In October 2011, when most politicians were doing everything they could to avoid speaking publicly about climate change, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse gave a 23-minute speech on the Senate floor detailing the perils of carbon pollution.
"Virtually all of our most prestigious scientific and academic institutions have stated that climate change is happening and that human activities are the driving cause of this change," said the Democrat from Rhode Island. By failing to act, he warned, the Senate was "earning the scorn and condemnation of history."
Since then, Whitehouse has continued to address the issue, and over the past year has made a point of discussing climate change in weekly 20-minute speeches whenever the Senate is in session.
When the nine states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade system, agreed last week to dramatically limit power plant emissions, they ushered in a stricter phase of carbon regulation for the Northeast. But they also paved the way for a boom in clean energy investment for the region.
According to a recent analysis, the amount of money generated from the tougher scheme is projected to more than double by 2020, sending an additional $2.2 billion of RGGI money to state coffers—much of that to clean energy industries.
Since RGGI began over four years ago, the program has generated more than a billion dollars for the cash-strapped states that have participated. States are required to use at least 25 percent of their proceeds in efficiency and other programs that benefit consumers. But actually, 80 percent was spent on energy savings, renewable electricity and ratepayer assistance.
Now states are planning to cut the total amount of carbon dioxide that power plants can emit by 45 percent—a move expected to increase the price of emitting carbon by five-fold, boosting revenues.
Massachusetts, one of the RGGI states, is predicted to rake in an extra $350 million from the change during the next several years.
Michigan regulators agreed last week to allow Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge Inc. to replace a 160-mile segment of an aging line that in 2010 spilled more than a million gallons of crude oil.
The decision by the Michigan Public Service Commission disappointed local landowners who had hoped for more scrutiny and oversight of the project.
"I am concerned with the haste with which this project has proceeded," said Jeff Insko, an English professor at Michigan's Oakland University who started the Line 6B Citizens' Blog for concerned landowners. "It's been fast-tracked both by Enbridge and the regulatory body here in Michigan. And given Enbridge's history in our state, it seems to me prudence and caution ought to guide us, and they haven't."
The 2010 spill from Line 6B contaminated 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River and has been difficult to clean up. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently asked Enbridge to remove submerged oil from several miles of the riverbed, a task that Enbridge is resisting. The price tag for the cleanup has already reached $810 million, making it the most expensive oil pipeline spill in U.S. history.
2/6/13: Paragraph 11 of this story has been updated to include more information from FEMA.
When the federal government released updated flood maps for the New York City region last week, residents were shocked to find that the number of houses and businesses in the region's flood zone had doubled since the maps were last revised, in 1986.
But it now appears that those maps might have underestimated the extent of New York's flood risk, because they don't factor in the effects of future climate change. Scientists say that by the 2080s, sea levels off the city's coast could rise by as much as five feet from melting glaciers, making storm surges more severe and causing floods much further inland than the new maps indicate.
The maps also don't incorporate data from Hurricane Sandy, which caused catastrophic flooding in the nation's financial capital. Many structures destroyed by the superstorm are not included in the newly drawn flood zones.
If future sea level rise had been taken into account, the flood zone would likely have been much larger, said Philip Orton, a physical oceanographer at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, who served as a technical reviewer on the updated maps.
2/5/13: This story has been updated to include information from PHMSA received after publication.
Oil and gas pipelines could be made safer if pipeline operators had clear guidelines for how quickly they must respond to accidents—but federal regulators don't have the data they need to establish those rules, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent arm of Congress.
The first few minutes and hours after a pipeline accident are considered crucial for effective cleanup and damage prevention. But the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates the nation's 400,000-mile network of large volume transmission pipelines, requires only that operators respond in a "prompt and effective" manner.
The GAO urged the agency to replace this open-ended regulation with performance-based standards—specific, measurable goals that would make it easier to determine when operators have been negligent. To do that, PHMSA would have to set different rules for different types of pipelines depending on their contents, location, operating pressure, pipeline diameter and other factors.
Matthew Cook, a GAO senior analyst and a co-author of the report, said that to create those rules, PHMSA must first determine how fast operators are currently responding to accidents. But the GAO report warned that PHMSA's existing database, where pipeline accident information is filed, is incomplete and often inaccurate.
China and the United States, the world's two largest economies, are responsible for emitting nearly half the planet's carbon dioxide emissions. China overtook the United States in 2006 as the world's biggest CO2 polluter due to its hardening coal addiction. Per capita, however, America's carbon footprint is far bigger.
Both countries still have large fleets of coal plants and growing, but relatively tiny, renewable electricity sectors. Both have goals for lowering their global warming emissions—though none would match the scale of the climate threat. Scientists say the world's output of greenhouse gases must peak around 2016, and then decline to stop at the critical 2-degree Celsius temperature increase by century's end. Projections show both countries' emissions will peak sometime after the mid-2030s.
Using the latest figures available, InsideClimate News culled federal and international energy data to tell the story of the world's two biggest polluters.
President Obama hasn't publicly drawn a connection between climate change and the Keystone XL pipeline, but new pressure is building on him and other officials to connect those dots.
Protests are springing up from Maine to Washington, D.C. to Oklahoma urging leaders to stop the Keystone XL and other oil sands import projects on climate change grounds. The Texas-bound Keystone XL is the biggest of many projects being proposed to connect Canada's oil sands to U.S. refineries and export ports. Protesters claim the pipelines would commit the United States and other countries to a form of heavy oil that would worsen global warming.
On Jan. 26, some 1,400 people marched through Portland, Maine, against possible plans to move oil from Canada's tar sands mines to local ports. Days earlier, hundreds of people joined solidarity rallies across New England and in Canada, where they picketed outside gas stations, locked arms along bridges and hoisted signs that read "Tar Sands = Game Over for Climate." On Monday, indigenous rights activists In Texas and Oklahoma filled public squares to show support for efforts by Canada's First Nations to block oil sands growth.
"We're trying to build the social movement" against expansion of tar sands oil extraction, said Sophie Robinson, who organized events last week through the Massachusetts chapter of 350.org, a grassroots organization that focuses on climate change.
1/31/13: The story has been updated with comments from industry.
1/30/13: This story has been updated to include information from the EPA that was received after publication.
One of the biggest unknowns in the unfolding Keystone XL debate is the role the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might play.
Because the Canada-to-Nebraska oil pipeline crosses an international border, the State Department, not the EPA, will decide whether to give the project the federal permit it needs. But the EPA will weigh in during the review, and its opinion will carry new weight now that the Obama administration has vowed to make climate change a national priority.
The EPA's position will become clearer when the State Department releases its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the project, which it is expected to do any day now. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to review and comment publicly on the SEIS, and the agency has not been shy about criticizing earlier drafts.
"The EPA actually could assert a fair amount of power depending on, basically, how much they want to stick their necks out," said Jim Murphy, senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, which opposes the pipeline. "The level of scrutiny this is going to get is pretty intense. With each iteration this goes through, the number of eyes increases."
Two and a half years after the costliest oil pipeline spill in U.S. history, the company responsible for the disaster is balking at digging up oil that still remains in Michigan's Kalamazoo River.
The cleanup has been long and difficult because the ruptured pipeline was carrying bitumen, a heavy oil from Canada's tar sands region. Bitumen is so thick that it can't flow through pipelines until it's mixed with liquid chemicals to form diluted bitumen, or dilbit. When more than one million gallons of dilbit poured out of the broken pipeline in July 2010, the chemicals evaporated and the bitumen began sinking to the riverbed.
Today, regulators and oil spill experts are still struggling to deal with the accident, which was the first major spill of dilbit into a U.S. waterway. The cleanup tools and techniques developed for conventional oil spills—which mostly float on water—are ineffective for submerged bitumen, so experts have had to come up with new methods.
In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked Enbridge Inc., the pipeline's Canadian owner, to clean up several miles of the river where submerged oil is still accumulating. The proposed order told Enbridge to dredge 80 to 100 acres of the riverbed. The request was based on the results of a yearlong study the EPA conducted with oil cleanup experts, Michigan state regulators and a committee of about 15 scientists.
The dredging is needed, the agency said, because the oil could spread into uncontaminated areas of the river if it isn't removed.
Sen. John Kerry made it clear Thursday that he will play a pivotal role in deciding the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline if he is confirmed as secretary of state.
“I’ll make the appropriate judgments about it,” he said, referring to the State Department’s ongoing review of the 1,200-mile tar sands oil pipeline. “There are specific standards that have to be met with respect to that review, and I’m going to review those standards and make sure they’re complete.”