The Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich. is a place of serenity these days. It ripples lazily past new parks and boat launches, past red barns and corn fields, past hikers and children in tire swings. Fish do somersaults and land with a splash. Dragonflies dart about like trapeze artists.
The only clues to the environmental disaster that occurred here three years ago are subtle ones. The rainbow sheens of oil that occasionally surface. The collection booms that still stretch across parts of the river. The riverside kiosks stocked with pamphlets titled "What Should I Do If I Come Into Contact With Oil?"
It was near Marshall that an aging oil pipeline burst on July 25, 2010 and spilled more than one million gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil pipeline spill in U.S. history, and its effects can still be seen today in the river and in the lives of the people who live near it. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates as much as 180,000 gallons of oil still lie on the river bottom and some of it is moving toward a Superfund site.
"I know what lies beneath," said Deb Miller, who was forced to close her family business because of the spill. "You can clean it up and try to put things back the way they were, but it will never be the same."
HAMBURG—If you stand on top of a protective dyke in the village of Moorburg and look west or north, you can almost forget that you're standing in the midst of Germany's second-largest city. Behind a tree-shaded 16th-century church, green fields stretch into misty distances and old brick houses line a winding road whose narrow lanes bespeak a time preceding motorized vehicles.
If you look east or south, however, Moorburg becomes something else entirely. Just a stone's throw from the church, towering smokestacks and boxy buildings mark the site of a new power plant that next year will begin converting enormous amounts of coal, one of the world's dirtiest fuels, into electricity. Some of that coal may come from the United States.
Depending on whom you talk to, the Moorburg plant is either a misstep that will derail Germany's goal of getting 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050—or a bridge that will allow Hamburg's industrial economy to thrive until enough renewables come on line. There's one perspective on which virtually all agree, though: The plant is evidence of the tough decisions and clashing interests at play as Germany tries to wean itself from nuclear energy and fossil fuels.
When the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly retreated on its multimillion-dollar investigation into water contamination in a central Wyoming natural gas field last month, it shocked environmentalists and energy industry supporters alike.
In 2011, the agency had issued a blockbuster draft report saying that the controversial practice of fracking was to blame for the pollution of an aquifer deep below the town of Pavillion, Wyo.—the first time such a claim had been based on a scientific analysis.
The study drew heated criticism over its methodology and awaited a peer review that promised to settle the dispute. Now the EPA will instead hand the study over to the state of Wyoming, whose research will be funded by EnCana, the very drilling company whose wells may have caused the contamination.
Industry advocates say the EPA's turnabout reflects an overdue recognition that it had over-reached on fracking and that its science was critically flawed.
But environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.
BROOKLYN, N.Y.—InsideClimate News and the Arkansas Times reached the fundraising target for their innovative reporting collaboration after a three-week campaign. Two reporters will soon be on the ground to investigate the causes and consequences of the Exxon pipeline spill in Mayflower, Ark. that occurred last Mar. 29.
The online fundraising effort that raised $26,790 was run on ioby.org, a non-profit crowdfunding platform. About 260 people contributed to the campaign with an average donation of approximately $100.
"It's inspiring to see readers take ownership of the First Amendment," said David Sassoon, publisher of InsideClimate News. "This is the first time we've tried crowdfunding, and we are quite gratified by the response."
Scientists agree that climate change was very likely one of the underlying triggers for the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona that killed 19 firefighters on June 30. But while some of the nation's media have acknowledged global warming's link to the tragedy, others have ignored it entirely.
The discrepancy highlights an ethical question that is expected to increasingly confront publications and TV networks as climate-related calamities are set to rise: Amid loss of life in weather disasters, when is it appropriate to speak of climate change?
"This is a question journalists need to answer sooner rather than later," said Hunter Cutting, a climate communications expert for the non-profit group Climate Nexus. "Extreme weather is only going to get worse."
But the answer, according to experts, isn't straightforward.
Tucked into letters the State Department has received from people seeking to influence its review of the northern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline are pleas from local officials, largely from Montana, who see the project as a lifeline for their strapped budgets.
Several mention offers by TransCanada, the pipeline operator, to help rebuild local bridges or other infrastructure projects. Others want the tax revenue or jobs the project would bring, even if those benefits might be temporary.
The letters are among more than a million comments, most of them form letters, that the State Department received about its draft environmental impact statement during a 45-day public comment period that ended on April 22. The department is reviewing the comments while completing revisions to the impact statement.
The 1940s-era construction process that ExxonMobil said caused an oil pipe to rupture in Arkansas earlier this year is a common and well-documented problem the pipeline industry has battled for decades—and one the industry believes can be detected and controlled with appropriate vigilance.
"With proper inspection and maintenance, these catastrophic events can be prevented," said Mohammad Najafi, a pipeline construction expert and engineering professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. "As pipelines exceed their design lives, they need more maintenance and a proper asset management strategy to prevent or minimize these ruptures."
That leaves the public and regulators with two critical questions: Did Exxon manage and test its broken Pegasus pipeline according to established guidelines? And, if it did, is the Arkansas accident a warning that other pipelines might be at risk?
When a broken pipeline spills oil into a residential neighborhood, the most immediate health concerns are those caused by volatile chemicals—airborne toxins that leave people complaining of symptoms like headaches and nausea and worrying about long-term problems like cancer.
But crude oil also contains small amounts of heavy metals that rarely evaporate into the air. Instead, they stay with the oil as it spills onto the ground and into waterways. These compounds, which include mercury, manganese, nickel and chromium, are toxic at high doses, and some, like arsenic and lead, can damage the nervous system even at relatively low doses. Yet little is known about the potential health risks to people who live near oil spill sites.
In Arkansas, regulators are testing for heavy metals in the city of Mayflower, where more than 210,000 gallons of Canadian oil spilled on March 29. But at this point there are still more questions than answers.
For the third time in a year, the fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress are trying to eliminate a trailblazing law that requires new federal buildings to be largely free of fossil fuels by 2030.
But this time the effort is gaining momentum—in part because it has surprising support from mainstream energy efficiency advocacy groups in Washington D.C.
Their decision to back industry has ruffled the feathers of several environmental organizations and green building advocates, who say the law is critical to decrease America's dependence on fossil fuels. Some feel deceived.
"It was a slap in the face," said Ed Mazria, founder of the New Mexico-based Architecture 2030, a building sector advocacy group that focuses on climate change.
As President Obama begins the gargantuan task of selling his climate agenda to the American people, in his corner are wealthy donors he can count on to help him get what he wants.
From Wall Street whizzes to franchise owners, these donors have poured time and money to further the president's climate agenda. But two stand out: Tom Steyer, a San Francisco-based hedge fund manager, and Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder.
Steyer and Hughes are hardly equal counterweights to the billionaire Koch brothers—two of Obama's fiercest opponents—who for decades have quietly used their wealth and influence to thwart action on climate change. Charles and David Koch are each worth $34 billion, according to Forbes. Steyer is worth about $1.4 billion and Hughes about $700 million.
Still, these newcomers to the fray are helping level the playing field in what has long been a lopsided fight inside the Beltway for America's energy future.