Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Oil, gas, coal

Fracking used more diesel fuel than estimated, lawmakers say


Three U.S. House members investigating the use of toxic substances in the fluids injected into natural gas wells have revised their estimate of the amount of diesel fuel used in the practice, known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking."

Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, joined Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) in sending a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency. The letter said two companies had erroneously reported usage of diesel fuel in fracking fluids, which are injected at high pressure into rock formations — usually shale — to create fissures that allow natural gas to be extracted. 

More than 32 million gallons of diesel were used from 2005 to 2009 by 12 companies employing fracking in states including Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, among others.

Oil service companies such as Halliburton have maintained that fracking does not affect drinking water, despite anecdotal evidence in places such as Wyoming that show methane and other chemicals in residential wells near fracking activities.

The amount of diesel under-reported was about 500,000 gallons, the lawmakers said in their letter to the EPA, which pressed the agency for better oversight and more uniform reporting requirements. 


Burning oil from BP spill produced carbon plumes

California adopts historic cap-and-trade regulations

Former Keystone pipeline lobbyist hired by Obama campaign

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: A natural gas well pad near Rifle, Colo., in the Rocky Mountains. Credit: David Zalubowski / Associated Press 

Former Keystone pipeline lobbyist hired by Obama campaign

Keystone pipeline

This post has been corrected. Please see bottom note for details.

President Obama's reelection campaign has hired a former lobbyist for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline as a top adviser.

The campaign said that Broderick Johnson, founder and former principal of the communications firm the Collins Johnson Group, would serve as a senior adviser for the campaign. Before founding the firm this spring, he worked for the powerhouse lobbying firm, Bryan Cave LLP, where his clients included Microsoft, Comcast and TransCanada, the company planning to build the $7-billion pipeline to carry crude from Alberta’s oil sands to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Johnson’s federal lobbyist filings indicate that TransCanada paid Bryan Cave at least $240,000 late last year and early this year for Johnson to work on supporting the “submission for a presidential permit for Keystone XL Pipeline.” He lobbied members of Congress, the filings show, as well as the administration and the State Department.

TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha denied that Johnson lobbied on behalf of the Keystone project.
An Obama campaign official said that in his new role Johnson would “serve as a national surrogate for the campaign and our representative in meetings with key leaders, communities and organizations.  Broderick will be an ear to the ground for the campaign's political and constituency operations, helping to ensure that there is constant, open communication between the campaign and our supporters around the country.”
Given his ties to Keystone XL, Johnson is bound to get an earful when meeting with some in Obama’s constituency.

The pipeline needs a permit from the State Department because it would cross a federal border. For more than a year, Keystone XL has been mired in controversy. TransCanada, the oil industry and several labor unions have said the project would create thousands of jobs in the United States and reduce the country’s dependence on oil from hostile or unstable countries. Environmentalists, including many Obama supporters, have argued that the extraction of the crude in Alberta lays waste to the land and increases greenhouse gas emissions. They caution that the proposed route would take the pipeline over the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the main source of drinking and irrigation water in the High Plains states, and they argue that the number of jobs created would be far fewer than claimed by the project’s backers.

Continue reading »

Burning oil from BP spill produced carbon plumes

BP oil spill controlled burns released an estimated 1 million pounds of soot into the atmosphere, a study found
Chalk up another environmental impact from last summer's Deepwater Horizon oil spill: Nine weeks of burning off oil slicks from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico following the BP spill released an estimated 1 million pounds of soot into the atmosphere, according to a study released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The burns were conducted to reduce the size of the slicks and to minimize the amount of oil reaching the gulf’s coast and wetlands systems. But the study, which was co-written by researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, Colo., found the plumes of smoke from the burns produced an amount of carbon equal to the total black carbon emissions normally released by all ships that travel the Gulf of Mexico during a nine-week period.

Black carbon, whose primary component is often called soot, is among the most light-absorbing particles in the atmosphere. The new study, published online in Geophysical Research Letters, provides some of the most detailed observations made of black carbon sent airborne by burning surface oil.

The study found that the soot plumes reached much higher into the atmosphere than ship emissions normally rise, and that the average size of the soot particles was larger than normally emitted from other sources in the gulf region. Researchers also found that the soot particles were almost all black carbon, unlike forest fires, for example, which produce other particles along with black carbon.


California adopts historic cap-and-trade regulations

Australia moves closer to law establishing carbon tax

Climate skeptic admits he was wrong to doubt global-warming data

-- Julie Cart

Photo: A controlled burn on June 19, 2010, attempting to remove oil floating near the leaking BP well in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Oil pipeline protesters to greet Obama in San Francisco

President Obama may face a San Francisco protest against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline

When President Obama arrives Tuesday at San Francisco's W Hotel for a fundraiser, he may see some familiar faces from his 2008 campaign -- but they won't be friendly ones.

Several hundred former ardent supporters of the president are expected to attend a rally opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring Canadian tar sands oil through the U.S. heartland to the Gulf of Mexico. The State Department is expected to soon issue a decision on whether to permit the conduit.

The rally, organized by CREDO Action, is a bellwether for the reelection dissatisfaction Obama could face among those who voted for him based on his environmental promises, a number of which have crumbled since he took office -- including the demise of cap-and-trade legislation and the postponement of major air regulations.

“The Bay Area and Northern California were huge sources of grass-roots donations and energy for the Obama campaign in 2008," said CREDO Action campaign manager Elijah Zarlin, a former author of the Obama campaign's fundraising emails who is organizing the rally. "If he wants these people back strongly for him in 2012, he needs to hear us on this and seize this opportunity to lead. This is a great opportunity to deliver this important message directly to the president, and to his high-dollar donors who are in a unique position to talk to the president about this issue."

Rally attendees are planning to use the call of "Yes You Can," a twist on Obama's 2008 campaign motto, to suggest that the president can reject the Keystone application and fulfill his promise to end "the tyranny of oil," as he said during his first White House campaign.

There's no word yet on how close the protesters will be allowed to get to the president or his supporters, who will be paying $7,500 apiece to attend the dinner.

"The Keystone pipeline is a desperate attempt to maintain our disastrous reliance on fossil fuels that will be essentially 'game over' for climate, which is exactly what President Obama ran against in 2008,” said Becky Bond, political director of CREDO Action. "The corruption and conflict of interest that we've seen in the State Department's handling of the review process are exactly the type of insider, closed-door cronyism that President Obama said he would change."


California adopts historic cap-and-trade regulations

Australia moves closer to law establishing carbon tax

Climate skeptic admits he was wrong to doubt global-warming data

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: President Obama speaks at Greensville County High School in Emporia, Va., on Oct. 18, part of his three-day bus tour to promote his jobs legislation. Credit: Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images

California adopts historic cap-and-trade regulations

Oil refinery
The California Air Resources Board, after three years of contentious debate, on Thursday approved the nation's first state-run cap-and-trade program, which will for the first time put a price on carbon emissions.

The unanimous vote paves the way for the carbon trading market, which begins in 2013 and will eventually require 85% of the state's largest polluters to either emit less carbon or purchase credits on a market that the air board will regulate.   

The market is projected to exchange about $10 billion in carbon allowances by 2016, which would make it second largest in the world behind the European Union.

The program is part of AB 23, the state's 2006 climate change law that mandates a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Said board Chairwoman Mary Nichols: "We've done something important."


Australia moves closer to law establishing carbon tax

California falls behind Massachusetts in energy efficiency

Climate skeptic admits he was wrong to doubt global-warming data

--Julie Cart

Photo: Valero Energy's Wilmington refinery in a 2010 photo.  Credit: Christina House / Los Angeles Times

Climate skeptic admits he was wrong to doubt global-warming data

MullerRemember when scientists who had cast doubt on global temperature studies boldly embarked on an effort to "reconsider" the evidence?

They have. And they conclude that their doubt was misplaced.

UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller and others were looking at the so-called urban heat island effect -- the notion that because more urban temperature stations are included in global temperature data sets than are rural ones, the global average temperature was being skewed upward because these sites tend to retain more heat. Hence, global warming trends are exaggerated.

Using data from such urban heat islands as Tokyo, they hypothesized, could introduce "a severe warming bias in global averages using urban stations."

In fact, the data trend was "opposite in sign to that expected if the urban heat island effect was adding anomalous warming to the record. The small size, and its negative sign, supports the key conclusion of prior groups that urban warming does not unduly bias estimates of recent global temperature change."

Researchers conclude that "[t]he trend analysis also supports the view that the spurious contribution of urban heating to the global average, if present, is not a strong effect; this agrees with the conclusions in the literature that we cited previously."

The literature they cite is the basis for the conclusion that Earth has been warming in an unnatural way during the period of human industrialization.

The paper, made available Thursday, amounts to the second time that Muller et al have had to back away from a key plank of climate skeptics' argument that Earth is simply on a natural temperature path and man-made greenhouse gases are not warming the atmosphere.

Several months ago, when called before a congressional panel that likewise has been skeptical of climate research, Muller acknowledged that his team was finding no smoking gun to indict climate scientists.

At the time, Muller told the House Science Committee that the work of the three principal groups that have analyzed the temperature trends underlying climate science is "excellent .... We see a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups."


Federal biofuel mandate flawed, report finds

Australia moves closer to law establishing carbon tax

'MythBusters' asks: Are motorcycles greener than cars?

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller.

Group launches online environmental accident map

The environmental monitoring group SkyTruth launched an online map that tracks pollution accidents
The nonprofit environmental monitoring group SkyTruth on Thursday launched a real-time alert system that uses remote sensing and digital mapping to track pollution events in the United States.

The SkyTruth Alerts system shows air and water pollution, toxic spills and other incidents on an interactive map, noting the time of the event and whether toxic materials are involved. Users can track specific geographic areas and receive updates via email or RSS feeds.

The group culls satellite images, aerial photography and reporting data from federal and state emergency response agencies to compile the maps.


Gov. Jerry Brown signs ban on chemical BPA in baby bottles

Pregnant California women show high levels of flame retardant

Texas fire: Chemical plant processes toxics, produces pesticide

-- Julie Cart

Photo: Fires burn off oil near the crippled BP well site in June 2010. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times


Australia moves closer to law establishing carbon tax

The Australian government's goal of implementing a carbon tax passed its toughest test today as the lower house of Parliament overwhelmingly approved a package of bills that institutes a phased-in carbon tax, to be followed by a carbon-trading system.

The 18 bills now go to the Senate, where the law is all but assured of passage in mid-November.

According to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the system will reduce Australia's carbon emissions by 159 million tons by 2020. Australia is the largest per-capita carbon polluter, with an economy deeply dependent on coal.

The first phase of the law will tax carbon at $22.90 a ton beginning in the middle of next year. The surcharge will rise modestly until mid-2015, when the carbon-trading system will take effect. Other bills call for a national emissions caps, exempting farming and other agricultural sectors.

The tax will not extend to the price of gas for consumers, although rail, shipping and large trucking businesses will pay the tax indirectly on fuels such as diesel.

Australia’s biggest carbon emitters -- power companies, mining companies and industrial manufacturers -- immediately attacked the legislation, and the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, vowed a “pledge in blood” to repeal the law should he become prime minister.

The Australian law would go well beyond what the California Air Resources Board is considering. The board voted in August to reaffirm its cap-and-trade plan, which put the nation's first state carbon-trading program back on track.

California's on-again, off-again rules have been years in the making and are meant to complement AB 32, the state's landmark climate-change law that mandates a reduction in carbon pollution to 1990 levels by 2020. The air board adopted a preliminary carbon-trading plan in late 2008 but was sued by environmental justice groups in 2009.

The state plan calls for capping greenhouse gases at more than 600 industrial plants and allowing companies to buy and sell emissions permits. It is modeled on Europe's 6-year-old cap-and-trade system. California is considering whether to work with Canada under the Western Climate Initiative, a collaboration involving the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

California's program would be North America's biggest carbon market, three times larger than a utility-only system in 10 Northeastern states. By 2016, about $10 billion in carbon allowances are expected to be traded through the California market.


Clean natural gas? Not so fast, study says

Rising sea levels could take financial toll on California beaches

EPA scolded on greenhouse gas report review process

-- Julie Cart

Photo: People walk across the frozen Songhua River near smokestacks at Jiamusi in China's Heilongjiang province in 2005. Credit: Greg Baker / Associated Press

Texas fire: Chemical plant processes toxics, produces pesticide

A fire broke out Monday morning at the Magnablend chemical plant in Waxahachie, Texas

The Magnablend chemical plant in Waxahatchie, Texas, where a raging fire broke out this morning, processes tons of toxics, and uses large amounts of anhydrous ammonia, which is caustic, hazardous and can cause breathing problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's risk management plan.

The plant, about 30 miles south of Dallas, also is listed as a pesticide producer, and mixes or produces chemicals used in agriculture and the petroleum industry, including fluids for hydraulic fracturing (the most common of which are benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene).

Nearby facilities include two other agricultural chemical plants.

Here is a list of chemicals released or transferred at the plant, in pounds, by year, according to the EPA:

COPPER COMPOUNDS                 5  
CERTAIN GLYCOL ETHERS               250 250  
ZINC COMPOUNDS 5 5         800 35 250  
FORMIC ACID                 250  
METHANOL 40 40 45 45 45 45 2,412 1,680    
ETHYLENE GLYCOL 1 1 1       8,700 5 505  
DAZOMET                 250  

The plant is located in the Upper Trinity watershed, which has reported contaminants in fish tissue, including chlordane, a chemical formerly used in pesticides, and PCBs, according to the EPA.

More information on the Magnablend chemical plant in Texas.

BPA ban passes California state Senate

Pesticide exposure linked to prostate cancer

High levels of toxic PBDE found in pregnant California women

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: The Magnablend chemical plant in Waxahachie, Texas. Credit:

Agency overseeing oil, gas exploration gets shakeup

gasMMSOffshore oil

Gulf oil spill 
The Obama administration fulfilled a vow made just after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to reorganize and revamp the beleaguered agency that oversees the domestic offshore oil and gas exploration and production.

The April 20, 2010, Macondo well blowout killed 11 men and spewed nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean. It also revealed that the Interior Department agency tasked with managing the vast offshore energy sector, the Minerals Management Service, was plagued by conflicts of interest, inadequate resources and weak regulations.

The administration swiftly did away with MMS after the gulf oil disaster to create an interim agency. On Saturday, with the restructuring completed, two new agencies are set to emerge: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which would regulate the leasing of offshore blocks for energy development, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which would be responsible for the permitting and inspections of offshore oil and gas projects.

A year ago, the Interior Department created an independent unit that collects royalties from the oil and gas production. Michael Bromwich, who oversaw the interim agency that followed MMS, will continue as interim director of BSEE until a permanent director is found.

Several candidates for the directorship have turned away the administration’s overtures because of the political fights they knew they would have to endure, Bromwich said at a meeting with the media Friday.

The Interior Department has come under withering political criticism from congressional Republicans and representatives from the Gulf Coast and Alaska for allegedly moving too slowly to grant drilling permits. Recently, Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) compared ocean energy employees in the Interior Department’s New Orleans office to the Gestapo because they could not meet with him on an unannounced visit.

Tommy Beaudreau was named as the director of BOEM. An Alaskan whose father worked in the state’s oil industry, Beaudreau was a partner with Bromwich at a Washington law firm before going with him to MMS shortly after the well blowout. Industry officials and environmentalists have said Beaudreau was the architect behind many of the sweeping changes to the old agency.

The agencies are certain to be buffeted by proponents and opponents alike of offshore oil and gas development. Next week, the Republican-led House Natural Resources Committee, an ardent critic of the Obama administration’s offshore policies, is scheduled to hold a hearing on a federal report that investigates the causes of the blowout and rig explosion.

Earlier this week, environmentalists filed a lawsuit to block the Interior Department’s conditional approval of Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to drill in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska.


Are motorcycles greener than cars?

Death toll from listeria-tainted canteloupes rises to 15 

Decision postponed, again, on Yellowstone snowmobile rule

-- Neela Banerjee in Washington

File: Boats skim oil and then ignite oil collected on the surface of the water as crews work in July 2010 to clean up the massive oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times


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