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U.S. OKs Export of Processed Condensate, Not Oil. Why the Distinction Matters

Decision by the Commerce Department to allow two companies to export an ultra-light hydrocarbon confims existing policy. Or does it?

Jun 26, 2014

Forget that headline you saw yesterday, and the frenzy that followed it, about how U.S. companies are about to export domestic crude oil for the first time since the 1970s. That's not happening—at least not yet.

"It was a total exaggeration," said Fadel Gheit, senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer and Co. "People jumped to the conclusion that this is going to be the first step in the long-awaited lifting of the [oil] export ban."



Frac Sand Boom: South Dakota Is Latest State to Try to Cash In

A fledgling frac sand company plans to build the state's first silica mine under a sprawling 960-acre site in the state's largest forest, Black Hills.

Jun 26, 2014

Oil and gas drillers are salivating over silica sand, a key ingredient in fracking operations, and their increasing demand for the stuff has the nation's industrial sand operators seeing green.

Now, a new player—and an unlikely one—is on the horizon: South Dakota is poised to cash in on the frac sand boom.

South Dakota Proppants, LLC, a fledgling frac sand company, plans to build the state's first silica mine under a sprawling 960-acre site in the state's largest forest, Black Hills.

Silica sand is incredibly strong and round, the best material to blast down drilling wells to open bedrock and release oil and gas. One well can use up to 10,000 tons of frac sand during its lifespan.

The demand for U.S. silica is at an all-time high, and there's no end in sight. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the sand and gravel industry was worth $2.6 billion in 2013, up from about $830 million in 2009—and frac sand drove that growth. Meanwhile, the price of a ton of sand has dramatically increased, from approximately $35 to $50. The USGS data are voluntarily submitted by companies and may underestimate the industry's magnitude.

The proposed mega-facility, a mine, processing and transport hub rolled into one, is strategically located within 300 miles of three major oil- and gas-rich shale rock formations: North Dakota’s Bakken, Colorado's Niobrara and Wyoming's Powder River Basin. If built, the facility will make South Dakota the latest state with marginal oil and gas reserves to profit from the nation's hydraulic fracturing drilling boom.

Calif. Earmarks a Quarter of Its Cap-and-Trade Riches for Environmental Justice

This year, $230 million from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund will go to programs for low-income and minority people.

Jun 25, 2014

One-quarter of the $872 million generated by California's 18-month-old cap-and-trade scheme will go to housing and public transit programs for poor and minority communities this year, according to the recently approved state budget. The decision caps a long fight by environmental justice advocates over how much of the state's carbon proceeds should be distributed to disadvantaged people, who are more likely to live near power plants and suffer disproportionately from toxic air pollution.

"These greenhouse gas emissions are being generated in the communities that have the highest pollution," said Mari Rose Taruc, state organizing director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, a nonprofit in Oakland that advocates for environmental justice. "We've been working on these climate investments for low-income communities of color for over five years."

By 2020, the program could funnel some $8 billion a year into the state's Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, and California lawmakers have been battling for years over how that money should be spent. Should it be used only to promote renewable energy and other low-carbon programs? Or should the state use some of the money for other purposes?

Bipartisan Leaders Make Economic Case for Fighting Climate Change

'Our findings show that if we continue on our current path many regions of the U.S. face the prospect of serious economic effects from climate change.'

Jun 24, 2014

Businesses and governments around the country should begin now to prepare for a future in which precious timber is lost to ground fire, factory equipment is inundated or swept away by storms and flood, and it's impossible to work outside on many days because of the heat.

All of these ill effects of climate change will do serious harm to the national economy, said a new report, Risky Business, issued on Tuesday. As a result, companies and governments should start investing now in measures to both stave off the worst effects of climate and to adapt to them—or risk paying an astronomical price tag later.

The report characterized itself as "a climate risk assessment for the United States."

It was produced by a bipartisan group of business and government leaders led by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, Henry Paulson, the former U.S secretary of the treasury, and Thomas Steyer, a political financier and climate activist who is the retired founder of the Farallon capital management group.



Q&A: Top Pipeline Safety Advocate on His 15-Year 'Bambi vs. Godzilla' Fight

'We’re really the only national group that focuses on pipeline safety. So how does Bambi stay alive in that environment?'

Jun 24, 2014
Carl Weimer speaking at the Pipeline Safety Trust's 2012 annual conference.

Fifteen years ago this month, gasoline from a burst pipeline spilled into a Bellingham, Wash. creek and exploded, killing three boys: ten-year-olds Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King, and 18-year-old Liam Wood. The tragedy opened the nation's eyes to dangers lurking in the labyrinth of pipelines underground and spurred Bellingham residents to launch SAFE Bellingham, a group that would later morph into America's first pipeline safety watchdog.

Front and center in the leadership of SAFE Bellingham was Carl Weimer. By 2003, when the Justice Department reached a settlement with Olympic Pipeline, Weimer had become so informed and passionate about pipeline safety that he was picked to lead the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nationally focused organization established with a $4 million endowment from the settlement.

At the time, the Trust's role in challenging the powerful oil and gas industry was described as "Bambi taking on Godzilla."

More than a decade later, the tiny Bellingham-based group still faces an uphill fight. But its influence is outsized and unmatched—especially as pipeline concerns move into the mainstream, partly due to the raging debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Weimer is now the go-to person to represent the public during Congressional hearings, industry conferences and meetings with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

In an extensive interview, Weimer spoke with InsideClimate News about the 15-year anniversary of the Bellingham tragedy and his group's challenges and successes. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

First Nations Being Courted to Back Tar Sands Refinery Projects on Their Land

Companies behind refining proposals are trying hard to avoid the mistakes Enbridge made on Northern Gateway pipeline—but an uphill fight awaits.

Jun 23, 2014

Despite last week's approval from the Canadian government, uncertainty still dogs Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline largely because of a vow from key aboriginal communities to block it.

Others in the oil industry are trying hard to avoid the mistakes Enbridge made when it comes to approaching Canada's powerful First Nations about projects that could contaminate their lands and waterways.

Pacific Future Energy Corp.'s recent refinery proposal is the latest example.

Earlier this month, the company unveiled plans for a $10 billion refinery in British Columbia that would convert Alberta's tar sands bitumen into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for export to Asia and other markets. Pacific Future Energy pledged to form a "full partnership" with affected First Nations, provide permanent jobs and build the "greenest refinery in the world."

Minnesota Town Caught in 'Frac Sand' Mining Rush Wants Answers on Pollution

Residents of Winona, Minn., a frac sand transportation hub, say data from the state pollution control agency is months overdue.

Jun 23, 2014

How much dangerous dust is being kicked into the air from the mounds of frac sand hauled daily across the southern Minnesota town of Winona?

Looking for answers, the community got the state to install in January a pollution monitor for crystalline silica, or frac sand—the first in Minnesota not financed by industry. Located on a building above a major intersection for sand trucks bound for fracking fields, it's been collecting data ever since.

The state Pollution Control Agency (PCA) said the data would be released in March.

But because of delays in finding a lab to process all of it, Winonans aren't any closer to answering their question.

Why EPA Expects Its New Carbon Rule to Shrink Your Electric Bill

Although the price of electricity very well might rise, even significantly in some places, your monthly bill won't.

Jun 20, 2014

When Gina McCarthy introduced the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to crack down on carbon pollution from existing power plants, she hammered at one assertion about the price consumers can expect to pay.

"Critics claim that your energy bills will skyrocket. They're wrong," she said. "Should I say that again? They're wrong."

It's a question at the heart of the debate over the proposed rules, with opponents insisting that the cost of producing electricity will be driven sharply higher as electric companies shift away from cheap, dirty coal. And those costs, they say, will be passed along to consumers.

As it turns out, McCarthy was choosing her words carefully. She didn't say the price of electricity would not rise. She said your monthly bill wouldn't. And that's mainly because she expects people to use less electricity.



Judge Upholds Jury Verdict for Family in Texas Fracking Case

Judge accepts jury verdict that awarded $2.9 million to family affected by air emissions from gas and oil wells near their Wise County home.

Jun 19, 2014
Bob and Lisa Parr at their wedding in 2008, with Lisa's daughter, Emma.

6/20/2014: This post has been updated to include a statement from Aruba.

The judge presiding over a pivotal case involving toxic emissions from gas and oil drilling has accepted a jury verdict that awarded $2.9 million to a family who said the emissions have made them sick.   

Judge Mark Greenberg issued a one page ruling late Thursday denying a motion by Aruba Petroleum to reject the jury’s verdict. Among Aruba’s arguments rejected by Greenberg were that Bob and Lisa Parr did not prove the emissions that made them sick came from Aruba wells.

The Parrs filed their lawsuit in March 2011, claiming they were "under constant, perpetual, and inescapable assault of Defendants’ releases, spills, emissions, and discharges of hazardous gases, chemicals, and industrial/hazardous wastes."

Following a two-week trial in April, a Dallas County jury found that Aruba "intentionally created a private nuisance" that affected the family's health and awarded the Parrs damages. The case is one of the first successful U.S. lawsuits alleging that toxic air emissions from oil and gas production have sickened people living nearby.

Lisa Parr said Greenberg's ruling further validates the family’s claim of being made sick by emissions generated by Aruba.

In the Amazon, Where 'Only Outsiders Like Going into the Forest'

Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate.

I was recently stranded on the wrong side of the Xingu River in a town called Senador José Porfirio. The funny thing is that I was the last to know. The three of us—myself, Pedro dos Santos, an activist representing rural settlers, and Francisco Moreira, one such rural settler—were chatting in Pedro's yard as the sun went down. I was wondering what it would be like to travel an hour up-river in complete darkness, and then I noticed how relaxed Pedro and Francisco seemed, as if nobody was going anywhere. Including me.

Pedro laughed. 

"In the Amazon, you know when you are going to leave, but you never know when you are going to get back," he said.

My opportunity to catch the last water taxi—and a connecting shuttle back to my hotel in Altamira, a primary hub along the Transamazonian Highway south of the main river—had gotten lost in translation. And although I didn't know it at the time, this would be only the first in a series of minor events that would force me to slow down and take in the local culture in a region I had been exploring for five weeks.