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Jailed & Shot for Fighting Coal: Q&A With Ramesh Agrawal, Goldman Prize Winner

'I will continue to fight. From the beginning I knew my life would be at risk.'

May 22, 2014

NEW DELHI, India—With great difficulty Ramesh Agrawal limped to the podium in San Francisco last month to receive the prestigious Goldman Prize for grassroots environmental activism. Still recovering from gunshot injuries inflicted by thugs allegedly on the payroll of a steel and power giant, Agrawal had to be helped up by his son Raman.

The shattered thigh bone he suffered in July 2012 was the price Agrawal, 60, paid for helping block a coal mine by the powerful Jindal Steel and Power Limited in his mineral-rich state of Chhattisgarh. Months after the mine was rejected assailants broke into the small Internet cafe Agrawal owned since 1999 and aimed guns at his chest. A mobil phone he hurled knocked the men off balance before they fired. Most of the bullets missed, but one entered his thigh and another his groin.

Agrawal's grit and determination have become an inspiration for environmental activists across India who have been fighting a losing battle against forces unleashed by the steady privatization of the country's vast mineral resources. That includes coal—India's most abundant energy resource, responsible for 68 percent of its electricity generation. India's inefficient coal-fired power plants are notorious smoke and pollution belchers. Coal mining is even dirtier.

Federal Study to Assess Dangers of Dilbit When It Spills

Are dilbit spills more dangerous to people and the environment than leaks of conventional oil? For the first time the U.S. will study this question.

May 21, 2014

The federal government said Tuesday it will study a critical question in the battle over oil pipelines carrying Canadian diluted bitumen: Are spills involving dilbit more dangerous to people and the environment than leaks of lighter traditional oil?

In recent years, dilbit spills in Michigan, Arkansas and elsewhere have provided convincing evidence on the subject, but researchers are still working on definitive scientific studies that would translate those examples into broader conclusions about the risks of dilbit.  

The disastrous effects of those spills—and fear that future spills could foul aquifers and vital waterways—have inflamed opposition to dilbit pipelines across the country. It's one of the issues in the years-long debate over TransCanada's partly built Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would carry more than 800,000 barrels per day of dilbit from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. The controversial project still lacks the required presidential permit for the segment stretching from the U.S.-Canada border through Nebraska.

News of the study came during questioning at a Congressional hearing held Tuesday to review the progress by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) toward fulfilling mandates included in the 2011 pipeline safety act.

What's Next for Brazil's Cerrado, Deforested Focus of Booming Agriculture?

Roughly half of Brazil's wooded savannah—about 250 million acres—has already been cleared for agricultural purposes.

May 20, 2014

Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate.

As I write this I'm flying 6,000 feet above the Brazilian Cerrado, a broad term that encompasses a range of drier vegetation types throughout the center of the country extending into the Amazon River basin. Gazing out the window of this single-engine propeller plane, I see a mosaic of cropland and pastures extending to the horizon in all directions. The dry season arrived barely two weeks ago, and the lush greens have yet to give way to browns in the state of Goias.

I see sharp lines and rounded edges, green pastures and red soils, with forests snaking along gullies, streams and the occasional river. I can only assume that the little white specs below are cows. After 20 minutes in the air, I get my first view of a large patch of wild Cerrado, covering a series of hills that extends into the distance. Then it's gone. We pass a reservoir filled with olive green water.

Illegal Dumping of Texas Frack Waste Caught on Video

The waste fluid from oil and gas drilling is often disposed of wherever it is convenient and out of sight, Texas watchdog group says.

May 19, 2014

Under the cover of early-morning darkness in South Texas last March, a tanker truck ferrying fluids from an oil and gas drilling site rumbled down a country road spewing its toxic load all over the place.

The concoction of drilling fluid, which typically includes undisclosed and dangerous chemicals, oil, metals shavings and naturally occurring radioactive materials, coated eight miles of roadway, according to a Karnes County Sheriff's Department report obtained by InsideClimate News. 

The spill has prompted an investigation by the sheriff's department, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the state Railroad Commission.

If not for surveillance video given to the sheriff's department, the trucker responsible for the dumping may have disappeared into the night. But the video caught the distinctive flash from the reflective stripes on the tanker. It was the telltale clue detectives needed.

Fracking's Air Pollution Drives Couple From Their Home of 23 Years

'We're not anti-drilling at all...It's just causing me a lot of medical issues, and I can't have it.'

May 16, 2014

KARNES COUNTY, Texas—After 23 years living on the South Texas prairie, Lynn and Shelby Buehring are looking for a new home, far from the fumes, traffic and noise of the Eagle Ford Shale boom.

It will mean leaving the white house beneath the oak trees where they expected to live out their retirement. The decision, said Lynn, 58, was a measure of last resort, dictated by her deteriorating health and failed attempts to get help from state regulators.

"We're not anti-drilling at all," she said. "My complaint is they need to do it in a responsible way... It's just causing me a lot of medical issues, and I can't have it."

Buehring's symptoms began when the drilling rigs arrived in late 2011. Her asthma worsened from a seasonal nuisance to the point where she needed two rescue inhalers and made frequent use of a breathing machine. She also developed chest pains, dizziness, constant fatigue and extreme sensitivity to smells.

What the U.S. Climate Assessment Has to Do With the KXL Decision

The pipeline originated in the Bush era, when similar climate reports had the status of orphan or pariah. Times have changed.

May 15, 2014

The Obama administration's National Climate Assessment published last week after several years of work by 13 federal agencies is a striking example of the differences between Barack Obama and his predecessor on global warming science and policy.

Obama is emphasizing that climate change is now here and that action to confront it cannot be delayed. George W. Bush, in sharp contrast, put the accent on uncertainty and delay.

In "Keystone and Beyond," a new e-book published by InsideClimate News, I explore such differences between Obama and Bush as a way of examining the Keystone XL decision in historical context—to see what's changed since the pipeline was proposed under Bush, and how these changes may influence Obama's decision on whether the project is in the nation's interest. The two presidents faced starkly different oil markets, for example. They also took opposite views on whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant, whether it should be controlled under either the Clean Air Act or under a new cap-and-trade bill, and whether the United States should commit itself to steeply reducing carbon emissions under a new global treaty.

When it comes to how they dealt with the science of climate change—including the national climate assessments—the difference between the two presidents could not be sharper.

Understanding this is especially useful now, given the role the new NCA report is expected to play in the Obama administration's decision-making from now on. As John Podesta, Obama's special counselor, put it: "This assessment is about presenting actionable science."

Texas Judge Gives No Restitution to Citgo's Victims in Pollution Case With Wide Implications

Restitution would have included screenings for cancer and other diseases for victims exposed to chemicals from Citgo's illegally operated refinery.

By Priscila Mosqueda

May 14, 2014

A foreign oil company convicted of polluting a Texas community's air with dangerous chemicals has gotten off easy in a criminal case that could undercut the prosecution of environmental crimes in the United States. The case revolves around Venezuelan-owned Citgo Petroleum's decade-long violation of the federal Clean Air Act at its refinery in Corpus Christi.

In 2007, the Citgo refinery became the first to be criminally convicted of violating the Clean Air Act by a U.S. jury. The refinery had spent a decade illegally operating two giant oil-water separator tanks without any emission controls. Every day for 10 years, nearby residents breathed noxious fumes emitted from the roofless tanks, including the carcinogen benzene.

It took another seven years, until February, before the judge in the case finally sentenced the company. U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey fined Citgo a little more than $2 million—a penalty prosecutors said would not deter Citgo from committing future crimes since, they argued, the company made $1 billion in profit as a result of its illegal operation. Corpus Christi residents were disappointed with the fine, but disappointment quickly turned into fear and confusion when the judge refused to announce in court his ruling on how much restitution must be paid to the refinery's neighbors.

On April 30, people who had been awaiting a decision for years finally found out what they would receive from Citgo: absolutely nothing.

"When I walked out of [the courtroom] I knew what it was gonna be: he was going in Citgo's favor," says Thelma Morgan, who lived two blocks away from Citgo for more than 35 years and whose husband and son were also exposed to toxic chemicals. "When he said 'I'll notify you all by letter' I said then, 'You're against us, so we can forget it.'"

EPA Asked to Regulate Fracking's Toxic Air Emissions

Petition filed by 64 groups outlines concerns about air pollution from drilling in populated areas and demands robust regulation under the Clean Air Act.

By Jim Morris

May 13, 2014

Seeking to close what a lawyer called "serious gaps" in regulation, 64 environmental and community groups on Tuesday petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down on toxic air emissions from oil and gas operations.

The 112-page petition, filed by the public interest law firm Earthjustice, asks the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to develop "robust emission standards" limiting the amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals that can be released by wells and associated equipment.

"Some of the documented health effects of the many types of [hazardous air pollutants] emitted during oil and gas production include increased risks of cancer, respiratory diseases, and birth defects, among others," the petition says.

New Amazon Forest Law: Will It Stick?

Attempting to better understand Brazil's controversial new forest code and its future results in wildly different interpretations.

May 13, 2014
Jeff Tollefson

Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate.

BRASILIA, Brazil—Gazing out the window of the National Library of Brazil, across the concrete plaza, past the concrete dome of the National Museum and on to the most wondrous concrete Congress complex, I couldn't help but marvel at the audacity of Oscar Niemeyer and the band of architects that designed this city.

It's a city of bold and orderly forms where human activities are zoned with remarkable efficiency: government ministries here, housing there, all connected by an impressive network of roads, green spaces and pedestrian corridors. Everything is black and white—quite literally, in the case of the monumental concrete structures designed by Niemeyer himself. Here we see theory put into practice, then accosted by reality in the form of traffic, urban blight and suburban sprawl.  

The same could be said for Brazil's vaunted "Codigo Florestal," or Forest Code. Enacted in 1965, this is the law that limited the amount of forest that could be cleared in any given area—up to 20 percent of the total area for large properties in the Amazon, more for smaller properties and in other regions. It also prescribed how much forest must be retained along riverbanks and set standards that protect slopes. From an ecological perspective, it was hard to beat.

But the Forest Code, like the carefully planned architecture of Brasilia, has been utterly overwhelmed by reality.

KXL and the National Interest: Obama Is in Uncharted Territory

When two previous presidential pipeline approvals were made, America's energy and climate change future looked a lot different.

May 12, 2014
Barack Obama in White House

Whenever President Obama eventually decides on a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, it will be safe to say this: A lot has changed since Washington's previous two big pipeline decisions.

As part of the research for "Keystone and Beyond," a new InsideClimate News e-book on the history of the Keystone XL decision, I examined Bush's 2008 granting of a permit for the first Keystone  pipeline, the initial step in TransCanada's plans to link Canadian tar sands oil with American refineries. And I looked at Obama's 2009 granting of a permit for the Alberta Clipper, a similar cross-border pipeline built by Enbridge.

It's not easy to see either as a meaningful precedent for the Keystone XL verdict, even though all three pipelines are meant to expand energy supplies of Canadian crude into U.S. markets.

To read the decision papers on the first Keystone and on the Clipper is to step back in time. Expectations for oil supply and demand were dramatically different from today. So was the thinking about how to control the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Describing changes like these is the main thrust of "Keystone and Beyond."