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Q&A: Top Pipeline Safety Advocate on His 15-Year 'Bambi vs. Godzilla' Fight

'We’re really the only national group that focuses on pipeline safety. So how does Bambi stay alive in that environment?'

Jun 24, 2014
Carl Weimer speaking at the Pipeline Safety Trust's 2012 annual conference.

Fifteen years ago this month, gasoline from a burst pipeline spilled into a Bellingham, Wash. creek and exploded, killing three boys: ten-year-olds Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King, and 18-year-old Liam Wood. The tragedy opened the nation's eyes to dangers lurking in the labyrinth of pipelines underground and spurred Bellingham residents to launch SAFE Bellingham, a group that would later morph into America's first pipeline safety watchdog.

Front and center in the leadership of SAFE Bellingham was Carl Weimer. By 2003, when the Justice Department reached a settlement with Olympic Pipeline, Weimer had become so informed and passionate about pipeline safety that he was picked to lead the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nationally focused organization established with a $4 million endowment from the settlement.

At the time, the Trust's role in challenging the powerful oil and gas industry was described as "Bambi taking on Godzilla."

More than a decade later, the tiny Bellingham-based group still faces an uphill fight. But its influence is outsized and unmatched—especially as pipeline concerns move into the mainstream, partly due to the raging debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Weimer is now the go-to person to represent the public during Congressional hearings, industry conferences and meetings with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

In an extensive interview, Weimer spoke with InsideClimate News about the 15-year anniversary of the Bellingham tragedy and his group's challenges and successes. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

First Nations Being Courted to Back Tar Sands Refinery Projects on Their Land

Companies behind refining proposals are trying hard to avoid the mistakes Enbridge made on Northern Gateway pipeline—but an uphill fight awaits.

Jun 23, 2014

Despite last week's approval from the Canadian government, uncertainty still dogs Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline largely because of a vow from key aboriginal communities to block it.

Others in the oil industry are trying hard to avoid the mistakes Enbridge made when it comes to approaching Canada's powerful First Nations about projects that could contaminate their lands and waterways.

Pacific Future Energy Corp.'s recent refinery proposal is the latest example.

Earlier this month, the company unveiled plans for a $10 billion refinery in British Columbia that would convert Alberta's tar sands bitumen into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for export to Asia and other markets. Pacific Future Energy pledged to form a "full partnership" with affected First Nations, provide permanent jobs and build the "greenest refinery in the world."

Minnesota Town Caught in 'Frac Sand' Mining Rush Wants Answers on Pollution

Residents of Winona, Minn., a frac sand transportation hub, say data from the state pollution control agency is months overdue.

Jun 23, 2014

How much dangerous dust is being kicked into the air from the mounds of frac sand hauled daily across the southern Minnesota town of Winona?

Looking for answers, the community got the state to install in January a pollution monitor for crystalline silica, or frac sand—the first in Minnesota not financed by industry. Located on a building above a major intersection for sand trucks bound for fracking fields, it's been collecting data ever since.

The state Pollution Control Agency (PCA) said the data would be released in March.

But because of delays in finding a lab to process all of it, Winonans aren't any closer to answering their question.

Why EPA Expects Its New Carbon Rule to Shrink Your Electric Bill

Although the price of electricity very well might rise, even significantly in some places, your monthly bill won't.

Jun 20, 2014

When Gina McCarthy introduced the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to crack down on carbon pollution from existing power plants, she hammered at one assertion about the price consumers can expect to pay.

"Critics claim that your energy bills will skyrocket. They're wrong," she said. "Should I say that again? They're wrong."

It's a question at the heart of the debate over the proposed rules, with opponents insisting that the cost of producing electricity will be driven sharply higher as electric companies shift away from cheap, dirty coal. And those costs, they say, will be passed along to consumers.

As it turns out, McCarthy was choosing her words carefully. She didn't say the price of electricity would not rise. She said your monthly bill wouldn't. And that's mainly because she expects people to use less electricity.



Judge Upholds Jury Verdict for Family in Texas Fracking Case

Judge accepts jury verdict that awarded $2.9 million to family affected by air emissions from gas and oil wells near their Wise County home.

Jun 19, 2014
Bob and Lisa Parr at their wedding in 2008, with Lisa's daughter, Emma.

6/20/2014: This post has been updated to include a statement from Aruba.

The judge presiding over a pivotal case involving toxic emissions from gas and oil drilling has accepted a jury verdict that awarded $2.9 million to a family who said the emissions have made them sick.   

Judge Mark Greenberg issued a one page ruling late Thursday denying a motion by Aruba Petroleum to reject the jury’s verdict. Among Aruba’s arguments rejected by Greenberg were that Bob and Lisa Parr did not prove the emissions that made them sick came from Aruba wells.

The Parrs filed their lawsuit in March 2011, claiming they were "under constant, perpetual, and inescapable assault of Defendants’ releases, spills, emissions, and discharges of hazardous gases, chemicals, and industrial/hazardous wastes."

Following a two-week trial in April, a Dallas County jury found that Aruba "intentionally created a private nuisance" that affected the family's health and awarded the Parrs damages. The case is one of the first successful U.S. lawsuits alleging that toxic air emissions from oil and gas production have sickened people living nearby.

Lisa Parr said Greenberg's ruling further validates the family’s claim of being made sick by emissions generated by Aruba.

In the Amazon, Where 'Only Outsiders Like Going into the Forest'

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.

I was recently stranded on the wrong side of the Xingu River in a town called Senador José Porfirio. The funny thing is that I was the last to know. The three of us—myself, Pedro dos Santos, an activist representing rural settlers, and Francisco Moreira, one such rural settler—were chatting in Pedro's yard as the sun went down. I was wondering what it would be like to travel an hour up-river in complete darkness, and then I noticed how relaxed Pedro and Francisco seemed, as if nobody was going anywhere. Including me.

Pedro laughed. 

"In the Amazon, you know when you are going to leave, but you never know when you are going to get back," he said.

My opportunity to catch the last water taxi—and a connecting shuttle back to my hotel in Altamira, a primary hub along the Transamazonian Highway south of the main river—had gotten lost in translation. And although I didn't know it at the time, this would be only the first in a series of minor events that would force me to slow down and take in the local culture in a region I had been exploring for five weeks. 



Republican EPA Chiefs: No Excuse for Congressional Climate Inaction

Hearing meant to highlight some bipartisanship on EPA's new climate plan did more to expose the deep partisan divide over the issue.

Jun 18, 2014

By inviting four former Republican heads of the Environmental Protection Agency to testify in favor of prompt climate change action, Democrats on a Senate committee hoped to highlight some degree of bipartisan support for the EPA's crackdown on carbon emissions from power plants.

The four duly defended the agency and disputed the notion that air pollution regulations are harmful to the economy. They also declared their acceptance of the established science on man-made global warming as an increasingly compelling reason to cut emissions.

"We have a scientific consensus around this issue. We also need a political consensus," said Christine Todd Whitman, who was George W. Bush's EPA administrator, but who quit after the White House decided against controlling CO2 under the Clean Air Act, as the Obama administration is doing now.



Exxon Eyes July Restart for Ruptured Pipeline's South Leg, Worrying Residents

Residents living along the Texas portion of the Pegasus have questioned the safety of reopening any part of the line without extensive testing.

Jun 18, 2014

ExxonMobil intends to restart the southern portion of its Pegasus oil pipeline on July 1, ending a 15-month shutdown that began when the pipeline ruptured and flooded a residential street in Arkansas with crude.

The move is a disappointment to Texans like Barbara Lawrence, who said the 1950s-era southern leg of the Pegasus runs under the Richland-Chambers Reservoir, where she lives on the shore. She and others worry about potential oil spills in reservoirs and other waterways, and have questioned the safety of reopening any part of the Pegasus line without extensive testing.

"I think that's too bad, and I really think it's short-sighted," Lawrence said of the pipeline restart. Noting that the Richard-Chambers Reservoir is a source of drinking water, she added, "You'd think that other people, particularly in a drought situation, would want to protect the water supply."

Fate of $3M Fracking Damage Award for Texas Couple in Judge's Hands

If Judge Mark Greenberg decides in the Parr family's favor, the case could establish new legal standards for people fighting oil and gas industry.

Jun 18, 2014

A Texas judge will soon decide whether to accept a jury's $2.9 million award to a Wise County family who claims to have been sickened by emissions from the gas and oil wells surrounding their home.

In April, a Dallas County jury found that Aruba Petroleum, a Plano, Texas company, "intentionally created a private nuisance" that affected the health of Jim and Lisa Parr and their daughter. It appears to be the first successful U.S. lawsuit alleging that toxic air emissions from oil and gas production sickened people living nearby.

More than 100 wells have been drilled within two miles of the Parrs' Decatur, Texas ranch, 60 miles northwest of Dallas. One of Aruba's arguments is that it owns only 22 of those wells, so the emissions could have come from one of its competitors' wells.

If County Judge Mark Greenberg decides in the Parrs' favor, legal experts say the case could establish new legal standards that would benefit people who are fighting the industry. But another Texas case, decided nearly two decades ago, is cause for caution.

Like Keystone in the U.S., Canada's Pipeline to Pacific Is High-Voltage Politics

Despite the Harper government's approval, the Northern Gateway's future remains uncertain.

Jun 17, 2014

The Canadian government's decision Tuesday to approve the $7 billion Northern Gateway pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the coast of British Columbia does not guarantee that the pipeline will be built in the end—or that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will find it any easier to advance his Conservative party's energy agenda, which also includes getting the Keystone XL pipeline approved in the United States.

Politically, Canada's Northern Gateway debate has eerie parallels with the U.S. debate over the Keystone—but with some of the roles reversed.

In Washington, Republicans who strongly favor the Keystone have been pressuring vulnerable Senate Democrats from fossil-fuel or swing states to support legislation that would approve the pipeline without waiting for President Obama to weigh in. If enough of them abandon the president, the Senate could vote to ram the pipeline through. (A committee vote is set for June 18.) 



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