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Tue, 2014-02-04 10:28Ben Jervey
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Government Accountability Office: Taxpayers Getting Stiffed by Flawed Federal Coal Lease System

The Department of the Interior is selling publicly-owned coal for much less than it is worth, essentially allowing the coal industry to fleece U.S. taxpayers of at least $200 million. 

That is one of the main takeaways from a much-anticipated report released today by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which confirms that the coal leasing program is fundamentally flawed and deserves an overhaul. 

The GAO report, “BLM Could Enhance Appraisal Process, More Explicitly Consider Coal Exports, and Provide More Public Information,” finds that the coal leases employed by the Bureau of Land Management within the Department of the Interior lack competition, use outdated methods to determine “fair market value,” ignore the growing trend of coal exports, and deliberately keep information from the public. 

Senator Markey, who has been calling for an overhaul to the coal lease system since 1982, and who demanded this GAO review, responded to the report's release

These noncompetitive practices are costing taxpayers in Massachusetts and across the nation, benefitting just a few coal companies who may be leasing public coal resources at bargain basement prices,” said Senator Markey. “Taxpayers are likely losing out so that coal companies can reap a windfall and export that coal overseas where it is burned, worsening climate change. This is a bad deal all around.”

A vast majority of federal coal leases take place in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. Coal companies like Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, and Cloud Peak Energy are all deeply dependent on this artificially cheap coal from federal leases. 

One of the report's most stunning revelations is that roughly 90-percent of the leases issued by Interior were “single bidder” auctions, won by the company that applied for the lease, and who didn't bid against anyone else. 

Of the 107 leased tracts, sales for 96 (about 90 percent) involved a single bidder, which was generally the company that submitted the lease application,” according to the report. 

Another key finding is that the BLM uses outdated and incomplete methods to determine “fair market value” of the land and the coal. This is of particular importance when there is only a single bidder, as the auction process demands that the winning bid achieve “fair market value.” According to staffers in Senator Markey's office, “for every cent per ton that coal companies decrease their bids for the largest coal leases, it could mean the loss of nearly $7 million for the American people.”

Sun, 2014-02-02 11:45Ben Jervey
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No Matter How You Count Them, Fossil Fuel Subsidies Are As High As Ever

The exact worth of massive global fossil fuel subsidies is incredibly hard to figure. There’s no real consistency in the definitions of subsidies, or how they should be calculated. As a result, estimates of global subsidy support for fossil fuels vary widely.

According to a new analysis by the Worldwatch Institute, these estimates range from $523 billion to over $1.9 trillion, depending on what is considered a “subsidy” and how exactly they are tallied.

Worldwatch Institute research fellow Philipp Tagwerker, who authored the brief, explains:

The lack of a clear definition of “subsidy” makes it hard to compare the different methods used to value support for fossil fuels, but the varying approaches nevertheless illustrate global trends. Fossil fuel subsidies declined in 2009, increased in 2010, and then in 2011 reached almost the same level as in 2008. The decrease in subsidies was due almost entirely to fluctuations in fuel prices rather than to policy changes.

In other words, though the estimates vary widely, they all agree that fossil fuel subsidies are back up to the record levels they were at in 2008, before the financial crisis caused a temporary dip. So while world leaders, including President Obama, talk about ending subsidies that benefit one of the world's richest industries, there hasn't been any actual reduction. 

Mon, 2014-01-27 05:00Ben Jervey
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Oil on the Tracks: More Oil Spills from Railcars in 2013 than in Previous Four Decades [Updated]

As a direct result of the Bakken shale oil boom, more crude oil was spilled from rail cars last year than in the previous four decades combined. That’s according to a McClatchy analysis of federal data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which governs rail transport of liquid fuels like crude.

The analysis revealed more than 1.15 million gallons of crude spilled in 2013, considerably more than the 800,000 gallons spilled from 1975 (when the government started collecting data on spills) to 2012.

The rail industry likes to boast a 99.99% success rate in delivery shipments without incident, and that number remained consistent in 2013, with 1.15 million of the roughly 11.5 billion gallons shipped by rail being spilled. What did change was the volume of actual crude being shipped by rail.

As we’ve covered before, there is a massive boom in crude-by-rail throughout North America, with a nearly 2400-percent increase in crude railcar shipments in five short years from 2008-2012. As it turned out, 2013 was another record-setting year.

Thu, 2014-01-23 11:45Ben Jervey
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Tricks of the Trade: How Big Polluters Hide Climate Lobbying Behind Trade Groups

What do large companies do when they want to lobby against climate change and carbon mitigation measures without looking publicly like they're pro-pollution? According to a new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, they hide behind trade groups.

Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have essentially become puppets for the positions of the ventriloquist corporations they serve. Companies often position themselves publicly to suggest they support action to address climate change. But those promises are regularly contradicted by the lobbying activities of trade groups they are part of, such as the chamber, that fight against such policy action.

The Union of Concerned Scientists report, Tricks of the Trade: How Companies Influence Climate Policy Through Business and Trade Associations, doesn’t introduce this concept — organizations like 350.org have been calling out companies for their membership in the anti-science U.S. Chamber for years now — but its authors Gretchen Goldman and Christina Carlson take a deep, analytical look at the memberships of various trade orgs and dig into survey data from the companies to find some glaring contradictions.

Sat, 2013-11-16 10:00Ben Jervey
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Hospital Hosting Coal Event Requests Restraining Order Against Local Activists

A West Virginia hospital made a very unique request earlier this week. Authorities at St. Mary’s Medical Center asked a local judge for a restraining order against the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), which had announced plans to protest outside of a coal-boosting event at the hospital on Tuesday. 

Janet Keating, OVEC's executive director, explained that the goal of the rally was to ask why a facility dedicated to health would host an event that promoted the coal industry, which is clearly linked to many public health problems.

“There's been a lot of silence from our state leaders about these health studies and the impacts on communities around coal,” said Keating. “It's a mystery to me why a hospital would want to host this. Our whole thing is, 'Let's not have it at a hospital, where you're supposed to be helping people.'”

Hoping to stifle such discussion, while claiming that the rally could impede the services conducted at the facility, St. Mary’s requested a temporary restraining order.

In the courtroom, representatives for OVEC assured the judge that the gathering would be a “peaceful, lawful protest that will not trespass onto the hospital’s property.”

And after the judge sided with the coalition, that’s exactly how the protest went down - as a peaceful and lawful reminder to Huntington area residents that the coal industry does not have the best interests of public health in mind.

Fri, 2013-11-08 09:52Ben Jervey
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South Portland Tar Sands Pipeline Defeat: Big Oil Outspends Local Grassroots 6-to-1

Of all the elections and ballot measures voted on around the country on Tuesday, perhaps the most egregious example of the fossil fuel industry’s money influencing an outcome was seen in South Portland, Maine.

Voters in the coastal city were deciding whether to approve a ballot item that would have essentially prevented the loading of tar sands crude onto ships in the South Portland harbor.

The proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance, which appeared on the ballot after the Protect South Portland citizens group gathered enough signatures this past Spring, was voted down by less than 200 votes, out of 8,714 total votes cast.

In the months leading up to the vote, local residents were bombarded with media and direct mail campaigns opposing the ordinance. The week before the election, campaign finance reports revealed that the oil industry had pumped over $600,000 into ads and mailings opposing the measure.

The Save Our Working Waterfront campaign received most of its funding from big oil companies and industry groups like Citgo, Irving, and the American Petroleum Institute. A good chunk of the money raised - $123,427 to be exact - was used to hire the Maryland-based consultancy DDC Advocacy, which advertises its ability to organize online campaigns and “local grassroots” advocacy.

Contrast that $600,000 with the roughly $100,000 raised by the three local groups, including Protect South Portland, to support the ordinance.

According to Crystal Goodrich, who organized the door-to-door campaign efforts for Protect South Portland, the oil industry spent more per voter - about $32 per voter in this town of just 19,000 voters - than in even the most expensive elections across the country. “The oil industry bought this election at more than $135 per vote,” said Goodrich, calculating the cost for each “no” vote.

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