ExxonMobil

The Many Problems With Tar Sands Pipelines

Enbridge tar sands pipeline spill Kalamazoo River Michigan

Note: This post is part of an ongoing series about North American pipelines. For an introduction and links to the wide-ranging coverage–from safety to legal issues to the business and economics to vulnerabilities–see this regularly-updated intro post.

On Monday, the House passed a bill that would force the Obama administration to make a final decision on TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline by November 1. The Keystone XL project (which regular DeSmogBlog readers should be familiar with) would funnel tar sands oil from Alberta’s massive reserves down to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas.

This isn’t the place to discuss in too much depth the various and plentiful problems with Alberta tar sands itself – from extraction to transportation to refining to combustion, it’s the dirtiest oil on the planet. From a climate perspective, the Alberta tar sands contain enough carbon to lock the planet into climate chaos. In the words of NASA climatologist Jim Hansen, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over.”

Because Keystone XL is so controversial, and because its construction could be such a tipping point in the climate fight, a broad and diverse coalition of scientists and activists are digging in their heels for a big fight, and planning a multi-week action at the White House. (Here’s more on how to get involved.)

But since this is a post about pipelines, I’m going to focus on how tar sands pipelines are different than those that carry conventional crude, how they’re much more prone to leaks and spills, and how those spills are particularly bad for the environment.

Exxon and Koch Pay ALEC for Access to State Legislators

Corporations are circumventing lobby laws by purchasing direct access to the nation’s lawmakers, according to a recent Bloomberg investigative report. Through membership fees paid to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington D.C. based policy institute, corporate entities like Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries are playing an active role in shaping state legislation.

According to Bloomberg, Koch and Exxon are among energy companies that stand to benefit from a cross-country energy policy that they helped write. Both companies paid a participation fee between $3,000 and $10,000 to sit at a legislative drafting table, among policy authors and elected officials.

ALEC charges membership fees of up to $35,000 and levies additional costs if companies want to join in policy creation sessions. The resulting draft “model legislation” is then adopted by member officials who support its passage into law.

The process amounts to a legal loophole, through which corporations can influence public procedure without registering the activity as lobbying.

David Legates Asked To Step Down As Delaware State Climatologist

David Legates, former Delaware State Climatologist

David Legates announced this week that he was asked to step down as Delaware State Climatologist, a position he held for seven years. A long-time denier of the human contribution to climate change, Legates’ tenure as State Climatologist has always been a controversial one.

Back in 2007, because of his stance on climate, then-governor Ruth Ann Minner insisted that Legates stop using the formal title in any public statements on climate change policy. Minner wrote to Legates:
“Your views on climate change, as I understand them, are not aligned with those of my administration. In light of my position and due to the confusion surrounding your role with the state, I am directing you to offer any future statements on this or other public policy matters only on behalf of yourself or the University of Delaware, and not as state climatologist.”
Legates maintained the title, however, which is designated by the Dean of the public university’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.
But this week, according to Legates himself, the Dean asked him to “step down.”
Legates sent the following note to his email list:

Gas Industry Spent "Staggering" Amount Lobbying in Pennsylvania Last Year

The gas industry spent $3.5 million last year attempting to convince Pennsylvania lawmakers of the benefits of drilling the state’s deposits of unconventional gas. According to lobbying disclosure reports filed with the Department of State, the lobbying blitz to influence public policy was orchestrated by a collection of 22 companies, the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association (PIOGA).

Rep. Greg Vitali of Havertown described the disclosed amounts as “staggering,” adding that, “it isn’t the type of spending you would find from fledgling companies.”

The Times-Tribune reports the figures as follows:

Creator of the Valdez Catastrophe, ExxonMobil, Tries to Downplay Yellowstone Spill

The ExxonMobil pipeline that runs under the Yellowstone River in Laurel, Montana ruptured late Friday night, leaking 1,000 barrels of oil into the river. ExxonMobil estimates that approximately 160,000 litres of oil seeped into the river, one of the principal tributaries of the upper Missouri River. 

The spill has forced hudreds of evacuations, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said that only a small fraction of the spilled oil is likely to be recovered. Its unclear how far the damage will extend along the river, but fishing and farming are likely to be impacted. 

Record rainfall in the last month has caused widespread flooding, and compromised spill cleanup efforts. While residents wait impatiently for the arrival of Exxon cleanup crews (who are only now arriving on site), Exxon is engaging in image control by trying to convince people that the spill is not as bad as it seems.

Denial For Hire: Willie Soon’s Career Fueled by Big Oil, Coal and Koch Money

Willie Soon, the notorious climate denier who has made a career out of attacking the IPCC and climate scientists, has received over $1 million in funding from Big Oil and coal industry sponsors over the past decade, according to a new report from Greenpeace.

The Greenpeace report, “Dr. Willie Soon: a Career Fueled by Big Oil and Coal,” reveals that $1.033 million of Dr. Soon’s funding since 2001 has come from oil and coal interests. Since 2002, every grant Dr. Soon received originated with fossil fuel interests, according to documents received from the Smithsonian Institution in response to Greenpeace FOIA requests.

The documents show that Willie Soon has received at least $175,000 from Koch family foundations (Soon is a key player in the Koch brothers’ climate denial machine, as Greenpeace documented previously), $230,000 from Southern Company, $274,000 from the American Petroleum Institute, and $335,000 from ExxonMobil, among other polluters.

Manhattan Institute Op-ed Exemplifies Why NY Times Should Require Disclosure of Financial Conflicts

The New York Times ran an op-ed last week by Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute, a group funded by Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and other polluters to confuse the public about climate change and energy issues. Robert Bryce goes to great lengths to portray solar and wind power as land-hogging energy choices. He suggests that fracked shale gas and nuclear are somehow more environmentally preferable energy options.

This is a common argument from Bryce, who had a similar pro-fracking op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week, and who has emerged as one of the loudest of a growing cadre of critics of clean energy. Most of these critics are, not surprisingly, affiliated with “institutes” (i.e., front groups) that get money from the dirty energy industries that solar and wind are starting to disrupt.

Bryce’s argument was quickly debunked by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), which points out a number of factual errors and omissions in the Manhattan Institute representative's piece.  AWEA was correct to take on Bryce's misinformation and set the record straight. Climate Progress also picked apart Bryce's claims in detail.

But one important question remains - why does The New York Times print such misleading opinion pieces without revealing the clear conflict of interest that a Koch/Exxon-funded front group representative has on such matters? Did the Times’ even ask, and does it do so as a matter of standard practice? {C}

WPI Students Protest ExxonMobil Speaker at Graduation

After four grueling years of late nights studying and more Ramen noodles than any one person should ever consume, most students don’t find themselves protesting their own graduation. Yet on Saturday, a group of graduates from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) did just that as a row of seats towards the back were left empty for them. No, they weren’t protesting the abhorrent prices of graduation gowns they would never wear again or the absence of top-shelf champagne at the ceremony: they were protesting its speaker.

As soon as WPI announced Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, would be this year’s graduation speaker, many students suddenly were “left confused, even betrayed,” graduating senior Katrina Crocker told DeSmogBlog. It didn’t make sense that WPI, a school recognized as one of the greenest universities in the nation, would invite the CEO of one of the largest dirty energy companies on the planet to address the class of 2011. In contrast to WPI’s green priorities, ExxonMobil reaps billions in dirty energy profits while polluting the environment and contributing to global climate change, all while simultaneously funding front groups to attack climate scientists and confuse the public.

Don't Be Fooled: Fossil Fools Fund Latest Climate Skeptic Petition

The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) recently published a flashy headline that reads, 900+ Peer-Reviewed Papers Supporting Skepticism Of “Man-Made” Global Warming (AGW) Alarm’. The article links to a blog post on Populartechnology.net listing more than 900 papers which, according to the GWPF, refute “concern relating to a negative environmental or socio-economic effect of AGW, usually exaggerated as catastrophic.”

The “900+ papers” list is supposed to somehow prove that a score of scientists reject the scientific consensus on climate change. One might be persuaded by the big numbers. We’re not.

Bonuses After Blowouts: Transocean Rewards Executives for Shoddy Safety

Nearly a year has passed since the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed eleven workers and caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history. A presidential commission blamed Transocean, the owner of the rig, and both BP and Halliburton for cost-cutting that caused the blowout. The BP blowout’s ravages continue, and it may be many years before we understand the full impacts of the oil disaster including the health implications of Corexit, the dispersant that was used to break apart the oil to minimize the (visible) damage. 

Transocean leased the Deepwater Horizon rig to BP, and 9 of the workers killed in the blowout were employees of the offshore drilling giant.  Given that, it seems curious that the company awarded its executives $400,000 in “safety” bonuses for 2010. According to the company, 2010 was “the best year in safety performance in our company’s history”. Yes, we’re talking about the same company that helped cause the industry’s highest-profile accident since the 1989 ExxonMobil Valdez spill in Alaska.

According to the company, executive bonuses are calcuated based on two satefy critera: the rate of incidents per 200,000 hours that employees work, and the potential severity of those incidents. By their estimations, in 2010, the rate of incidents dropped by 4% from 2009.

The company argued that they had an “exemplary safety record”. Perhaps they have a different understanding of “severity”, and of “safety” for that matter. 

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