A committee that advises the federal government on how to make offshore oil drilling safer could be disbanded next month, even as the recent grounding of a Shell rig in Alaska is drawing new attention to the dangers of deepwater drilling.
The Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee (OESC), an advisory panel to the Department of Interior, was created after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill to gather input from a variety of stakeholders about the government's drilling policies. The 15-member panel—composed of government officials, academics, industry representatives and environmentalists—will meet today and Thursday for what could be its last meeting.
The committee is expected to vote on recommendations that its six subcommittees have been working on for almost two years, including a subcommittee focused on Arctic drilling. The recommendations will then be sent to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and to Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement director James Watson.
The committee will also discuss whether to ask to keep the panel alive after its two-year charter expires in February, said chairman Tom Hunter, a former president of Sandia National Laboratories. Salazar will make the final decision.
After years of protests and lobbying, the Obama administration is expected to decide within months on the fate of the 1,200-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The State Department is finalizing a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the project, which would ship tar sands oil from Canada, through America's heartland, and to the Gulf Coast via other pipelines.
The agency will use the SEIS—expected any day now—to help determine whether the project is in the "national interest," a term that includes economic, energy security and climate change considerations. Due to the pipeline's high profile, President Obama will play an important role in the decision.
Uncertainty and rumors are rife, partly because Hurricane Sandy reignited concern about human-caused climate change and fossil fuels, but largely because the two top officials who bear main responsibility for the decision will soon be replaced. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson will step down this month.
Sweeping energy legislation seems out of the question for Congress in 2013, but lawmakers are planning to advance smaller federal laws that could go a long way to expanding America's clean economy.
The proposal most likely to pass is a tax-code tweak that would let clean energy developers use master limited partnerships (MLPs), a type of company structure that Congress established in the 1980s.
Coal, oil and gas companies have used MLPs—which are worth about $300 billion today—to raise capital for oil pipelines, refineries and other energy projects. The financing mechanism is credited with sustaining the current shale drilling boom.
But the current tax code bans master limited partnerships from investing in "inexhaustible" natural resources like solar and wind.
Two identical bills in the U.S. House and Senate were proposed last year to extend MLPs to renewables but were never taken up. A groundswell of bipartisan support is building for the measure, experts say. Lawmakers are expected to reintroduce the bills in the coming months, which are likely to pass in 2013.
Recognizing the impact of global warming—or perhaps just looking for a little positive press—large corporations are adopting internal greenhouse gas reduction and renewable energy goals.
Noticeably underrepresented? Oil and gas companies.
A report released last month by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) showed that 58 of the country's Fortune 100 companies set goals in 2012 to either use more renewable energy for their operations or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, the number of participating companies was even higher—68 of the world's 100 largest companies have set some sort of greenhouse or renewable energy goal.
But energy companies lagged behind on both lists. Eight of the 11 domestic energy companies on the Fortune 100 haven't set internal energy goals. The exceptions are Hess and Chevron, which both set renewable energy and greenhouse gas targets, and ExxonMobil, which set a greenhouse gas target. (Hess was accidentally omitted from the report, according to a WWF spokesman.)
Eleven of the 20 energy companies on the global list hadn't set targets, the lowest participation rate of any industry.
To Our Readers:
We thought you'd like to see this year in review of our most trafficked headlines, organized by subject area.
Wishing all of you a holiday season filled with peace and a happy new year.
From all of us at InsideClimate News.
Exclusive, Special Reports
This was the year climate change vanished from the political agenda—and then suddenly reappeared, after Hurricane Sandy shook the country.
It was just a few years ago that Pres. Obama flew to Copenhagen to rescue faltering climate treaty talks amid bipartisan calls for global warming action. But in 2012, there wasn't a single Congressional proposal or hearing on climate legislation. Neither was there mention of climate change on the presidential campaign trail, or in the debates for the first time in decades.
In the rare instances that climate change surfaced in national discussions, politicians were fixated on the one aspect of warming scientists aren't debating: whether it's occurring.
Republican-affiliated climate researchers told InsideClimate News that attempts to educate their party leaders on the science were rebuffed. Meanwhile, many U.S. scientists fended off attacks of global warming skeptics, while Canadian scientists had to deal with budget cuts and muzzling by the government.
Amid the silence and skepticism, the Earth sent its own message.
In the northwestern corner of Indiana a major pipeline project is planned that will carry vast quantities of heavy Canadian crude oil across four rivers that flow into Lake Michigan, where 10 million people get their drinking water. The pipeline will cross one river just 11 miles from the lake. It crosses the other three rivers less than 20 miles from the lake.
Because the pipeline runs so close to Lake Michigan—and because it is being built by a company with a history of pipeline spills in the region—a growing coalition of environmental groups is demanding that it be given extraordinary oversight and protection.
But getting those protections will be almost impossible.
No federal or Indiana agency has authority to require the pipeline's Canadian operator, Enbridge, Inc., to move the line out of the Lake Michigan watershed—or to add extra safeguards, including sophisticated technology that can detect even minor spills.
This was the year "dilbit" registered on the U.S. political and public radar in a major way.
Bitumen is a heavy crude oil mined from Canada's oil sands region. The bitumen is so thick that it must be diluted with liquid chemicals before it can flow through pipelines—hence the term dilbit.
Environmental groups have long opposed oil sands production due to its climate change impacts. But dilbit is also significant because it doesn't behave like conventional crude oil when it spills into water. Those risks became apparent in July 2010, when a ruptured pipeline spewed more than a million gallons of dilbit into Michigan's Kalamazoo River.
Revelations that preventable safety lapses were behind Enbridge's disastrous oil spill in Michigan thrust the issue of pipeline safety into the mainstream this year.
A two-year investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board in July found that a "complete breakdown of safety" at Enbridge led to the 2010 oil spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River. The spill originated from a ruptured pipeline that spewed more than 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen (oil from Canada's tar sands) into the water. It was one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history and forced residents to relocate, caused health problems and left a mess that's still being cleaned up today.
The NTSB report criticized the Canadian pipeline giant for inadequate safety inspections and other human errors that resulted in Enbridge ignoring the spill for 17 hours.
An agency official compared Enbridge employees to the "Keystone Kops"—a phrase that drew immediate comparisons to a separate Keystone, the Keystone XL pipeline that's being proposed to cross the Ogallala aquifer, the nation's most important source of irrigation and drinking water.
Solyndra was the never-ending story of the year.
The bankruptcy of a solar company that got a half a billion dollars in taxpayer money provided election-year fodder for Republicans, who used it to bash Pres. Obama's clean energy programs. Fossil fuel interests spent tens of millions of dollars trying to make Solyndra a political liability—to no avail, in the end.
It wasn't just about Solyndra. In 2012, it seemed every major clean energy policy became a target of prominent conservative groups.