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.

Oil on the Tracks: More Oil Spills from Railcars in 2013 than in Previous Four Decades [Updated]

As a direct result of the Bakken shale oil boom, more crude oil was spilled from rail cars last year than in the previous four decades combined. That’s according to a McClatchy analysis of federal data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which governs rail transport of liquid fuels like crude.

The analysis revealed more than 1.15 million gallons of crude spilled in 2013, considerably more than the 800,000 gallons spilled from 1975 (when the government started collecting data on spills) to 2012.

The rail industry likes to boast a 99.99% success rate in delivery shipments without incident, and that number remained consistent in 2013, with 1.15 million of the roughly 11.5 billion gallons shipped by rail being spilled. What did change was the volume of actual crude being shipped by rail.

As we’ve covered before, there is a massive boom in crude-by-rail throughout North America, with a nearly 2400-percent increase in crude railcar shipments in five short years from 2008-2012. As it turned out, 2013 was another record-setting year.

Tricks of the Trade: How Big Polluters Hide Climate Lobbying Behind Trade Groups

What do large companies do when they want to lobby against climate change and carbon mitigation measures without looking publicly like they're pro-pollution? According to a new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, they hide behind trade groups.

Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have essentially become puppets for the positions of the ventriloquist corporations they serve. Companies often position themselves publicly to suggest they support action to address climate change. But those promises are regularly contradicted by the lobbying activities of trade groups they are part of, such as the chamber, that fight against such policy action.

The Union of Concerned Scientists report, Tricks of the Trade: How Companies Influence Climate Policy Through Business and Trade Associations, doesn’t introduce this concept — organizations like 350.org have been calling out companies for their membership in the anti-science U.S. Chamber for years now — but its authors Gretchen Goldman and Christina Carlson take a deep, analytical look at the memberships of various trade orgs and dig into survey data from the companies to find some glaring contradictions.

Hospital Hosting Coal Event Requests Restraining Order Against Local Activists

A West Virginia hospital made a very unique request earlier this week. Authorities at St. Mary’s Medical Center asked a local judge for a restraining order against the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), which had announced plans to protest outside of a coal-boosting event at the hospital on Tuesday. 

Janet Keating, OVEC's executive director, explained that the goal of the rally was to ask why a facility dedicated to health would host an event that promoted the coal industry, which is clearly linked to many public health problems.

“There's been a lot of silence from our state leaders about these health studies and the impacts on communities around coal,” said Keating. “It's a mystery to me why a hospital would want to host this. Our whole thing is, 'Let's not have it at a hospital, where you're supposed to be helping people.'”

Hoping to stifle such discussion, while claiming that the rally could impede the services conducted at the facility, St. Mary’s requested a temporary restraining order.

In the courtroom, representatives for OVEC assured the judge that the gathering would be a “peaceful, lawful protest that will not trespass onto the hospital’s property.”

And after the judge sided with the coalition, that’s exactly how the protest went down - as a peaceful and lawful reminder to Huntington area residents that the coal industry does not have the best interests of public health in mind.

South Portland Tar Sands Pipeline Defeat: Big Oil Outspends Local Grassroots 6-to-1

Of all the elections and ballot measures voted on around the country on Tuesday, perhaps the most egregious example of the fossil fuel industry’s money influencing an outcome was seen in South Portland, Maine.

Voters in the coastal city were deciding whether to approve a ballot item that would have essentially prevented the loading of tar sands crude onto ships in the South Portland harbor.

The proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance, which appeared on the ballot after the Protect South Portland citizens group gathered enough signatures this past Spring, was voted down by less than 200 votes, out of 8,714 total votes cast.

In the months leading up to the vote, local residents were bombarded with media and direct mail campaigns opposing the ordinance. The week before the election, campaign finance reports revealed that the oil industry had pumped over $600,000 into ads and mailings opposing the measure.

The Save Our Working Waterfront campaign received most of its funding from big oil companies and industry groups like Citgo, Irving, and the American Petroleum Institute. A good chunk of the money raised - $123,427 to be exact - was used to hire the Maryland-based consultancy DDC Advocacy, which advertises its ability to organize online campaigns and “local grassroots” advocacy.

Contrast that $600,000 with the roughly $100,000 raised by the three local groups, including Protect South Portland, to support the ordinance.

According to Crystal Goodrich, who organized the door-to-door campaign efforts for Protect South Portland, the oil industry spent more per voter - about $32 per voter in this town of just 19,000 voters - than in even the most expensive elections across the country. “The oil industry bought this election at more than $135 per vote,” said Goodrich, calculating the cost for each “no” vote.

BLM's Coal Leasing Woes Continue: New GAO Report Coming This Month

More bad news is coming for the Interior Department’s coal leasing program. This month (or later, if the federal shutdown persists), the U.S. Government Accountability Office is expected to release findings from a year-long investigation into the Bureau of Land Management’s federal coal leasing program, which oversees the auction of coal tracts on publicly owned lands.

You’re forgiven if this sounds familiar. In July, another federal body – Interior’s own Inspector General – condemned the program, releasing a highly critical report that documented a number of flaws in the BLM’s Coal Management Program.

While we’ll have to wait for the GAO’s report to get into the details, it’s safe to assume that it will include serious criticism of the program that seems to be failing on every level. The Inspector General analysis examined specific lease auctions – in one case finding that the taxpaying public was stiffed about $52 million because the BLM was ill-equipped to figure out (or uninterested in figuring) “fair market value” for the coal in a particular tract – but this GAO report will look at the program as a whole, which was plagued by scandal in the early 1980s. Reforms were mandated as a result of a GAO report at the time, but two decades later, many of the changes demanded have still yet to be implemented.

Selective Shutdown: Congressman Raul Grijalva's Petition to Ban Drilling on Public Lands While Public is Locked Out

As the government shutdown drags well into its second week, the gates to America’s national parks, wildlife refuges, and national forests remain closed and the taxpaying public is denied access. Not everyone will be turned away at the gates, however: oil, gas, and coal companies that are already drilling and mining on our public lands can proceed with business as usual.

A quick survey of the contingency plans (see: Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, National Park Service) of various federal agencies shows how extraction can continue unfettered, even while the rest of of are shut out of our public lands. Today, there are 12 national parks with oil and gas drilling operations underway, and coal mining is widespread across BLM lands, particularly in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. 

As Corbin Hair reported on SNL:

The Department of the Interior, which oversees oil and natural gas drilling as well as U.S. public lands, will furlough up to 58,765 of its 72,562 employees, according to its updated plan. National parks will close and reviewing new oil and gas leases will halt, but the DOI will continue monitoring existing operations.

“The majority of the personnel that are excepted are law enforcement, wildland fire, emergency response and security, animal caretakers, maintenance and other personnel that would be focused on the custodial care of lands and facilities and protection of life and property,” the DOI's plan said. On the outer continental shelf, “the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement would continue to ensure the safety of drilling and production operations and issue drilling and other offshore permits, however renewable activities and five year plan work would be terminated.”

At least one elected official recognizes this as unfair and unjust. On October 3, Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging the officials to halt mining and extraction on public lands while the public itself was locked out.

Rep. Grijalva’s letter reads:

SaveCanada: Using TransCanada's Playbook to Fight the Energy East Pipeline

As their proposed Keystone XL pipeline faces ever-increasing opposition – and as the State Department continues to push back official decisions on whether to approve the pipeline's permit – TransCanada has turned at least some of their attention east. The Canadian company has proposed and is now seeking permission to build out their so-called Energy East pipeline system (which DeSmogBlog has covered here), which would funnel tar sands crude from Hardisty, Alberta to refineries in Saint John, New Brunswick, on a point of land jutting out into the Bay of Fundy. The project would involve converting roughly 1,864 miles of natural gas to handle diluted bitumen and constructing roughly 870 miles of new pipeline from the Ontario-Quebec border to the coastal refinery. In all, Energy East would travel over 2,700 miles across Canada, through hundreds of cities and townships and across hundreds of rivers and streams.  

To sell the Energy East vision to the communties that could potential be affected by a Kalamazoo or Mayflower-type of spill, TransCanada has foregone the “town hall” model – where concerned citizens or community activists can take the floor to raise concerns – instead opting for an open house, “trade show” model of community meeting, where TransCanada reps take their talking points and shiny PR materials directly to attendees in one-on-one settings. 

Enter: SaveCanada

Should We Wait 300 Years for Clean Air in U.S. National Parks?

If you’ve been planning a visit to Yellowstone National Park, and are hoping for a perfectly clear, crisp day, you’ll have to wait awhile. Like 150 years or so.

You see, Yellowstone, like many of the United States' national parks, suffers from some pretty serious air pollution. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, at current rates of progress, it’s going to take until 2163 for Yellowstone to clear the haze and once again have natural air quality.

Yellowstone isn’t alone. The NPCA crunched the numbers of ten flagship national parks, and found some disappointing results. According to their research, natural air quality in these popular and prestigious parks wouldn’t be achieved until these dates:

  • North Cascades National Park (Washington) – 2276
  • Badlands National Park (South Dakota) – 2265
  • Voyagers National Park (Minnesota) – 2177
  • Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming/Montana/Idaho) – 2163
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota) – 2158
  • Big Bend National Park (Texas) – 2155
  • Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona) – 2127
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado) – 2119
  • Joshua Tree National Park (California) – 2106
  • Sequoia National Park (California) – 2096

Play around with this startling interactive graphic from the NPCA:

An End to Powder River Basin Coal Leases? Second Auction in Two Months Fails to Seal a Mining Deal

The Bureau of Land Management is having a hard time getting rid of our publicly owned coal. For the second time in two months, a federal coal lease auction resulted in no sales.

On Wednesday, the BLM announced that it was officially rejecting the lone bid on the Hay Creek II coal lease tract in Wyoming. The lone bidder, Kiewit Mining Properties, had offered a measly $0.21-per-ton of the estimated 167 million tons of mineable coal in the Hay Creek II tract. The BLM declared that the bid “did not meet fair market value” and rejected it.

Hey, at least we can’t accuse the BLM of literally giving away coal on public lands.

This failure to secure a suitable bid comes on the heels of last month’s stunning news that there were absolutely no bids for the auction of the Maysdorf II tract, also in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

If these two failed auctions represent a larger trend, it is that the market for coal has gotten so bad that even the BLM’s bargain bin prices are too high for industry to pay. And, yes, the BLM’s prices are cheap, as they’ve leased over 2 billion tons of coal in the Powder River Basin alone since 2011 at an average of around $1-per-ton.

That price point was criticized in a recent report by the Interior Department’s own Inspector General, which accused the BLM of failing to factor international markets and coal exports into their “fair market values,” and which calculated that for every cent that publicly-owned coal deposits are undervalued, American taxpayers get stiffed by $3 million.

Dealing in Doubt: Greenpeace Report Exposes Fossil Fuel Funded Climate Denial Machine

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prepares to release its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) – the latest installment of its comprehensive assessment of climate science – early next year, the science is already under attack. As the U.S. Global Change Research Program puts the final draft of the third National Climate Assessment together, also due out in early 2014, its conclusions are already under siege.

In an updated report released today, Greenpeace explains how these attacks on the science of climate change – on the reports, on the scientists themselves, and on the rigorous scientific process itself – are part of a decades-old, well-organized, and richly-funded campaign to discredit the science of climate change and to intentionally pollute public discourse on climate change.

In Dealing in Doubt: The Climate Denial Industry and Climate Science, an update of their 2010 report, Greenpeace exhaustively describes the fossil fuel funded climate denial machine, tracing its Exxon-funded, tobacco industry-inspired roots in the 1990s to the intricate and secretive web of disinformation that exists today. 

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