The State Department's recent conclusion that the Keystone XL pipeline "is unlikely to have a substantial impact" on the rate of Canada's oil sands development was based on analysis provided by two consulting firms with ties to oil and pipeline companies that could benefit from the proposed project.
EnSys Energy has worked with ExxonMobil, BP and Koch Industries, which own oil sands production facilities and refineries in the Midwest that process heavy Canadian crude oil. Imperial Oil, one of Canada's largest oil sands producers, is a subsidiary of Exxon.
ICF International works with pipeline and oil companies but doesn't list specific clients on its website. It declined to comment on the Keystone, referring questions to the State Department.
EnSys president Martin Tallett said he couldn't talk about the proposed pipeline, but he pointed out that in addition to working for the oil industry, his company also works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and the World Bank.
"We don't do advocacy," Tallett said. "Our goal is to tell it like it is, to tell the way we see it… If we were the pet of government agencies or oil companies, the other side wouldn't come to us."
President Obama's expected choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency is Gina McCarthy, who as an assistant EPA administrator has shaped some of the agency's most contentious rules, including greenhouse gas regulations for new cars and power plants and air pollution standards for oil and gas drilling.
McCarthy, 58, hasn't made any public statements about what she would do if confirmed as EPA administrator, and the Office of Air and Radiation—which she currently heads—didn't return a request for comment. To get an idea of how she might lead the agency, we examined some of the speeches she's given over the past four years.
McCarthy's record shows she's a strong supporter of climate action. In 2009, when Congress was debating a carbon cap-and-trade bill (which died in 2010), she told a group of Connecticut energy experts that the country needs a "comprehensive energy bill moving forward that provides a cap-and-trade system" to deal with climate change.
The likely nomination of nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz to lead the Department of Energy has drawn criticism from some environmentalists who say his support for natural gas and close ties to industry would undermine efforts to tackle climate change. Moniz strongly favors natural gas as a "bridge fuel" and directs the MIT Energy Initiative, a research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that is funded by some of the world's largest fossil fuel companies.
"His appointment to the DOE could set renewable energy development back years," said a statement released by Food and Water Watch. The environmental group is circulating a petition opposing Moniz's nomination.
But an examination of Moniz's public record indicates a more nuanced outlook. Moniz did not return requests for an interview. However, in speeches and reports over the past few years, he has expressed concern for climate change, proposed additional funding for renewable energy and recommended more stringent regulations for natural gas production. He even hinted that he might support a tax on electricity to fund clean energy research.
Michigan regulators agreed last week to allow Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge Inc. to replace a 160-mile segment of an aging line that in 2010 spilled more than a million gallons of crude oil.
The decision by the Michigan Public Service Commission disappointed local landowners who had hoped for more scrutiny and oversight of the project.
"I am concerned with the haste with which this project has proceeded," said Jeff Insko, an English professor at Michigan's Oakland University who started the Line 6B Citizens' Blog for concerned landowners. "It's been fast-tracked both by Enbridge and the regulatory body here in Michigan. And given Enbridge's history in our state, it seems to me prudence and caution ought to guide us, and they haven't."
The 2010 spill from Line 6B contaminated 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River and has been difficult to clean up. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently asked Enbridge to remove submerged oil from several miles of the riverbed, a task that Enbridge is resisting. The price tag for the cleanup has already reached $810 million, making it the most expensive oil pipeline spill in U.S. history.
2/5/13: This story has been updated to include information from PHMSA received after publication.
Oil and gas pipelines could be made safer if pipeline operators had clear guidelines for how quickly they must respond to accidents—but federal regulators don't have the data they need to establish those rules, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent arm of Congress.
The first few minutes and hours after a pipeline accident are considered crucial for effective cleanup and damage prevention. But the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates the nation's 400,000-mile network of large volume transmission pipelines, requires only that operators respond in a "prompt and effective" manner.
The GAO urged the agency to replace this open-ended regulation with performance-based standards—specific, measurable goals that would make it easier to determine when operators have been negligent. To do that, PHMSA would have to set different rules for different types of pipelines depending on their contents, location, operating pressure, pipeline diameter and other factors.
Matthew Cook, a GAO senior analyst and a co-author of the report, said that to create those rules, PHMSA must first determine how fast operators are currently responding to accidents. But the GAO report warned that PHMSA's existing database, where pipeline accident information is filed, is incomplete and often inaccurate.
1/31/13: The story has been updated with comments from industry.
1/30/13: This story has been updated to include information from the EPA that was received after publication.
One of the biggest unknowns in the unfolding Keystone XL debate is the role the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might play.
Because the Canada-to-Nebraska oil pipeline crosses an international border, the State Department, not the EPA, will decide whether to give the project the federal permit it needs. But the EPA will weigh in during the review, and its opinion will carry new weight now that the Obama administration has vowed to make climate change a national priority.
The EPA's position will become clearer when the State Department releases its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the project, which it is expected to do any day now. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to review and comment publicly on the SEIS, and the agency has not been shy about criticizing earlier drafts.
"The EPA actually could assert a fair amount of power depending on, basically, how much they want to stick their necks out," said Jim Murphy, senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, which opposes the pipeline. "The level of scrutiny this is going to get is pretty intense. With each iteration this goes through, the number of eyes increases."
Two and a half years after the costliest oil pipeline spill in U.S. history, the company responsible for the disaster is balking at digging up oil that still remains in Michigan's Kalamazoo River.
The cleanup has been long and difficult because the ruptured pipeline was carrying bitumen, a heavy oil from Canada's tar sands region. Bitumen is so thick that it can't flow through pipelines until it's mixed with liquid chemicals to form diluted bitumen, or dilbit. When more than one million gallons of dilbit poured out of the broken pipeline in July 2010, the chemicals evaporated and the bitumen began sinking to the riverbed.
Today, regulators and oil spill experts are still struggling to deal with the accident, which was the first major spill of dilbit into a U.S. waterway. The cleanup tools and techniques developed for conventional oil spills—which mostly float on water—are ineffective for submerged bitumen, so experts have had to come up with new methods.
In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked Enbridge Inc., the pipeline's Canadian owner, to clean up several miles of the river where submerged oil is still accumulating. The proposed order told Enbridge to dredge 80 to 100 acres of the riverbed. The request was based on the results of a yearlong study the EPA conducted with oil cleanup experts, Michigan state regulators and a committee of about 15 scientists.
The dredging is needed, the agency said, because the oil could spread into uncontaminated areas of the river if it isn't removed.
The question of how an oil spill from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline might affect the Ogallala aquifer was raised again this month, in a report the U.S. State Department will use to help it decide whether to approve or reject the controversial project.
The report concluded that a spill would have little effect on Nebraska's primary source of drinking water, because the oil would spread less than a thousand feet within the High Plains/Ogallala aquifer. The impact on the Ogallala aquifer would be "local," not "regional," said the report, which was prepared by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and HDR Engineering, an Omaha-based consulting firm.
Scientists interviewed by InsideClimate News agreed with the report's conclusions that an underground spill probably wouldn't travel far and that a single accident wouldn't damage the entire Ogallala aquifer. But they also said the report didn't take into account other important factors:
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.