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EPA Loopholes Allow Biomass to Emit More Toxic Air Pollutants Than Coal, Study Says

Study finds air emissions from biomass facilities could be dramatically improved if so-called loopholes are closed in power plant regulations.

Apr 9, 2014

A new study charges that government regulations for biomass plants are riddled with loopholes that allow wood-burning facilities to spew more toxic emissions in the air than coal-fired power plants.

The findings are refueling a controversy over whether biomass should be treated as a renewable energy fuel and able to qualify for green incentives, or as a fossil fuel like coal.

The study, conducted by the Massachusetts-based Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), found that biomass facilities release as much as 50 percent more carbon dioxide than coal plants per megawatt-hour, and as much as 100 percent more than other air pollutants. The contaminants include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Biomass plant emissions "could be dramatically improved," said Mary Booth, the study's author who is the director of PFPI, a nonprofit environmental consultancy critical of biomass plants. She pinned the problem on so-called loopholes in federal and state environmental laws, which she said give biomass operators a way out of meeting strict standards.

Infographic: A Field Guide to the U.S. Environmental Movement

The 10 organizations leading the environmental movement collectively have 15 million members and an annual budget of more than $525 million.

Apr 7, 2014

The 120-year-old U.S. environmental movement has undergone a tectonic shift and resurgence over the last several years, spearheaded by the failed legislative effort to cap carbon emissions in 2010. In the aftermath of that debacle, some the biggest environmental groups reshaped their missions—supplementing inside-the-Beltway campaigning with grassroots organizing and civil disobedience action not seen in this country since the 1970s. New groups from the hyperlocal to the national and global were born.

Today the 10 organizations driving the modern green wave—profiled in the infographic below—collectively have 15 million members, 2,000-plus staffers and annual budgets of more than $525 million to advance environmental agendas at the local, national and international levels.

Toxic Emission Spikes at Fracking Sites Are Rarely Monitored, Study Finds

Gas drilling facilities have sporadic emission spikes that spew toxins harmful to human health, but states rarely monitor these fleeting events.

By Lisa Song and Jim Morris

Apr 3, 2014

People in natural gas drilling areas who complain about nauseating odors, nosebleeds and other symptoms they fear could be caused by shale development usually get the same response from state regulators: monitoring data show the air quality is fine.

A new study helps explain this discrepancy. The most commonly used air monitoring techniques often underestimate public health threats because they don't catch toxic emissions that spike at various points during gas production, researchers reported Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Reviews on Environmental Health. The study was conducted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit based near Pittsburgh.

A health survey the group released last year found that people who live near drilling sites in Washington County, Pa., in the Marcellus Shale, reported symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, breathing difficulties and nosebleeds, all of which could be caused by pollutants known to be emitted from gas sites. Similar problems have been reported by people who live in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, the subject of a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel.

Exxon to Reopen Ruptured Arkansas Pipeline, but Cause of Its Failure Remains Unknown

Exxon laid out its intentions Monday to reopen the 650-mile northern section of the Pegasus, saying the investigation into the Arkansas spill is complete.

Apr 1, 2014

Now it's official: ExxonMobil plans to fully reopen its idled Pegasus oil pipeline, including the 1940s-era segment that ruptured and dumped sticky tar-like Canadian dilbit into an Arkansas neighborhood. The Monday news ends the uncertainty over the pipeline's fate that has hung over people along the Pegasus route since the spill one year ago—though why it happened remains unknown.

Exxon's intentions are laid out in a one-page summary of how it plans to fix and verify the safety of the 650-mile northern section of the Pegasus, which includes the part that failed. The company intends to spend well into 2015 examining possible problems, completing repairs and running more robust tests on the pipeline, according to Exxon's fact sheet.



Climate Impacts Are Going to Hit the Developing World Hardest, IPCC Says

'Those countries who have contributed least to the manifestation of this problem are in jeopardy of being the most vulnerable to it.'

Apr 1, 2014

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's leading climate science body, declared in a new report that global warming is wreaking havoc "on all continents and across the oceans," with the worst yet to come. But by far the most severe impacts will strike the poorest countries that bear little or no historical responsibility for causing climate change, the report said.

"Those countries who have contributed least to the manifestation of this problem are in jeopardy of being the most vulnerable to it," said Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University and a coordinating lead author of the IPCC report. "The poor, the young, the old and the people who live along the coasts will be hit the hardest."

The message of "climate justice" comes through in the 2,500 pages of the IPCC's new report released on Monday in Japan. The hot-button concept frames global warming as an ethical issue and involves developed nations financing poor nations' climate-related losses, damage and adaptation efforts.



One Year After Exxon's Arkansas Spill, 8 Crucial Questions Still Unanswered

What caused Exxon’s Pegasus pipeline to split apart while the line was running well below maximum pressure? It's still anyone's guess.

Mar 28, 2014

It's been a year since a broken oil pipeline sent an estimated 210,000 gallons of Canadian dilbit into an Arkansas neighborhood, but there's still a long list of unknowns about the spill.

The most critical mystery yet to be resolved for the public: What caused ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline to break apart March 29 while the line was running well below its maximum approved pressure?

All the public knows now is that a metallurgical report concluded that substandard pipe-making methods left tiny cracks near the lengthwise seams on the 1940s-era northern Pegasus pipe. Those micro-cracks grew and merged during service to become dangerous "hook cracks," and then something—or a combination of things—caused at least one hook crack to open up a 22-foot gash in Mayflower, Ark.   

The report didn't determine what caused long-dormant manufacturing defects to awaken and expand, and didn't say whether the way the Pegasus was being operated, or the properties of the dilbit had a role in promoting crack growth on the pipe.

The metallurgical report was completed in July. There's been no news about the cause or the pipeline's condition since. Exxon has only said that it was conducting additional tests on the line to ferret out all the factors that contributed to the failure.

Keeping Secrets Has Been Exxon's Default in Ark. Oil Spill Case

From the time Exxon's Pegasus ruptured one year ago, there have been difficulties with getting spill-related information to the public.

Mar 28, 2014

Sometime before April 7, ExxonMobil will finally tell regulators and the public why its 1940s-era Pegasus oil pipeline split open in Mayflower, Ark. last March, spilling thick Canadian dilbit into a neighborhood and nearby cove.

Will Exxon just send out a statement announcing its conclusions about the cause or causes of the Pegasus spill? Or will it also make public the details and supporting evidence behind its determination? If Exxon doesn’t provide those details, will they be made available by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates most U.S. pipelines?

Actions to date aren’t encouraging, according to some pipeline experts and Arkansas officials. "It's been a constant process of trying to get information, trying to get data, trying to evaluate the tools and technology and processes that Exxon uses to ensure the integrity and safety of this pipeline," said John Tynan former watershed protection manager for Central Arkansas Water (CAW) and now its director of public affairs.



Why Did ICF Int'l Withdraw From Tar Sands Pipeline Contract with the State Department?

The scrutinized Keystone XL contractor says the decision to withdraw from the State Department's Alberta Clipper review was 'strictly a business decision.'

Mar 26, 2014

A State Department contractor for the Keystone XL that has been under attack for alleged conflicts of interest has withdrawn from contract negotiations to review a lesser-known but still controversial tar sands pipeline: Enbridge's Alberta Clipper.

The unusual move has led some legal and industry experts to question whether public and political pressure against the company might have played a role in the decision. "There's no doubt it is in the back of our minds," said David McColl, an energy analyst for Morningstar, an investment research company, who focuses on Enbridge. Federal contracts for major projects can be lucrative—potentially worth into the millions, depending on the scope and scale of the work and the agency involved—and are often the bread-and-butter of consulting firms' business.

On March 15, 2013, the State Department announced it had chosen ICF International, a technology and policy consulting group based in Fairfax, Va., to carry out the environmental review of Enbridge's proposed expansion of the Alberta Clipper oil pipeline to transport 880,000 barrels a day from Canada to Wisconsin.

Exxon, PHMSA Withholding Key Documents on Pegasus Pipeline as Restart Nears

Residents have been left in the dark about whether the Texas leg of the idled Pegasus has been made safe. The 211-mile segment could reopen this week.

Mar 25, 2014

The southern leg of ExxonMobil's idled Pegasus oil pipeline, a segment regulators say is susceptible to seam ruptures, might be restarted as early as this week. Residents along the pipeline and others, however, have no idea whether—or how—the pipeline has been made safe because the information is not publicly available.   

"We're all still in the dark," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Bellingham, Wash.

In a Jan. 31 letter seeking clearance to reopen the 63-year-old Pegasus southern section, Exxon told the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) that it "intends to initiate restart activities no later than March 28, 2014." A copy of the two-page letter was provided to InsideClimate News by PHMSA, but it is one of many important documents that have not been publicly released or made available on the agency website dedicated to Pegasus updates. One of those key documents, the restart plan for the southern leg, is still being withheld.

"I think it's terrible that there's something going on that affects people's lives that you really can't get any information about," said Barbara Lawrence, who said the Pegasus passes under the Richland-Chambers Reservoir, where she lives on the south shore. "Information is very hard to come by ... if you're just an average person going about your life, you know nothing [about the Pegasus]. But you should know about it, because it affects you."

Colorado's Tough New Drilling Rules Make an Impact in Texas

The possibility that Texas would adopt oil and gas rules for methane control and leak detection and repair 'is at least thinkable now.'

Zahra Hirji, Lisa Song and Jim Morris

Mar 20, 2014

Colorado's tough, new air pollution rules for the oil and gas industry were approved only a month ago but they're already making an impact in Texas, where lawmakers and energy companies have long resisted tightening air standards. 

Several companies have approached the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and expressed interest in discussing whether Colorado's rules make sense for Texas, according to Jim Marston, a vice president at EDF. Marston didn't name the companies. 

"The companies are often ahead of the Texas state government," said Marston, who works in the group's Austin office. "If some important industry leaders like the idea, it might move state government."

EDF played a leading role among the environmental organizations that helped craft the Colorado rules. Many energy companies also participated in the rule-making process, but only four of them—Anadarko Petroleum Corp., DCP Midstream, Encana Corp. and Noble Energy, Inc.—fully support the new regulations.