The view from David Gallagher's porch window should have been bucolic on that January evening. In the distance, the setting sun was bouncing off fresh snow that blanketed old farmland surrounding his Ceresco, Mich. home.
But Gallagher could see only the workers from Enbridge Inc., the Canadian energy company that had been constructing a crude oil pipeline 12 feet from his house for the past seven months.
Although he had grown used to the crew and the rumblings of their bulldozers and backhoes, Gallagher's fears about the safety of laying pipe so close to his home never left him. And on Jan. 8, as he watched a crane lift a piece of 50-ton pipe longer than a football field, a shot of alarm raced through his body. The crane suddenly began to tip over, and the massive pipe that was dangling between the machine's claws plunged into a trench before the crane toppled on its side.
If the pipe had been any closer, "it would've smashed into our sunroom," Gallagher said. "It was a holy shit moment."
A rash of explosive accidents involving oil-bearing trains has led to a surprising number of headlines and high-profile comments directly linking the fiery derailments to the fate of the long-stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline, the controversial project that would carry heavy bitumen from Canada’s oil sands to Texas refineries.
"North Dakota train fire adds fuel to Keystone XL debate," said a Bloomberg News headline. The Los Angeles Times published "Canada rail crash stirs debate over Keystone XL pipeline delay." And a year-end Fox Business segment asked, "Recent train derailments renewing push for Keystone Pipeline?"
Proponents of the pipeline project have been even more explicit in using the rail accidents to drum up support for the more than $5.4 billion northern segment of the Keystone XL, which the Obama administration has delayed for years over environmental concerns.
A leading conservation group is suing the Obama administration over the status of the northern swift fox, an imperiled species whose fragile dens could be destroyed during construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
The Center for Biological Diversity says the Fish and Wildlife Service has improperly bypassed requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and, along with the State Department in its environmental review of the pipeline, failed to fully consider the harm that would be done to the species if the project goes ahead.
"The State Department has acknowledged this fox could be crushed, with its young, in dens during Keystone XL's construction, but FWS and the State Department neglected to do any of the required analysis for this species under the Endangered Species Act," said Lori Ann Burd, a lawyer working for the advocacy group, which specializes in endangered species litigation.
The $1.1 trillion catch-all spending bill negotiated by Congressional leaders and published on Monday night shaves away at several of the Obama administration's climate priorities, propping up fossil fuels at the expense of clean energy programs.
But the administration avoided devastating cuts to its agenda in the "omnibus" appropriations bill, a compromise between the Democrats who control the Senate and the Republicans who dominate the House of Representatives. The bill does not go as far toward hamstringing the administration as the forces opposed to climate action wanted. And the administration retains considerable leeway in its own campaign to exert as much influence over climate policy as it can without Congressional legislation.
TransCanada, the energy company behind the Keystone XL pipeline, was ordered by the Texas State Supreme Court last week to submit information on its use of eminent domain—an action that keeps a key landowner lawsuit alive.
Keystone opponents celebrated the move as a small victory in a larger battle against the company's seizure of private property that has united left and right in Texas.
The paperwork will be used by state Supreme Court justices to decide whether to hear a case by Julia Trigg Crawford, a farmer who is arguing that TransCanada illegally used eminent domain to take over part of her land to build its pipeline.
At issue are the legal rights of landowners to prevent corporations from condemning private lands to build oil and gas infrastructure projects. The Keystone XL is being constructed to carry oil from Canada's tar sands mines to Texas, and its 485-mile southern leg from Oklahoma to near Houston was completed this month. Depending on the outcome of Crawford's case, TransCanada possibly could be forced to dig up the section of the pipe that runs through her property. The northern segment still needs State Department approval because it crosses an international boundary.
The George Washington Bridge and the Pinelands are at opposite ends of New Jersey—almost in different universes. One is a double-decker of steel and cable, groaning with bumper-to-bumper traffic. The other is a delicate, protected ecosystem, the intersection of pristine aquifers and seven counties of conifers.
One is the bailiwick of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the other is the fief of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission. Both these agencies are under the influence of Governor Chris Christie, who has recently come under fire for his strong-arm political style.
As it turned out, the 15-member Pinelands Commission was the agency more willing to stand up to the Christie administration. After a hard-fought battle, the sharply divided commission overruled its own staff and refused to give a green light to a 22-mile natural gas pipeline the administration supported. The line would cross a short stretch of protected forest to carry natural gas to a BL England power plant that has been ordered to stop using coal or shut down.
ExxonMobil has landed a new deadline extension for telling regulators how it plans to safely resurrect the failed Pegasus oil pipeline, and the new April 7 due date guarantees that the line will still be idle one year after it ruptured and sent heavy crude streaming into an Arkansas neighborhood.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA, pronounced fimm-sa) granted Exxon its second 90-day reprieve last month, but the change wasn't disclosed by Exxon and PHMSA until yesterday. Jan. 6 was the due date set by PHMSA for the Pegasus "remedial work plan" after Exxon requested a three-month extension from the original deadline of Oct. 6.
The delay worsens the state of limbo that has engulfed the pipeline and further frustrates officials who are still waiting for crucial details about what caused the spill and what remedies are under consideration.
There is substantial interest in the required Pegasus plan because it should disclose or offer clues about when Exxon hopes to restart the pipeline, all the factors that played a role in its failure, and how the company intends to prove that the 65-year-old line can be safely operated.
An episode on the CBS News program 60 Minutes entitled "The Cleantech Crash" has drawn derisive reviews from advocates of clean, renewable and energy-saving technologies, who say it was biased and distorted the government's and the private sector's record of successful innovation in the field.
In the Jan. 5 report on energy innovation, correspondent Leslie Stahl declared that "the federal government has allocated a total of $150 billion to cleantech through loans, grants and tax breaks with little to show for it."
Critics of the program struck back, armed with ample evidence to the contrary.
Even after taking account of the many slips, wrong turns and outright failures along the way, the clean energy programs of the federal government have scored many big-payoff successes over the decades, with the support of Republican and Democratic presidents and lawmakers alike. Together, they constitute one of the best-documented technology success stories since the Pentagon gave the world GPS.
Emboldened by the recent boom in U.S. crude production, oil company executives and others closed the year by launching a highly public push for the right to freely export U.S. crude oil. The move is a 180-degree change from 40 years of telling Americans that the country needs all the oil it can get to achieve energy independence and to protect consumers and the economy from oil and gasoline price shocks.
It's a particularly dicey appeal to make right now because the call for oil exports—and the industry's rationale for it—run counter to the arguments that oil companies and politicians are still using to justify a host of industry-backed initiatives, including the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project that would import oil from Canada.
What's more, for the American public, every discussion about oil policy ultimately boils down to one question: What would it do to gasoline prices? On that front, unrestricted oil exports would be a difficult sell. So far, the domestic oil boom has lowered the cost of U.S. crude and enriched the industry and nearby communities, but it's provided little relief to consumers at the pump. In the wake of that disappointment, export proponents would have to convince Americans that fuel costs won't be driven higher once homegrown oil starts flowing to the likes of Europe, Latin America and China—and that's an assurance no one can make.
Recent events make it clear, however, that the oil industry is undaunted.
Ralph Keeling, the director of an acclaimed Scripps program that keeps track of the amounts of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere, has renewed his plea for public support of the research, which has suffered from flagging federal grants.
"The Scripps CO2 and O2 measurements now face severe funding challenges," Keeling wrote in a letter posted on Dec. 24. "The situation is most urgent for the O2 measurements. These measurements have been supported for decades through proposals submitted every few years to the federal agencies. The value of these measurements is not questioned, but federal funding for these programs has never been so tenuous."
The famous Keeling Curve sampling program at the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii was set up by his father, Dave Keeling, in the late 1950s and has tracked atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide ever since. But the part of the work that is less familiar to many—and that is in more dire economic straits—is the tracking of oxygen concentrations.