U.S. oil and energy companies are facing a barrage of climate-related shareholder proposals this year, many of them demanding action or disclosures on low-carbon strategies, political spending and lobbying, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate-change risks.
Other resolutions address hot-button energy issues such as the dangers of transporting crude oil in mile-long trains, concerns over hydraulic fracturing, and returning money to shareholders instead of spending it on expensive new oil projects.
The flood of environmental and social-issues resolutions is part of a trend. Over the past five years, more than 180 of those kinds of shareholder resolutions have gone to a vote at energy companies—far more than for any other industry, according to Heidi Welsh, executive director of the Sustainable Investments Institute. At corporate annual meetings, shareholders can propose advisory resolutions calling on management to adopt or change a wide range of policies.
Without management support, almost all of these resolutions are soundly voted down, but proposals that gather more than a few percentage points of support often get management's attention. The recent rush of energy company resolutions has won more than 25 percent of shareholder votes on average, an unusually high level of backing, Welsh said. She is co-author of the newly released 2015 Proxy Preview, a yearly report that includes tallies and analysis of a wide range of socially responsible shareholder proposals.
Officials from five states weighed in Wednesday at a Senate hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Their characterizations of the plan ran the gamut from "misguided" and "problematic" to "workable and practical."
The perspectives threw into sharp relief the vastly different viewpoints of states on the Clean Power Plan, which is a part of the Obama administration's broader strategy to head off climate change.
The arguments ran mainly along party lines. New York and California, strongholds of Democratic power, supported the proposal, while the other three states lambasted the EPA for forcing them to comply with a plan they see as unfeasible and unnecessary.
When science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway published their 2010 book "Merchants of Doubt," they exposed how a small network of hired pundits and scientists delayed legislative action on issues ranging from tobacco to flame retardants to climate change for decades.
Five years later, a film based on the book is in theaters—and is as relevant as ever.
A small group of industry-funded scientists and commentators continue to sow doubt about the science of climate change in Congress and in the media. The oil and gas industry has poured millions of dollars into the communications strategy in an effort to continue America's reliance on fossil fuels and protect its billions in profits. Last month, the release of public documents showed that scientist Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics had accepted fossil fuel funds for publishing papers arguing that the sun is driving modern climate change, not mounting greenhouse gases. He also failed to disclose the funding in academic journals' conflict of interest statements.
ICN reporters Lisa Song and Zahra Hirji contributed to this story.
In the months before the debut of the new documentary film "Merchants of Doubt," long-time climate denialist Fred Singer contacted more than two dozen bloggers, public relations specialists and scientists asking for help in derailing the documentary’s release.
"Can I sue for damages?” Singer asked in an email last October. "Can we get an injunction against the documentary?"
Singer is one of the "merchants of doubt" identified in the documentary, as are a number of other recipients of his email. The documentary, released nationwide last week, exposes the small network of hired pundits and scientists helping to sow doubt about climate science and delay legislative action on global warming in the United States.
Singer's email became public earlier this week when it was leaked to journalists.
Many of those copied on the email thread, such as Singer and communications specialist Steven Milloy, have financial ties to the tobacco, chemical, and oil and gas industries and have worked to defend them since the 1990s. Others seem relatively new to the denialist camp, such as climate scientist Judith Curry. All, however, have been vocal before Congress, on broadcast news or on the Internet in arguing that human activity is not the primarily driver of climate change.
The widely discredited theory that natural solar cycles are driving global warming has been part of the national conversation surrounding climate change for years, and continues to stoke confusion in the public mind. Climate contrarian Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon has been one of the most influential promoters of that idea.
Soon has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for accepting donations from fossil fuel companies in exchange for publishing his solar hypothesis, and then not disclosing the funding in conflict-of-interest statements.
Soon's theory has been debunked by several scientific committees, including the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences. Satellites have measured no increase in solar output in the past half century, meaning it "isn't even remotely credible to argue that solar output can be responsible for the anomalous warming of recent decades," said Michael Mann, a climate scientist as Pennsylvania State University.
Scientists have also found that only the troposphere, the layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth's surface, is warming, while the stratosphere, the layer that sits above it, is cooling. This is what scientists would expect to see if human-caused greenhouse gases were causing the planet to heat up.
"If the sun were to blame, all the layers of the atmosphere would be warming," from the outermost exosphere to the innermost troposphere, said Qiang Fu, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington. The stratosphere definitely would not be cooling, he said.
Two months after the biggest fracking-related spill in recent North Dakota history, state lawmakers are pushing legislation that could help prevent similar disasters in the future.
More than 2 million gallons of toxic wastewater gushed from a hole in the type of pipeline known as a "gathering line" near the town of Williston between the last week of December and first week of January. The spill contaminated at least two local waterways. The rupture went unnoticed for about 12 days before a pipeline worker discovered it.
Gathering lines carry oil, gas and wastewater laced with heavy metals, high salt levels and possibly radioactive material from wells to other sites, for processing or disposal. The number of such lines continues to soar in the midst of the nation’s fracking boom.
North Dakota has 20,000 miles of gathering lines, mostly in rural areas, and that number is expected to increase by around 60 percent over the next five years. State regulators know the location of only about one-third of the existing gathering lines—all the lines installed after August 2011. The recently ruptured line falls into this minority; it was installed last summer.
Of the more than 240,000 gas-and-crude gathering lines nationwide, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulates only a fraction of them—mainly the lines that cut through cities. Few states have any regulations on the books for such pipelines.
Wastewater, or produced water, lines are another animal: No one knows how many exist, they don't fall under federal jurisdiction, and most states aren't tracking them. "The whole gathering-line issue is a big question mark," said Samya Lutz, outreach coordinator for the advocacy group Pipeline Safety Trust. "Produced water would be another question mark on top of that," Lutz added.
Now, two competing bills in the North Dakota legislature would take the first steps to regulate wastewater-and-crude gathering lines, because those lines have proved to be most at risk of spills. The bills are currently written to target future pipelines, not the thousands of miles of active pipelines for either produced water or crude oil.
It's been so bitter cold in New England this winter that it didn't surprise Dr. Mark R. Windt when one of his patients came in wheezing and complaining of shortness of breath.
The cold air had aggravated her asthma.
The daytime high temperatures sometimes weren't getting out of single digits.
"That is cold, COLD," said Windt, a specialist in allergies, immunology and pulmonology in North Hampton, N.H.
Scientists have attributed the frigid temperatures and historic snowfalls to storm tracks that have become stronger and more frequent because of increased greenhouse gas emissions that alter atmospheric conditions.
"There's no doubt climate change had an effect on my patient's asthma and is having an effect on the health of others," Windt said.
Windt and a majority of his colleagues in the American Thoracic Society who specialize in the treatment of respiratory illnesses are connecting some of their patients' disorders to climate change.
A recent survey by the society found that the majority of its members believe climate change is having a negative impact on the health of their patients. The survey was published in the February issue of the Annals of the American Thoracic Society.
Under fire for accepting research grants from fossil fuel interests and failing to disclose all of them, climate skeptic Willie Soon challenged journalists last week to examine conflict-of-interest disclosures for mainstream climate scientists.
News reports of Soon's situation are "a shameless attempt to silence my scientific research and writings," he said in a statement issued through the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank. After documents suggesting conflicts of interest in Soon's publications were made public last month, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) initiated an investigation of the funding sources of seven other mainly climate skeptic scientists.
InsideClimate News took up Soon's challenge. After interviewing experts on scientific research and climate denialism, we were not able to find a single case of a conventional climate scientist who had failed to disclose his or her sources of research funding, or who had granted rights of prior review of research results and anonymity to his or her funders, as Soon has done.
The main reason is that almost all the funding for mainstream climate research comes from government agencies, is awarded only after intense peer-reviewed competition, and is a matter of public record. Except for two grants from the Mount Wilson observatory, all of Willie Soon's research since 2002 was funded by fossil fuel interests, according to information provided to InsideClimate News by Soon's employer, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
More than three and a half years after an ExxonMobil pipeline spilled 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River, the world's second-most-valuable company is still fighting regulators over being assessed a $1 million fine.
Exxon last month attacked the legal underpinnings of the government's case, which stems from the July 2011 rupture of the Silvertip Pipeline near Laurel, Mont. The oil giant argued that it complied with federal regulations and that pipeline regulators overstepped their authority in interpreting the legal requirements. It also said that all but one of the violations should be dropped and that the government should, at a minimum, "significantly reduce" the penalties.
Alexis Bonogofsky, whose family farm was inundated with oil from the spill, thinks the penalty is already too low.
"As an impacted landowner, it's upsetting to me that these fines are so tiny for someone like Exxon," said Bonogofsky, who is also tribal lands manager for the National Wildlife Federation in Billings, Mont. Exxon, which is second only to Apple Inc. in market value, took in $32 billion in 2014, a sum equal to $88 million per day.
Freshly formed snowball in hand, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma took the Senate floor last week. He was there to discuss the "hysteria on global warming," he said, citing the snowball and a frigid winter in Washington, D.C. as evidence that the climate isn't changing.
The senator was roundly criticized for being out of touch with the science of global warming—which involves fiercer winter storms. His prop threw the Republican Party's views on climate change into sharp relief. While top Democratic leaders including President Barack Obama consider it a dire threat, much of the GOP still denies that the planet is warming or that it's caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
With just 10 months until the first 2016 presidential primary in New Hampshire, candidate names and campaign donations are already pouring in. Most political pundits count about 20 potential Republican contenders at the moment—a list that includes current and former governors, congressmen and a surgeon.
Many of them share Inhofe's view that the world is not warming, or if it is, that humans aren't contributing to climate change. Deep-pocketed fossil fuel companies and advocacy groups are squaring up to spread around billions of dollars in campaign contributions.
There are serious ramifications for global warming in the 2016 presidential election. The next president could move to reverse Obama's initiatives to fight climate change and adapt to it, while resisting scientists' urgent calls to drastically and quickly slash greenhouse gas emissions.
Former Secretary of State and former Senator Hillary Clinton, the early Democratic frontrunner, has called global warming the "most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face." At the same time, some environmentalists have criticized her support for increased natural gas production.
Here's InsideClimate News' review of the climate positions of the top 11 GOP presidential contenders: