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.

Fuse to the Carbon Bomb: Keystone XL Much Worse for Climate Than Obama Admin Estimated

Last week, supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline got all worked up about a study that purported to find that the delay in approving the project has actually increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The narrowly-focused study was based on faulty assumptions (that the tar sands would always find a way to market) and cherry-picked data (disregarding entirely any increases emissions that greater access to tar sands crude would create) in order to portray the pipeline project as positive for the climate. The five year or more delay in approving Keystone XL will ultimately increase carbon dioxide emissions by up to 7.4 million tons, argued the American Action Forum, a self-described “center-right policy institute.”

A study released this week by scientists at the Stockholm Environmental Institute shows just how misleading the American Action Forum claims really are. 

If built, the Keystone XL pipeline would flood global oil markets with crude, increase demand, and dump as much as 110 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere every year, according to the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

This figure is a full four times higher than the State Department estimated in its final environmental review of the project.

The state department had figured that, at most, the pipeline would increase world carbon dioxide emissions by 30 million tons.

“The sole reason for this difference is that we account for the changes in global oil consumption resulting from increasing oil sands production levels, whereas the State Department does not,” wrote study authors Peter Erickson and Michael Lazarus, both scientists with the Stockholm Environment Institute.

The flawed State Department assumption — saying that the pipeline wouldn’t result in increased production of Canadian tar sands — is the same assumption used by the American Action Forum and other Keystone XL proponents when arguing that the oil will find its wa to market one way or another.

However, the oil industry and other energy experts have acknowledged that Keystone XL and other pipeline projects are crucial to the development of Alberta’s tar sands.

Tar Sands on the Tracks: Railbit, Dilbit and U.S. Export Terminals

Last December, the first full train carrying tar sands crude left the Canexus Bruderheim terminal outside of Edmonton, Alberta, bound for an unloading terminal somewhere in the United States.

Canadian heavy crude, as the tar sands is labeled for market purposes, had ridden the rails in very limited capacity in years previous — loaded into tank cars and bundled with other products as part of so-called “manifest” shipments. But to the best of industry analysts’ knowledge, never before had a full 100-plus car train (called a “unit train”) been shipped entirely full of tar sands crude.

Because unit trains travel more quickly, carry higher volumes of crude and cost the shipper less per barrel to operate than the manifest alternative, this first shipment from the Canexus Bruderheim terminal signaled the start of yet another crude-by-rail era — an echo of the sudden rise of oil train transport ushered in by the Bakken boom, on a much smaller scale (for now).

This overall spike in North American crude-by-rail over the past few years has been well documented, and last month Oil Change International released a comprehensive report about the trend. As explained in Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude-by-Rail in North America (and in past coverage in DeSmogBlog), much of the oil train growth has been driven by the Bakken shale oil boom. Without sufficient pipeline capacity in the area, drillers have been loading up much more versatile trains to cart the light, sweet tight crude to refineries in the Gulf, and on both coasts.

How Your Town Can Ban Fracking: A Q&A with Goldman Prize Winner Helen Slottje

Helen Slottje has redrawn the map of fracking in upstate New York.

Since 2010, Slottje and her husband David, both attorneys, have battled to keep fracking out of New York communities using local zoning laws. Since pioneering this novel legal strategy in the town of Ulysses, near their home town of Ithaca, the Slottjes have traveled town to town, helping communities understand language in the state’s constitution that gives municipalities the right to make and enforce these local land use decisions.

Today, more than 175 communities in New York have fracking bans on the books, so that even if the statewide moratorium on fracking were to be lifted tomorrow, oil and gas companies would be barred from plunging their drills within those municipalities' borders.

Their efforts were recognized last month with the Goldman Environmental Prize, which some call the “Green Nobel.” The prize committee celebrated Slottje’s pro-bono legal assistance for “helping towns across New York defend themselves from oil and gas companies by passing local bans on fracking.”

Of course, the fracking industry has fought back, challenging the bans in many towns, all of which have been decided in the towns’ favor in the state’s lower courts. Two cases, in the towns of Dryden and Middlefield, are up before the Court of Appeal which will hear oral arguments on June 3 in Albany.

DeSmogBlog spoke with Helen Slottje about how she got into the fracking fight, how to talk about fracking to communities that are being promised so much wealth by industry, how to go face-to-face with big oil and gas flacks, and what lessons could be learned from the success of the town bans for other battles against the fossil fuel industry. The hour-long conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Climate Change is Clear and Present Danger That The Fossil Fuel Industry Would Like You To Ignore

Climate change is no longer a distant threat, but a clear and present danger. That’s the main takeaway from the third installment of the National Climate Assessment (NCA), released this week by the White House.

The report itself is a feat of both exhaustive climate science and creative science communications. The 840-page document is packed with illustrative graphics, and the web-based version features interactivity and video. Beyond painting the national picture, the NCA presents, in the words of White House science advisor John Holdren, “unprecedented detail about regional impacts” of climate change.

Climate change is not a distant threat, but is affecting the American people already,” says Holdren in a video introducing the report. “Summers are longer and hotter, with longer periods of extended heat. Wildfires start earlier in the spring and continue later into the fall. Rain comes down in heavier downpours. People are experiencing changes in the length and severity of allergies. And climate disruptions to water resources and agriculture have been increasing.”

Some quick background: The U.S. Global Change Research Program was formed by Congressional mandate in 1990, and charged with producing regular “National Climate Assessments” in order to “highlight key knowledge that can improve policy choices and identify significant gaps that can limit effective decision making.” The NCA reports are compiled by a 60-member federal advisory committee made up some scientists, business leaders, and other climate experts, and the content itself is written by nearly 300 scientists, academics, government and private sector experts. The document itself is subjected to exhaustive review, including by the National Academy of Sciences. And as a consensus-based document, the findings must be approved by representatives of such disparate parties as environmental groups and fossil fuel companies. If anything, this report is conservative in its findings.

Oil Industry Cherry-Picks Drilling Data to Mislead Public on Federal Lease Programs

The oil industry and its well-compensated apologists in Congress like to complain that the Obama administration is stalling oil production on public lands. The problem with that argument: it’s demonstrably false.

While plenty of environmental advocates may wish that President Obama was actively working to keep the fossil fuel reserves underground, the data tells a much different story.

In fact, according to new data released by the Department of the Interior, the amount of crude oil produced on onshore federal lands in 2013 was the highest it has been in over a decade.

This hasn’t stopped the oil industry from “distorting and cherry-picking statistics,” in the words of the Center for Western Priorities, to argue for even fewer regulations and more lax permitting processes.

A recent post on the The Daily Caller is representative of the oil industry's spin, and provides a tutorial in cherry-picking data.

The total number of oil and gas drilling leases issued in 2013 reached a nearly three-decade lows, according to the Bureau of Land Management. The bureau says it issued 1,468 drilling leases last year, totaling 1.17 million acres of federal land — the lowest figures since 1988, which is the oldest year for which the BLM has data.

Overall, U.S. oil production has boomed in recent years, but production on federal lands has been falling. The Congressional Research Service reports that oil production on federal lands fell from 1,731,500 barrels per day in 2009 to 1,627,400 barrels per day in 2012, and the total shareof crude oil produced on federal lands fell to 26 percent in 2012 from 33 percent in 2009.

Let’s unpack this a bit.

Never Again: Don Blankenship-Funded Video Absolves Don Blankenship in Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster Deaths

Don Blankenship's hubris is surpassed only by his greed.

The “Dark Lord of Coal Country, as the former CEO of Massey Energy has been called, is using the fourth anniversary of the tragic Upper Big Branch Mine explosion not to honor the lives of the fallen mines, but to absolve himself of any responsibility for the 29 deaths, even having the nerve to point blame at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Blankenship kicked off an egotistical PR blitz by releasing a so-called documentary, titled “Upper Big Branch: Never Again.” The video was funded by Blankenship himself, and proves to be more of a piece of pro-Massey propaganda than a “program that tells the facts about actual people and events,” which is how Merriam-Websters defines documentary.

The video completely dismisses criticism of Massey Energy’s management, despite the fact that multiple investigations have found the company's managers at fault for the preventable explosion and for the 29 lives lost. 

One such report, by the West Virginia Governor's Independent Investigation Panel, clearly debunks the main argument of Never Again, that a sudden and unpredictable release of methane from below the mine caused the blast. From the report (page 108):

Campus Discontent: Washington University Students Sit-In Against Peabody, Harvard Faculty Call for Divestment

It's a busy week in the campus fossil fuel divestment movement. 

A “sit in” by students at the Washington University of St. Louis enters its third day today. The protestors have camped out underneath their campus's Brookings Archway since Tuesday, demanding that the school cut ties with Peabody Energy — the world's largest private coal company — and its CEO Greg Boyce. 

Boyce was named to WU's Board of Trustees in 2009. One year earlier, Peabody gave the university millions of dollars to help create the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. (Along with Arch Coal, who also kicked in, the investment was roughly $5 million.) 

According to Caroline Burney, a senior at Washington University, the sit-in only became necessary after many other attempts for dialogue with the school's administration were exhausted. Burney writes: 

Peabody Energy CEO Greg Boyce also holds one more distinction: member of the Washington University Board of Trustees. Since Boyce was placed on the board in 2009, students have been actively organizing against Peabody Energy’s presence on campus. We have demanded that Boyce be removed from the Board of Trustees and that the University change the name of the “Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization,” a research entity to which Peabody and Arch Coal donated $5,000,000. We have met with the Chancellor – multiple times. We have dropped banners at coal events, peacefully disrupted speeches by Greg Boyce on campus, marched through campus and taken our demands to Peabody’s headquarters. We have protested with residents from Black Mesa, collected signatures for the Take Back St. Louis ballot initiative and rallied with the United Mine Workers in their fight against Peabody.

But, five years later, Boyce is still on the board, the name of the Clean Coal Consortium remains unchanged, and Chancellor Wrighton continues to stand behind Peabody Energy. Indeed, just this week he emailed us saying, “your opinion that peabody energy behaves in an ‘irresponsible and unjust manner’ is not one that I share.” The Administration has successfully used a “deny by delay” process by holding town hall meetings and developing task forces around renewable energy and energy efficiency while ignoring the role that coal plays on the campus.

The "Significance" Trap: New Economic Analysis Finds that Keystone XL Would Increase Tar Sands Production, Carbon Emissions

In its environmental assessment of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the U.S. State Department severely underestimated the project’s impact on oil production, and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s according to a rigorous economic analysis published in a new report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative. Researchers found that, if constructed, the Keystone XL pipeline would increase global greenhouse gas emissions by roughly a whopping 5 gigatons over the course of its lifetime. For some perspective, that’s the equivalent of the annual emissions from 1,400 coal-fired power plants or 1 billion automobiles, according to the report’s authors.

As you may recall, in a speech last June at Georgetown University, President Obama explicitly stated that he would approve the pipeline “only if this project doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

In its recent environmental assessment, the State Department’s suggested that the pipeline is “unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands,” thereby implying that it would pass President Obama’s stated climate test.

However, the Carbon Tracker report, called Keystone XL: The “Significance” Trap (pdf), proves otherwise.

Using the State Department’s own numbers, Carbon Tracker researchers determined that the Keystone XL pipeline, if constructed, would increase the rate of extraction of tar sands, to the tune of roughly 510,000 barrels per day of bitumen (or roughly 730,000 barrels per day of DilBit, after dilution to allow it to flow through the pipeline). As Carbon Tracker researchers put it, “There is over 510kbpd of bitumen production which would benefit from even the narrowest improvement of margins.”

Italian Judge: Coal Plant Caused Over 400 Deaths, Orders Shutdown

An Italian judge has ordered the shutdown of a coal-fired power plant that has been blamed for at least 442 deaths. Public prosecutors had argued that pollution from the plant in Italy’s Liguria region caused the premature deaths and between 1,700 - 2,000 cases of heart and lung disease.

On Tuesday, police followed the judge’s orders and shut down the two 330-Megawatt coal-fired units of the Vado Ligure plant. Francantonio Granero, the chief prosecutor in Savona, the government seat in Liguria, indicated in a February interview with United Press International that he was investigating the plant and its operators, Tirreno Power,  for “causing an environmental disaster and manslaughter.”

The judge, Fiorenza Giorgi, agreed with prosecutors that Tirreno Power hadn’t complied with emissions regulations, citing “negligent behavior” by the company and claiming that Tirreno’s emissions data was “unreliable.”

It is unclear whether Tirreno Power will be allowed to turn back on the coal-fired units if better emissions controls are implemented. The coal plants were built in 1971 and according to Savona prosecutors had emitted enough pollution to cause at least 442 premature deaths from 2000 to 2007. Investigators also found evidence that roughly 450 children were hospitalized with asthma and other respiratory ailments between 2005-2012, with the coal plant emissions to blame.

Canada Approves Enbridge Line 9 Reversal: Tar Sands Crude to Flow to Montreal

Alberta’s tar sands crude has a new route east. 

Canada’s National Energy Board announced on Thursday the approval of Enbridge’s request to reverse and expand a portion of the company’s Line 9 pipeline to allow for crude to flow east to Montreal, Quebec. This follows a July 2012 decision by the NEB to allow reversal of the western Line 9 segment from West Northover to Sarnia, Ontario. As a result, in the words of the NEB, “Enbridge will be permitted to operate all of Line 9 in an eastward direction in order to transport crude oil from western Canada and the U.S. Bakken region to refineries in Ontario and Quebec.”

Canadian activists urged the NEB to fully consider the high risk and small reward of reversing the pipeline, pointing to the “DilBit Disaster” — when another reversed-flow Enbridge pipeline spilled over 800,000 gallons of diluted bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River — as a warning for what could occur on the Line 9 route.

As DeSmog Canada has reported, Enbridge’s Line 9 shares the same design deficiencies as the company’s Line 6B, which burst in Michigan. Canadian environmental groups are crying foul over the agency’s non-transparent and restrictive public comment process.

It’s pretty obvious the entire regulatory system is broken,” Adam Scott, spokesperson for Environmental Defence, told the Vancouver Observer. “They restricted the public’s ability to even participate.” Language in a 2012 budget bill allowed the NEB’s decision to be made without a comprehensive environmental assessment, and the Canadian public was forced to complete a lengthy 10-page application (and given a short two week warning to do so) to even earn the right to submit a public comment.

There were roughly 150 folks who were actually even allowed to comment or write a letter, and this was also the first major energy project not to have to go through an environmental assessment, so it’s clear the whole system has been stacked against the public’s interest in favour of oil companies,” said Scott.

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