents that have not been publicly released or made available on the agency website dedicated to Pegasus updates. One of those key documents, the restart plan for the southern leg, is still being withheld.
"I think it's terrible that there's something going on that affects people's lives that you really can't get any information about," said Barbara Lawrence, who said the Pegasus passes under the Richland-Chambers Reservoir, where she lives on the south shore. "Information is very hard to come by ... if you're just an average person going about your life, you know nothing [about the Pegasus]. But you should know about it, because it affects you."
Colorado's tough, new air pollution rules for the oil and gas industry were approved only a month ago but they're already making an impact in Texas, where lawmakers and energy companies have long resisted tightening air standards.
Several companies have approached the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and expressed interest in discussing whether Colorado's rules make sense for Texas, according to Jim Marston, a vice president at EDF. Marston didn't name the companies.
"The companies are often ahead of the Texas state government," said Marston, who works in the group's Austin office. "If some important industry leaders like the idea, it might move state government."
EDF played a leading role among the environmental organizations that helped craft the Colorado rules. Many energy companies also participated in the rule-making process, but only four of them—Anadarko Petroleum Corp., DCP Midstream, Encana Corp. and Noble Energy, Inc.—fully support the new regulations.
America's electric cars are better for the environment, but they share a dirty little secret.
The Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster all use a super greenhouse gas known as HFC 134a as the refrigerant for their air conditioners. The liquid coolant is so potent that when it leaks into the atmosphere it traps 1,400 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time horizon.
For automakers and advocates of green transportation, it poses an uncomfortable truth: Vehicles touted as a solution to climate change carry a hairspray-sized canister loaded with a chemical that significantly contributes to warming of the earth's climate. As much as half of current HFC emissions, a small but fast-growing source of global warming pollution, come from leaks out of the air conditioners in cars.
Already a number of Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac gas-powered cars use an alternative climate-friendlier coolant called HFO 1234yf, as carmakers confront growing pressure from environmentalists and as regulations are developed by governments. Climate experts say it's clear that all electric automakers should get on board soon. "It makes sense for electric vehicles to use [alternatives], and to reduce their overall global warming potential," said Don Anair, deputy director of the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group.
But among 16 EV models on America's roads, only two—Chevy's newest model of its all-electric Spark and the leaseable Honda Fit—have ditched the super greenhouse gas HFC 134a for the climate safe alternative so far.
Environmentalists who spent a month analyzing public comments on the Keystone XL linked more than half the pro-pipeline comments they examined to people in the oil industry. As the U.S. State Department considers whether to approve the project, the activists want those remarks to carry less weight than those written by people without a vested interest in the outcome.
Out of a random sample of more than 1,000 comments in support of the Keystone, the environmentalists connected about 60 percent of the commenters' names to oil and pipeline company employees, investors, lobbyists, attorneys and others working for the industry—all of whom could potentially benefit from the construction of the pipeline, the activists said. If built, the pipeline would carry diluted bitumen from Canada's tar sands region to the Texas Gulf Coast.
"We don't want to accuse anyone of wrongdoing ... but to me this raises a red flag," said Terra Friedrichs, a volunteer at the environmental group 350MA who led the analysis. 350MA is a Massachusetts grassroots organization that advocates for sustainable energy. It often collaborates with, but is not affiliated with the national group 350.org.
Regulations.gov, the website used to collect public comments, doesn't require people to disclose their names, nationalities, occupations or financial interests.
Florida, the most vulnerable state in the country to climate change, faces a key election this November that could have significant ramifications for its ability to cope with the challenge of rising seas and intensifying coastal storms.
If incumbent Tea Party-aligned Rick Scott is reelected governor, it is expected to mean four more years of inaction on global warming. His likely opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist, a former governor of Florida, is committed to aggressive climate action. Environmental groups, scientists and policy experts say that if Crist or another climate hawk wins, it would give the state at least a shot at staving off the worst effects of global warming.
"It is critically important that the governor of Florida take action on climate change," said Frank Jackalone, senior organizing manager of the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club. "Even if the [average] forecasts for sea level rise come true, much of the state will be in trouble, areas will be wiped out and communities evacuated."
Florida is widely seen as America's ground zero for global warming because the majority of its population and economy is concentrated along low-elevation oceanfront.
New York regulators are requiring the state's biggest electric utility to armor the grid against all sorts of sweeping global warming impacts that could black out the nation's financial capital and disrupt services like cell phone networks and water and gasoline supplies.
The Feb. 20 ruling mandates Con Edison to carry out an immediate and comprehensive assessment of climate risks to its power grid, a lifeline of New York's economy. The utility must factor the data into all of its long-term planning, construction and budget decisions—and also use new flood maps that put much more of New York in vulnerable flood zones.
The ruling by the New York Public Service Commission is "a recognition that something has to be done to make the system withstand what appears to be the 'new normal,'" said Robert Thormeyer, a spokesman for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) who was not involved in the New York case. "They're taking a holistic approach to looking at how we can fit [climate change] into our everyday planning."
As the nation charges toward energy independence, many Americans learned an important lesson this winter: Just because the country is awash in domestic fuel doesn't mean it will be there when they need it most.
From December into February, when winter temperatures plummeted to record lows across much of the country, residents in the Midwest and Northeast struggled to stay warm amid propane shortages and price spikes. Propane, also known as autogas or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), is vital because it heats more than six million homes, fuels equipment and vehicle fleets, and is instrumental on farms for drying grain for storage and keeping livestock-filled barns warm in the winter.
This happened despite several years in a row of soaring domestic propane production—calling into question the commonly held belief that an abundance of American-made energy will automatically provide energy security and lower fuel prices for consumers. The nation's supply of propane—a byproduct of natural gas drilling, oil drilling and oil refining—has been surging alongside the oil and natural gas being pulled from shale formations from North Dakota to Texas and from Ohio to New York.
A Ukrainian youth climate activist was reportedly apprehended by Russian military forces on Sunday, Mar. 9, while trying to enter Crimea, the autonomous Ukrainian republic that has been under siege by Russia since late last month.
Kateryna Butko, 25, is involved with AutoMaidan, a movement within the EuroMaidan that is seeking a pro-European Union government to replace ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was closely aligned with Russia.
Butko has been a vocal proponent of climate action in Eastern Europe and is a volunteer member of 350.org, a climate advocacy group started by activist Bill McKibben that has attracted young people around the world.
She attended several climate meetings and workshops in Europe and recently helped organize a youth forum on global warming in Ukraine. According to information provided by AutoMaidan, Butko was last seen on Sunday by witnesses who saw her get detained by "men in unmarked military uniforms" in the town of Armiansk on the border between Crimea and mainland Ukraine.