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U.S. Tar Sands Action: Reports from the Front Lines in Utah

For the past five months, activists from the Utah Tar Sands Resistance have camped out on the sage-swept, high plateau lands known as PR Springs in eastern Utah. From the site—where the first tar sands mine in the United States is planned, and preliminary clearing work is already underway—you can’t miss the majestic Book Cliffs that tumble from the East Tavaputs Plateau and the canyons full of tall conifers. 

Book Cliffs is an area cherished by sportsmen and sportswomen—the public lands a place where Rocky Mountain Elk roam free, a place beloved by hunters and anglers and campers and backpackers.

Book Cliffs is also an area presently threatened by oil, gas, and tar sands development. Activists with Peaceful Uprising and the Utah Tar Sands Resistance are working to stop the tar sands projects in their tracks.

Statoil to Drill Canada's First Deepwater Offshore Oil Well After Bailing on Alberta's Tar Sands

Climate campaigners and tar sands blockaders widely celebrated the announcement last month that the Norwegian energy company Statoil was halting plans for a multi-billion dollar tar sands project in Alberta, Canada. The company cited rising costs of labor and materials in Alberta, and also blamed “limited pipeline access” for “squeezing away the Alberta margins a little bit,” a point that anti-Keystone XL activists have taken as a clear sign of victory.

Don’t take your eyes off of Statoil, however. The company is quietly reallocating the estimated $2 billion investment to pursue a massive deepwater offshore project off the east coast of Newfoundland, in harsh, sub-Arctic conditions adjacent to an area drillers refer to as “iceberg alley.”

Disrupt Denial: After Leaving ALEC, Google Still Funding Evil

Last week, one tech giant after the next cut ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), creating a mass exodus from the anti-government front group that routinely drafts legislation to bolster the fossil fuel industry and inhibit climate action and clean energy development.

While the withdrawal of Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others from ALEC’s vast pool of corporate funders was widely celebrated by climate campaigners, a recent report released by Forecast the Facts and SumOfUS shows how Google – and many others who claim to do good by climate – are still funding climate denial in politics. 

The report, called Disrupt Denial: How big business is funding climate change denial in the 113th Congress, reveals how companies like Google, Ford, Microsoft, UPS, and eBay continue to support Senators and Representatives in the House who deny the very science of climate change.

Take Google. Though the company’s Chairman Eric Schmidt made great waves with his claim on the Diane Rehm show that ALEC are “literally lying” about climate change, and that Google “should not be aligned with such people,” the Disrupt Denial report shows that Google has contributed $699,195 to climate deniers in Congress from 2008 to 2014.

Exxon to Shareholders: No Carbon Bubble Risk Here. Carbon Tracker to Exxon: Really?

Still own some Exxon Mobil stock and been dithering about divestment?

You’re leaving money on the table, and exposing your portfolio to severe risks that the company itself is underestimating. That’s according to a new report published by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, which finds that the stock’s recently sub-par performance can partially be explained by the company’s increasing dependence on tar sands.

Carbon Tracker says that Exxon is “significantly underestimating the risks to its business model from investments in higher cost, higher carbon reserves; increasing national and subnational climate regulation; competition from renewables; and demand stagnation.”

Back in March, Exxon responded to a shareholder resolution by Arjuna Capital and As You Sow, two shareholder advocacy organizations, regarding potential carbon asset risk. The original resolution had demanded greater transparency in how Exxon assesses the risks to its significant carbon-based assets in a future where low-carbon policies and changing market forces could strand these assets. Exxon responded with a 29-page report, “Energy and Carbon – Managing the Risks.”

The Carbon Tracker Initiative closely examined Exxon’s report and has now published a firm rebuttal.

Massachusetts District Attorney Makes History: Recognizes Necessity of Defending Climate

This morning, a District Attorney in Massachusetts made history as he recognized the “necessity defense” of climate-related civil disobedience, and reduced the charges for two activists charged in their Lobster Boat Blockade.

Some quick background. Back in May 2013, Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara boarded their lobster boat, navigated to the shipping channel at the coal-fired Brayton Point Power Plant in southeastern Massachusetts, and dropped anchor. For six hours, the two climate activists and fishermen blocked the “Energy Enterprise” steam ship from delivering Appalachian coal from reaching the power plant.

The “Henry David T,” Ward and O'Hara's boat, blockading the coal ship. Photo:

The two were arraigned later in the year on four charges in relation to their act of civil disobedience, including conspiracy.

This morning, Ward and O’Hara were due in court, and their lawyers — along with a number of climate experts in Fall River to present testimony to the trial — had intended on using the “necessity defense” to argue that their actions were necessary to combat the greater threat of climate change.

Ward and O'Hara had sought to become the first American climate activists to use this “necessity defense”, arguing that “the blockade was necessary in light of the imminent threat of climate change.” They had planned to call former NASA climatologist James Hansen and environmentalist Bill McKibben to the stand as expert witnesses.

Scheduled for two days, the court proceedings were over in a less than an hour, as Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter immediately dropped the conspiracy charge, and reduced the other charges to civil infractions.

“The truth is that taking these sorts of actions is necessary in light of the drastic news that continues to be described by the science. This decision by the District Attorney is an admission that the political and economic system isn’t taking the climate crisis seriously, and that it falls to ordinary citizens, especially people of faith, to stand up and take action to avert catastrophe,” said O’Hara.

Fuse to the Carbon Bomb: Keystone XL Much Worse for Climate Than Obama Admin Estimated

Last week, supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline got all worked up about a study that purported to find that the delay in approving the project has actually increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The narrowly-focused study was based on faulty assumptions (that the tar sands would always find a way to market) and cherry-picked data (disregarding entirely any increases emissions that greater access to tar sands crude would create) in order to portray the pipeline project as positive for the climate. The five year or more delay in approving Keystone XL will ultimately increase carbon dioxide emissions by up to 7.4 million tons, argued the American Action Forum, a self-described “center-right policy institute.”

A study released this week by scientists at the Stockholm Environmental Institute shows just how misleading the American Action Forum claims really are. 

If built, the Keystone XL pipeline would flood global oil markets with crude, increase demand, and dump as much as 110 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere every year, according to the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

This figure is a full four times higher than the State Department estimated in its final environmental review of the project.

The state department had figured that, at most, the pipeline would increase world carbon dioxide emissions by 30 million tons.

“The sole reason for this difference is that we account for the changes in global oil consumption resulting from increasing oil sands production levels, whereas the State Department does not,” wrote study authors Peter Erickson and Michael Lazarus, both scientists with the Stockholm Environment Institute.

The flawed State Department assumption — saying that the pipeline wouldn’t result in increased production of Canadian tar sands — is the same assumption used by the American Action Forum and other Keystone XL proponents when arguing that the oil will find its wa to market one way or another.

However, the oil industry and other energy experts have acknowledged that Keystone XL and other pipeline projects are crucial to the development of Alberta’s tar sands.

Tar Sands on the Tracks: Railbit, Dilbit and U.S. Export Terminals

Last December, the first full train carrying tar sands crude left the Canexus Bruderheim terminal outside of Edmonton, Alberta, bound for an unloading terminal somewhere in the United States.

Canadian heavy crude, as the tar sands is labeled for market purposes, had ridden the rails in very limited capacity in years previous — loaded into tank cars and bundled with other products as part of so-called “manifest” shipments. But to the best of industry analysts’ knowledge, never before had a full 100-plus car train (called a “unit train”) been shipped entirely full of tar sands crude.

Because unit trains travel more quickly, carry higher volumes of crude and cost the shipper less per barrel to operate than the manifest alternative, this first shipment from the Canexus Bruderheim terminal signaled the start of yet another crude-by-rail era — an echo of the sudden rise of oil train transport ushered in by the Bakken boom, on a much smaller scale (for now).

This overall spike in North American crude-by-rail over the past few years has been well documented, and last month Oil Change International released a comprehensive report about the trend. As explained in Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude-by-Rail in North America (and in past coverage in DeSmogBlog), much of the oil train growth has been driven by the Bakken shale oil boom. Without sufficient pipeline capacity in the area, drillers have been loading up much more versatile trains to cart the light, sweet tight crude to refineries in the Gulf, and on both coasts.

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.

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.

Oil Industry Cherry-Picks Drilling Data to Mislead Public on Federal Lease Programs

The oil industry and its well-compensated apologists in Congress like to complain that the Obama administration is stalling oil production on public lands. The problem with that argument: it’s demonstrably false.

While plenty of environmental advocates may wish that President Obama was actively working to keep the fossil fuel reserves underground, the data tells a much different story.

In fact, according to new data released by the Department of the Interior, the amount of crude oil produced on onshore federal lands in 2013 was the highest it has been in over a decade.

This hasn’t stopped the oil industry from “distorting and cherry-picking statistics,” in the words of the Center for Western Priorities, to argue for even fewer regulations and more lax permitting processes.

A recent post on the The Daily Caller is representative of the oil industry's spin, and provides a tutorial in cherry-picking data.

The total number of oil and gas drilling leases issued in 2013 reached a nearly three-decade lows, according to the Bureau of Land Management. The bureau says it issued 1,468 drilling leases last year, totaling 1.17 million acres of federal land — the lowest figures since 1988, which is the oldest year for which the BLM has data.

Overall, U.S. oil production has boomed in recent years, but production on federal lands has been falling. The Congressional Research Service reports that oil production on federal lands fell from 1,731,500 barrels per day in 2009 to 1,627,400 barrels per day in 2012, and the total shareof crude oil produced on federal lands fell to 26 percent in 2012 from 33 percent in 2009.

Let’s unpack this a bit.