Sierra Club

Thu, 2014-09-04 06:00Sharon Kelly
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Shale Oil Drillers Deliberately Wasted Nearly $1 Billion in Gas, Harming Climate

In Texas and North Dakota, where an oil rush triggered by the development of new fracking methods has taken many towns by storm, drillers have run into a major problem.

While their shale wells extract valuable oil, natural gas also rises from the wells alongside that oil. That gas could be sold for use for electrical power plants or to heat homes, but it is harder to transport from the well to customers than oil. Oil can be shipped via truck, rail or pipe, but the only practical way to ship gas is by pipeline, and new pipelines are expensive, often costing more to construct than the gas itself can be sold for.

So, instead of losing money on pipeline construction, many shale oil drillers have decided to simply burn the gas from their wells off, a process known in the industry as “flaring.”

It's a process so wasteful that it's sparked class action lawsuits from landowners, who say they've lost millions of dollars worth of gas due to flaring. Some of the air emissions from flared wells can also be toxic or carcinogenic. It's also destructive for the climate – natural gas is made primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and when methane burns, it produces more than half as much CO2 as burning coal.

Much of the research into the climate change impact the nation's fracking rush – now over a decade long – has focused on methane leaks from shale gas wells, where drillers are deliberately aiming to produce natural gas. The climate change impacts of shale oil drilling have drawn less attention from researchers and regulators alike.

Sun, 2014-08-31 08:00Steve Horn
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Legal Case: White House Argues Against Considering Climate Change on Energy Projects

Just over a month before the United Nations convenes on September 23 in New York City to discuss climate change and activists gather for a week of action, the Obama White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) argued it does not have to offer guidance to federal agencies it coordinates with to consider climate change impacts for energy decisions.

It came just a few weeks before a leaked draft copy of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) latest assessment said climate disruption could cause “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”

Initially filed as a February 2008 petition to CEQ by the International Center for Technology Assessment, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) when George W. Bush still served as President, it had been stalled for years. 

Six and a half years later and another term into the Obama Administration, however, things have finally moved forward. Or backwards, depending on who you ask. 

NEPA and CEQ

The initial February 2008 legal petition issued by the plaintiffs was rather simple: the White House's Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ) should provide guidance to federal agencies it coordinates with to weigh climate change impacts when utilizing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on energy policy decisions. 

A legal process completely skirted in recent prominent tar sands pipeline cases by both TransCanada and Enbridge, NEPA is referred to by legal scholars as the “Magna Carta” of environmental law.

Magna Carta; Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

CEQ oversees major tenets of environmental, energy and climate policy. It often serves as the final arbiter on many major legislative pushes proposed by Congress and federal agencies much in the same way the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) does for regulatory policy. 

Wed, 2014-08-27 13:10Steve Horn
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State Dept. Overseers of Contentious Enbridge Tar Sands Pipeline Workaround Have Industry, Torture Ties

The Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and other green groups recently revealed that pipeline giant Enbridge got U.S. State Department permission in response to its request to construct a U.S.-Canada border-crossing tar sands pipeline without earning an obligatory Presidential Permit.

Enbridge originally applied to the Obama State Department to expand capacity of its Alberta Clipper (now Line 67) pipeline in November 2012, but decided to avoid a “Keystone XL, take two” — or a years-long permitting battle — by creating a complex alternative to move nearly the same amount of diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) across the border.

The move coincides with the upcoming opening for business of Enbridge's “Keystone XL” clone: the combination of the Alberta Clipper expansion (and now its alternative) on-ramp originating in Alberta and heading eventually to Flanagan, Ill., the Flanagan South pipeline running from Flanagan, Ill. to Cushing, Okla. and the Cushing, Okla. to Port Arthur, Texas Seaway Twin pipeline.

Together, the three pieces will do what TransCanada's Keystone XL hopes to do: move dilbit from Alberta's tar sands to Port Arthur's refinery row and, in part, the global export market.

Environmental groups have reacted with indignation to the State Department announcement published in the Federal Register on August 18. The public commenting period remains open until September 17.

Jim Murphy, senior counsel for NWF, referred to it as an “illegal scheme,” while a representative from 350.org says Enbridge has learned from the lessons of its corporate compatriot, TransCanada.

“When we blocked Keystone XL, the fossil fuel industry learned that they have a much stronger hand to play in back rooms than on the streets,” said Jason Kowalski, policy director for 350.org. “They will break the law and wreck our climate if that's what it takes for them to make a buck.”

But as the old adage goes, it takes two to tango. 

That is, influential State Department employees helped Enbridge find a way to smuggle an additional 350,000 barrels of tar sands per day across the border without public hearings or an environmental review. 

Thu, 2014-08-21 12:26Steve Horn
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After Oregon Rejects Coal Export Plan, Long Beach Votes to Export Coal and PetKoch

Just a day after the Oregon Department of State Lands shot down a proposal to export 8.8 million tons per year of coal to Asia from the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Oregon, the Long Beach City Council achieved the opposite.

In a 9-0 vote, the Council voted “yay” to export both coal and petroleum coke (petcoke, a tar sands by-product) to the global market — namely Asia — out of Pier G to the tune of 1.7 million tons per year. Some have decried petcoke as “dirtier than the dirtiest fuel.“ 

More specifically, the Council determined that doing an environmental impact statement before shipping the coal and petcoke abroad was not even necessary. 

decision originally made in June and then appealed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Communities for a Better Environment, the Council shot down the appeal at an August 19 hearing

“We are very disappointed about the decision, but that does not diminish the amazing victory in Oregon,” Earthjustice attorney Adrian Martinez said in a statement provided to DeSmogBlog via email. “The decision in Long Beach just highlights the grasp that the fossil fuel industry has on the City's leaders.”

The Earthjustice legal challenge and the the subsequent August 19 hearing was not about banning coal or petcoke exports. Rather, Earthjustice and its clients requested that the City of Long Beach do an environmental impact statement for two companies given contracts to export the commodities for 15-20 years.

One of those companies, Oxbow Carbon, is owned by the “Other Koch Brother,” William “Bill” Koch. Like his brothers David and Charles Koch, he has made a fortune on the U.S. petcoke storage and export boom. Also like his brothers, he is a major donor to the Republican Party.

Tue, 2014-08-19 15:40Steve Horn
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Court: Key Environmental Law Doesn't Apply to Part of Enbridge Keystone XL "Clone"

Keystone XL Clone Flanagan South

A U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has ruled that Enbridge’s 600-mile-long Flanagan South Pipeline, a Keystone XL “clone,” is legally cleared to proceed opening for business in October

Approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via a controversial regulatory mechanism called Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP 12), Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson, an Obama-appointed judge, ruled NWP 12 was not a federal government “action.” Thus, Brown posited that Enbridge did not need to use the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulatory process and NWP 12 was up to snuff.

The case pitted the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) against the Army Corps of Engineers and Enbridge and has lasted for just over a year, with the initial complaint filed on August 13, 2013 (Case #: 1:13-cv-01239-KBJ). 

Sierra Club and NWF submitted the recent precedent-setting Delaware Riverkeeper v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) case as supplemental authority for Sierra Club v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the day that decision was handed down. 

But Jackson brushed it aside, saying it doesn't apply to Flanagan South, despite the fact that the Delaware Riverkeeper v. FERC decision said that a continuous pipeline project cannot be segmented into multiple parts to avoid a comprehensive NEPA review.

Although Enbridge will operate this project as a single pipeline, Flanagan South was broken up into thousands of “single and complete” projects by the Army Corps of Engineers. This helped Enbridge skirt the requirement of a more comprehensive and public-facing NEPA review, which involves public hearings and a public comment period.

“Here, not only was there no NEPA analysis of this massive project, there was never any public notice or opportunity for involvement before it was constructed across four states,” Sierra Club attorney for the case, Doug Hayes, told DeSmogBlog. “The entire thing was permitted behind closed doors.”

For all intents and purposes, then, Flanagan South is a fait accompli and tar sands diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) will begin pumping through it as summer turns to fall. 

Sun, 2014-07-06 14:14Carol Linnitt
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One Year After Lac-Mégantic Disaster: Delay in Safety Regs, Groups Bring Oil Train Data to Communities

Lac-Mégantic oil train derailment, explosion

On July 6th, 2013, one year ago today, a train carrying oil derailed in the sleepy Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, resulting in an explosion so wild and so hot it leveled several city blocks and incinerated the bodies of many of its 47 victims. The accident put the tiny town on the international media circuit and dragged a new social concern with it: oil trains.

Whether you call them oil trains, tanker trains or bomb trains, chances are you didn’t call them anything at all before this day last year.

Before the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic, several smaller tanker train accidents across North America had already raised alarm over the danger of transporting oil and other fuels by rail in small communities with tracks often running through city centres and residential areas.

In the wake of Lac-Mégantic, however, critics, environmental organizations, journalists and concerned communities began tracking the growing movement of volatile oil shipments across the continent.

Thu, 2014-06-26 14:22Farron Cousins
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Obama Administration Secretly Weakening EPA Rules

One of highest hopes that environmentally-minded Americans had for President Obama when he first entered office was that he would finally put an end to the secrecy that marred the former Bush administration when it came to environmental policy. 

The image of then-Vice President Dick Cheney meeting in secret with dirty energy industry leaders was still fresh in our heads as we went to the polls in 2008, and we were all but certain that the country chose a leader that would leave those dark days in the past.

Sadly, those hopes for a policy change were dashed before the end of Obama’s first year.  He talked a big game on the campaign trail, but when it came to acting on those promises, that rhetoric proved to be just as hollow as his predecessor’s. 

Obama doubled down on coal, oil, and fracking, while allowing renewable energy investments to fall.  But the most disturbing part of the story is that Obama and his officials have been working in secret to weaken environmental standards that his administration has been patting themselves on the back for in public.

Recently, a federal judge expanded a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that was filed against the Small Business Administration (SBA), which claims that officials within the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has been working to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) power plant pollution standards.  The administration has been dragging its feet in providing the information requested, even after the court ruling, which has led environmental groups to file a complaint against the White House.

At issue is the EPA’s failure to update standards for existing power plants as required by the Clean Air Act — a move that the U.S. Supreme Court had previously said was required of the agency.  The current rules have not been updated since 1982, and environmental groups say that the lack of updating is due to influence from the White House itself.

Wed, 2014-06-25 13:27Steve Horn
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Recent Federal Court Decision Could Muddy Waters for Keystone XL South, Flanagan South

On June 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit handed down a ruling that will serve as important precedent for the ongoing federal legal battles over the Keystone XL and Flanagan South tar sands pipelines.

In the Delaware Riverkeeper v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) case, judges ruled that a continuous pipeline project cannot be segmented into multiple parts to avoid a comprehensive National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review. This is what Kinder Morgan proposed and did for its Northeast Upgrade Project.

As reported on DeSmogBlog, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did the same thing to streamline permitting for both the southern leg of TransCanada's Keystone XL and Enbridge's Flanagan South. Sierra Club and co-plaintiffs were denied injunctions for both pipelines in October and November 2013, respectively.

Delaware Riverkeeper v. FERC dealt with breaking up a new 40-mile long pipeline upgrade into four segments. For the other two cases, the Army Corps of Engineers shape-shifted the two projects — both hundreds of miles long each — into thousands of “single and complete” projects for permitting purposes.

On the day of the Delaware Riverkeeper v. FERC decision, Sierra Club attorney Doug Hayes submitted the case as supplemental authority for the ongoing Flanagan South case.

On May 5, Hayes also submitted paperwork to appeal the Keystone XL South decision in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which was docketed by the clerk of Ccurt the next day.

Hayes told DeSmogBlog his side will file an opening brief for the appeal on July 30. It seems likely Delaware Riverkeeper v. FERC will be a key part of that appeal.

In a sign of the importance of the outcome for the oil and gas industry, the American Petroleum Institute (APIentered the Sierra Club v. Army Corps of Engineers case on Keystone XL as an intervenor on May 16, represented by corporate law firm Hunton & Williams.

At the federal level, Hunton & Williams lobbies on behalf of Koch Industries, a company with a major stake in tar sands leases and refining.

Thu, 2014-05-15 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Pressure Grows on EPA to Regulate Toxic Air Pollution from Oil and Gas Industry

On Tuesday, 64 environmental groups, representing over 1 million members and supporters, submitted a legal petition to the Environmental Protection Agency, calling on the federal government to more closely regulate toxic air pollution from oil and gas drilling sites.

Continued, uncontrolled toxic pollution from oil and gas production creates serious health threats in metropolitan areas across the country,” the groups wrote, warning that over 1.04 million oil and gas wells have been drilled in the U.S. and as many as 45,000 new wells are expected annually over the next two decades.

The petition represents a shot across the bow of the EPA, as the filing lays the groundwork for lawsuits by environmental groups should the agency fail to act.

The move puts the EPA on notice that it may be violating federal law by failing to regulate air pollution from oil and gas drilling and fracking sites. “EPA also has a responsibility under the Clean Air Act to protect people from toxic air emissions nationwide,” the groups wrote, “and under section 112(n)(4)(B) it must do so.”

Absolutely this lays the groundwork for possible future litigation,” said Jeremy Nichols, a program director for WildEarth Guardians, one of the signatories to the petiton, “oil and gas wells are one of the most under-regulated sources of toxic air pollution in the U.S., yet these very wells are increasingly being drilled and fracked in communities across the nation.”

The current shale drilling boom has led to a massive spike in the number of people living near drilling, and the lack of federal regulation over the industry has led to complaints from residents across the US about the impact on their health and the health of their families.

Wed, 2014-05-07 13:52Chris Rose
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Climate Change "Has Moved Firmly into the Present," Latest NCA Federal Report States

Climate change is already negatively affecting every region in the United States and the future looks even more dismal if coordinated mitigation and adaptation efforts are not immediately aggressively pursued, according to the third U.S. National Climate Assessment report released Tuesday.

Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” notes the massive NCA report.

Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience. So, too, are coastal planners in Florida, water managers in the arid Southwest, city dwellers from Phoenix to New York, and Native Peoples on tribal lands from Louisiana to Alaska.”

The report adds evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the nation. The report says Americans are already noticing the results of climate change, from longer and hotter summers to shorter and warmer winters. Rain falls in heavier downpours, there is more flooding, earlier snow melt, more severe wildfires and less summer sea ice in the Arctic.

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