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Exxon Wants $1 Million Fine for 2011 Yellowstone Oil Spill Reduced Again

The challenge by the world's second-most-valuable company reinforces its reputation for protracted legal fights over penalties and court judgments.

Mar 6, 2015

More than three and a half years after an ExxonMobil pipeline spilled 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River, the world's second-most-valuable company is still fighting regulators over being assessed a $1 million fine.

Exxon last month attacked the legal underpinnings of the government's case, which stems from the July 2011 rupture of the Silvertip Pipeline near Laurel, Mont. The oil giant argued that it complied with federal regulations and that pipeline regulators overstepped their authority in interpreting the legal requirements. It also said that all but one of the violations should be dropped and that the government should, at a minimum, "significantly reduce" the penalties.

Alexis Bonogofsky, whose family farm was inundated with oil from the spill, thinks the penalty is already too low. 

"As an impacted landowner, it's upsetting to me that these fines are so tiny for someone like Exxon," said Bonogofsky, who is also tribal lands manager for the National Wildlife Federation in Billings, Mont. Exxon, which is second only to Apple Inc. in market value, took in $32 billion in 2014, a sum equal to $88 million per day.

GOP White House Contenders: An Early Rundown of Their Climate Change Positions

Growing concern among voters will color what these candidates say on the stump. For now, it's mostly mixed messages, flip-flopping or denial.

Mar 5, 2015

Freshly formed snowball in hand, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma took the Senate floor last week. He was there to discuss the "hysteria on global warming," he said, citing the snowball and a frigid winter in Washington, D.C. as evidence that the climate isn't changing.

The senator was roundly criticized for being out of touch with the science of global warming—which involves fiercer winter storms. His prop threw the Republican Party's views on climate change into sharp relief. While top Democratic leaders including President Barack Obama consider it a dire threat, much of the GOP still denies that the planet is warming or that it's caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

With just 10 months until the first 2016 presidential primary in New Hampshire, candidate names and campaign donations are already pouring in. Most political pundits count about 20 potential Republican contenders at the moment—a list that includes current and former governors, congressmen and a surgeon.

Many of them share Inhofe's view that the world is not warming, or if it is, that humans aren't contributing to climate change. Deep-pocketed fossil fuel companies and advocacy groups are squaring up to spread around billions of dollars in campaign contributions.

There are serious ramifications for global warming in the 2016 presidential election. The next president could move to reverse Obama's initiatives to fight climate change and adapt to it, while resisting scientists' urgent calls to drastically and quickly slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Former Secretary of State and former Senator Hillary Clinton, the early Democratic frontrunner, has called global warming the "most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face." At the same time, some environmentalists have criticized her support for increased natural gas production.

Here's InsideClimate News' review of the climate positions of the top 11 GOP presidential contenders:

A Weak Link to Harvard-Smithsonian Gave Star Power to Climate Contrarian Willie Soon

Though employed by the prestigious institution, Soon had to attract outside funding for his research and entire salary to keep his job.

Mar 4, 2015

When Stephen Mulkey was an environmental scientist at the University of Idaho in 2010, he agreed to serve on a panel opposite Wei-Hock Soon, the scientist at the center of a scandal over fossil-fuel industry funding of climate research.

Mulkey, the head of the college's environmental science program, advanced the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by burning of fossil fuels. He had the vast majority of climate scientists worldwide on his side.

But Soon, who promotes discredited science that the sun is the primary driver of global warming, had something stronger on his side in that debate: the imprimatur of Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution.

Since 1997 Soon has been employed by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. And that's how Mulkey remembers Soon’s introduction to the crowd in Boise for the seminar on global warming arranged by the Idaho Council on Industry and Environment, a non-profit organization that urges "the use of sound science and facts in shaping public policy."

The gravitas of Harvard-Smithsonian's credibility versus the University of Idaho's was a mismatch, recalled Mulkey, who is now president of Unity College in Maine and recently authored a blog post on the imbalance.  

"The audience ate up what Soon had to say," said Mulkey, who described the group as pro-industry. "It's like, here's this Harvard scientist telling us all the other scientists are lying to us."

America's First Offshore Wind Farm to Start Construction This Summer

The small project to build five turbines secures full financing and approval, and breaks a barrier ahead of other projects mired in delay and controversy.

Mar 4, 2015

A small wind project in New England just made history. Deepwater Wind announced Monday that its Block Island wind farm is fully financed and on track to become the nation's first offshore wind project.

Set to go online toward the end of 2016, the more than $290 million project involves constructing five wind turbines off the southwestern coast of Block Island, which lies about 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island.

"In the minds of the general public and policymakers [offshore wind] is a very theoretical thing. That's the importance of Block Island: it will take offshore wind from theory to reality" in the United States, said Jeffrey Grybowksi, CEO of Providence-based Deepwater Wind.

According to the company, different parts of the turbines are already being built at fabrication plants in both Europe and the U.S., and the turbine foundations will likely be installed three miles off the Block Island coast this summer. 

Offshore wind farms are designed to harness the strong winds blowing over the sea and transform them into energy. The offshore turbines, each towering hundreds of feet into the air, generate power via the spinning of their massive blades. Generally, offshore wind turbines are bigger and can access faster winds than those onshore.

Can Fracking Pollute Drinking Water? Don't Ask the EPA

The EPA has been unable to collect the data it needs from the multibillion dollar oil and gas sector, which has stymied a five-year federal study.

Mar 2, 2015

Can fracking pollute drinking water?

The Environmental Protection Agency embarked in 2010 on what was intended to be a definitive study to find out. The answer could prove critical to future U.S. regulation of the multibillion-dollar fossil fuel sector and to ensuring water safety for millions of Americans.

But after five years of fighting with the oil and gas industry, the agency may still be unable to provide a clear answer when a draft of the study is published this spring, based on internal EPA documents and interviews with people who have knowledge of the study.

"We won’t know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago," said Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the EPA's 2011 Science Advisory Board, a group of independent scientists who reviewed the draft plan of the study.  "This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result."

More than a half-dozen former high-ranking EPA, administration and congressional staff members echoed Thyne's opinion, as did scientists and environmentalists. Nearly all the former government employees asked not to be identified because of ongoing dealings with government and industry. Two hundred pages of EPA emails and other documents about the study point to the same conclusions. The documents were acquired by Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information Act and shared with InsideClimate News.

(To view the emails and other documents, click HERE, HERE and HERE.)

The EPA's failure to answer the study's central question partly reflects the agency's weakness relative to the politically potent fossil fuel industry. The industry balked at the scope of the study and sowed doubts about the EPA's ability to deliver definitive findings. In addition, concerns about the safety of drinking water conflicted with the Obama administration's need to spur the economy out of recession while expanding domestic energy production.

For the study's findings to be definitive, the EPA needed prospective, or baseline, studies. Scientists consider prospective water studies essential because they provide chemical snapshots of water immediately before and after fracking and then for a year or two afterward. This would be the most reliable way to determine whether oil and gas development contaminates surface water and nearby aquifers, and the findings could highlight industry practices that protect water. In other studies that found toxic chemicals or hydrocarbons in water wells, the industry argued that the substances were present before oil and gas development began.  

2015: Oil Industry Off to a Rough Start

In the last two weeks, the industry has faced oil train accidents, a refinery explosion, a science scandal, Obama’s veto of the Keystone XL and more.

Feb 27, 2015

So far, 2015 has not been good to the oil industry. In just the last two weeks, the bad news included two fiery oil railcar accidents, a refinery explosion, a scandal involving an industry-funded climate skeptic, a high-profile setback for an oil-by-rail project, a big retrenchment in Canada’s oil sands, and the president's veto of the Keystone XL oil import pipeline.

And that’s not all. Those events have come on top of industry-wide ripple effects from the recent plunge in crude prices. In the last two months, a string of oil companies announced disappointing earnings, workforce layoffs and sharp spending cuts. On Feb. 1, union leaders began strikes at many U.S. refineries after contract talks stalled.

"It's a mess...it's like a perfect storm," said Fadel Gheit, senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. He expects even worse earnings and layoff news ahead if oil prices stay in its current range of around $50 per barrel. On Jan. 28, the price of U.S. benchmark crude closed at a low of $45.23 a barrel, down more than 43 percent since the end of October.

Anthony Swift, a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed with Gheit. "It's been a rough start to the year and an interesting confluence of events," he said.

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad EPA?

The agency's budget represents an almost invisible slice of the federal pie.

Feb 26, 2015

The Environmental Protection Agency has been accused of everything from running this country to waging an economy-destroying war on coal. But it turns out the GOP's prime target isn't that big after all.

The agency's budget represents an almost invisible slice of the federal pie—less than a quarter of a percent of Obama's proposed $4 trillion budget for the 2016 fiscal year. If approved, the EPA's budget next year would be 16.5 percent smaller than it was in 2010.

Why States Rejecting EPA's Clean Power Plan Could Face Bigger Rate Hikes

If the EPA is forced to impose a federal plan, it's going to limit options and be bad news for customers in that state.

Feb 26, 2015

Since the Obama administration announced its plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions and combat climate change last year, many states have been on the offensive. Some have sued the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that the agency has overstepped its authority. Republican leaders in Congress have vowed to dismantle carbon emission regulations. And state legislatures have set up numerous blockades to delay the Clean Power Plan.

Given the current political climate, it seems inevitable that at least a handful of states will continue to fight the EPA over the Clean Power Plan. Here's a rundown of what might happen if states refuse to cooperate––and why it might be in their best interest to comply with the EPA’s rules.

Will UN Climate Panel's Credibility Suffer From the Resignation of Its Chief?

Attacks on the IPCC over allegations of sexual misconduct come in the same week as scandal erupts over contrarian scientist Willie Soon.

Feb 25, 2015

In a week when the Willie Soon scandal broke and revealed the fossil fuel industry's footprint on contrarian climate research, embattled denialists went back on the offensive.

Critics are again trying to discredit the leading international scientific body on climate change after the organization's leader resigned over allegations he sexually harassed female coworkers at his research institute in India.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stepped down Tuesday, eight months before his planned departure. In his resignation letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Pachauri wrote that “the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion and my dharma."

Critics of the IPCC seized on his comment to paint the scientific body as biased. The panel is "led by an environmentalist on a mission...for whom protecting the planet is a religious calling,” wrote Donna Laframboise, a vocal climate denier, on her website, NoFrakkingConsensus. Marc Morano of Climate Depot asserted that the allegations of sexual harassment are the latest sign the IPCC was being led by a "political and ethical cancer."

Obama's Veto of Keystone XL Pipeline Probably Doesn't Mean the Endgame

Administration leaves unclear whether it would ultimately grant or refuse a permit to the cross-border pipeline, perhaps opening the door to bargaining.

Feb 24, 2015

President Obama on Tuesday briskly vetoed legislation to approve construction of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. The bill, which had easily passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate last month, was rejected within hours of its official delivery to the Oval Office.

The White House said Obama rejected the bill because it would have short-circuited his administration's prolonged review of the pipeline, a project that over the years has become a litmus test of his commitment to fighting climate change.