The ongoing U.S. oil boom has flooded the Gulf Coast with domestic crude to levels not seen in decades, creating a homegrown oil glut in the nation's refining center just as the Obama Administration prepares to rule on a pipeline that would add a torrent of heavy Canadian crude to the same region.
It's just the latest in a string of developments that have surprised and roiled oil markets since 2009, when the combination of falling fuel demand and an unexpected surge in U.S. oil and natural gas production began destroying widely held assumptions about the nation’s need for imports.
"U.S. oil production is at a point that is changing the entire globe, and this is just more evidence that the U.S. producers are far exceeding anybody’s expectations," said Phil Flynn, senior oil analyst at Price Futures Group. "This is part and parcel of the big story—the U.S. energy boom."
Conditions have changed so radically that U.S. refiners are now exporting record amounts of fuel to overseas customers, and there’s a parade of tankers delivering Texas oil to refineries on the east coast of Canada. As these and other surprising trends unfold, it's becoming increasingly clear that the controversial Canadian oil import pipeline, the Keystone XL, is not an urgently needed link.
Republican state legislators in Wisconsin want to make it easier for companies to mine the "frac sand" under the state's farmland and forests and head off more stringent regulation on the booming and controversial industry.
The push sets up a showdown with local communities that are fighting to slow the pace of industrial frac sand mining, at least until its health and environmental effects are studied. And it propels Wisconsin—which has no natural gas or a single drilling rig—into the national fight over how to regulate fracking and related industries.
In three short years, dozens of small towns on Wisconsin's western edge have become an epicenter for mining silica sand, a necessary ingredient in the fracking process that has been implicated in thousands of cases of silicosis, a lung disease. It can take up to 10,000 tons of sand to frack a single well during its lifetime, and there are roughly 50 new wells being drilled in the United States every day.
When Alberta Premier Alison Redford came to Washington this year to urge approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, she argued that producing tar sands oil generates much less global warming pollution today than it did two decades ago.
It would be wrong, Redford reasoned, for the U.S. to block the project on climate change grounds.
But a new Canadian government report on the country's greenhouse gas emissions tells a different story. The federal data reveal that the carbon dioxide emissions associated with a barrel of tar sands bitumen have been rising, not falling, in recent years—a trend that may well continue.
The report got scant attention in the United States, but its findings could spell trouble for Canada as government leaders lobby the Obama administration to approve the Keystone, intended to carry growing supplies of tar sands crude to refineries in Texas.
The devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy a year ago today thrust the issue of climate change into the center of the presidential campaign and to the top of the national political agenda.
And yet in the mayoral race for New York City, one of the epicenters of the tragedy, talk of climate is practically nowhere to be heard.
In nearly all of the mayoral debates and forums held this year, the issues of global warming and Superstorm Sandy have not come up. That is despite New York's struggles to recover from the storm, the city's vulnerability to future climate disasters and its reputation as a global warming leader under Michael Bloomberg.
Three years ago, Franke James was a little-known artist who found herself blacklisted by the Canadian government for making art that lambasted the rapidly expanding tar sands. Infuriated and emboldened by the censure, James churned out a slew of pieces criticizing the government, published a book and in the process became one of Canada's most outspoken environmental activists.
Now, the Toronto resident is embarking on a new mission. She wants to raise awareness in the United States about what she believes are Prime Minister Stephen Harper's continuing undemocratic tactics to squash opposition to his oil agenda.
In doing so, she hopes to help persuade the Obama administration to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. The contentious project would carry 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands crude from Alberta to Texas and open a gateway for the flow of the dirtier grade of oil to export markets abroad. A decision is expected next year.
A well-heeled coalition of investors is asking top fossil fuel companies to calculate the risks of plowing billions into new oil, gas and coal projects. They fear that carbon emission limits and slowing demand will turn them into bad investments that leave investors worse off.
The requests, contained in letters sent to 45 companies last month, are part of an initiative aimed at persuading oil producers and others to rein in their quest to stockpile more carbon energy. They hope to do so by tapping into growing concerns that climate policies and market factors could prevent companies from selling all of their reserves of fossil fuels, which are still growing fast.
Companies with large amounts of such "unburnable" carbon resources could see their stock prices slashed, clobbering the value of investment portfolios that hold the shares. By one estimate, as much as 30 percent of the value of some of the world’s stock exchanges is in proven fossil reserves.
When ozone pollution skyrocketed in the tiny town of Boulder, Wyo., in 2008, it was relatively easy to identify the culprit as oil and gas drilling, the only major industry in the rural area.
Today, a similar situation in San Antonio, Texas, will be more difficult to resolve. The city has violated federal ozone standards dozens of times since 2008, but with so much industrial activity in and around the city—including the Eagle Ford shale drilling boom south of San Antonio—local officials are waiting for the results of a state-funded study to pinpoint the source of the pollution.
San Antonio's ozone problem is so serious that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could designate the city a nonattainment area for ozone, a hazardous air pollutant that can cause serious respiratory problems. If that happens, the growing city would likely be saddled with additional air quality regulations, including stricter pollution controls on vehicles and industrial plants.
In the six months since an ExxonMobil pipeline unleashed Canadian oil in an Arkansas neighborhood, nearby residents have had much to endure—the muck and stench of heavy crude, lengthy evacuations, sickness and economic loss.
They've also been in the national spotlight, as the upheaval in tiny Mayflower, Ark., has come to symbolize the risks of aging and overlooked oil pipelines, especially when they're hundreds of miles long and carrying tar sands crude. From Illinois through Texas, many people who live along the pipeline's route are now worrying about whether or when the ruptured line will resume pumping oil through 858 miles of fields, waterways, cities and suburban backyards.
"I have no say, and I have no idea what's going to happen," said Mayflower resident Ann Jarrell, whose home is not far from where the Pegasus pipeline split open on March 29. "That's the worst part—the not knowing."
That nagging uncertainty, however, is likely to persist for many more months.
An environmental organization with a $350 million war chest, a giant protest vessel, 28 activists and a rubber raft have succeeded in drawing Russian President Vladimir V. Putin into a very public global dispute.
Attention is now focused on the Greenpeace activists—who were arrested last month by Coast Guard agents for trying to hang a protest banner on an Arctic Ocean oil platform—and whether they will languish in prison for up to 15 years each on dubious piracy charges.
"They are obviously not pirates," Putin said in a speech to the International Arctic Forum last month. Yet Russian authorities so far seem to be throwing the book at the activists as international outrage grows to secure their freedom. Protests have been held at Russian consulates in about a half dozen cities worldwide to release the activists.
While the unfolding drama is now focused on issues of civil disobedience and human rights, underneath the uproar is a tangle of issues around Arctic drilling that Greenpeace has been campaigning to address for many years. And now it has secured the world's attention and a chance to spark a discussion—and the stakes are high.
In the tiny hamlet of Hairy Hill, Alberta, a highly energy-efficient grain-fed distillery does what it can to offset some of the greenhouse gas emissions spewed by the province's dirtier industries—mainly the tar sands.
The upstart company called Growing Power Hairy Hill turns grain, manure and household waste into liquid fuel and electricity while emitting essentially no greenhouse gases. It says it is Canada's first "integrated biorefinery."
Hairy Hill is one small gear in Canada's carbon-control strategy as the nation struggles to rein in its soaring greenhouse gas emissions. And it is one among more than four dozen government-funded projects that officials hope will help persuade President Obama to approve the Keystone XL, the cross-border pipeline that has been immobilized for years as the Obama administration considers its environmental and climate consequences.
But despite its low carbon footprint, the emissions credits the plant earns under Alberta's complex carbon offsetting scheme are a drop in the bucket compared to what the Keystone would add to the atmosphere.