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Fri, 2013-12-20 09:45Steve Horn
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Dollarocracy: U.S. Congressmen Refuse to Address Keystone XL Southern Half Spill Concerns

What's the U.S. congressional response to the safety issues with the 485-mile southern half of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline raised by Public Citizen's Texas office? Mostly what Simon & Garfunkel called “The Sound of Silence” in their famous song.

DeSmogBlog contacted more than three dozen members of the U.S. Congress representing both political parties to get their take on Public Citizen's alarming findings in its November investigation (including dents, metal that had to be patched up and pipeline segments labeled “junk”), but got little in the way of substantive responses.

Set to open for business on January 22approved via an Executive Order by President Barack Obama in March 2012 and rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline Project” by TransCanada, the southern half of the pipeline has garnered far less media coverage than its U.S.-Canada border-crossing brother to the north, Keystone XL's northern half.

Over two dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter to President Obama on December 12 expressing concern over the conflicts-of-interest in the U.S. State Department's environmental review process for the northern half of the line.

But none of them would comment on concerns with the southern half of the line raised in the Public Citizen report after multiple queries via e-mail from DeSmogBlog.

Wed, 2013-12-18 12:00Steve Horn
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Keystone XL Fork in the Road: TransCanada's Houston Lateral Pipeline

Only Barack Obama knows the fate of the northern half of TransCanada's Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  But in the meantime, TransCanada is preparing the southern half of the line to open for commercial operations on January 22.

And there's a fork in that half of the pipeline that's largely flown under the radar: TransCanada's Houston Lateral Pipeline, which serves as a literal fork in the road of the southern half of Keystone XL's route to Gulf Coast refineries.

Rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline” by TransCanada, the 485-mile southern half of Keystone XL brings a blend of Alberta's tar sands crude, along with oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin, to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas. This area has been coined a “sacrifice zone” by investigative journalist Ted Genoways, describing the impacts on local communities as the tar sands crude is refined mainly for export markets.

But not all tar sands and fracked oil roads lead to Port Arthur. That's where the Houston Lateral comes into play. A pipeline oriented westward from Liberty County, TX rather than eastward to Port Arthur, Houston Lateral ushers crude oil to Houston's refinery row

“The 48-mile (77-kilometre) Houston Lateral Project is an additional project under development to transport oil to refineries in the Houston, TX marketplace,” TransCanada's website explains. “Upon completion, the Gulf Coast Project and the Houston Lateral Project will become an integrated component of the Keystone Pipeline System.”

Thu, 2013-12-12 14:45Steve Horn
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Federal Pipeline Safety Agency Approves Startup of Keystone XL Southern Half

DeSmogBlog has learned that TransCanada cleared the final hurdle for the southern half of its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, receiving a green light last week from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) following a review of several safety concerns.

TransCanada announced this week that it has begun injecting oil into the southern half of its Keystone XL pipeline in preparation for commercial operations.  

Leading up to PHMSA giving Keystone XL south the go-ahead to start up, Public Citizen raised several questions about the safety of the pipeline. 

Will TransCanada respond to greivances raised about dents, faulty welding, pipeline material designated “junk” and other issues raised in the consumer advocacy group's November investigation? And what about September 10 and September 26 warning letters obtained by Public Citizen raising similar concerns from PHMSA to TransCanada?

Both TransCanada and PHMSA have provided DeSmogBlog answers to these questions.

Rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline Project” by TransCanada, the 485-mile Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas Keystone XL southern half — approved via a March 2012 Executive Order from President Barack Obama — is set to open for business by mid- to late-January.

Wed, 2013-12-11 05:00Julie Dermansky
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Texas Fracking Bonanza: How Arlington Fell to the Frackers

Fort Worth was the first major city in America to allow extensive fracking within the city limits — but it wasn’t the last. Arlington, Texas, fell to the frackers next — only this time, the frackers were required to make their installations less of an eyesore.

Berms were built up around fracking sites and compressor centers to hide them from view, and active drill sites have temporary walls built up around them to keep the noise down. But walls don't stop chemical seepage.


Fracking site in Arlington, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. ©2013 Julie Dermansky

Kim Feil, an educator, blogger and environmental activist, is no stranger to chemical exposure. She moved from New Sarpy, Louisiana, part of an area known as Cancer Alley due to its many refineries and high incidence of cancer, to Arlington, before the fracking began.

Feil monitors new industrial developments and does what she can to stop them by attending city-zoning meetings. Her blog keeps neighbors informed about what is coming next and which fracking installations are having problems. Other concerned citizens share heartbreaking stories with her about sicknesses they believe are connected to fracking.

Tue, 2013-12-10 12:01Steve Horn
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TransCanada Begins Injecting Oil Into Keystone XL Southern Half; Exact Start Date A Mystery

Keystone XL's southern half is one step closer to opening for business. TransCanada announced that “on Saturday, December 7, 2013, the company began to inject oil into the Gulf Coast Project pipeline as it moves closer to the start of commercial service.”

The Sierra Club's legal challenge to stop the pipeline was recently denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, so the southern half, battled over for years between the industry and environmentalists, will soon become a reality.

According to a statement provided to DeSmog by TransCanada, “Over the coming weeks, TransCanada will inject about three million of [sic] barrels of oil into the system, beginning in Cushing, Oklahoma and moving down to the company’s facilities in the Houston refining area.”

In mid-January, up to 700,000 barrels per day of Alberta's tar sands diluted bitumen (dilbit) could begin flowing through the 485-mile southern half of TransCanada's pipeline, known as the Gulf Coast Project. Running from Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas, the southern half of the pipeline was approved by both a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit 12 and an Executive Order from President Barack Obama in March 2012.

BloombergThe Canadian Press and The Oklahoman each reported that the Gulf Coast Project pipeline is now being injected with oil. Line fill is the last key step before a pipeline can begin operations. 

“There are many moving parts to this process – completion of construction, testing, regulatory approvals, line fill and then the transition to operations,” TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard told DeSmog. “Line fill has to take place first, then once final testing and certifications are completed, the line can then go into commercial service.”

Residents living along the length of the southern half will have no clue about the rest of the start-up process, as TransCanada says it won't provide any more information until the line is already running. “For commercial and contractual reasons, the next update we will provide will be after the line has gone into commercial service,” the company announced.

When DeSmog asked whether the company is currently injecting conventional oil or diluted bitumen sourced from the Canadian tar sands, TransCanada's Howard replied: 

“Many people like to try and categorize the blend, etc., however we are injecting oil into the pipeline. As you’ve likely seen me quoted before, oil is oil and this pipeline is designed to handle both light and heavy blends of oil, in accordance with all U.S. regulatory standards.

I am not able to provide you the specific blend or breakdown as we are not permitted (by our customers) from disclosing that information to the media. There are very strict confidentiality clauses in the commercial contracts we enter into with our customers, and that precludes us from providing that. The reason is that if we are providing information about a specific blend, when it is in our system, etc. – that has the potential to identify who our customers may be or allow others to take financial positions in the market and profit from that information when others do not have access to the same information. This has much farther reaching impacts for the financial markets (and ultimately all of us).”

Tue, 2013-12-10 05:00Julie Dermansky
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Urban Fracking Bonanza Threatens Dallas Suburbs

When a representative from Chesapeake Energy knocked on Phyllis Allen's door in 2003 and offered $300 for her mineral rights and an invitation to a lease-signing pizza party, she turned them down.  

Allen’s home is in the United Riverside neighborhood, predominately poor and working class African American, the place where fracking first took hold in the city. She'd like to say she didn't sign because of her concerns for environmental issues but, at the time, she hadn’t heard of fracking.

She didn't sign because of the advice her father gave her: “Never sign anything you don't understand.”

Since then, Phyllis Allen, a retired Yellow Pages sales representative, has educated herself about fracking. During her daily walks along the Trinity River she takes note of environmental problems. In 2011, she saw a white chemical cloud rising over a compressor center and workers in hazmat suits going in to shut it down.

In another instance, Allen witnessed fluid being pumped into the Trinity River during the peak of the drought. She contacted Streams and Valleys, the organization responsible for the trails along Trinity, but never found out exactly what was going on. And she's noticed that migratory birds don't come back to the riverbank anymore.


Phyllis Allen in front of a compressor station near her home in Fort Worth. ©2013 Julie Dermansky

Tue, 2013-11-26 15:31Steve Horn
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Obama Approves Major Border-Crossing Fracked Gas Pipeline Used to Dilute Tar Sands

Although TransCanada's Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has received the lion's share of media attention, another key border-crossing pipeline benefitting tar sands producers was approved on November 19 by the U.S. State Department.

Enter Cochin, Kinder Morgan's 1,900-mile proposed pipeline to transport gas produced via the controversial hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of the Eagle Ford Shale basin in Texas north through Kankakee, Illinois, and eventually into Alberta, Canada, the home of the tar sands. 

Like Keystone XL, the pipeline proposal requires U.S. State Department approval because it crosses the U.S.-Canada border. Unlike Keystone XL - which would carry diluted tar sands diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) south to the Gulf Coast - Kinder Morgan's Cochin pipeline would carry the gas condensate (diluent) used to dilute the bitumen north to the tar sands.

“The decision allows Kinder Morgan Cochin LLC to proceed with a $260 million plan to reverse and expand an existing pipeline to carry an initial 95,000 barrels a day of condensate,” the Financial Post wrote

“The extra-thick oil is typically cut with 30% condensate so it can move in pipelines. By 2035, producers could require 893,000 barrels a day of the ultra-light oil, with imports making up 786,000 barrels of the total.”

Increased demand for diluent among Alberta's tar sands producers has created a growing market for U.S. producers of natural gas liquids, particularly for fracked gas producers.

“Total US natural gasoline exports reached a record volume of 179,000 barrels per day in February as Canada's thirst for oil sand diluent ramped up,” explained a May 2013 article appearing in Platts. ”US natural gasoline production is forecast to increase to roughly 450,000 b/d by 2020.”

Mon, 2013-11-25 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Banks Reluctant to Lend in Shale Plays as Evidence Mounts on Harm to Property Values Near Fracking

Over the past several years, the fossil-fuel industry has been highly adept at publicizing the economic upshots of fracking: royalty checks, decreased prices for oil and gas, profits for investors. 

But the industry is far less eager to discuss the hidden costs of the current drilling boom – the longterm price of air and water pollution, the consequences of undermining a nascent renewable energy industry, the harms from accidents when moving and storing all the hazardous waste fracking produces. 

Add to that list of hidden costs one that is starting to grab more attention from bankers and the real estate industry: property values and mortgage problems. New research, for example, demonstrates that the vast majority of prospective buyers say they would decline to buy a home near oil and gas drilling.

As millions of Americans sign oil and gas leases granting the right to companies to extract fossil fuels from their land, they are realizing that these documents often conflict with their mortgages, which is leading to all manner of legal and financial headaches, and make it harder to sell homes on land whose oil and gas rights are leased.

Concern about these impacts is spreading in southern states like Texas, Alabama and Florida, according to a survey due for release in the next several weeks from the University of Dever. In northeastern states like Pennsylvania, fracking worries have prompted lenders to begin rejecting mortgage applications due to gas drilling – on neighboring property. In Colorado, real estate brokers describe keeping a long list of sellers in heavily fracked areas, but a paucity of buyers. 

Under the terms mortgage buyers like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require, “you cannot cause or permit any hazardous materials to be on your property and it specifically references oil and gas,” Greg May, vice president of residential mortgage lending at Tompkins Bank, told American Banker in an interview published Nov. 12. “That alone would make it a problem.”

The repercussions for the American real estate market could be enormous. More than 15.3 million Americans – roughly one out of every 20 people living in the U.S.– now live within a mile of an oil or gas well that was drilled since 2000, the Wall St. Journal recently reported

And that may be just the tip of the iceberg since shale gas and oil wells require ongoing drilling for them to stay productive. In 2010, for example, Pennsylvania regulators predicted a more than 10-fold increase in shale wells in their state over the next couple decades.

Mon, 2013-11-18 05:00Sharon Kelly
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George W. Bush on Keystone XL: "Build the Damn Thing"

Make private companies happy. Don’t worry about the environment. Stop fretting about long-term sustainability. Forget renewables, property concerns, the safety of our water and air. Make private companies happy.

This was the 43rd president's message to the current administration at the DUG East conference held by the shale gas industry on Thursday.

With characteristic bluntness, George W. Bush spoke his mind on energy policy to several thousand oil and gas executives gathered in Pittsburgh at an exclusive luncheon on Wednesday.

“I think the goal of the country ought to be 'how do we grow the private sector?'” Mr. Bush said. “That ought to be the laser-focus of any administration. And therefore, once that’s the goal, an issue like Keystone pipeline becomes a no-brainer.”

“If private sector growth is the goal and Keystone pipeline creates 20,000 new private sector jobs, build the damn thing,” Mr. Bush said, prompting a burst of applause from the more than 4,000 oil and gas executives attending the conference.

In his candor, Mr. Bush also highlighted the essence of what burns bright but short in the fossil-fuel doctrine.

In emphasizing a get-it-now, don’t-worry-about-the-future approach to energy, he drove home why the Keystone XL pipeline has become such a lightning rod issue. The reason: it is symbolic of the overall short-sightedness of increasing our long-term addiction to oil rather than pushing with urgency toward renewable energy.

Thu, 2013-11-14 05:29Julie Dermansky
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Don't Mess With Texas: Michael Bishop's Battle Against TransCanada Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

If you ever doubted that one man's stand against the oil and gas industry can make a difference, consider the case of Michael Bishop. The 65 year old Marine veteran, first year medical student, farmer, and partner in a bio-diesel engineering venture, resides in Douglass, Texas, where he is trying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline by means of multiple lawsuits.

His federal case against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won an entry of default because the Corps failed to respond in the time allocated by the court. The lawsuit asserts the Corps granted environmental permits to TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline illegally. It could be a short-lived victory for Bishop. 

Listen to Michael Bishop explain his lawsuit against TransCanada:

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