On Dec. 30, 2014, California regulators released new state rules for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
State regulators and members of industry have repeatedly hailed the rigorous rules, which go into effect July 1. Dr. Steven Bohlen, California's state oil-and-gas supervisor, called them "as strict or stricter than any other state's."
But some local scientists and environmentalists counter that the rules fall short, noting gaps in coverage and problems with the rulemaking process.
Fracking is the controversial practice of injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals down a well to crack open bedrock and extract previously hard-to-access oil and gas reserves.
The U.S. coal export industry continued its losing streak as 2014 ended and 2015 began. A coal terminal project in Louisiana lost its permit in state court, and one in Washington ran into a stiff legal challenge. Last month, the company behind several other planned terminals sold its remaining projects to a high-risk investment firm at a major loss.
The developments continue a string of victories for environment groups fighting the export of coal to developing economies such as China. Of 15 proposals to build major new coal export facilities across the U.S., all but four have been defeated or canceled within the past two years. And only a few existing facilities have won approval to expand.
"This is an ugly, ugly time for coal exports," said Clark Williams Derry, research director for the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a nonprofit think tank that promotes sustainable policies for the Pacific Northwest.
The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday upheld the Keystone XL pipeline's route through the state—removing the last obstacle barring President Barack Obama from making his long-awaited decision on whether or not to approve the project.
The court ruled against landowners who had challenged the constitutionality of a 2012 state law that gave the governor unilateral authority to approve pipelines and the use of eminent domain—a power previously held by the state's Public Service Commission. A majority of judges—four out of seven—ruled with the landowners that the law was unconstitutional. However, a supermajority of five judges is needed to overturn legislation in Nebraska. Therefore, "the legislation must stand by default," the ruling stated.
All eyes are now on President Obama, who had used the pending Supreme Court case as a reason for delaying his verdict on the controversial project, which is expected to carry approximately 830,000 barrels of carbon-heavy crude oil per day from tar sands in Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas.
"The only decision that will bring peace of mind to landowners is watching the president use the power of the pen to stop this risky pipeline once and for all,” said Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska, one of the grassroots groups spearheading the fight against the pipeline.
The 114th Congress opened this week with the latest salvo in the long fight between Republicans and the White House over the Keystone XL pipeline and President Obama's climate action agenda. But the GOP's strategy of doggedly challenging the administration's environmental policies could backfire if it overreaches or impedes the functioning of government.
True to a vow he made after the Republican triumph in the midterm elections, new Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell made sure a bill mandating federal approval of the controversial pipeline was the first order of business. And the White House said, as it has since the midterms, that President Obama would veto it.
The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Friday to overturn a lower court's decision to block a route for the pipeline, removing a hurdle.
The Keystone XL bill, to be taken up in the coming weeks is the first in what promises to be a string of clashes expected to arise from the unrelenting GOP focus on energy and the environment that targets, in large part, administration efforts to tackle climate change.
As almost 200 countries try to work out an agreement in 2015 to slash carbon emissions, the U.S. and others are about to make the climate task tougher by adding new fossil fuel pipelines, power plants and other infrastructure that could increase pollution for decades.
The installations threaten to deepen the planet's dependence on fossil fuels and lock in new carbon emissions over the long term, jeopardizing the world's ability to slow global warming and prevent catastrophic droughts, flooding and sea-level rise. The investments also soak up funds that should be poured into nonpolluting, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, environmental advocates say.
"Projects that are approved today, they are not projects meant to last for two or three years. They have an operational and economic life span in excess of 30 years," said Anthony Swift, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group that opposes new projects involving coal, crude oil and natural gas. "In many real respects, infrastructure is destiny."
In the U.S., infrastructure has become the nation's de facto energy policy. With no comprehensive federal energy plan, and existing climate policies under attack from Congress, the U.S. fight over climate and energy is playing out over infrastructure projects. Because new energy facilities last for decades, are fiercely protected once built, and add carbon emissions for the duration, the battle lines now form around every new fossil fuel plant and pipeline proposal, from the Keystone XL oil pipeline to West Coast coal export terminals.
A coalition of some the world's top photographers launched a project this month that provides visual documentation of how climate change is altering communities, wildlife and landscapes across the globe—and measures to help prepare for and adapt to the changes.
The venture, known as EveryDayClimateChange, is housed on the popular image-sharing app Instagram. It includes pictures taken by the photographers on five continents over the past several years as they've traveled the world on assignment.
Within the last week, it has featured dispatches from far-flung locales including Tibet, Papua New Guinea and Yemen, as well as areas closer to home, such as the Colorado River and New York City. It has chronicled drought, invasive species, deforestation, disappearing glaciers, pollution from fossil fuel extraction, desertification, and extreme temperatures, among other topics. In its first week it has gathered 1,750 followers on Instagram and 630 more on Facebook.
The early years of the shale boom came with a widely held assumption that the vast quantities of natural gas liberated through high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would help slow climate change by displacing coal-fired power plants and speeding the transition to a clean-energy future.
But that notion was seriously challenged as scientists began studying the life cycle of natural gas. Although natural-gas power plants emit fewer greenhouse gases than coal plants, the process of extracting, processing and transporting natural gas releases unknown amounts of methane into the air.
Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, the shale boom's net impact on climate change remains unclear. That uncertainty has widened the rift between fracking supporters and opponents, and was cited as one of the reasons behind New York's recent fracking ban.
It has also prompted a slew of scientific studies, many of which are scheduled for this year.
As oil-and-gas producers' demand spikes for frac sand, a key ingredient used in hydraulic fracturing, there's mounting concern about the industry's air emissions. Toxic dust kicked up when the sand is produced and transported is a known trigger of lung disease.
For this reason, legislators in Minnesota, the fourth-largest producer of this special sand, committed 18 months ago to revamping air quality regulations for the industry. Staff at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) will release these much-anticipated rules for public comment in the coming months—and they expect a deluge of feedback.
That's because so much is at stake with these new rules. Local activists such as Bobby King see them as an opportunity to fill the nation's data gap on silica sand emissions from facilities handling the material—and to stand up for public health and the environment.
"People are really concerned about air quality," said King, a policy program organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota-based environmental group. "They are really expecting the MPCA to come up with something that’s meaningful and that ensures the pollution doesn't leave the site of the mine."
Editor's note: Keystone and Beyond: Tar Sands and the National Interest in the Era of Climate Change tells the definitive account of the Keystone XL saga.
Published last year, the book upends the national debate over the fractious project, tracing its origins to energy policy decisions made by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the earliest days of their administration, and to expectations about energy supply and demand that turned out to be wrong.
What was Bush's no-brainer has become President Barak's Obama dilemma, as he confronts a game-changing U.S. oil and gas boom and accelerating climate impacts his predecessors did not anticipate.
This week, as Congress prepares legislation to approve the pipeline and force Obama's hand, we are reissuing Keystone and Beyond and making it free.
A year in the making, the book was written by John H. Cushman, Jr. who worked in the Washington bureau of the New York Times for 27 years before joining the InsideClimate News staff.
This year is expected to bring a breakthrough for global climate action—and that includes the rapidly warming Arctic.
Starting in April, the United States will take over leadership of the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental body charged with coordinating the eight Arctic states: Canada; Denmark, including Greenland and the Faroe Islands; Finland; Iceland; Norway; Russia; Sweden and the United States—along with a number of observer nations, including China, India, Japan and South Korea. Though the council can't issue policy, it provides the main forum for consensus building in the region, and produces recommendations that the delegates can bring back to their home countries.