Ben Jervey

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Ben Jervey has been covering and working in the climate, energy, and environmental fields for a decade. He is regular contributor to DeSmogBlog. He was the original Environment Editor for GOOD Magazine, and wrote a longstanding weekly column titled “The New Ideal: Building the clean energy economy of the 21st Century and avoiding the worst fates of climate change.” He also contributes to National Geographic News, Grist, OnEarth Magazine, and many other online and print publications. His book–The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City–has been called the “bible of green living for NYC.” A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.

Italian Judge: Coal Plant Caused Over 400 Deaths, Orders Shutdown

An Italian judge has ordered the shutdown of a coal-fired power plant that has been blamed for at least 442 deaths. Public prosecutors had argued that pollution from the plant in Italy’s Liguria region caused the premature deaths and between 1,700 - 2,000 cases of heart and lung disease.

On Tuesday, police followed the judge’s orders and shut down the two 330-Megawatt coal-fired units of the Vado Ligure plant. Francantonio Granero, the chief prosecutor in Savona, the government seat in Liguria, indicated in a February interview with United Press International that he was investigating the plant and its operators, Tirreno Power,  for “causing an environmental disaster and manslaughter.”

The judge, Fiorenza Giorgi, agreed with prosecutors that Tirreno Power hadn’t complied with emissions regulations, citing “negligent behavior” by the company and claiming that Tirreno’s emissions data was “unreliable.”

It is unclear whether Tirreno Power will be allowed to turn back on the coal-fired units if better emissions controls are implemented. The coal plants were built in 1971 and according to Savona prosecutors had emitted enough pollution to cause at least 442 premature deaths from 2000 to 2007. Investigators also found evidence that roughly 450 children were hospitalized with asthma and other respiratory ailments between 2005-2012, with the coal plant emissions to blame.

Canada Approves Enbridge Line 9 Reversal: Tar Sands Crude to Flow to Montreal

Alberta’s tar sands crude has a new route east. 

Canada’s National Energy Board announced on Thursday the approval of Enbridge’s request to reverse and expand a portion of the company’s Line 9 pipeline to allow for crude to flow east to Montreal, Quebec. This follows a July 2012 decision by the NEB to allow reversal of the western Line 9 segment from West Northover to Sarnia, Ontario. As a result, in the words of the NEB, “Enbridge will be permitted to operate all of Line 9 in an eastward direction in order to transport crude oil from western Canada and the U.S. Bakken region to refineries in Ontario and Quebec.”

Canadian activists urged the NEB to fully consider the high risk and small reward of reversing the pipeline, pointing to the “DilBit Disaster” — when another reversed-flow Enbridge pipeline spilled over 800,000 gallons of diluted bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River — as a warning for what could occur on the Line 9 route.

As DeSmog Canada has reported, Enbridge’s Line 9 shares the same design deficiencies as the company’s Line 6B, which burst in Michigan. Canadian environmental groups are crying foul over the agency’s non-transparent and restrictive public comment process.

It’s pretty obvious the entire regulatory system is broken,” Adam Scott, spokesperson for Environmental Defence, told the Vancouver Observer. “They restricted the public’s ability to even participate.” Language in a 2012 budget bill allowed the NEB’s decision to be made without a comprehensive environmental assessment, and the Canadian public was forced to complete a lengthy 10-page application (and given a short two week warning to do so) to even earn the right to submit a public comment.

There were roughly 150 folks who were actually even allowed to comment or write a letter, and this was also the first major energy project not to have to go through an environmental assessment, so it’s clear the whole system has been stacked against the public’s interest in favour of oil companies,” said Scott.

GAO: Climate Change Poses Serious Risk to American Energy Systems

America’s energy infrastructure is dangerously vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a new report released by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

The report, requested by a group of Democratic senators lead by Energy and Natural Resources Chair Ron Wyden of Oregon, breaks down in detail how all aspects of our energy infrastructure — from extraction through transportation through distribution — are even now being compromised by rising seas and water shortages and more extreme weather events and other impacts of climate change.

U.S. energy infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to a range of climate change impacts–particularly infrastructure in areas prone to severe weather and water shortages. Climate changes are projected to affect infrastructure throughout all major stages of the energy supply chain, thereby increasing the risk of disruptions,” the report explains.

The GAO describes as matter-of-fact the worsening domestic impacts of climate change — which so many elected officials in the Senate continue to stubbornly deny — and uses scientifically rigorous analysis to figure out just how much trouble it spells for our electricity and gasoline supplies.

While the report, Energy Infrastructure Risks and Adaptation Efforts, does not explicitly note that the very energy system that is imperiled by climate change is also largely to blame for climate change, the tragic irony of that fact is clear throughout.

WHITEWASH: State Dept Keystone XL Inspector General Report Clears Botched Handling of Environmental Resources Management Conflicts

The State Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has finally weighed in on potential conflicts of interest in the environmental assessments of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Sort of.

The office just released its long-anticipated report, capping off an investigation on whether Environmental Resources Management, the contractor hired by TransCanada to conduct the environmental impact study, had too close a relationship with TransCanada, and whether it deliberately hid those ties in filings with the State Department. 

On first look, the inspector general report takes an extremely narrow view of the potential conflicts, but does declare that the department's procedures for dealing with conflicts of interest are weak and need to be improved. 
 

Specifically, from the OIG's findings:

  • OIG did find that the process for documenting the contractor selection process, including the conflict of interest review, can be improved.
  • OIG also found that the Department’s public disclosures concerning its conflict of interest review could be improved.

Finally, the Office of the Inspector General makes these specific recommendations:

  • OIG recommends that the Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, in coordination with the Office of the Legal Adviser, enhance its guidance to more fully articulate its selection and conflict of interest review processes.
  • OIG recommends that the Department explain in greater detail the definition of “organizational conflict of interest” relied upon by the Department.
  • OIG recommends that the Department specify in its guidance the documentation required in the contractor selection and conflict of interest processes and establish standard operating procedures to capture and retain this information.
  • OIG recommends that the Department enhance its guidance to integrate a process for public disclosure of

appropriate information.

Attention will now turn to the Government Accountability Office, which will begin an investigation on the State Department's environmental review process. Earlier this week, Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona requested a GAO review, suggesting that the Keystone XL environmental assessment has been corrupted by conflicts of interest. “Nothing should be glossed over; nothing should be ignored,” Grijalva said. “The questions that we posed to GAO had to do with the State Department process. And if this is a tainted process, I suggest the president at that point shouldn't trust that information,”

DeSmogBlog will take a closer look at all the details in the report and update this post throughout the evening. 

Keystone PipeLIES Exposed: New Film from Center for Media and Democracy

On Tuesday, the Center for Media and Democracy released a new short film that sets out to debunk the many false claims — the films calls them “pipeLIES” — used by promoters of the Keystone XL pipeline. These industry talking points, many of which are repeated without verification by mainstream media sources, have corrupted any reasonable public discourse on the pipeline, and the film's producers hope that using the video medium to expose the mistruths will lead to better public understanding of the true risks of the pipelines. 

The film, Keystone PipeLIES Exposed, takes a close and critical look at both ends of the proposed pipeline — from the open pit tar sands mines in Alberta to the toxic refineries in Port Arthur, Texas. But the meat of the 23-minute film looks at the pipeline itself — the route, the construction jobs, the spill risks, the communities and ecosystems that would be made vulnerable.

While traveling down the pipeline, so to speak, the film pays special attention to the talking points and falsehoods — the massively inflated job creation claims, promises of lower gas prices, and so on — that are constantly repeated by those who stand to profit from the pipeline's construction, and often by a mainstream media too lazy to verify them. 

Emmy Award-winning journalist Dave Saldana wrote, directed and produced the film. Saldana is also an attorney, and says this background was particularly useful in exploring and debunking many of the oil industry's suspicious claims. Saldana says:

I looked at the claims as a lawyer; what did the evidence show me? The evidence shows that its job creation claims are grossly inflated; that better, greener alternatives would aid America's energy independence and put more Americans to work for a longer time than the pipeline; and that the pumping of tar sands oil across the U.S. primarily for export to foreign countries poses enormous risks to America's water supply, food supply, and air quality. And that’s before you even get to what it does to climate change.”

Here's the film. You can also check out the PipeLIES Exposed site to find references for all the arguments debunking the lies. 

Keystone PipeLIES Exposed from Center for Media and Democracy on Vimeo.

St. Louis Judge Cites Citizens United to Protect Tax Breaks for Peabody Energy

With the quick stroke of a pen, a circuit court judge in St. Louis has singlehandedly silenced more than 22,000 city residents, who had sought to bring a ballot initiative to end tax breaks to fossil fuel companies to a citywide vote in April.

Last summer, volunteers with the Take Back St. Louis coalition gathered over 22,000 signatures to put onto the ballot a measure that would amend the city’s charter to include a “Sustainable Energy Policy” and end taxpayer-funded support of fossil fuel companies.

According to Take Back St. Louis, the “proposed charter amendment would end public financial incentives, such as tax abatements, to fossil fuel mining companies and those doing $1 million of business with them per year, and requires the city to create a sustainable energy plan for renewable energy and sustainability initiatives on city-owned vacant land.”

On Tuesday, Judge Robert Dierker sided with Peabody Energy (in a decision you can read here) to grant a temporary restraining order that would, in essence, keep the initiative off the April 8th ballot.

First declaring the initiative “facially unconstitutional,” Judge Dierker proceeded to cite the Citizens United decision in explaining why the policy would represent a “patent denial of equal protection” to fossil fuel energy companies.  Specifically, Judge Dierker wrote:

business entities (which, after all, are a species of associations of citizens coming together in the exercise of economic freedom) are entitled to constitutional protection as citizens and may not arbitrarily be denied basic legal rights. See Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm., 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

The proposed initiative and judge’s decision have implications far beyond the city of St. Louis. Peabody Energy, the largest privately-owned coal mining company in the world, is headquartered in St. Louis, and received tax breaks of over $61 million from the city in 2010. The Take Back St. Louis coalition was hoping to target future giveaways, arguing that the public funds would be much better spent on underfunded local services like schools.

GAO Hiding Crucial Documents From The Public While Calling for More Transparency in BLM Coal Leases

On Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office released a much-anticipated report about the Bureau of Land Management's coal leasing program, revealing it has stiffed taxpayers over $200 million.

The GAO blames a lack of competition in the bidding process, reliance on outdated and incomplete methods to determine “fair market value” of the coal reserves, a disregard of coal exports and their impact on fair valuation, and a blatant lack of transparency in the leasing program.  

Senator Edward Markey, who had requested the GAO investigation in 2012 while he still served in the House, responded immediately to the report's findings. The GAO didn't address specifics on how much public revenue might have been lost by mismanaged leases and auctions.

Senator Markey explained that based on an examination of the report and other coal leasing documents that were not made public, his staff figured that the the BLM could have earned at least $200 million more for the American public if managed properly. 

Unfortunately, the coal leasing documents investigated by Markey's staff aren't available to the public, which the GAO claims is because of the inclusion of private business information. According to Ned Griffith of the GAO, the information in the report was labeled “sensitive but unclassified” by the Interior Department.

In other words, even though one of the major findings of the GAO report was a troubling lack of transparency, the office itself is shielding from public view these detailed documents about coal leases on public lands. 

Tom Steyer to Secretary of State Kerry: New Review Necessary of "Defective" Keystone XL Environmental Assessment

With the State Department’s release of the final Keystone XL environmental review, attention is being refocused on apparent conflicts of interest within both the State Department itself and the consultancy hired to conduct the review.

Upon the release of the review – which is formally called the final supplemental environmental impact statement (or FSEIS) – Tom Steyer of NextGen Climate urged Secretary of State John Kerry to begin a formal review of the “defective” environmental analysis. In his February 2 letter to Secretary Kerry, Steyer writes that “It is inappropriate and unfair to provide President Obama … with a report that is not only on its face defective, but which has suffered from a process that raises serious questions about the integrity of the document.”

The review, argues Steyer, “has suffered from a process that raises serious questions about the integrity of the document.”

In his letter, Steyer lays out the following problems, which he argues undermine the entirety of the environmental impact statement:

Government Accountability Office: Taxpayers Getting Stiffed by Flawed Federal Coal Lease System

The Department of the Interior is selling publicly-owned coal for much less than it is worth, essentially allowing the coal industry to fleece U.S. taxpayers of at least $200 million. 

That is one of the main takeaways from a much-anticipated report released today by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which confirms that the coal leasing program is fundamentally flawed and deserves an overhaul. 

The GAO report, “BLM Could Enhance Appraisal Process, More Explicitly Consider Coal Exports, and Provide More Public Information,” finds that the coal leases employed by the Bureau of Land Management within the Department of the Interior lack competition, use outdated methods to determine “fair market value,” ignore the growing trend of coal exports, and deliberately keep information from the public. 

Senator Markey, who has been calling for an overhaul to the coal lease system since 1982, and who demanded this GAO review, responded to the report's release

These noncompetitive practices are costing taxpayers in Massachusetts and across the nation, benefitting just a few coal companies who may be leasing public coal resources at bargain basement prices,” said Senator Markey. “Taxpayers are likely losing out so that coal companies can reap a windfall and export that coal overseas where it is burned, worsening climate change. This is a bad deal all around.”

A vast majority of federal coal leases take place in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. Coal companies like Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, and Cloud Peak Energy are all deeply dependent on this artificially cheap coal from federal leases. 

One of the report's most stunning revelations is that roughly 90-percent of the leases issued by Interior were “single bidder” auctions, won by the company that applied for the lease, and who didn't bid against anyone else. 

Of the 107 leased tracts, sales for 96 (about 90 percent) involved a single bidder, which was generally the company that submitted the lease application,” according to the report. 

Another key finding is that the BLM uses outdated and incomplete methods to determine “fair market value” of the land and the coal. This is of particular importance when there is only a single bidder, as the auction process demands that the winning bid achieve “fair market value.” According to staffers in Senator Markey's office, “for every cent per ton that coal companies decrease their bids for the largest coal leases, it could mean the loss of nearly $7 million for the American people.”

No Matter How You Count Them, Fossil Fuel Subsidies Are As High As Ever

The exact worth of massive global fossil fuel subsidies is incredibly hard to figure. There’s no real consistency in the definitions of subsidies, or how they should be calculated. As a result, estimates of global subsidy support for fossil fuels vary widely.

According to a new analysis by the Worldwatch Institute, these estimates range from $523 billion to over $1.9 trillion, depending on what is considered a “subsidy” and how exactly they are tallied.

Worldwatch Institute research fellow Philipp Tagwerker, who authored the brief, explains:

The lack of a clear definition of “subsidy” makes it hard to compare the different methods used to value support for fossil fuels, but the varying approaches nevertheless illustrate global trends. Fossil fuel subsidies declined in 2009, increased in 2010, and then in 2011 reached almost the same level as in 2008. The decrease in subsidies was due almost entirely to fluctuations in fuel prices rather than to policy changes.

In other words, though the estimates vary widely, they all agree that fossil fuel subsidies are back up to the record levels they were at in 2008, before the financial crisis caused a temporary dip. So while world leaders, including President Obama, talk about ending subsidies that benefit one of the world's richest industries, there hasn't been any actual reduction. 

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