Three years ago, Franke James was a little-known artist who found herself blacklisted by the Canadian government for making art that lambasted the rapidly expanding tar sands. Infuriated and emboldened by the censure, James churned out a slew of pieces criticizing the government, published a book and in the process became one of Canada's most outspoken environmental activists.
Now, the Toronto resident is embarking on a new mission. She wants to raise awareness in the United States about what she believes are Prime Minister Stephen Harper's continuing undemocratic tactics to squash opposition to his oil agenda.
In doing so, she hopes to help persuade the Obama administration to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. The contentious project would carry 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands crude from Alberta to Texas and open a gateway for the flow of the dirtier grade of oil to export markets abroad. A decision is expected next year.
A well-heeled coalition of investors is asking top fossil fuel companies to calculate the risks of plowing billions into new oil, gas and coal projects. They fear that carbon emission limits and slowing demand will turn them into bad investments that leave investors worse off.
The requests, contained in letters sent to 45 companies last month, are part of an initiative aimed at persuading oil producers and others to rein in their quest to stockpile more carbon energy. They hope to do so by tapping into growing concerns that climate policies and market factors could prevent companies from selling all of their reserves of fossil fuels, which are still growing fast.
Companies with large amounts of such "unburnable" carbon resources could see their stock prices slashed, clobbering the value of investment portfolios that hold the shares. By one estimate, as much as 30 percent of the value of some of the world’s stock exchanges is in proven fossil reserves.
When ozone pollution skyrocketed in the tiny town of Boulder, Wyo., in 2008, it was relatively easy to identify the culprit as oil and gas drilling, the only major industry in the rural area.
Today, a similar situation in San Antonio, Texas, will be more difficult to resolve. The city has violated federal ozone standards dozens of times since 2008, but with so much industrial activity in and around the city—including the Eagle Ford shale drilling boom south of San Antonio—local officials are waiting for the results of a state-funded study to pinpoint the source of the pollution.
San Antonio's ozone problem is so serious that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could designate the city a nonattainment area for ozone, a hazardous air pollutant that can cause serious respiratory problems. If that happens, the growing city would likely be saddled with additional air quality regulations, including stricter pollution controls on vehicles and industrial plants.
In the six months since an ExxonMobil pipeline unleashed Canadian oil in an Arkansas neighborhood, nearby residents have had much to endure—the muck and stench of heavy crude, lengthy evacuations, sickness and economic loss.
They've also been in the national spotlight, as the upheaval in tiny Mayflower, Ark., has come to symbolize the risks of aging and overlooked oil pipelines, especially when they're hundreds of miles long and carrying tar sands crude. From Illinois through Texas, many people who live along the pipeline's route are now worrying about whether or when the ruptured line will resume pumping oil through 858 miles of fields, waterways, cities and suburban backyards.
"I have no say, and I have no idea what's going to happen," said Mayflower resident Ann Jarrell, whose home is not far from where the Pegasus pipeline split open on March 29. "That's the worst part—the not knowing."
That nagging uncertainty, however, is likely to persist for many more months.
An environmental organization with a $350 million war chest, a giant protest vessel, 28 activists and a rubber raft have succeeded in drawing Russian President Vladimir V. Putin into a very public global dispute.
Attention is now focused on the Greenpeace activists—who were arrested last month by Coast Guard agents for trying to hang a protest banner on an Arctic Ocean oil platform—and whether they will languish in prison for up to 15 years each on dubious piracy charges.
"They are obviously not pirates," Putin said in a speech to the International Arctic Forum last month. Yet Russian authorities so far seem to be throwing the book at the activists as international outrage grows to secure their freedom. Protests have been held at Russian consulates in about a half dozen cities worldwide to release the activists.
While the unfolding drama is now focused on issues of civil disobedience and human rights, underneath the uproar is a tangle of issues around Arctic drilling that Greenpeace has been campaigning to address for many years. And now it has secured the world's attention and a chance to spark a discussion—and the stakes are high.
In the tiny hamlet of Hairy Hill, Alberta, a highly energy-efficient grain-fed distillery does what it can to offset some of the greenhouse gas emissions spewed by the province's dirtier industries—mainly the tar sands.
The upstart company called Growing Power Hairy Hill turns grain, manure and household waste into liquid fuel and electricity while emitting essentially no greenhouse gases. It says it is Canada's first "integrated biorefinery."
Hairy Hill is one small gear in Canada's carbon-control strategy as the nation struggles to rein in its soaring greenhouse gas emissions. And it is one among more than four dozen government-funded projects that officials hope will help persuade President Obama to approve the Keystone XL, the cross-border pipeline that has been immobilized for years as the Obama administration considers its environmental and climate consequences.
But despite its low carbon footprint, the emissions credits the plant earns under Alberta's complex carbon offsetting scheme are a drop in the bucket compared to what the Keystone would add to the atmosphere.
At the U.S. Department of Energy's Washington, D.C. headquarters, the fourth floor feels like any other nondescript outpost of the federal bureaucracy. But the no-frills landscape of desks and cubicles belies the immensity of the job at hand.
Each day nearly 200 staffers scour loan applications, track billion-dollar debts and manage borrowers' credit risk as part of the department's Loan Programs Office—one of the biggest clean energy finance shops in the world.
You may think you've never heard of the LPO—after all, its $34.4 billion loan portfolio for renewable energy, nuclear and fuel-efficient technologies pales in comparison to, say, annual federal student loans (roughly $1 trillion) or even the $68 billion Congress used to rescue just one troubled insurance company, AIG.
But chances are that you know of the program because of one very large and very notorious loan.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Arkansas state legislators leery of lax federal oversight of oil pipelines have attempted to beef up safety standards to try to prevent another disastrous spill in their own backyard.
They're aware, however, that their efforts are largely symbolic.
That's because, in most instances, a state statute cannot infringe on the federal government's constitutional authority to set and enforce rules about petroleum pipelines. But for local lawmakers trying to calm constituent fears after a 65-year-old pipeline burst in central Arkansas, going it alone seemed the only option in an environment where the U.S. Congress and federal regulators seem incapable of strengthening rules that pipeline safety advocates perceive as weak and ineffective.
Peter Davidson walked nervously toward a U.S. Senate conference room in Washington, D.C. A lanky man with graying, wavy hair and thick-rimmed glasses, he was still studying the notes he had prepared when he stepped inside to face a dozen members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
"My name is Peter Davidson," he said as he slid into a black leather chair and pulled a microphone close. "I recently joined the Department of Energy as executive director of the Loan Programs Office…one of the largest clean energy and transportation portfolios in the world."
Though few outside Washington know it, the Energy Department's eight-year-old Loan Programs Office is at the center of the nation's highly political battle over clean energy. The program backs innovative energy projects that can't get private financing because their technology is too new and risky.
If one can believe a recent BBC poll, Germany is the most admired country in the world.
Germany's industrial skill and innovation, from sleek Bosch refrigerators to the global engineering acumen of Siemens, are the envy of the planet. Devoted to sound banking, progressive labor practices and a working social safety net, Germany largely dodged the Great Recession while still remaining the European Union's economic anchor.
But lately it is Germany's bold environmental policies that have attracted world attention. The country is striving to generate 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050—a goal bolstered by chancellor Angela Merkel's decision, in 2011, to phase out the use of nuclear power within a decade. Germans even have a bouncy portmanteau word for their ambitious efforts: the Energiewende, or energy transition.
Yet beneath that feel-good image of green stewardship and social justice is an ongoing unhealthy reliance on the dirtiest of fuels, soft lignite coal. Even as wind turbines and solar panels have sprouted all over Germany, giant strip mines continue to obliterate rural communities and foul the nation's air. In order to gain access to shallow lignite seams, mining companies have since World War II bought up and destroyed well over a hundred villages in Germany. They have relocated tens of thousands of people. And if they have their way, they will uproot still more people in coming decades.