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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, 2014-08-13 11:15Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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Rail CEOs to Investors: "Bomb Trains" Safe At Almost Any Speed

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) recently said it would proceed with plans to increase speeds for oil-by-rail unit trains in Devil’s Lake, N.D. to 60 MPH from 30 MPH, despite opposition from local officials

BNSF’s announcement came merely a week after the Obama Administration announced its proposed regulations for trains carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin.  

The rail industry’s position on speed limits for “bomb trains” is simple: they continuously claim velocity has nothing to do with oil-by-rail accidents or safety.

For example, Big Rail — as revealed by DeSmogBlog — lobbied against all proposed oil train speed reductions in its dozen or so private meetings at the Obama White House before the unveiling of the proposed oil-by-rail regulations. 

Recent statements by rail industry CEOs during investor calls put the heads of many companies on record opposing oil-by-rail speed limits for the first time.

Sat, 2014-08-02 07:31Sharon Kelly
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As Energy Department Announces Methane Measures, Critics Call for Stronger Action

On Tuesday, the White House released a report estimating that delaying action on climate change could cause $150 billion a year in damage to the U.S. economy.

“These costs are not one-time, but are rather incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by increased climate change resulting from the delay,” the assessment warned.

That same day, President Obama announced moves to help reduce greenhouse gasses. But some critics charge that the President's actions have so far failed to be proportionate to the crisis the White House predicts.

As DeSmog reported, on Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency's program on natural gas pipeline leaks came under fire from the EPA's own internal watchdog. The EPA inspector general lambasted the agency for setting up rules that rely heavily on voluntary leak repairs by pipeline companies while turning a blind eye to state policies that allow those companies to simply pass the price of leaking gas to consumers instead of making costly repairs.

The resulting leaks, the EPA audit concluded, cost consumers over $192 million and the resulting greenhouse gasses each year were equal to putting an addition 2.7 million cars on the road.

On the heels of that report, the Obama administration announced that it would adjust its methane pollution controls — but the measures they announced fell far short of what some experts argue is necessary to curtail methane's climate hazards. The Department of Energy's new measures include adjustments to its voluntary leak control program and add funding for research into ways to better curb leaks.

While we applaud the commitments made by DOE, labor unions, utility groups, and other stakeholders,” Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel told the Oil and Gas Journal, “voluntary measures and new research initiatives don’t adequately protect communities and the climate.”

Fri, 2014-06-27 01:00Steve Horn
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Revealed: Heather Zichal Met with Cheniere Executives as Obama Energy Aide Before Board Nomination

Heather Zichal, former deputy assistant for energy and climate change to President Barack Obama and nominee to sit on the board of directors of LNG export company Cheniere Energy Inc., held two meetings with Cheniere executives while working for the White House. 

White House meeting logs show Zichal attended the meetings with three executives from Cheniere, owner of the Sabine Pass LNG (liquefied natural gas) export facility, the first terminal to receive a final approval from the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) during the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) boom.

The meetings appear to have taken place just over two weeks apart from one another, according to the meeting logs. The first meeting was on January 14, 2013, and the second on January 29, 2013. Just over eight months later, Zichal resigned from her White House job, with Reuters citing “plans to move to a non-government job.”

Cheniere CEO Charif Souki — who is facing a major ongoing class-action lawsuit — sat in on both of those meetings. He was joined by Cheniere executives Patricia Outtrim, vice president of governmental and regulatory affairs, and Ankit Desai, vice president of government relations.

Desai, a Cheniere lobbyist, formerly worked with Zichal on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, serving as his budget director. Desai also formerly served as political director for then-U.S. Senator and now Vice President Joe Biden.


President Barack Obama (L), Heather Zichal (Center), Sec. of State John Kerry (R); Photo Credit: Facebook

Zichal served as Kerry's energy and environment policy adviser for the 2004 campaign and in 2006, became his legislative director, a job she held until becoming policy director for energy, environment and agriculture for President Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign

Fri, 2014-06-20 10:25Steve Horn
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Heather Zichal, Former Obama Energy Aide, Named to Board of Fracked Gas Exports Giant Cheniere

Heather Zichal, former Obama White House Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, may soon walk out of the government-industry revolving door to become a member of the board of directors for fracked gas exports giant Cheniere, who nominated her to serve on the board. 

The announcement, made through Cheniere's U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Form 8-K and its Schedule 14A, comes just as a major class-action lawsuit was filed against the board of the company by stockholders.

In reaction to the lawsuit, Cheniere has delayed its annual meeting. At that meeting, the company's stockholders will vote on the Zichal nomination.

The class-action lawsuit was filed by plaintiff and stockholder James B. Jones, who alleges the board gave stock awards to CEO Charif Souki in defiance of both a stockholders' vote and the company's by-laws. 

Souki — a central character in Gregory Zuckerman's book “The Frackers“ — became the highest paid CEO in the U.S. as a result of the maneuver, raking in $142 million in 2013, $133 million of which came from stock awards.

Cheniere CEO Charif Souki; Photo Credit: Getty Images

Zichal was nominated to join Cheniere's audit committee of the board, and will be paid $180,000 per year for the gig if elected.

Among the audit committee duties: “Prepare and review the audit committee report for inclusion in the proxy statement for the company's annual meeting of stockholders,” which is now set for September 11 after the push-back following the filing of the stockholder class-action lawsuit.

“The audit committee’s responsibility is oversight, and it recognizes that the company’s management is responsible for preparing the company’s financial statements and complying with applicable laws and regulations,” Cheniere's audit committee charter further explains.

Sun, 2014-06-15 07:00Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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Meeting Logs: Obama White House Quietly Coddling Big Oil on “Bomb Trains” Regulations

When Richard Revesz, Dean Emeritus of New York University Law School, introduced Howard Shelanski at his only public appearance so far during his tenure as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Revesz described Shelanski as, “from our perspective, close to the most important official in the federal government.”

OIRA has recently reared its head in a big way because it is currently reviewing the newly-proposed oil-by-rail safety regulations rolled out by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).   

During his presentation at NYU, Shelanski spoke at length about how OIRA must use “cost-benefit analysis” with regards to regulations, stating, “Cost-benefit analysis is an essential tool for regulatory policy.”

But during his confirmation hearings, Shelanski made sure to state his position on how cost-benefit analysis should be used in practice. Shelanski let corporate interests know he was well aware of their position on the cost of regulations and what they stood to lose from stringent regulations. 

Regulatory objectives should be achieved at no higher cost than is absolutely necessary,” Shelanski said at the hearing.

Wed, 2014-05-28 00:06Guest
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Mounting Global Warming Evidence Underscores the Need to Act

This is a guest post by David Suzuki.

Because we enjoy relatively pure air, clean water and healthy food systems, Canadians sometimes take the environment for granted. Many scarcely blink if oil from a pipeline spills into a river, a forest is cleared for tar sands operations or agricultural land is fracked for gas. If Arctic ice melts and part of the Antarctic ice sheet collapses, well… they’re far away.

Some see climate change as a distant threat, if they see it as a threat at all. But the scientific evidence is overwhelming: climate change is here, and unless we curb behaviours that contribute to it, it will get worse, putting our food, air, water and security at risk. A recent White House report confirms the findings of this year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment report, and concludes global warming is a clear and present danger to the U.S.

Climate change is not a distant threat, but is affecting the American people already,” says White House science adviser John Holdren in a video about the report. “Summers are longer and hotter, with longer periods of extended heat. Wildfires start earlier in the spring and continue later into the fall. Rain comes down in heavier downpours. People are experiencing changes in the length and severity of allergies. And climate disruptions to water resources and agriculture have been increasing.”

Recognizing the problem’s severity is a start, but whether the U.S. will actually do anything is another question. Action to curb climate change is constantly stalled — thanks to the powerful fossil fuel industry, political and media denial, extensive fossil fuel-based infrastructure and citizen complacency.

Tue, 2014-05-27 14:26Sharon Kelly
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“All of the Above” or “Action now?”: Obama’s Natural Gas Contradiction

At a talk in Vermont last week, the nation's top energy official offered up his thoughts on a problem the White House has said calls for “urgent action”: climate change.

“We need to mitigate the effects of climate change and need to adapt at the same time,” said Dr. Ernest Moniz, Secretary of Energy, as he described the findings of a White House report issued earlier this month outlining the dangers of global warming and the impacts already felt nationwide.

But Moniz's talk also highlighted a fundamental flaw in the approach that President Obama has taken to energy and the environment.

The president has begun sounding alarm bells about the hazards and costs of worsening climate disruption. At the same time, he has aggressively promoted the nation's ongoing shale gas rush. And yet, experts warn this drilling frenzy may have wiped out most of the gains made by slashing carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal.

It's a paradox that the Washington Post labeled “a jarring juxtapostion” and “the contradiction at the heart of President Obama's climate change policy.” 

Thu, 2014-05-08 18:01Ben Jervey
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Climate Change is Clear and Present Danger That The Fossil Fuel Industry Would Like You To Ignore

Climate change is no longer a distant threat, but a clear and present danger. That’s the main takeaway from the third installment of the National Climate Assessment (NCA), released this week by the White House.

The report itself is a feat of both exhaustive climate science and creative science communications. The 840-page document is packed with illustrative graphics, and the web-based version features interactivity and video. Beyond painting the national picture, the NCA presents, in the words of White House science advisor John Holdren, “unprecedented detail about regional impacts” of climate change.

Climate change is not a distant threat, but is affecting the American people already,” says Holdren in a video introducing the report. “Summers are longer and hotter, with longer periods of extended heat. Wildfires start earlier in the spring and continue later into the fall. Rain comes down in heavier downpours. People are experiencing changes in the length and severity of allergies. And climate disruptions to water resources and agriculture have been increasing.”

Some quick background: The U.S. Global Change Research Program was formed by Congressional mandate in 1990, and charged with producing regular “National Climate Assessments” in order to “highlight key knowledge that can improve policy choices and identify significant gaps that can limit effective decision making.” The NCA reports are compiled by a 60-member federal advisory committee made up some scientists, business leaders, and other climate experts, and the content itself is written by nearly 300 scientists, academics, government and private sector experts. The document itself is subjected to exhaustive review, including by the National Academy of Sciences. And as a consensus-based document, the findings must be approved by representatives of such disparate parties as environmental groups and fossil fuel companies. If anything, this report is conservative in its findings.

Wed, 2014-04-23 12:18Steve Horn
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Vice President Joe Biden Promotes U.S. as Fracking Missionary Force On Ukraine Trip

During his two-day visit this week to Kiev, Ukraine, Vice President Joe Biden unfurled President Barack Obama's “U.S. Crisis Support Package for Ukraine.”

A key part of the package involves promoting the deployment of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in Ukraine. Dean Neu, professor of accounting at York University in Toronto, describes this phenomenon in his book “Doing Missionary Work.” And in this case, it involves the U.S. acting as a modern-day missionary to spread the gospel of fracking to further its own interests.     

With the ongoing Russian occupation of Crimea serving as the backdrop for the trip, Biden made Vladimir Putin's Russia and its dominance of the global gas market one of the centerpieces of a key speech he gave while in Kiev.

“And as you attempt to pursue energy security, there’s no reason why you cannot be energy secure. I mean there isn’t. It will take time. It takes some difficult decisions, but it’s collectively within your power and the power of Europe and the United States,” Biden said.

“And we stand ready to assist you in reaching that. Imagine where you’d be today if you were able to tell Russia: Keep your gas. It would be a very different world you’d be facing today.”

The U.S. oil and gas industry has long lobbied to “weaponize” its fracking prowess to fend off Russian global gas market dominance. It's done so primarily in two ways.

One way: by transforming the U.S. State Department into a global promoter of fracking via its Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program (formerly the Global Shale Gas Initiative), which is a key, albeit less talked about, part of President Obama's “Climate Action Plan.”

The other way: by exporting U.S. fracked gas to the global market, namely EU countries currently heavily dependent on Russia's gas spigot. 

In this sense, the crisis in Ukraine — as Naomi Klein pointed out in a recent article — has merely served as a “shock doctrine” excuse to push through plans that were already long in the making. In other words, it's “old wine in a new bottle.”

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