Don Feusner ran dairy cattle on his 370-acre slice of northern Pennsylvania until he could no longer turn a profit by farming. Then, at age 60, he sold all but a few Angus and aimed for a comfortable retirement on money from drilling his land for natural gas instead.
It seemed promising. Two wells drilled on his lease hit as sweet a spot as the Marcellus shale could offer—tens of millions of cubic feet of natural gas gushed forth. Last December, he received a check for $8,506 for a month's share of the gas.
Then one day in April, Feusner ripped open his royalty envelope to find that while his wells were still producing the same amount of gas, the gusher of cash had slowed. His eyes cascaded down the page to his monthly balance at the bottom: $1,690.
Chesapeake Energy, the company that drilled his wells, was withholding almost 90 percent of Feusner's share of the income to cover unspecified "gathering" expenses and it wasn't explaining why.
"They said you're going to be a millionaire in a couple of years, but none of that has happened," Feusner said. "I guess we're expected to just take whatever they want to give us."
Like every landowner who signs a lease agreement to allow a drilling company to take resources off his land, Feusner is owed a cut of what is produced, called a royalty.
The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has become a top priority for environmental groups and some politicians who oppose the project—and not just in America.
With tensions over the controversial pipeline reaching fever pitch stateside, political activists and leaders abroad are closely watching the developments on the Keystone as a barometer of how willing and able President Obama is to make hard policy choices on global warming, according to an informal InsideClimate News survey.
"Obama's intentions on climate change are under intense international scrutiny," said Nick Mabey, founding director and chief executive of E3G, a London-based environmental organization. "Any move he makes will be carefully analyzed by the European Union and China to see what it says about his willingness to fight hard on climate change issues."
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—Anything for his treasured fishing hole. That was the mantra cycling through Jimmy Joe Johnson's head on the afternoon of Friday, March 29 as he rushed to keep a filthy stream of crude oil from spilling out of a cove and into the main body of Lake Conway.
Standing at the edge of the lake more than four months later, Johnson had his fingers crossed that his efforts that day weren't for naught. Officials with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) say they feel certain that soon-to-come results from sediment testing will confirm what water tests revealed—that no oil reached the main body of the lake.
But Johnson won't stop fretting until he sees definitive proof that the lake wasn't sullied.
Johnson's lookout on this steamy August day is roughly nine-tenths of a mile from the spot where oil from ExxonMobil's ruptured Pegasus pipeline gushed into a subdivision of neat, brick homes. Instinct and familiarity with the local topography guided Johnson and a crew of locals to this site on that fateful Friday afternoon—a man-made dike about the length of a football field and wide enough to support two lanes of State Highway 89 traffic.
Since at least 2006, ExxonMobil has known that its 1940s-era Pegasus pipeline had many manufacturing defects like the faulty welds that recently sent crude oil spewing into an Arkansas neighborhood. The company also knew that the seams of the pipe have been identified by the industry as having another dangerous flaw: They are especially brittle, and therefore more prone to cracking.
"Having a crack or flaw in a pipeline is a whammy," said Patrick Pizzo, a professor emeritus in materials engineering at San Jose State University. "But having a crack embedded in brittle material, such as the heat-affected zones of the pipeline seams—that's a double whammy."
Despite those inherent risks, Exxon added new stresses to the Pegasus by fundamentally changing how it used the line. It began carrying a heavier type of oil, reversed the direction of the flow and increased the amount of oil that surged through it.
Part 2 of a two-part series on the residents of Mayflower, Ark., who live a short distance from the homes that were evacuated after Exxon's oil spill and who feel neglected. Read Part 1.
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—The Pegasus pipeline runs between Illinois and Texas, over streams, under rivers, through wilds, and under relatively few homes. The fact that it split open underneath a housing development was a twist of bad luck. An independent forensic metallurgical report on the faulty stretch of pipe made note of that coincidence, and gave a half-nod to possible causality: "During construction of the homes, the pipeline may have experienced vehicle loadings caused by construction equipment and/or vehicles crossing the pipeline at multiple locations, including over the fractured segment." All else equal, humans are safer keeping a distance from pipelines, and vice-versa.
Part 1 of a two-part series on the residents of Mayflower, Ark., who live just a short distance from the homes that were evacuated following Exxon's oil spill. Read Part 2.
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—In the week after an oil spill strangled the air in Ann Jarrell's neighborhood, tens of thousands of her bees either died or went mad.
Jarrell has kept bees in her backyard since she moved to Mayflower almost two years ago. Living in the hamlet between Little Rock and Conway has afforded her the chance to be close to her daughter, Jennifer. Behind her three-bedroom brick home, at the corner of her small fenced-in yard, she tended to two beehives. Apiarists select and breed passive bees, and Jarrell's were no different, until they were.
ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured March 29, pouring what the company says was at least 200,000 gallons of oil into Mayflower. For days, the stench blowing from the sour heavy Canadian crude was rank. It was the familiar smell of oil, intensified. "Burning tires," Jarrell said. "It was just putrid. You'd smell it and you would gag." But no one told her it could be any more worrisome than the oil-stink of hot asphalt. Early on, Jarrell called the Mayflower police to ask whether she was in danger. A man on the other end told her she was merely noticing an additive meant to alert people to a leak, like the artificial chemical that gives natural gas its distinct aroma. (That was flatly wrong.) A few days later, an Exxon employee working on the cleanup came near her house, and Jarrell asked about the smell. The woman told her not to fret. "I didn't know what we were breathing in was toxic," Jarrell said recently. "Nobody was giving us any information."
A little-known pipeline could win the race to ship heavy Canadian crude oil from the Midwest to the U.S. Gulf Coast if it comes online as planned in 2015.
Called the Eastern Gulf Crude Access Pipeline Project, the 774-mile line would be capable of carrying almost as much oil as the Keystone XL, the controversial pipeline mired in its fifth year of federal review.
The Eastern Gulf would run from Patoka, Ill. to St. James, La., carrying oil from North Dakota's Bakken formation as well as Canadian oil sands crude. Both types of oil are creating a bottleneck in the Midwest, which doesn't have the refining or pipeline capacity to handle the large amounts of oil now being produced.
In recent years, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva has seen his district in southern Arizona ravaged by wildfires, heat and drought. Dozens lost their lives and thousands were forced to evacuate their homes. Agricultural production has slowed and water supplies are shrinking.
Which is why Grijalva, a six-term Democrat, set out to make climate change a top priority.
He helped create the Southwest Climate Science Center at the University of Arizona and is part of the Safe Climate Caucus, a group of House members committed to raising the profile of global warming. In May, he organized a letter to Pres. Obama signed by 30 members of Congress urging the president to reject the Keystone XL pipeline because of climate concerns.
"I've lived in my part of Arizona my whole life," Grijalva, 65, said in an interview. "I've never seen conditions like the ones we've had the last few years. Watching my constituents deal with the effects of climate change—the droughts, the record temperatures, the fires—how could I not make it a priority?"
In the district next door to Grijalva's, however, the message being conveyed is far different.
Aggressive energy efficiency efforts by households, companies and motorists led to the decline in carbon dioxide emissions from energy use in the United States, according to a recent report. The controversial finding contradicts recent studies that say the power sector's shift away from coal to cheap natural gas caused the bulk of reductions.
U.S. emissions last year fell by 205 million metric tons, or 4 percent, from 2011 levels. CO2 Scorecard Group, a small environmental research organization, says that nearly half the decline came from energy-saving measures such as retrofits and smarter appliances in homes and offices, as well as from Americans driving fewer miles, and using more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Natural gas is responsible for only about one-quarter of last year's emissions drop, CO2 Scorecard Group asserts.
"Everybody started to believe that shale gas is driving all these CO2 reductions," said CO2 Scorecard chief executive Shakeb Afsah, an environmental economist and co-author of the study. After investigating, he said he and colleagues found that "the numbers just don't add up."
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—ExxonMobil did an about-face in Arkansas last week after local politicians criticized the company's plan to stop paying victims of the March 29 Pegasus pipeline spill for temporary housing.
Twenty-two homes on North Starlite Road were evacuated after the pipeline sent a stream of heavy Canadian crude oil down their block. Since then Exxon has dug up the contaminated soil around the houses and replaced it with new dirt and fresh sod. It has also been testing the soil and the interior of the homes for benzene and other chemicals.