Tag Archives: Associated Press

Fired regulator: Governor pushed to waive oil safeguards

Repost from the Associated Press

Fired regulator: Governor pushed to waive oil safeguards

By Ellen Knickmeyer, Sep 4, 3:32 PM EDT
AP Photo
FILE – In this Wednesday May 27, 2015 file photo, California Gov. Jerry Brown addresses the California State Association of Counties Legislative Conference in Sacramento, Calif. California’s top oil and gas regulators repeatedly warned Gov. Jerry Brown’s senior aides in 2011 that the governor’s orders to override key safeguards in granting oil industry permits would violate state and federal laws protecting the state’s groundwater from contamination, one of the former officials has testified. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California’s top oil and gas regulators repeatedly warned Gov. Jerry Brown’s senior aides in 2011 that the governor’s orders to override key environmental safeguards in granting oil industry permits would violate state and federal laws protecting groundwater from contamination, one of the former officials has testified.

Brown fired the regulators on Nov. 3, 2011, one day after what the official says was a final order from the governor to bypass provisions of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and grant permits for oilfield injection wells. Brown later boasted publicly that the dismissals led to a speed up of oilfield permitting.

In a newly filed court declaration, Derek Chernow, Brown’s former acting director of the state Department of Conservation, also alleged that former Gov. Gray Davis urged fellow Democrat Brown in a phone call to fire Chernow and Elena Miller, the state’s oil and gas supervisor.

Brown’s spokesman, Evan Westrup, labeled the allegations “baseless.”

“The expectation – clearly communicated – was and always has been full compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act,” Westrup said Thursday.

This year, however, the state acknowledged that hundreds of the oilfield operations approved after the firings are now polluting the state’s federally protected underground supplies of water for drinking and irrigation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given the state until 2017 to resolve what state officials conceded were more than 2,000 permits improperly given to oil companies to inject oilfield production fluid and waste into protected water aquifers. An earlier AP analysis of the permits found state records showed more than 40 percent of those were granted in the four years since Brown took office.

Chernow’s declaration, obtained by The Associated Press, was contained in an Aug. 21 court filing in a lawsuit brought by a group of Central Valley farmers who allege that oil production approved by Brown’s administration has contaminated their water wells. The lawsuit also cites at least $750,000 in contributions that oil companies made within months of the firings to Brown’s campaign for a state income tax increase.

Westrup denied the oil companies’ support for Brown’s tax-increase campaign was related to the firings, saying, “the governor’s focus is doing what’s best for California, and that’s what informs his decisions.”

Robert Stern, former general counsel of the state’s ethics agency and the architect of a 1970s state political reform act, said there was nothing illegal about Brown receiving the oil industry contributions for his tax campaign unless they were explicitly in return for firing the oil regulators.

Chernow’s statement describes for the first time the alleged back story of the controversial permit approvals. He declined to comment to the AP and Miller did not respond to interview requests.

Brown’s boasting about the firings to speed up permitting is at odds with his image as a leading proponent of renewable energy and reduced fossil fuel consumption. That reputation led to a recent meeting with Pope Francis to discuss climate change.

Westrup said an ongoing effort by Brown to reduce consumption of fossil fuels in the state by up to 50 percent and the oil industry’s fight against elements of Brown’s climate-change campaign shows “where the administration stands and what it’s fighting for.”

The firings occurred as the governor was scrambling to drum up energy sources, jobs and business and to win support for the ultimately successful statewide vote on tax increases to tackle state budget woes.

Today, with the state in the fourth year of drought and a state of emergency declared by Brown, protecting the adequacy and purity of water supplies for farms and cities is a paramount priority.

In the declaration in the farmers’ case, Chernow said he and Miller were under intense pressure from the oil industry as well as the Brown administration to relax permitting standards for injection wells that oil companies use to pump production fluid and waste underground.

Chernow testified he was in the office of John Laird, Brown’s secretary of Natural Resources, in early October 2011 when Laird took a call from Brown. Laird told Chernow that Brown said he had just received a call from Davis, then acting as legal counsel for Occidental Petroleum, the country’s fourth-biggest oil Company.

Brown said Davis and Occidental had demanded Brown fire Chernow and Miller over what Occidental complained was the slow pace of issuing drilling permits, according to Chernow.

Davis declined to comment Thursday.

A few weeks later, on Nov. 2, 2011, Chernow and Miller received a call from Brown’s energy adviser, Cliff Rechtschaffen, who urged the regulators to “immediately fast-track” approval of new oilfield permits, according to Chernow’s filing.

Miller replied that what Brown aides and the oil industry were pressing for “violated the Safe Drinking Water Act, and that the EPA agreed” with that conclusion, Chernow said. In response, according to Chernow, Rechtschaffen told them “this was an order from Governor Brown, and must be obeyed.”

Chernow and Miller were fired the following day.

Memos sent to Department of Conservation staff the next month – obtained through state public records laws by lawyers for the farmers – allegedly detail some ways state oilfield regulators were told they could now bypass some federally mandated environmental reviews and approve permits.

The state, under increasing pressure from the EPA, this year and last ordered the shutdown of 23 improperly permitted oilfield wells posing the most immediate threat to nearby water wells.

Current officials in the Department of Conservation said they believe the actual number of flawed permits granted under Brown is lower than the 46 percent the state records show, but they have not provided alternate figures.

The state improperly issued permits, they said, because of misunderstandings and poor record-keeping, rather than willful decisions by Brown’s administration.

The safeguards at issue in the alleged permitting dispute were a “very fundamental” part of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act’s protections against oilfield contamination, said David Albright, manager of the EPA’s California groundwater office, this week.

California “has a huge amount of work to do” to bring its regulation of oilfield injection wells into compliance with federal law, said Jared Blumenfeld, the regional EPA administrator in California. Blumenfeld cited a “sea change” over the past year in state compliance efforts, however.

Executives of Occidental and Aera Energy at the time thanked Brown for his involvement in the oilfield permitting process, as Occidental CEO Steven Chazren noted in a January 2012 call with financial analysts, two months after top regulators were fired.

That month, Occidental became the first major oil company to come out in support of the Brown’s tax measure and donated the first of $500,000 to Brown’s campaign for the tax referendum. A month later, Aera donated $250,000.

Margita Thompson, a spokeswoman at what is now the independent California spin-off of Occidental, California Resources Council, said that all the farmers’ allegations were “wholly without merit.” Cindy Pollard, spokeswoman for Aera, said the company often donates to revenue-raising state campaigns. “Aera’s contributions were not quid pro quo,” she said.

 

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    Locomotive Engineer of Exploding North Dakota “Bomb Train” Sues BNSF

    Repost from DeSmogBlog

    BNSF Engineer Who Manned Exploding North Dakota “Bomb Train” Sues Former Employer

    By Steve Horn, April 2, 2015 13:54

    A Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) employee who worked as a locomotive engineer on the company’s oil-by-rail train that exploded in rural Casselton, North Dakota in December 2013 has sued his former employer.

    Filed in Cass County North Dakota, the plaintiff Bryan Thompson alleges he “was caused to suffer and continues to suffer severe and permanent injuries and damages,” including but not limited to ongoing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) issues.

    Thompson’s attorney, Thomas Flaskamp, told DeSmogBlog he “delayed filing [the lawsuit until now] primarily to get an indication as to the direction of where Mr. Thompson’s care and treatment for his PTSD arising out of the incident was heading,” which he says is still being treated by a psychiatrist.

    The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the oil-by-rail world, the only time to date that someone working on an exploding oil train has taken legal action against his employer using the Federal Employers’ Liability Act.

    BNSF Engineer Casselton Lawsuit

    Image Credit: State of North Dakota District Court; East Central Judicial District

    “Run for His Life”

    In the aftermath of the Casselton explosion, rail industry consultant Sheldon Lustig told the Associated Press that freight trains carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin are akin to “bomb trains,” putting the now oft-used term on the map for the first time. 

    Since Casselton, several other oil-by-rail explosions and disasters have ensued in the U.S. 

    Thompson experienced the wrath of an exploding “bomb train” up close and personal. 

    Flaskamp told The Forum newspaper in Fargo, North Dakota that Thompson had to “run for his life” to escape the train he was manning once it derailed after colliding with an oncoming grain train.

    Behind him, tank cars were starting to derail, catch fire and explode,” Flaskamp told The Forum of Thompson, who is in his 30s and is currently in school to obtain a teaching degree.

    The plaintiffs allege BNSF, owned by multi-billionaire Warren Buffett, violated the Federal Employers’ Liability Act in multiple ways.

    They include “failing and neglecting to provide [Thompson] with a reasonably safe place to work” and “failing to warn [him] of the dangers of hauling explosive oil tank railcars and the tendencies of these railcars to rupture and explode upon suffering damage.”

    BNSF Employee Casselton Lawsuit
    Image Credit: State of North Dakota District Court; East Central Judicial District

    BNSF‘s Knowledge

    In the aftermath of the Casselton explosion, DeSmogBlog reported that the company that owned the terminal intended to receive that oil — which owns a facility in Missouri that off-loads the oil into barges in the Mississippi River — notified the Missouri government on its permit application that the oil it planned to handle has high levels of volatile chemicals.

    Put another way, BNSF may have known quite a bit more about the danger of carrying Bakken fracked oil than it ever told Thompson. And that will likely serve as a contentious point in the case as it snakes its way forward in Cass County court.

    BNSF knew or should have known of the dangerous nature of the cargo it required its crews to transport and should have exercised great care in its transport,” Flaskamp told DeSmogBlog. “The Answer to the complaint which will be filed by the BNSF will be telling as to their theories of defense.”

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      ‘Severe… Pervasive… Irreversible”: IPCC’s Devastating Climate Change Conclusions

      Repost from Common Dreams
      [Editor: The fact of climate change is CRITICAL CONTEXT for any decision on Valero’s grab for inexpensive, dangerous and dirty North American crude oil.  Valero is aware of this, thus the manipulative claim that their project would actually reduce greenhouse gases in the wider Bay Area, while ignoring the truly LOCAL air quality impacts in Benicia, and obfuscating the finding of significant and unavoidable air quality impacts uprail.  – RS]

      ‘Severe… Pervasive… Irreversible”: IPCC’s Devastating Climate Change Conclusions

      A draft of the UN panel’s synthesis report on the global scientific community’s assessment of human-caused global warming offers the starkest and most strongly-worded warning yet of the dangers ahead
      August 27, 2014, by Common Dreams, Jon Queally, staff writer

      Climate change is here. Climate change is now. Climate change will be significantly more dangerous, deadly, and expensive if nothing is done to correct humanity’s course, but aspects of future shifts are probably already irreversible.

      That’s the assessment of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has sent world governments a draft of its final “Synthesis Report” which seeks to tie together previous reports the panel has released over the last year and offers a stark assessment of the perilous future the planet and humanity face due to global warming and climate change.

      Based on a clear and overwhelming consensus among the world’s leading scientists, the draft says that failure to adequately acknowledge and act on previous warnings has put the planet on a path where “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” of human-caused climate change will surely be felt in the decades to come.

      In a clear statement regarding the dangers of continued inaction, the draft report declares: “The risk of abrupt and irreversible change increases as the magnitude of the warming increases.”

      Obtained by several media outlets—including the Associated Press, the New York Times, and Bloomberg—the draft includes not new information per se, but employs stronger language and contains a more urgent warning than the previous reports from the IPCC which it attempts to synthesize and summarize.

      Asked for his reaction to the draft, Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann wrote this to the AP in an email: “The report tells us once again what we know with a greater degree of certainty: that climate change is real, it is caused by us, and it is already causing substantial damage to us and our environment. If there is one take home point of this report it is this: We have to act now.”

      As IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri explained in a statement, the last report—which still faces a final review, editing, and approval process—is designed to integrate “the findings of the three working group contributions to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report and two special reports” and “provide policymakers with a scientific foundation to tackle the challenge of climate change.” Taken together, the IPCC reports and their recommendations are designed to help governments and other stakeholders work together at various levels, including a new international agreement to limit climate change, he said.

      According to the Associated Press, which reviewed the 127-page document, the IPCC draft

      paints a harsh warning of what’s causing global warming and what it will do to humans and the environment. It also describes what can be done about it.

      “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems,” the report says. The final report will be issued after governments and scientists go over the draft line by line in an October conference in Copenhagen.

      Depending on circumstances and values, “currently observed impacts might already be considered dangerous,” the report says. It mentions extreme weather and rising sea levels, such as heat waves, flooding and droughts. It even raises, as an earlier report did, the idea that climate change will worsen violent conflicts and refugee problems and could hinder efforts to grow more food. And ocean acidification, which comes from the added carbon absorbed by oceans, will harm marine life, it says.

      Without changes in greenhouse gas emissions, “climate change risks are likely to be high or very high by the end of the 21st century,” the report says.

      And the New York Times noted:

      Using blunter, more forceful language than the reports that underpin it, the new draft highlights the urgency of the risks that are likely to be intensified by continued emissions of heat-trapping gases, primarily carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.

      The report found that companies and governments had identified reserves of these fuels at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level.

      That means if society wants to limit the risks to future generations, it must find the discipline to leave a vast majority of these valuable fuels in the ground, the report said.

      It cited rising political efforts around the world on climate change, including efforts to limit emissions as well as to adapt to changes that have become inevitable. But the report found that these efforts were being overwhelmed by construction of facilities like new coal-burning power plants that will lock in high emissions for decades.

      From 1970 to 2000, global emissions of greenhouse gases grew at 1.3 percent a year. But from 2000 to 2010, that rate jumped to 2.2 percent a year, the report found, and the pace seems to be accelerating further in this decade.

      The IPCC draft will not be finalized until after governments have a chance to weigh in on the report and following a meeting in Copenhagen slated for late October.

      In September, the United Nations is hosting its next international climate summit in New York City and climate campaigners are hoping to capitalize on the meeting by planning what they are calling the “People’s Climate March” during the same week as a way to apply pressure on world governments to finally act on the issue.

      If nothing else, the leaked IPCC draft report will serve to galvanize and add weight to the climate justice movement, which has consistently demanded that world leaders respond to the crisis with action—not words.

      As David Turnbull, director of campaigns for the group Oil Change International, which is signed-on to support the New York march, said recently: “Politicians have come together too many times with nothing more than rhetoric and empty promises in tow. Next month, thousands of true leaders will be marching on the streets of New York demanding real action. The question is, will our elected leaders follow.”

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        Amtrak provides crude oil train details states had withheld

        Repost from McClatchyDC
        [Editor: The author notes that this method of obtaining information on transport of crude by rail “only worked in the few places where Amtrak owns or controls track over which freight trains operate.”  – RS]

        Amtrak provides crude oil train details states had withheld

        By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, August 4, 2014
        US NEWS RAILSAFETY MCT
        Empty tank cars roll south along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor at Newark, Del., on July 28, 2013. The cars were unloaded at the nearby PBF refinery in Delaware City, Del., and are heading back to North Dakota for another shipment. (Curtis Tate/MCT)

        — Two loaded and two empty crude oil trains operate daily over Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor in Maryland and Delaware, according a document submitted by the passenger railroad in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

        Last month, Norfolk Southern, the freight railroad that operates the crude oil trains, went to court in Maryland to block the state Department of the Environment from making the same information available to McClatchy and the Associated Press.

        The Amtrak document also contains some details of Norfolk Southern’s crude oil train operations in Pennsylvania. That state last month denied requests from McClatchy and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to provide information about the shipments.

        Dave Pidgeon, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, declined to comment.

        In May, following a series of derailments, fires and spills involving crude oil trains, the U.S. Department of Transportation required railroads to notify states about train shipments of 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil to help emergency responders better prepare for an incident.

        There is no federal law that shields the crude oil train information from public release. Nonetheless, railroads asked states to sign confidentiality agreements, and some states, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, complied.

        However, other states, including California, Washington, Illinois and Florida, did not sign the agreements and have made the crude oil train details available to McClatchy and other news organizations.

        In Maryland, according to documents filed on July 23 in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, state Attorney General Doug Gansler’s office had voided the confidentiality agreements that a state official had signed. However, both Norfolk Southern and rival carrier CSX contested the attorney general’s ruling and sought an injunction to prevent the imminent release of the records.

        Pennsylvania is one of the largest single destinations in the country for Bakken crude oil by train. On Monday, McClatchy appealed the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency’s denial of an open records request for crude oil train details there.

        Amtrak owns or controls lines in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware that Norfolk Southern uses for freight. The national passenger railroad is subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

        According to Amtrak, Norfolk Southern’s crude oil trains operate over 21 miles of the Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger train route in the country. The crude oil trains travel between Perryville, Md., and Newark, Del., sometimes alongside Amtrak’s passenger trains. They also use a portion of a line east of Harrisburg, Pa., that Amtrak controls.

        The trains are generally 100 cars and weigh 13,500 tons loaded and 4,000 tons empty. By contrast, Amtrak’s flagship Acela Express trains include two locomotives and six cars, weighing a total of 624 tons.

        Freight trains commonly operate over the Northeast Corridor at night, but some run during the day. Amtrak restricts Norfolk Southern’s crude oil trains to 30 mph from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Overnight, the trains can operate at 50 mph.

        Norfolk Southern crude oil trains cannot exceed 135 cars on Amtrak lines.

        The Norfolk Southern trains supply the PBF Energy refinery in Delaware City, Del. The facility closed in 2009, only to be revived with rail deliveries of domestic crude oil.

        Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/08/04/235391/amtrak-provides-crude-oil-train.html?sp=/99/200/#storylink=cpy

         

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