Weekly Mulch: The Sticky Truth about Oil Spills and Tar Sands

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

The National Oil Spill Commission released its report on last year’s BP oil spill this week. The report laid out the blame for the spill, tagging each of the three companies working on the Deepwater Horizon at the time, Halliburton, Transocean and BP, and also offered prescriptions for avoiding similar disasters in the future.

As Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard notes, it’s unlikely the recommendations will impact policy going forward.

“I think the recommendations are pretty tepid given the severity of the crisis,” Jackie Savitz, director of pollution campaigns at the advocacy group Oceana, told Sheppard. “Even the small things they’re suggesting, I think it’s going to be hard to convince Congress to make those changes.”

No transparency for you!

Last summer, after the spill, the Obama administration tried hard to look like it was pushing back against the oil industry, even though just weeks before the spill, the president had promised to open new areas of the East Coast to offshore drilling.

This week brought new evidence that, despite some posturing to the contrary, the administration is not exactly unfriendly to the energy industry. One of the key decisions the administration faces about the country’s energy future is whether to support the Keystone XL, a pipeline that would pump oil from tar sands in Canada down to Texas refineries.  And one of the key lobbyists for TransCanada, the company intending to build the pipeline, is a former staffer for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, filed a Freedom of Information requesting correspondence between the lobbyist, Paul Elliott, and his former boss, but the State Department denied the request.

“We do not believe that the State Department has legitimate legal grounds to deny our FOIA request, and assert that the agency is ignoring its own written guidance regarding FOIA requests and the release of public information,” said Marcie Keever, the group’s legal director, The Michigan Messenger’s Ed Brayton reports. “This is the type of delay tactic we would have expected from the Bush administration, not the Obama administration, which has touted its efforts to usher in a new era of transparency in government, including elevated standards in dealing with lobbyists.”

Tar sands’ black mark

What are the consequences if the government approves the pipeline? As Care2’s Beth Buczynski writes, “Communities along the Keystone XL pipeline’s proposed path would face increased risk of spills, and, at the pipeline’s end, the health of those living near Texas refineries would suffer, as tar sands oil spews higher levels of dangerous pollutants into the air when processed.”

What’s more, the tar sands extraction process has already brought environmental devastation to the areas like Alberta, Canada, where tar sands mining occurs. Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark recently visited the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, which he calls “impressively forthright” in its discussion of the environmental issues brought on by oil sands. (The museum is run by Alberta’s provincial government.) Mark reports:

The section on habitat fragmentation was especially good. As one panel put it, “Increasingly, Alberta’s remaining forested areas resemble islands of trees in a larger network of cut lines, well sites, mine, pipeline corridors, plant sites, and human settlements. … Forest disturbances can also encourage increased predation and put some plants and animals at risk.”

Not renewable, just new

The museum that Mark visited also made clear that extracting and refining oil from tar sands is a labor-intensive practice. He writes:

Mining, we learn, is just the start. Then the tar has to be “upgraded” into synthetic petroleum via a process that involves “conditioning,” “separation” into a bitumen froth, then “deaeration” to take out gases, and finally injection into a dual-system centrifuge that removes the last of the solids. Next comes distillation, thermal conversion, catalytic conversion, and hydrotreating. At that point the recombined petroleum is ready to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. It all felt like a flashback to high school chemistry.

Why bother with this at all? In short, because with easily accessible sources of oil largely tapped out, techniques like tar sands mining and deepwater drilling are the only fonts of oil available. This problem is going to get worse, as The Nation is explaining over the next few weeks in its video series on peak oil.

Energy and the economy

Traditional ideas about energy dictate that even as the world uses up limited resources like oil, technology will create access to new sources, find ways to use limited resources more efficiently, or find ways to consume new sources of energy. These advances will head off any problems with consumption rates. The peak oil theory, on the contrary, argues that it is possible to use up a resource like oil, that there’s a peak in supply.

Once the peak has been passed, the consequences, particularly the economic consequences, become dire, as Richard Heinberg, senior fellow with the Post Carbon Institute explains. “If the amount of energy we can use is declining, we may be seeing the end of economic growth as we define it right now,” he told The Nation. Watch more below:

Light green

Part of the problem is that the energy resources that could replace fossil fuels like oil—wind and solar energy, for instance—likely won’t be in place before the oil wells run dry. And as Monica Potts reports at The American Prospect, our new green economy is getting off to a slow start.

Although the administration has talked incessantly about supporting green jobs, Potts writes that the federal government hasn’t even finalized what count as a “green job” yet. The working definition, which is currently under review, asserts that green jobs are in industries that “benefit the environment or conserve national resources” or entails work to green a company’s “production process.” But what does that actually mean?

“That definition was rightly criticized as overly broad,” Potts writes. She continues:

While nearly everyone would include installing solar panels as a green job, what about an architect who designs a green house? (Under the proposed definition, both would count.) … Another problem comes in weighing green purposes against green execution: We could count, for example, public-transit train operators as green workers. But how do we break down transportation as an industry more broadly? Most would probably agree that truckers who drive tractor-trailers running on diesel fuel wouldn’t count as green workers even if they’re transporting wind-turbine parts. And many of the jobs we would count as green already exist.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the country is moving swiftly toward a bright green future.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Mulch: Why the Senate Climate Bill is Doomed

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), though down one man, finally released their stab at climate legislation this week. One of the most crucial sections in the bill covers off-shore oil drilling, an issue that was supposed to help solve the tricky math of reaching 60 votes. But since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank in the Gulf of Mexico, drilling has become a wedge issue.

Just a few weeks ago, off-shore drilling could have been a point of compromise around which Senators could rally votes to pass the climate bill; now the bill had to strike a new balance to mollify both potential allies who oppose drilling, like Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and those who support drilling, like Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). The draft that Sen. Kerry and Sen. Lieberman released this week allows for expanded drilling but gives states veto power over new projects.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who worked on the bill, said that he had not seen the changes his two colleagues had made since he dropped out of the drafting process—but he looked forward to reviewing their work. Although Sen. Kerry says he thinks the bill can pass,  without support from Sen. Graham or another Republican, chances are slim.

Next steps

Now that the two Senators have released the bill, the only work that remains is to pass it.

“I think climate change legislation is dead,” writes Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. His explanation:

“There’s not enough time for a bill to go through the committee process, get passed by the Senate, sent to conference, amended, and then passed by the full Congress before the midterms, and after the midterms Democrats will probably be reduced to 53 or 54 members in the Senate.”

Not everyone agrees that the bill’s chance are so dire, though.

“I think the chances are roughly as good as they’ve ever been in the Senate: low but non-trivial,” says Grist’s David Roberts.

Kerry’s argument

But should green-minded politicos root for the bill’s passage at all? Sen. Kerry and Sen. Lieberman worked closely with energy companies while drafting the bill, and the resulting legislation balances the need to reduce carbon emissions with the interests of prime polluters. The bill includes incentives for old energy industries like coal and natural gas, for instance, and exempts farmers from carbon caps.

On Wednesday, Sen. Kerry made his case to left-leaning environmentalists. “A comprehensive climate bill written purely for you and me — true believers — can’t pass the Senate no matter how hard or passionate I fight on it,” he wrote for Grist. The bill they have, he wrote, can pass, and that victory outweighs the compromises in the legislation.

Responses from the left

On Democracy Now!, Phil Radford, the executive director of GreenPeace USA, said that most environmental groups have given the bill little more than a “tepid endorsement.” Radford squared off on the show with Joseph Romm of the Center for American Progress, who supports the bill.

“This will be the first bill ever passed by the Senate, if it were to pass, that would put us on a path to get off of fossil fuels,” Romm said.

The two men were also divided over issues like the impact the climate bill could have on international negotiations.

They agreed, though, there is room for improvement; the only question is whether the politics of climate change will allow for the passage of a stronger bill any times soon. As Kevin Drum wrote, “If you think this year’s bills are watered down, just wait until you see what a Congress with a hair-thin Democratic majority produces.”

Coal and natural gas

Tripping up environmentalists now, though, are the hand-outs to dirty energy industries. The coal and natural gas industry could both benefit from the provisions of the Senate bill, for instance.

On GritTV, Jeff Biggers, a writer and educator who covers the coal industry, explained his frustration:

“The climate bill is a nice first step and a very well meaning effort for someone like Sen. Kerry who’s been working on this issue for 20 years. But at the same time, because of the massive big coal lobby that has poured millions of dollars into lobbying congress on this climate legislation…there are all sorts of little panders and loopholes and exemptions.”

“What we see in this bill is that Sen. Kerry and Lieberman want to ensure coal’s future,” he said.

The booming natural gas industry also had a hand in shaping the bill and benefited from it. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club favor natural gas as an energy source over coal, and as Kari Lydersen reports in Working In These Times, the industry is driving job growth at a time when the economy needs a boost.

But as Alex Halperin reported last month for The American Prospect, in the places where drilling is occurring, like Ithaca, NY, activists are arguing that the environmental risks could outweigh those economic benefits.

Drill or be drilled

That devil’s bargain—risking natural resources for jobs in the energy industry—went the wrong way for the Gulf Coast, and states like Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida are paying the price even before the oil hits shore.

As I report in AlterNet, the Gulf’s economy could lose billions of dollars and is suffering already from the misconception that its beaches are tarred with oil. With this catastrophe still fresh in voters’ minds, the Senate climate bill proposes pushing new drilling initiatives 75 miles offshore and giving affected states veto power over these projects.

Depending on how long the memory of the Deepwater Horizon spill lasts, politicians could have a good reason to veto drilling. Public News Service reports that 55% of Floridians now oppose off-shore drilling, “almost a complete reversal from one year ago.”

Blame game

Certainly no one is stepping up to take responsibility for the explosion off the coast of Louisiana, as the Washington Independent reports. At a hearing this week, officials from British Petroleum, which was operating the well, Transocean, which owns it, and Halliburton, which was doing contract work that may have caused the problem, all denied wrongdoing and pressed the blame on each other.

It’s starting to look Halliburton played a key part. “The focus is increasingly shifting to the role of Halliburton, which poured the cement for the rig, as well as for another operation that spilled oil off the coast of Australia last August,” writes Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones. The company apparently did not place a cement plug that would have kept gas in the well before emptying it of the mud that was holding in the flammable gas.

Anyone living in a state that could have new drilling off their coast should keep this catastrophe in mind if their politicians are given the option of vetoing new projects.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Mulch: The Sticky Truth about Oil Spills and Tar Sands

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

The National Oil Spill Commission released its report on last year’s BP oil spill this week. The report laid out the blame for the spill, tagging each of the three companies working on the Deepwater Horizon at the time, Halliburton, Transocean and BP, and also offered prescriptions for avoiding similar disasters in the future.

As Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard notes, it’s unlikely the recommendations will impact policy going forward.

“I think the recommendations are pretty tepid given the severity of the crisis,” Jackie Savitz, director of pollution campaigns at the advocacy group Oceana, told Sheppard. “Even the small things they’re suggesting, I think it’s going to be hard to convince Congress to make those changes.”

No transparency for you!

Last summer, after the spill, the Obama administration tried hard to look like it was pushing back against the oil industry, even though just weeks before the spill, the president had promised to open new areas of the East Coast to offshore drilling.

This week brought new evidence that, despite some posturing to the contrary, the administration is not exactly unfriendly to the energy industry. One of the key decisions the administration faces about the country’s energy future is whether to support the Keystone XL, a pipeline that would pump oil from tar sands in Canada down to Texas refineries.  And one of the key lobbyists for TransCanada, the company intending to build the pipeline, is a former staffer for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, filed a Freedom of Information requesting correspondence between the lobbyist, Paul Elliott, and his former boss, but the State Department denied the request.

“We do not believe that the State Department has legitimate legal grounds to deny our FOIA request, and assert that the agency is ignoring its own written guidance regarding FOIA requests and the release of public information,” said Marcie Keever, the group’s legal director, The Michigan Messenger’s Ed Brayton reports. “This is the type of delay tactic we would have expected from the Bush administration, not the Obama administration, which has touted its efforts to usher in a new era of transparency in government, including elevated standards in dealing with lobbyists.”

Tar sands’ black mark

What are the consequences if the government approves the pipeline? As Care2’s Beth Buczynski writes, “Communities along the Keystone XL pipeline’s proposed path would face increased risk of spills, and, at the pipeline’s end, the health of those living near Texas refineries would suffer, as tar sands oil spews higher levels of dangerous pollutants into the air when processed.”

What’s more, the tar sands extraction process has already brought environmental devastation to the areas like Alberta, Canada, where tar sands mining occurs. Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark recently visited the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, which he calls “impressively forthright” in its discussion of the environmental issues brought on by oil sands. (The museum is run by Alberta’s provincial government.) Mark reports:

The section on habitat fragmentation was especially good. As one panel put it, “Increasingly, Alberta’s remaining forested areas resemble islands of trees in a larger network of cut lines, well sites, mine, pipeline corridors, plant sites, and human settlements. … Forest disturbances can also encourage increased predation and put some plants and animals at risk.”

Not renewable, just new

The museum that Mark visited also made clear that extracting and refining oil from tar sands is a labor-intensive practice. He writes:

Mining, we learn, is just the start. Then the tar has to be “upgraded” into synthetic petroleum via a process that involves “conditioning,” “separation” into a bitumen froth, then “deaeration” to take out gases, and finally injection into a dual-system centrifuge that removes the last of the solids. Next comes distillation, thermal conversion, catalytic conversion, and hydrotreating. At that point the recombined petroleum is ready to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. It all felt like a flashback to high school chemistry.

Why bother with this at all? In short, because with easily accessible sources of oil largely tapped out, techniques like tar sands mining and deepwater drilling are the only fonts of oil available. This problem is going to get worse, as The Nation is explaining over the next few weeks in its video series on peak oil.

Energy and the economy

Traditional ideas about energy dictate that even as the world uses up limited resources like oil, technology will create access to new sources, find ways to use limited resources more efficiently, or find ways to consume new sources of energy. These advances will head off any problems with consumption rates. The peak oil theory, on the contrary, argues that it is possible to use up a resource like oil, that there’s a peak in supply.

Once the peak has been passed, the consequences, particularly the economic consequences, become dire, as Richard Heinberg, senior fellow with the Post Carbon Institute explains. “If the amount of energy we can use is declining, we may be seeing the end of economic growth as we define it right now,” he told The Nation. Watch more below:

Light green

Part of the problem is that the energy resources that could replace fossil fuels like oil—wind and solar energy, for instance—likely won’t be in place before the oil wells run dry. And as Monica Potts reports at The American Prospect, our new green economy is getting off to a slow start.

Although the administration has talked incessantly about supporting green jobs, Potts writes that the federal government hasn’t even finalized what count as a “green job” yet. The working definition, which is currently under review, asserts that green jobs are in industries that “benefit the environment or conserve national resources” or entails work to green a company’s “production process.” But what does that actually mean?

“That definition was rightly criticized as overly broad,” Potts writes. She continues:

While nearly everyone would include installing solar panels as a green job, what about an architect who designs a green house? (Under the proposed definition, both would count.) … Another problem comes in weighing green purposes against green execution: We could count, for example, public-transit train operators as green workers. But how do we break down transportation as an industry more broadly? Most would probably agree that truckers who drive tractor-trailers running on diesel fuel wouldn’t count as green workers even if they’re transporting wind-turbine parts. And many of the jobs we would count as green already exist.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the country is moving swiftly toward a bright green future.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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