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Flawed Steel Still in Wide Use in Oil Pipelines

Anniversary of Exxon spill in Arkansas puts spotlight back on 48,400 miles of pipelines made with flawed technique phased out 40 years ago.

Apr 3, 2015

The two-year anniversary of ExxonMobil's oil pipeline rupture in Arkansas is once again putting the spotlight on old pipe that can harbor cracks and other dangerous defects—and that's still in widespread use across the country.

Federal regulators have known for decades that vintage pipe carried extra risks. After a spate of new spills, however, they recently took the first step toward mandating more rigorous testing on pre-1970 pipe, including the kind that was a factor in causing ExxonMobil's oil spill in Mayflower, Ark.

The failed section of ExxonMobil's Pegasus line was manufactured in the 1940s using low-frequency electric resistance welding (LF-ERW), a process that was widely used from the 1930s into the 1960s. The technique was phased out by 1970 because it left flaws in the steel that could cause pipelines to split open along the lengthwise seams.

N. Carolina Lifts Fracking Ban and Punts on Toxic Air Emissions

Seventy-two pages of oil-and-gas regulations went into effect when the moratorium was lifted, but regulations on air pollution weren't included.

Apr 3, 2015

North Carolina is the latest state to green-light hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within its borders.

In mid-March, the state's fracking moratorium was lifted and 72 pages of new oil-and-gas regulations went into effect. The rules cover, among other things, public disclosures about certain chemicals used in fracking; how far wells must be from homes, business and waterways; and ways to dispose of drilling waste.

But one major aspect of drilling operations was entirely left out: air emissions. That's despite increasing concern that the myriad oil-and-gas sources of toxic emissions—from the well pad to refineries to waste sites—pose significant public health risks.

North Carolina's Mining and Energy Commission drafted the rules for fracking. It's up to a different group—the Environmental Management Commission—to produce the air regulations. But so far, that 15-member group hasn't produced any such rules and now it's quite possible that it never will.

That's because a recently passed Republican measure includes language that authorizes the Environmental Management Commission to decide whether new air rules for drilling operations are even needed.

This bill gives regulators permission to "punt" on new air rules, according to Mary Maclean, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Sierra Snowpack, Thinned by Climate Change, at Record Low in Waterless California

Following the official measurement, the governor ordered cities and towns to cut water use by 25 percent for the first time in state history.

Apr 2, 2015

It was bad news for California following annual snowpack measurements throughout the towering­­––and usually snow-covered––Sierra Nevada mountain range. There was very little snow.

On Wednesday, the Sierra snowpack held only 1.4 inches of water when 28.3 inches is normal for this time of year. The numbers foreshadow yet another gloomy year of drought in a state that depends on a steady stream of snowmelt to replenish its reservoirs and aquifers.

The snowpack numbers recorded at more than 300 locations in the Sierra are far worse than the end-of-season numbers since 1950, when record-keeping began. The previous worst years came last year and in 1977 when the snowpack held 7.1 inches of water.

The dismal number means there will be minimal runoff this spring in central and northern California streams and rivers.

The Sierra snowpack is vital to California. As much as one-third of the state's water supply comes from snowpack that melts and is ultimately captured in a series of reservoirs for use as drinking water and for agricultural irrigation. The state draws the remainder of its water from aquifers and the Colorado River.

Chuck Schumer Votes Reliably on Climate, but Rarely Leads

Probable next Senate Democratic leader calls for climate action while keeping quiet on fracking. 'It hasn't been where he's put most of his time.'

Apr 2, 2015

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the probable next Senate Democratic leader, has been vocal about the need for climate action and has compiled a solid pro-environment voting record, but he's never been a leader on the issue, environmentalists and political experts said.

A senator since 1998, Schumer's principal focus in a 42-year political career has been economic policy and immigration. Since Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City in 2012, he has joined in calls for world leaders to act on global warming.

"Sen. Schumer has made it clear that he views environmentalists as an important constituency and the environment as an important issue for the party," said David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "On an individual level, it hasn't been where he's put most of his time. In a new role, he'll have to look at things through a new lens."

Political commentators and journalists say the three-term senator is "exactly who Democrats need" to overhaul the party and regain majority control, in the words of the Washington Post's Dana Milbank. The current Democratic leader of the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, announced his plan last week to retire after 2016. Reid and some other party leaders, including Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, endorsed Schumer for the post this week.

Schumer drew criticism from New York's anti-fracking grassroots activists last May when he told MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, "Democrats throughout the country have supported fracking." The environmentalists flooded Schumer's office with calls and letters protesting his comment. A few weeks later, he walked back his statement at a fundraiser, said Alex Beauchamp, director of Food and Water Watch's work in the Northeast and a spokesman for New Yorkers Against Fracking.

Eating on Land Unlikely to Save Polar Bears

As Arctic ice dwindles, theories that polar bears can adapt their fat-heavy diet are debunked in a new paper.

Apr 1, 2015

Scientists studying the effects of Arctic melting have found themselves in what you could call the Polar Bear Wars.

On one side, a sizeable group of researchers have spent decades documenting the connection between the rapid melting of sea ice and declines in polar bear health and survival.

On the other, a handful of scientists who have observed polar bears eating nontraditional prey on landlike goose eggs and berrieshave hypothesized that could mitigate the loss of their icy habitat as the globe warms. Studies from this side have spawned misleading headlines such as, "Polar Bears Just Might Outlive Us All."

A paper published today in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment is the latest attempt to settle the score.

U.S. Submits Climate Pledge in Next Step to UN's Paris Talks

As promised, the U.S. turned in its emissions goals, but China and other large countries missed the UN's suggested deadline.

Mar 31, 2015

Clap your hands if you believe in Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

After all, it's faith in those documents, known as INDCs—detailed country-by-country pledges to reduce climate change—that are supposed to keep alive the glimmering hopes of a universal, binding treaty on climate change that the United Nations wants to conclude in Paris at the end of the year.

Fracking Companies Keep 10% of Chemicals Secret, EPA Says

The agency's assessment of fracking fluid disclosure is part of its broader study on fracking and water—and spotlights the project's limitations.

Mar 31, 2015

Oil and gas companies refuse to disclose 10 percent of the hundreds of chemicals they use during hydraulic fracturing, according to a new analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency. The revelation comes in a major installment of the EPA's study of the potential risks of fracking on drinking water.

The agency's assessment of more than 39,000 reports from the website FracFocus about the composition of fracking fluid also showed that "at least one chemical was identified as confidential business information in 70 percent of the disclosures analyzed," wrote Tom Burke, EPA's science adviser, in an agency blog.

FracFocus is an industry-backed Web portal where companies voluntarily post information about the fluids they use during hydraulic fracturing, which entails blasting water laced with sand and chemicals into geological formations to release oil and gas. From the FracFocus data, the EPA determined the most common ingredients in fracking fluids and the amount and type of water used, and it provided a state-by-state breakdown of the information.

But the FracFocus analysis also spotlights the limitations of the EPA's broader study of fracking and water. Launched in 2011 and delayed repeatedly, the study was supposed to provide definitive answers to the public's concerns about fracking's possible effect on drinking water. But pushback from the oil and gas companies and the EPA's weakness relative to the multi-billion dollar fossil fuel sector narrowed the project's scope, an InsideClimate News report shows.

Before Fracking Begins, Air and Water Tests Still a Rare Precaution

Two scientists from Columbia University launch a $40,000 pilot testing project in Pennsylvania they hope will lead to full-scale research.

Mar 31, 2015

Frank Varano knows what's coming. His land near Williamsport, Pa., abuts property that has been leased for gas exploration––and he's certain it will be fracked.

What is less certain is how that fracking could affect the air he breathes and the water he drinks.

That's why he welcomed the opportunity to have two Columbia University scientists test the air inside his house and the water in his well before fracking gets started late this year.

"I feel better having someone independent more than just having the industry tell me what's happening," Varano said. "I want to double-check whatever the industry tells me."

Last year an air monitor was set up inside his Lycoming County house, and water samples were taken from his well in advance of the drilling and fracking planned for the 10-acre site that sits 500 feet from his place.

Varano is one of 15 residents in Lycoming and Sullivan counties to allow geochemists Beizhan Yan and Steven Chillrud of Columbia's Earth Institute to test the air and water on their land before fracking proceeds. The two scientists want to establish a baseline of the quality of air and water and then continue monitoring as the operation progresses from drilling and fracking to functioning wells.

It's the best way to understand the risks people face when fracking––hydraulic fracturing––starts to encroach on their homes, the two scientists said.

"The data will provide an objective viewpoint to drive a more rational discussion," Chillrud said.

Two Years After Exxon's Mayflower Spill, Will Tougher Pipeline Rules Go Beyond Talk?

If a new rule takes effect, about 95 percent of all pipelines would be subject to stricter safety testing because of their age, location and other factors.

Mar 30, 2015

It's been two years since a broken 1940s ExxonMobil pipeline flooded an Arkansas neighborhood with Canada's heaviest oil, and the ripple effects of the spill have made it to Washington D.C., where regulators are poised to end decades of complacency by addressing the dangers of older pipelines across the country.

For the first time, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is floating what could become a new regulation to address problematic vintage pipe and other obvious risks that were factors in the rupture of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower, Ark.

"The Pegasus spill seemed to be a tipping point," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog group. "PHMSA is now telling pipeline companies, 'here's what you should think about if you have older pipelines, and when you should replace them,'—and you never would have heard that coming out of their mouths before Mayflower."

The effort by PHMSA is in the early stages, and there's no guarantee that it will result in new mandatory measures for pipeline owners. But if the rule takes effect, about 95 percent of all hazardous liquid pipelines would be subject to stricter safety verification because of their age, location or other factors, according to PHMSA. Separately, new guidelines just for pre-1970 pipelines could affect more than half of the nation's 484,000 miles of pipelines carrying natural gas and hazardous liquids such as oil and gasoline.

The ExxonMobil line was made from pipe that was manufactured nearly 70 years ago and widely known to be prone to dangerous cracking along its lengthwise seams. The line had split open or leaked nearly a dozen times during the oil company's own testing a few years before the spill. Despite those factors, ExxonMobil gave little weight to the threat of cracks or seam failure in its testing, spill prevention and maintenance plans for the Pegasus, according to PHMSA.

Mexico Announces Ambitious Climate Target

White House praises commitment that surpasses China's and could motivate other developing nations on the road to Paris climate talks.

Mar 27, 2015

Mexico promised on Friday that its emissions of greenhouse gases will peak by 2026 and then begin to decline, making it the first developing country to present a formal climate pledge under a United Nations process that is meant to rope in all the world’s nations, rich and poor.

Mexico’s pledge is a major milestone on the road to Paris, where by the end of this year the UN wants to complete a comprehensive climate pact.

Negotiators agreed in Lima last year that countries that are ready should declare their goals, known as Individually Determined National Contributions, or INDC’s, by March 31. They urged all nations to announce fair and ambitious goals well before the final December talks in Paris.