Big Oil + Bad Air is an 18-month investigation by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity.
The latest installment tackles a little-covered issue: air emissions from the waste that America's drilling boom has created.
In the small town of Nordheim, Texas, residents are trying to stop a commercial oil and gas waste facility proposed for a large plot of land less than a mile away. They worry that the Texas wind will carry toxic air emissions into the town and across the campus of the local school.
The residents' effort is hampered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's decision in 1988 to classify most oil and gas waste as "non hazardous," even though it contains chemicals, including benzene, that are known to cause health problems. The industry lobbied hard for the non-hazardous classification, arguing that the cost of treating the waste as hazardous would be exorbitant.
Here's a look at how the exemption came about, and a recent effort to repeal it.
NORDHEIM, Texas—School Superintendent Kevin Wilson tugged at his oversized belt buckle and gestured toward a field less than a mile from Nordheim School, where 180 children attend kindergarten through 12th grade.
A commercial waste facility that will receive millions of barrels of toxic sludge from oil and gas production for disposal in enormous open-air pits is taking shape there, and Wilson worries that the ever-present Texas wind will carry traces of dangerous chemicals, including benzene, to the school.
"Many of these students live outside of where they could be exposed," said Wilson, a contemplative man with a soft Texas accent. "But we are busing them to the school, putting them in the direct path of something that could be harmful to them. It makes you think: Are we doing what's best for the students?"
Along with Nordheim's mayor and other angry residents, Wilson is trying to stop the 204-acre facility, but he faces an uphill battle. In Texas, as in most states, air emissions from oil and gas waste are among the least regulated, least monitored and least understood components in the extraction and production cycle. Although the wastewater and sludge can contain the same chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and other processes—chemicals known to affect human health—little has been done to measure waste emissions or determine their possible impact on nearby residents.
Perhaps nowhere in the world is the intersection between economic development and environmental responsibility more apparent than in India.
Like Africa, India needs to provide electricity to its impoverished villages in order to give its people opportunity to prosper. And India is already the third-highest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, behind only China and the United States. As its power supply grows, won't its greenhouse gas emissions?
Not necessarily. But it won't be easy to achieve development and decarbonization at the same time, a key to enlisting India in the global fight against the climate crisis.
So as President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi met for the first time in Washington, climate change was high on the agenda.
The two administrations highlighted several areas of agreement, in seven succinct paragraphs of an end-of-summit communique. Two sentences sufficed to outline the highlights of the meeting:
As oil and gas drilling spreads across the United States, scant attention has been paid to air emissions from the waste the boom has created.
As oil and gas drilling spreads across the United States, scant attention has been paid to air emissions from the waste the boom has created. InsideClimate News and The Center for Public Integrity examine these emissions in the latest installment in their 18-month investigation, Big Oil and Bad Air on the Texas Prairie.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is about to make a significant shift in the way it handles climate change.
FEMA will soon require states to examine the impacts of global warming on their communities as a condition for receiving federal disaster preparedness funding, according to draft guidelines released by the agency earlier this month.
The move bucks the 35-year-old agency's longstanding trend of reacting to disasters fueled by climate change rather than preparing for them in advance, said policy analyst Rob Moore of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The decision could save FEMA a lot of money in the long run. Every dollar spent on disaster mitigation saves four dollars in disaster recovery, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences. FEMA's budget has been stretched thin in recent years because of the increasing number of large-scale natural disasters, such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricanes Katrina and Irene.
"This decision by FEMA is the first time any federal agency has made the consideration of climate impacts a requirement for planning," said Moore, who is director of the NRDC's water and climate team. "Hopefully this is a sign of things to come and that other agencies will soon follow suit."
Environmental and community groups on Tuesday assailed federal approval of the Cove Point liquefied natural gas export project, arguing that regulators glossed over the climate change consequences. They vowed to challenge the decision through a regulatory appeal or in the courts.
"The groups that have been opposing this facility for more than a year have no intention of quitting and conceding this," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, one of several nonprofit groups fighting the Lusby, Md. LNG project. "There are legal steps before us next."
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the Cove Point LNG export project late Monday. It imposed 79 conditions on its construction that regulators said would mitigate potential adverse environmental impacts. Those conditions were based on an environmental assessment of the project, a less-rigorous review than what is called for in an environmental impact statement.
FERC's action allows Dominion Cove Point to liquefy and export as much as 5.75 million metric tons of U.S. gas per year from the terminal. The commission said project owner Dominion Resources Inc. proposes to complete construction in time to begin exports in June 2017. In separate actions, the Department of Energy conditionally approved gas exports from the terminal to any country, providing there are no U.S. trade prohibitions.
While the climate community was fixed on global climate negotiations unfolding at the UN last week, one news organization was focused on educating people about the local damage that's already resulted from the world's inaction.
On Sept. 22, the online newsroom The Daily Climate launched a Kickstarter to raise $25,628 for "Climate at Your Doorstep." The project aims to build an online community of scientists, journalists and members of the public to discuss how climate impacts are already affecting people around the country and the world.
Organized around the hashtag #climatedoorstep, people will post questions, photos and observations on social media. The hash-tagged content will feed into a Daily Climate web page, and a panel of eight appointed scientific experts will respond to comments and questions.
The panelists include academic scientists, such as Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University and Marshall Shepherd at the University of Georgia, and TV meteorologist Jim Gandy.
Dan Becker directs the Safe Climate Campaign, which advocates strong measures to fight global warming. James Gerstenzang, the campaign's editorial director, formerly covered the environment and the White House for the Los Angeles Times.
The Dumpster may be nearly full.
A World Meteorological Organization report has led scientists to fear that the Earth is losing its capacity to absorb heat-trapping gases, the Washington Post reported.
With greenhouse gas emissions rising, we don't know whether we can hold warming to two degrees Celsius, the goal of UN negotiations. But we can't if the United States ignores its critical leadership role.
For more than two decades, environmentalists fought for tough auto pollution standards. We won rules that will halve emissions and gasoline use—President Obama’s signature effort to fight climate change. They will deliver a new-car fleet that averages 54.5 mpg in 2025 and cut carbon dioxide pollution by six billion tons.
As the world faces an accelerating climate challenge, the mileage-and-emissions fight presents a hopeful lesson: The United States can cut fossil fuel emissions.
The fight that produced the biggest single step any nation has taken against global warming can guide us as we embark on the next critical measures: cutting power plant emissions and oil use.