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Sun, 2014-06-01 15:59Ben Jervey
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How Your Town Can Ban Fracking: A Q&A with Goldman Prize Winner Helen Slottje

Helen Slottje has redrawn the map of fracking in upstate New York.

Since 2010, Slottje and her husband David, both attorneys, have battled to keep fracking out of New York communities using local zoning laws. Since pioneering this novel legal strategy in the town of Ulysses, near their home town of Ithaca, the Slottjes have traveled town to town, helping communities understand language in the state’s constitution that gives municipalities the right to make and enforce these local land use decisions.

Today, more than 175 communities in New York have fracking bans on the books, so that even if the statewide moratorium on fracking were to be lifted tomorrow, oil and gas companies would be barred from plunging their drills within those municipalities' borders.

Their efforts were recognized last month with the Goldman Environmental Prize, which some call the “Green Nobel.” The prize committee celebrated Slottje’s pro-bono legal assistance for “helping towns across New York defend themselves from oil and gas companies by passing local bans on fracking.”

Of course, the fracking industry has fought back, challenging the bans in many towns, all of which have been decided in the towns’ favor in the state’s lower courts. Two cases, in the towns of Dryden and Middlefield, are up before the Court of Appeal which will hear oral arguments on June 3 in Albany.

DeSmogBlog spoke with Helen Slottje about how she got into the fracking fight, how to talk about fracking to communities that are being promised so much wealth by industry, how to go face-to-face with big oil and gas flacks, and what lessons could be learned from the success of the town bans for other battles against the fossil fuel industry. The hour-long conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Fri, 2014-05-23 05:00Steve Horn
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Revealed: Former Energy in Depth Spokesman John Krohn Now at U.S. EIA Promoting Fracking

For those familiar with U.S. Energy Information Administration's (EIA) work, objectivity and commitment to fact based on statistics come to mind. Yet as Mark Twain once put it, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

That's where John Krohn comes into play. A former spokesman for the gas industry front group Energy in Depth (EID), Krohn now works on the Core Team for EIA's “Today in Energy!“ 

Krohn has been at EIA since at least January 2014, when his name first appeared on the EIA website. On his Twitter account, he describes himself as an EIA communications manager.

As DeSmog revealed in February 2011, Energy In Depth was launched with a heavy injection of funding from oil and gas industry goliaths such as BP, Halliburton, Chevron, Shell and XTO Energy (now owned by ExxonMobil).

With its public relations efforts conducted by FTI Consulting, EID now serves as a key pro-industry front group promoting unfettered hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to the U.S. public.

Krohn follows in the footsteps through the government-industry revolving door of the man President Barack Obama named to head the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for his second term, former Massachusetts Institute of Technology “frackademic,” Ernest Moniz. DOE is the parent agency for EIA

Further, EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski, another second-term appointee of President Obama, also passed through the same revolving door as Krohn and Moniz in his pathway to heading EIA. He formerly worked in the world of oil and gas finance. 

Thu, 2014-05-01 12:06Steve Horn
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Gulf Stream: Williams Suspends Bluegrass Gas Export Pipeline, Announces New Export Line

Right before the champagne bottles began popping for activists engaged in a grassroots struggle to halt the construction of Williams Companies' prospective Bluegrass Pipeline project — which the company suspended indefinitely in an April 28 press release — Williams had already begun raining on the parade.

The pipeline industry giant took out the trash on Friday, April 25, announcing its intentions to open a new Louisiana pipeline named Gulf Trace.

Akin to TransCanada's ANR Pipeline recently reported on by DeSmogBlog, Gulf Trace is not entirely “new,” per se. Rather, it's the retooling of a pipeline system already in place, in this case Williams' Transco Pipeline system

The retooling has taken place in the aftermath of Cheniere's Sabine Pass LNG export facility receiving the first ever final gas export permit from the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) during the fracking era.

Williams' Transco Pipeline System; Photo Credit: William Huston

Both ANR and Gulf Trace will feed into Sabine Pass, the Louisiana-based LNG export terminal set to open for business in late 2015Also like ANR, Transco will transform into a gas pipeline flowing in both directions, “bidirectional” in industry lingo.

Bluegrass, if ever built, also would transport fracked gas to the Gulf Coast export markets. But instead of LNG, Bluegrass is a natural gas liquids pipeline (NGL)

“The project…is designed to connect [NGLs] produced in the Marcellus-Utica areas in the U.S. Northeast with domestic and export markets in the U.S. Gulf Coast,” it explained in an April 28 press release announcing the project's suspension. 

Mon, 2014-03-24 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Research Shows Some Test Methods Miss 99 Percent of Radium in Fracking Waste

Every year, fracking generates hundreds of billions of gallons of wastewater laced with corrosive salts, radioactive materials and many other chemicals. Because some of that wastewater winds up in rivers after it’s treated to remove dangerous contaminants, regulators across the U.S. have begun to develop testing regimens to gauge how badly fracking wastewater is polluted and how effective treatment plants are at removing contamination.

A newly published scientific study, however, shows that testing methods sometimes used and recommended by state regulators in the Marcellus region can dramatically underestimate the amount of radioactive radium in fracking wastewater.

These test methods can understate radium levels by as much as 99 percent, according to a scientific paper published earlier this month in Environmental Science and Technology Letters. The tests, both recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency for testing radium levels in drinking water, can be thrown off by the mix of other contaminants in salty, chemical-laden fracking brine, researchers found.

Not all the radium tests from the Marcellus region dramatically understate radioactivity. Many researchers, both public and private, have used a method, called gamma spectroscopy, that has proved far more reliable than the EPA drinking water method. But the results of the research serve as a warning to regulators in states across the U.S., as they make decisions about how to monitor radioactivity in fracking waste.

People have to know that this EPA method is not updated” for use with fracking wastewater or other highly saline solutions, said Avner Vengosh, a geochemist at Duke University.

The team of scientists from the University of Iowa tested “flowback water,” the water that flows out from a shale well after fracking, using several different test methods. The EPA drinking water method detected less than one percent of radium-226, the most common radioactive isotope in Marcellus wastewater.

Tue, 2014-03-18 06:00Sharon Kelly
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A Record Year of Oil Train Accidents Leaves Insurers Wary

Spurred by the shale drilling rush that has progressed at breakneck speed, the railroad industry has moved fast to help drillers transport petroleum and its byproducts to consumers. Last year, trains hauled over 400,000 carloads of crude oil, up from just 9,500 carloads in 2008, according to railroad industry estimates.  Each carload represents roughly 30,000 gallons of flammable liquids, and some trains haul over 100 oil cars at a time.

But with this fast expansion has come some astounding risks — risks that have insurance companies and underwriters increasingly concerned.

A string of oil train explosions have highlighted the potential for harm. A train hauling 2.9 million gallons of Bakken oil derailed and exploded on November 8 in Aliceville, Alabama, and the oil that leaked but did not burn continues to foul the wetlands in the area.

On December 30th, a train collision in Casselton, North Dakota 20 miles outside of Fargo, prompted a mass evacuation of over half the town’s residents after 18 cars exploded into fireballs visible for miles. 400,000 gallons of oil spilled after that accident, which involved two trains traveling well below local speed limits.

Those crashes are all on the radar of the insurance industry,” attorney Dean Hansell recently told Law360.

All told, railcar accidents spilled more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil in 2013, federal data shows, compared with an average of just 22,000 gallons a year from 1975 through 2012 — a fifty-fold spike.

Thu, 2014-02-13 17:23Graham Readfearn
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Australia Appoints Climate Science Denier As Top New York Official

ONE block east of Grand Central station, in a skyscraper on 42nd St, is the office of Australia’s Consul-General.

It’s a high profile diplomatic role and one that gives business leaders, thinkers and politicians the chance to see what drives the Australian Government of the day.

In April, Australia will have a new Consul-General taking up that seat on New York's 42nd Street.

Seemingly in lock-step with the prevailing views of the conservative government in Australia, that man will be Nick Minchin — a rusted-on denier of the science of human-caused climate change and power broker in the country’s Liberal (that’s conservative) Party.

Minchin has claimed the “extreme Left” has used environmentalism as a way to try and “de-industrialise” the western world. He thinks human-caused climate change is a scare story.

Minchin’s appointment was announced by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who said the consulate role was “high profile” and that it could be used to “influence perceptions of Australia” in the city.

She said Minchin’s role would be to influence “key individuals and companies across a range of sectors particularly business and politics.”

Things could get a little awkward if talk at those business and political lunches turns to climate change — which it surely will in a city acutely aware of its susceptibility to climate change impacts.

In April 2012, Minchin ridiculed the notion that human-caused climate change was a risk, writing in a column that “despite the hype” the ice at the world’s poles was not melting and that “our cities aren’t being submerged.”

Six months later, New York was submerged by the storm surge from ex-cyclone Sandy. 

Thu, 2014-01-30 12:47Justin Mikulka
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New York Governor Cuomo Issues Executive Order on Oil by Rail Safety

Yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order directing several state agencies to review the risks posed by trasportation of crude oil by rail in New York. This issue has recently gained attention in Albany as the public has become aware of the large amounts of Bakken crude oil being shipped into Albany by rail, where it is then transferred to tankers that travel down the Hudson River.  

The Governor’s order requests many relevant actions but also acknowledges that most of this is under federal jurisdiction and thus there isn’t much the state can do about it.  Much of what the Governor is requesting has been suggested by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) many times over the years, as the agency did again this past week.

The new suggested NTSB changes have the support of the American Association of Railroads. However, the companies that actually would be responsible for most of the costs associated with improving rail car safety are the oil companies themselves. The American Petroleum Institute responded to the new safety regulations
by pointing the finger at the rail companies, stating that, “the first step is to prevent derailments by addressing track defects and other root causes of all rail accidents.”

And the dance that has gone on around this issue for years continues on, resulting in more press releases, but no action.

Here is a video I produced about the oil by rail issue in New York: 


Wed, 2013-10-16 12:18Carol Linnitt
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Canadian Taxpayers Fund Harper’s $65,000 Keystone XL Advertising Trip

The hotel rental for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s September visit to New York City cost Canadian taxpayers a total of $65,582.91 according to documents recently released by CTV News.

Canada and the U.S. are making important progress on enhancing trade, travel and investment flows between our two countries, including securing our borders, speeding up trade and travel, modernizing infrastructure in integrated sectors of the North American economy, and harmonizing regulations,” Harper said at the event. “But there is much more that can be done, and must be done, to make our economic relationship more productive and seamless.” 

The event, organized by the Canadian American Business Council, gave Harper the opportunity to tell an audience of American business executives that he wouldn’t “take no for an answer” on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, planned to carry tar sands crude from Alberta to oil refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

The hotel bill for the luxurious New York Palace Hotel, which was mistakenly sent to CTV’s Washington bureau, suggests Harper’s speaking engagement was a staged promotional gathering for the Keystone XL, rather that a typical guest speaker event which are usually paid for by the host.

The hotel charges include coffee services for $6,650.00, room rental for $33,500.00 and audio visual services of $14,709.15. An overall service charge for the room and coffee came to $9,234.50.

Tue, 2013-03-12 05:00Steve Horn
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State Department Keystone XL Study Done by Oil Industry-Connected Firm with Big Tobacco, Fracking Ties

On March 1, the U.S. State Department published its long-awaited Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the TransCanada Keystone XL (KXL) tar sands pipeline

The KXL is slated to bring tar sands crude - also known as diluted bitumen or “dilbit” - from Alberta, Canada to Port Arthur, TX. From Port Arthur, it will be refined and exported to the global market

Flying in the face of the slew of scientific studies both on the harms of burning tar sands and on the KXL itself, State determined that laying down the pipeline is environmentally sound. 

Unmentioned by State: the study was contracted out to firms with tar sands extraction clientele, as revealed by InsideClimate News

“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,” InsideClimate News explained. “ICF International works with pipeline and oil companies but doesn't list specific clients on its website.”

Writing for Grist, Brad Johnson also revealed the name of a third contractor - Environmental Resources Management (ERM) Group - which TransCanada hired on behalf of the State Department to do the EIS

”(ERM) was paid an undisclosed amount under contract to TransCanada to write the statement, which is now an official government document,” Johnson explained. “The statement estimates, and then dismisses, the pipeline’s massive carbon footprint and other environmental impacts, because, it asserts, the mining and burning of the tar sands is unstoppable.”

ERM, a probe into the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) Tobacco Archives reveals, has deep historical ties to Big Tobacco. Further, a key employee at ICF International - via familial ties - is tied to the future of whether hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for shale oil and gas becomes a reality in New York's portion of the Marcellus Shale.   

Wed, 2013-03-06 15:03Steve Horn
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Breaking: NY Assembly Passes Two Year Fracking Moratorium, Senate Expected to Follow

In a roll call vote of 95-40, the New York State Assembly has passed a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the toxic horizontal drilling process through which oil and gas is procured that's found within shale rock basins across the country and the world.

The bill, if passed by the Senate and signed off by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would close the state's doors to the oil and gas industry's desire to begin operating in New York's portion of the Marcellus Shale basin until May 2015. New York has had a moratorium on the books since 2008. 

This is the third time the Assembly has passed such a bill, with similar moratorium bills passing in 2010 and 2011, but then dying a slow death in the Senate and never reaching the Governor's desk, meaning the de facto moratorium has remained in place

Could the third time be a charm in 2013 in the Empire State?

Signs point to “quite possibly,” because the bipartisan Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) bloc of the Senate - which shares control of the Senate with the Republicans - has come out in support of the bill's passage, according to the Associates Press (AP).

“We have to put science first. We have to put the health of New Yorkers first,” Sen. David Carlucci (D-38) and an IDC member told the AP.

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