At the core of Obama's plan to control greenhouse gas emissions from more than 1,000 power plants is a strategy resembling that of a presidential campaign in search of electoral votes.
The administration wants to get enough states on board to color the map mostly low-carbon green, instead of coal black.
To that end, it has designed a policy that seems intended to isolate the fiercest pockets of resistance, winning over as many fence-sitting states as possible.
That would make it harder for his opponents to paint this regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act as a heavy-handed federal intrusion.
"It is going to be important to have a critical mass of states being supportive," said Travis Madsen, a global warming campaigner at Environment America, a federation of state-based advocacy groups. "If too many states decide they will not cooperate, it's hard to say what might happen. The more states cooperate or act supportively, the more likely we will succeed."
Brandishing her pen on Monday morning to sign proposed rules that would significantly cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's electric power plants, Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy said: "This is the opening of our second round of engagement."
What lies ahead is a 120-day comment period, months of additional fine-tuning, discussions with other government agencies and interest groups, and more likely than not attempts to challenge the rule in Congress and the courts. A final rule will be issued in about a year. The states, meanwhile, will come up with their own implementation plans, subject to Washington's review. Only when all that is over will the rules take full effect.
The proposed standards are highly flexible guidelines for states to follow in limiting the emissions from existing power plants. They are designed to achieve a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030, compared to the amount fossil fuel power plants emitted in the benchmark year 2005.
That would amount, in the end, to some half a billion tons less carbon dioxide allowed into the atmosphere each year from the nation's existing power plants.
"That's like canceling out annual carbon pollution from two thirds of all cars and trucks in America," declared McCarthy in a feisty and confident speech before a large, supportive crowd in Washington.
But how ambitious is this, really?
On March 17, a Los Angeles-area oil pipeline spilled between 1,500 and 3,000 gallons of crude onto a neighborhood street, surprising residents and creating a noxious mess that took weeks to fully rectify.
The pipeline's owner, Phillips 66, must have been plenty shocked, too. It thought the pipe was empty.
Phillips 66 told state officials that it took ownership of the pipe through a 2001 acquisition, that it never used the line, and that it didn't know it still contained oil, according to Rep. Janice Hahn, whose Congressional district includes the spill site. The company and state oil pipeline regulators declined to confirm those statements or discuss other aspects of the case, citing an ongoing investigation into the spill.
In a statement, the Houston-based refiner and pipeline owner said the pipe involved was "out of service" and that it was being maintained "in compliance with [federal] requirements for this type of pipeline."
Between February 2010 and July 2011, Lisa and Bob Parr filed 13 complaints about air pollution from gas and oil operations near their ranch in Wise County, Texas. Sometimes they had trouble breathing, they told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). They also experienced nausea, nosebleeds, ringing ears and rashes.
Other families were also alarmed. Between 2008 and 2011, the TCEQ received 77 complaints from Wise County, in the Barnett Shale drilling area in North Texas. One said the odor was so powerful that the complainant "couldn't go outside," according to the TCEQ report.
Frustrated and angry, the Parrs decided to sue. Their attorney warned them that lawsuits against the oil and gas industry rarely, if ever, succeed. But the Parrs persisted and last month won what appears to be the first successful U.S. lawsuit alleging that toxic air emissions from oil and gas production sickened people living nearby. A Dallas County jury found that Aruba Petroleum, a privately owned company based in Plano, Texas, "intentionally created a private nuisance" that affected the family's health and awarded the Parrs almost $3 million in damages.
"When you don't have a strong regulatory system, a system to prevent what happened to this family, the only place left to turn for help is the courts," said Robert Percival, director of the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Program.
NEW DELHI, India—With great difficulty Ramesh Agrawal limped to the podium in San Francisco last month to receive the prestigious Goldman Prize for grassroots environmental activism. Still recovering from gunshot injuries inflicted by thugs allegedly on the payroll of a steel and power giant, Agrawal had to be helped up by his son Raman.
The shattered thigh bone he suffered in July 2012 was the price Agrawal, 60, paid for helping block a coal mine by the powerful Jindal Steel and Power Limited in his mineral-rich state of Chhattisgarh. Months after the mine was rejected assailants broke into the small Internet cafe Agrawal owned since 1999 and aimed guns at his chest. A mobil phone he hurled knocked the men off balance before they fired. Most of the bullets missed, but one entered his thigh and another his groin.
Agrawal's grit and determination have become an inspiration for environmental activists across India who have been fighting a losing battle against forces unleashed by the steady privatization of the country's vast mineral resources. That includes coal—India's most abundant energy resource, responsible for 68 percent of its electricity generation. India's inefficient coal-fired power plants are notorious smoke and pollution belchers. Coal mining is even dirtier.
The federal government said Tuesday it will study a critical question in the battle over oil pipelines carrying Canadian diluted bitumen: Are spills involving dilbit more dangerous to people and the environment than leaks of lighter traditional oil?
In recent years, dilbit spills in Michigan, Arkansas and elsewhere have provided convincing evidence on the subject, but researchers are still working on definitive scientific studies that would translate those examples into broader conclusions about the risks of dilbit.
The disastrous effects of those spills—and fear that future spills could foul aquifers and vital waterways—have inflamed opposition to dilbit pipelines across the country. It's one of the issues in the years-long debate over TransCanada's partly built Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would carry more than 800,000 barrels per day of dilbit from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. The controversial project still lacks the required presidential permit for the segment stretching from the U.S.-Canada border through Nebraska.
News of the study came during questioning at a Congressional hearing held Tuesday to review the progress by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) toward fulfilling mandates included in the 2011 pipeline safety act.
Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforest—and the earth's climate.
As I write this I'm flying 6,000 feet above the Brazilian Cerrado, a broad term that encompasses a range of drier vegetation types throughout the center of the country extending into the Amazon River basin. Gazing out the window of this single-engine propeller plane, I see a mosaic of cropland and pastures extending to the horizon in all directions. The dry season arrived barely two weeks ago, and the lush greens have yet to give way to browns in the state of Goias.
I see sharp lines and rounded edges, green pastures and red soils, with forests snaking along gullies, streams and the occasional river. I can only assume that the little white specs below are cows. After 20 minutes in the air, I get my first view of a large patch of wild Cerrado, covering a series of hills that extends into the distance. Then it's gone. We pass a reservoir filled with olive green water.
Under the cover of early-morning darkness in South Texas last March, a tanker truck ferrying fluids from an oil and gas drilling site rumbled down a country road spewing its toxic load all over the place.
The concoction of drilling fluid, which typically includes undisclosed and dangerous chemicals, oil, metals shavings and naturally occurring radioactive materials, coated eight miles of roadway, according to a Karnes County Sheriff's Department report obtained by InsideClimate News.
The spill has prompted an investigation by the sheriff's department, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the state Railroad Commission.
If not for surveillance video given to the sheriff's department, the trucker responsible for the dumping may have disappeared into the night. But the video caught the distinctive flash from the reflective stripes on the tanker. It was the telltale clue detectives needed.
KARNES COUNTY, Texas—After 23 years living on the South Texas prairie, Lynn and Shelby Buehring are looking for a new home, far from the fumes, traffic and noise of the Eagle Ford Shale boom.
It will mean leaving the white house beneath the oak trees where they expected to live out their retirement. The decision, said Lynn, 58, was a measure of last resort, dictated by her deteriorating health and failed attempts to get help from state regulators.
"We're not anti-drilling at all," she said. "My complaint is they need to do it in a responsible way... It's just causing me a lot of medical issues, and I can't have it."
Buehring's symptoms began when the drilling rigs arrived in late 2011. Her asthma worsened from a seasonal nuisance to the point where she needed two rescue inhalers and made frequent use of a breathing machine. She also developed chest pains, dizziness, constant fatigue and extreme sensitivity to smells.
The Obama administration's National Climate Assessment published last week after several years of work by 13 federal agencies is a striking example of the differences between Barack Obama and his predecessor on global warming science and policy.
Obama is emphasizing that climate change is now here and that action to confront it cannot be delayed. George W. Bush, in sharp contrast, put the accent on uncertainty and delay.
In "Keystone and Beyond," a new e-book published by InsideClimate News, I explore such differences between Obama and Bush as a way of examining the Keystone XL decision in historical context—to see what's changed since the pipeline was proposed under Bush, and how these changes may influence Obama's decision on whether the project is in the nation's interest. The two presidents faced starkly different oil markets, for example. They also took opposite views on whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant, whether it should be controlled under either the Clean Air Act or under a new cap-and-trade bill, and whether the United States should commit itself to steeply reducing carbon emissions under a new global treaty.
When it comes to how they dealt with the science of climate change—including the national climate assessments—the difference between the two presidents could not be sharper.
Understanding this is especially useful now, given the role the new NCA report is expected to play in the Obama administration's decision-making from now on. As John Podesta, Obama's special counselor, put it: "This assessment is about presenting actionable science."