Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Oil, gas, coal

Gulf oil spill: BP gets most blame in government report

Gulf oil spill

BP, Transocean and Halliburton all violated federal safety regulations leading up to last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a federal investigation concluded, in findings that could be crucial for the Justice Department investigation and numerous lawsuits surrounding the disaster.

“The loss of life at the Macondo site on April 20, 2010, and the subsequent pollution of the Gulf of Mexico through the summer of 2010 were the result of poor risk management, last‐minute changes to plans, failure to observe and respond to critical indicators, inadequate well control response, and insufficient emergency bridge response training by companies and individuals responsible for drilling at the Macondo well and for the operation of the Deepwater Horizon,” the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management concluded.

Photos: BP gulf oil spill in 2010

The report, released Wednesday, was the result of a joint investigation conducted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Coast Guard into the causes behind the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig the night of April 20, which killed 11 men and resulted in a leak that spewed nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over several months. Each entity did a separate report that the agencies issued jointly Wednesday, but the Ocean Energy Management report delves into the decisions made in the weeks leading up to the disaster and those made that evening that converged to touch off the well blowout and rig explosion.

Photos: Gulf oil spill, a year later

The report’s conclusions about a global failure to observe the best safety practices and to communicate effectively in such a dangerous undertaking as drilling a deepwater well echoed findings released earlier in the year by a presidential commission investigating the disaster.

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Clean natural gas? Not so fast, study says


Switching from burning coal to natural gas won't have an appreciable effect on global warming, at least not in the next few decades, a study suggests.

In fact, cutting worldwide coal burning by half and using natural gas instead would increase global temperatures over the next four decades by about one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit, according to Tom Wigley, a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Strictly speaking, coal produces more global-warming gas per unit of energy than natural gas. But the tradeoff is complicated by the types of greenhouse gases and other pollutants associated with each of these carbon-based fossil fuels.

"From the CO2 perspective, gas is cleaner, but from the climate perspective, it gets complicated," said Wigley.

Coal burning is notoriously dirty, producing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, soot and ash, as well as other pollutants. None are too good for humans or the planet, but the sulfates can act to block incoming solar radiation, with a slight cooling effect. (Before anyone proposes burning more high-sulfur coal, the net effect of burning coal is still warming).

Meanwhile, "clean" natural gas, touted by the industry and T. Boone Pickens, can be a mess to produce. An unknown amount of methane -- a potent greenhouse gas with far more heat-trapping potential than carbon dioxide -- leaks in the process of producing natural gas.

Even assuming there is no leakage -- unlikely, most would agree -- the switch analyzed by Wigley would still add to Earth's overall average temperature through about 2050. After that, temperatures would fall, but only by a few tenths of a degree Fahrenheit. If a substantial amount of methane leaks, the warming trend will last until 2140, he found.

Bear in mind, the most widely reviewed studies predict a global average temperature rise of 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 under current fossil-fuel consumption rates.

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$24.5-million settlement proposed for Chevron

Chevron settlement proposed California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris on Wednesday proposed a $24.5-million settlement with Chevron U.S.A. Inc. and Chevron Stations Inc. to resolve allegations that the companies failed to properly inspect and maintain underground storage tanks at 650 gas stations statewide.

The proposal comes in response to a complaint filed Friday alleging that Chevron since 1998 has violated anti-pollution laws by tampering with or disabling leak-detection devices and failing to test secondary containment systems and conduct monthly inspections. The companies also are accused of failing to train employees in proper protocols related to the tanks and of not maintaining operational alarm systems or evacuation plans.

"There must be accountability and consequences when the environment is compromised and innocent people are potentially exposed to hazardous materials that could endanger their health," Harris said in a statement. "This settlement accomplishes both and will protect Californians by mandating a compliance program for Chevron's underground storage tanks."

Violations of hazardous-materials and hazardous-waste laws and regulations were found at gas stations in 32 counties across the state, Harris said.

Chevron spokesman Sean Come said in a statement: "We have taken the appropriate actions to address the situations related to this issue and will work to avoid similar occurrences in the future. To fully understand the situation, it is important to note the majority of the incidents were technical violations, such as improper paperwork. None of the violations involved any risk to human health or the environment."

State lawyers on Wednesday submitted a proposed final judgment in Alameda County Superior Court that would impose a permanent injunction on the defendants. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Sept. 29.

If approved, the settlement would require Chevron to maintain a statewide compliance program, which includes a training program for employees and a database to track how underground storage tanks are monitored.


Interior department to hold big gulf oil lease sale

Natural gas fracking needs to be monitored, panel says

Keystone pipeline backers use anti-Saudi message for oil sands

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: A Chevron pump in Vallejo. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press

Keystone pipeline backers use anti-Saudi message for oil sands

To the list of all the reasons why backers of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast want it to be built, add now the welfare of Saudi Arabian women.

The pipeline, which would bring oil from Alberta’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries, is awaiting a federal permit. In the meantime, critics and backers of the pipeline have ginned up their public relations machines to influence the administration’s thinking.

Most supporters of the pipeline say it will create jobs in the U.S. and bring in oil from a friendly democratic state, rather than from a foreign autocracy. Lately, the Oprah Winfrey Network in Canada began running a 30-second ad from a group called Ethical Oil, which argues that buying Canadian oil is a better political choice for Americans than importing oil from Saudi Arabia.

Over a soundtrack of doom drums, a woman’s voice says North Americans bought 400 million barrels of oil from Saudi Arabia. “We bankrolled a state that doesn’t allow women to drive, doesn’t allow them to leave their homes or work without their male guardian’s permission,” the ad continues.

“Why are we paying their bills and funding their oppression?” The music suddenly shifts to violins and singing that sounds something like the Vienna Boys’ Choir. “Today there is a better way,” the narrator says. “Ethical oil from Canada’s oil sands.”

Ethical Oil, according to its website, is a Canadian venture that began “as a blog created by Alykhan Velshi to promote the ideas in Ezra Levant’s bestselling book Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands.”

Velshi and Levant are conservative activists, the latter gaining some notoriety for accusing George Soros of collaborating with Nazis.

One stated goal of the Ethical Oil blog is to rebut “inaccurate and unfair criticisms of the oilsands,” the website says. Those “Myths & Lies,” the website says, include concerns about the impact on the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions, from extracting oil.

Oil from the sands isn’t developed through conventional drilling. It's mined as a mix of bitumen, sand and clay, accessed by stripping away boreal forests and polluting waters, say environmentalists and some scientists.

Extracting and refining bitumen also releases more greenhouse gases into the air than conventional oil production. Opposition to the project stems from the damage oil sands mining has done so far, and the potential damage it could do should the pipeline leak into a major aquifer it would wend through in Nebraska.

Why the ad is airing in Canada is unclear, when the decision to build the pipeline will be made in the U.S.

The Oprah Winfrey Network could not be reached to find out if such ads would air in the U.S.

The Obama administration is expected to render its decision on Keystone XL before the end of the year.


Arctic oil spill could prove tough to clean

Interior department to hold big gulf oil lease sale

Natural gas fracking needs to be monitored, panel says

-- Neela Banerjee, in Washington

Photo: An oil sands mining operation in Alberta, Canada. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times.

Interior department to hold big gulf oil lease sale

Oil worker gulf of mexico

The Obama administration announced Friday that it will hold its first oil and gas lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico since the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

“This sale is an important step toward a secure energy future that includes safe, environmentally sound development of our domestic energy resources,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “Since Deepwater Horizon, we have strengthened oversight at every stage of the oil and gas development process, including deepwater drilling safety, subsea blowout containment, and spill response capability."

The Department of Interior plans in December to offer more than 20 million acres in the western gulf for energy leasing -- despite a recent Interior report that found companies are not exploring or producing oil and gas on roughly two-thirds of the 34 million acres they already lease in the gulf.

The administration came under sharp criticism from the oil industry and gulf state politicians for imposing a deep-water drilling moratorium in the wake of last year's Deepwater explosion -- and then when the ban was lifted -- for not approving new drilling quickly enough.

“This lease sale is an important and encouraging step toward getting the Gulf of Mexico and its hardworking people back to work. Unfortunately, the slow pace of new permits in the gulf places lingering uncertainty over this critical industry," Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, said in a statement.

The conservation group Oceana condemned the move as premature. “Rushing this lease sale in the western gulf puts animals like turtles, dolphins and bluefin tuna at risk," said senior campaign director Jacqueline Savitz. "The Obama administration still hasn’t addressed significant shortcomings in spill response and cleanup capabilities."

The Environmental Defense Fund was more positive. “This announcement proves that the Obama administration is serious about allowing oil companies to return to deep-water drilling in the gulf, as long as they follow essential new rules ... to  protect the environment, workers and the economy," said Elgie Holstein, the group's senior planning director and former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Energy. 

The new lease areas are located from nine to about 250 miles offshore in shallow and deep water, and could, the Interior said, produce 222 million to 423 million barrels of oil and as much as 2.65 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Acknowledging that many existing leases are sitting idle, the agency said it intends to increase the minimum bid amount for deep-water blocks to $100 per acre from $37.50 to "discourage companies from purchasing leases they are unlikely to explore in the near term." 

The sale will include environmental safeguards for marine life and, "when conditions warrant," monitoring by trained observers to ensure compliance, the department said.

An Interior analysis released this spring found that gulf lease auctions before the BP spill drew little interest. Of nearly 53 million acres offered in 2009 in the central and western gulf, only 2.7 million acres were leased. Last year, only 2.4 million acres were leased out of roughly 37 million acres offered.

-- Bettina Boxall

Photo: An oil worker in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Natural gas fracking needs to be monitored, panel says

Fracking by Halliburton
Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in shale formations should be monitored closely for its environmental effects, a federally appointed panel recommended Thursday.

The assessment was the Obama administration's first major pronouncement on the coast-to-coast shale gas boom that has raised concerns about the risks to underground water supplies from the chemicals injected into subterranean rock to unlock natural gas.

Fracking has raised concerns in areas rich with shale gas that drinking water may become contaminated by the chemicals, which include benzene, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde and methanol.

The energy industry has maintained that fracking is safe and fracking advocates say there has been no direct proof of drinking-water contamination.

The report came from an expert panel appointed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. The panel’s chairman, John M. Deutch, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former CIA director under President Clinton, said he was optimistic about the report’s potential effect.

“Given the report’s tone and common sense advice, it could influence industry and regulators’ attitudes,” Deutch said. It offered something for almost every side, said some environmental groups and industry representatives. “The report urges industry to come clean and for scientists and regulators to do their jobs,” said Benjamin Grumbles, president of the Clean Water America Alliance, an association whose members include municipal water districts and private industry.

The report won over some industry observers by eschewing the view common among environmental groups that shale gas production is inherently dangerous. “On the whole, this is another example of a group of experts that has essentially concluded that environmental risk exists in shale gas production but that those risks are well-managed,” said Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America, a trade association.

Still, the report noted that there was an urgency to addressing environmental issues. The report identifies four main concerns: possible water pollution from chemicals used in fracking and from methane gas released by the process; air pollution from methane and emissions from equipment used in gas production; potential disruption to communities and the cumulative adverse effects on their ecology.

The panel recommended that companies measure and disclose what’s in the water throughout the production process and called on them to also disclose the chemicals they inject into the ground, unless the mix is “genuinely proprietary.” It also called for monitoring and reducing emissions at gas production sites and for making some areas off-limits to gas extraction.


Fracking: Monterey shale exploration draws protest

California bill would reveal chemicals used in "fracking" process

EPA wants companies to reveal chemicals used in controversial gas extraction method

-- Neela Banerjee

Photo: A Halliburton rig drills for Shell Exploration & Production in Pinedale, Wyo., using hydraulic fracturing. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Watch out EPA, Fred Upton is on the debt 'super committee'

Fredupton Michigan Republican Fred Upton has established his credentials as an adversary of environmental regulation during his chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. So his appointment to the "super committee" charged with working out cuts to address the nation's budget deficit is certain to raise eyebrows among environmentalists.

Upton has shepherded a bill to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases, which a Supreme Court decision said was the purview of the agency. Once a champion of banning incandescent light bulbs, he has promised to hold hearings to reexamine the light bulb standard. His committee has held several climate-change hearings that were heavily skewed toward marginalized skeptics of the consensus scientific view that human activity is warming the planet and altering the climate.

Upton also received $20,000 in donations from employees of the David and Charles Koch oil conglomerate in 2010, making them among his top 10 donors in that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The billionaire oilmen have been major donors to the campaign to cast doubt on climate change.

Upton made no mention Wednesday of his adversarial position on environmental regulation, but a statement included this: "Much more needs to be done to bring down healthcare costs, promote economic growth and begin to tame runaway government." 

That final phrase is GOP political code for regulation.


Arctic oil spill could prove tough to clean

Climate change and health: How vulnerable is your city?

Study ranks air pollution from coal and oil-fired power plants

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: U.S. Rep Fred Upton (R-Mich.), right. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Arctic oil spill could prove tough to clean


Shell Exploration's plan for exploratory oil and gas drilling in the Beaufort Sea won conditional approval from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. One of the big questions now is what happens if there's an oil spill.

Agency officials are expected as early as next week to act on Shell's oil spill response plan, which conservationists say falls short of the mark for responding to an accident in icy waters, often shrouded in darkness, hundreds of miles from the nearest deep-water port.

Earlier this month, Canada looked at the same issue: How hard would it be to clean up an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea, which straddles the border between the two countries. The answer? Really hard.

Even in the "summer" season between July and October, when Arctic drilling normally occurs, true open water without ice occurs only 54% to 88% of the time, even close to shore, according to the report, prepared for the National Energy Board by S.L. Ross Environmental Research Ltd. of Ottawa.

Conditions can be so bad that no ice cleanup measures are even possible about 20% of the time in June, 40% of the time in August and 65% of the time in October, said the report, which measured typical temperatures, wave heights and ice patterns and how they might prevent the use of such responses as in-situ burning, containment  and application of dispersants.

After October, any active response would almost certainly deferred until the following melt season, the report said.

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California acts to limit pollutant targeted by Erin Brockovich


The California Environmental Protection Agency has issued the nation’s first public health goal for hexavalent chromium, the cancer-causing heavy metal made infamous after activist Erin Brockovich sued in 1993 to prove it had contaminated groundwater in the Southern California town of Hinkley.

Erin At that time, the average hexavalent chromium levels in Hinkley's water was 1.19 parts per billion (ppb). The new state goal was set Wednesday at 0.02 ppb, judged to be the minimum amount of the element that poses a significant health risk in water, according to state officials.

That means for every million people who drink tap water with that level of hexavalent chromium, also called chromium 6, daily for 70 years, there is likely to be one additional case of cancer attributable to exposure to the metal, state officials said.

“As the nation’s first official goal for this contaminant, it will be an important tool that the Department of Public Health will use to develop a regulatory standard that will protect Californians from the health risks of chromium 6 in drinking water,” said Dr. George Alexeeff, acting director of the department’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Chromium 6 occurs naturally in some drinking water, but often enters the water supply from industrial contamination, leaching from sites such as the disposal ponds of Pacific Gas & Electric's Topock Compressor Station in Hinkley. It can be removed using expensive reverse osmosis filters, but many people don't even know they're drinking it.

At least 74 million Americans in 42 states drink chromium-polluted tap water, much of it likely tainted with hexavalent chromium, according to studies by the nonprofit Oakland-based Environmental Working Group. They also found chromium 6 in tap water from 31 of 35 cities tested last year, with some of the highest levels in Riverside (1.69 ppb) and San Jose (1.34 ppb).

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Green energy: California poll finds overwhelming support

A new statewide survey of environment issues conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found more residents favor climate change policy, want to cut greenhouse gas emissions and believe they are already experiencing the effects of global warming.

“This is a clear mandate that people want to move beyond dirty energy,” said David Graham-Caso, Los Angeles Sierra Club spokesman.

The survey, the 11th since 2000, sampled more than 2,500 people and found Californians are strongly supportive of policies that encourage fuel efficiency and renewable energy, according to Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of PPIC.

Most survey takers (67%) support the state’s law reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Across the board, state residents agree that automakers should be required to improve fuel efficiency standards (90% Democrats, 81% independents, and 76% Republicans).

They also overwhelmingly favor (79%) government regulation of the release of greenhouse gases from sources such as power plants, cars and factories to reduce global warming. While 79% favor greenhouse gas regulations, they are split between a cap and trade system (54% in favor) and a carbon tax (60% in favor).  


“People see it as a tax to discourage fossil fuel use and to improve state infrastructure,” said Jim Metropulos, senior advocate of the Sierra Club in Sacramento.  “The Sierra Club believes something like a carbon tax would make it easier to achieve outcomes that we want quickly.”

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