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NY TIMES: Environmental Activists Take to Local Protests for Global Results

Repost from the New York Times

Environmental Activists Take to Local Protests for Global Results

By John Schwartz, March 19, 2016
Bill McKibben was arrested during a protest at Seneca Lake near Reading, N.Y., on March 7. He was protesting the proposed expansion of a natural gas storage facility. Credit Monica Lopossay for The New York Times

READING, N.Y. — They came here to get arrested.

Nearly 60 protesters blocked the driveway of a storage plant for natural gas on March 7. Its owners want to expand the facility, which the opponents say would endanger nearby Seneca Lake. But their concerns were global, as well.

“There’s a climate emergency happening,” one of the protesters, Coby Schultz, said. “It’s a life-or-death struggle.”

The demonstration here was part of a wave of actions across the nation that combines traditional not-in-my-backyard protests against fossil-fuel projects with an overarching concern about climate change.

Activists have been energized by successes on several fronts, including the decision last week by President Obama to block offshore drilling along the Atlantic Seaboard; his decision in November to reject the Keystone XL pipeline; and the Paris climate agreement.

Bound together through social media, networks of far-flung activists are opposing virtually all new oil, gas and coal infrastructure projects — a process that has been called “Keystone-ization.”

As the climate evangelist Bill McKibben put it in a Twitter post after Paris negotiators agreed on a goal of limiting global temperature increases: “We’re damn well going to hold them to it. Every pipeline, every mine.”

Regulators almost always approve such projects, though often with modifications, said Donald F. Santa Jr., chief executive of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. Still, the protests are having some impact. The engineering consultants Black and Veatch recently published a report that said the most significant barrier to building new pipeline capacity was “delay from opposition groups.”

Activists regularly protest at the headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, but there have also been sizable protests in places like St. Paul and across the Northeast.

In Portland, Ore., where protesters conducted a “kayaktivist” blockade in July to keep Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs from leaving port, the City Council passed a resolution opposing the expansion of facilities for the storage and transportation of fossil fuels.

Greg Yost, a math teacher in North Carolina who works with the group NC PowerForward, said the activists emboldened one another.

“When we pick up the ball and run with it here in North Carolina, we’re well aware of what’s going on in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island,” he said. “The fight we’re doing here, it bears on what happens elsewhere — we’re all in this together, we feel like.”

The movement extends well beyond the United States. In May, a wave of protests and acts of civil disobedience, under an umbrella campaign called Break Free 2016, is scheduled around the world to urge governments and fossil fuel companies to “keep coal, oil and gas in the ground.”

This approach — think globally, protest locally — is captured in the words of Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and a scholar in residence at Ithaca College who helped organize the demonstration at the storage plant near Seneca Lake: “This driveway is a battleground, and there are driveways like this all over the world.”

The idea driving the protests is that climate change can be blunted only by moving to renewable energy and capping any growth of fossil fuels.

Speaking to the crowd at Seneca Lake, Mr. McKibben, who had come from his home in Vermont, said, “Our job on behalf of the planet is to slow them down.”

He added, “If we can hold them off for two or three years, there’s no way any of this stuff can be built again.”

The demonstration at Seneca Lake earlier this month. Many protesters cheered when sheriff’s vans arrived. Credit Monica Lopossay for The New York Times

But the issues are not so clear cut. The protests aimed at natural gas pipelines, for example, may conflict with policies intended to fight climate change and pollution by reducing reliance on dirtier fossil fuels.

“The irony is this,” said Phil West, a spokesman for Spectra Energy, whose pipeline projects, including those in New York State, have come under attack. “The shift to additional natural gas use is a key contributor to helping the U.S. reduce energy-related emissions and improve air quality.”

Those who oppose natural gas pipelines say the science is on their side.

They note that methane, the chief component of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas in the short term, with more than 80 times the effect of carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

The Obama administration is issuing regulations to reduce leaks, but environmental opposition to fracking, and events like the huge methane plume released at a storage facility in the Porter Ranch neighborhood near Los Angeles, have helped embolden the movement.

Once new natural gas pipelines and plants are in place, opponents argue, they will operate for decades, blocking the shift to solar and wind power.

“It’s not a bridge to renewable energy — it’s a competitor,” said Patrick Robbins, co-director of the Sane Energy Project, which protests pipeline development and is based in New York.

Such logic does not convince Michael A. Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Saying no to gas doesn’t miraculously lead to the substitution of wind and solar — it may lead to the continued operation of coal-fired plants,” he said, noting that when the price of natural gas is not competitive, owners take the plants, which are relatively cheap to build, out of service.

“There is enormous uncertainty about how quickly you can build out renewable energy systems, about what the cost will be and what the consequences will be for the electricity network,” Mr. Levi said.

Even some who believe that natural gas has a continuing role to play say that not every gas project makes sense.

N. Jonathan Peress, an expert on electricity and natural gas markets at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that while companies push to add capacity, the long-term need might not materialize.

“There is a disconnect between the perception of the need for massive amounts of new pipeline capacity and the reality,” he said.

Market forces, regulatory assumptions and business habits favor the building of new pipelines even though an evolving electrical grid and patterns of power use suggest that the demand for gas will, in many cases, decrease.

Even now, only 6 percent of gas-fired plants run at greater than 80 percent of their capacity, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, and nearly half of such plants run at an average load factor of just 17 percent.

“The electricity grid is evolving in a way that strongly suggests what’s necessary today won’t be necessary in another 20 years, let alone 10 or 15,” Mr. Peress said.

Back at Seneca Lake, the protesters cheered when Schuyler County sheriff’s vans showed up. The group had protested before, and so the arrests had the friendly familiarity of a contra dance. As one deputy, A.W. Yessman, placed zip-tie cuffs on Catherine Rossiter, he asked jovially, “Is this three, or four?”

She beamed. “You remember me!”

Brad Bacon, a spokesman for the owner of the plant at Seneca Lake, Crestwood Equity Partners, acknowledged that it had become more burdensome to get approval to build energy infrastructure in the Northeast even though regulatory experts have tended not to be persuaded by the protesters’ environmental arguments.

The protesters, in turn, disagree with the regulators, and forcefully. As he was being handcuffed, Mr. McKibben called the morning “a good scene.”

The actions against fossil fuels, he said, will continue. “There’s 15 places like this around the world today,” he said. “There will be 15 more tomorrow, and the day after that.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 20, 2016, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Protesters Across U.S. Turn Up Heat on Fossil Fuel. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe
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    Dangerous energy gamble: Pipelines vs. rail

    Repost from the Washington Examiner
    [Editor: One significant quote among many: “In the last five years, 423 oil trains have crashed in the U.S. Since 2010, those crashes have cost about $45 million in damages. In just the first six months of 2015, 31 oil train crashes cost almost $30 million in damages…. It’s 5.5 times more likely that oil will be spilled during rail transport than from a pipeline, according to a study by the Fraser Institute, an independent Canadian think tank. The risk of deaths, injuries and spills are higher with rail and trucks since vehicles can hit other vehicles, they travel through population centers and the drivers can err. None of those factors exist for pipelines.” – RS]

    Dangerous energy gamble: Pipelines vs. rail

    By Kyle Feldscher, 11/2/15 12:01 AM
    Fire burns at the scene of a train derailment, near Mount Carbon, W.Va., on Feb. 16. Fires burned for nearly nine hours after the train carrying more than 100 tankers of crude oil derailed in a snowstorm. (AP Photo/WCHS-TV)

    Energy companies increasingly have turned to rail to ship crude oil during the fracking boom, but with train crashes becoming more frequent, they are pushing for construction of more pipelines beyond the Keystone XL.

    However, that effort is being stymied by the collapse of oil prices and concerns about pipeline safety.

    On Wednesday, Shell announced it would stop construction on a site in Alberta, Canada, that potentially holds 418 million barrels of bitumen oil. The company blamed the project’s expense in a time of cheap oil as well as a lack of pipeline infrastructure.

    It’s one example of low prices and lack of pipelines prompting companies to reconsider drilling for oil, especially in the Canadian tar sands, where it’s more expensive to drill. Pipeline transportation is typically cheaper than rail, which costs about $30 a barrel more.

    Fifty pipelines have been proposed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this year. They would carry the light, sweet crude from shale regions as well as the natural gas that has helped make the U.S. the world’s energy leader. ”

    Because of the costs associated with [rail], it’s going to drive up the cost of oil and it’s going to be significantly higher than pipelines on a per barrel basis,” said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the conservative Institute for Energy Research.

    Another calculation oil companies must make is the safety of their highly flammable product.

    In the last five years, 423 oil trains have crashed in the U.S. Since 2010, those crashes have cost about $45 million in damages. In just the first six months of 2015, 31 oil train crashes cost almost $30 million in damages, mostly due to a major crash in West Virginia.

    It’s 5.5 times more likely that oil will be spilled during rail transport than from a pipeline, according to a study by the Fraser Institute, an independent Canadian think tank. The risk of deaths, injuries and spills are higher with rail and trucks since vehicles can hit other vehicles, they travel through population centers and the drivers can err. None of those factors exist for pipelines.

    The August study also found oil and natural gas production is rising faster than existing American and Canadian pipelines can handle. Those pipelines would be even busier if production increased in the Canadian tar sands.

    Keystone XL, proposed by TransCanada in 2007, would be able to transport 830,000 barrels per day from the tar sands to the Gulf Coast to be refined. Due to the viscous nature of bitumen oil, it’s much easier to transport it by pipeline than by rail, experts say.

    When a train carrying oil derails, it’s often catastrophic.

    In West Virginia, oil burned for days after 26 oil tanker cars derailed in February. Nineteen of those cars caught on fire and oil spilled into a nearby river. The damages from that crash totaled more than $23 million.

    A train derailment in a Quebec community that killed 46 people in July 2013 prompted calls for better rail safety and led some to question whether to transport highly flammable oil at all.

    The State Department estimates rail transportation of oil is responsible for 712 injuries and 94 deaths per year, while oil pipelines are responsible for three injuries and two deaths per year.

    “For our society, we have to evaluate the value we place on human life and we should make that a priority,” said Diana Furtchgott-Roth, a conservative economist who is the director of the Manhattan Institute’s e21 program.

    “The families of those 46 people killed in Lac-Megantic would have been happy to have less oil and having the lives of their family members back.”

    Dangerous derailments led the Obama administration to introduce new regulations to make tanker cars safer. The rule, announced in May, requires improvements to braking systems, making tanker cars thicker and more fire resistant and new protocols for transporting flammable liquids.

    The number of crashes steadily increased during the last five years, as more trains shipped crude and natural gas, rising from nine crashes in 2010 to 144 crashes in 2014. But as the price of oil plummeted, the amount of crude oil being drilled and shipped leveled off in 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration.

    If drilling in the Canadian tar sands in Alberta were to pick up in earnest, State Department officials believe rail transport would lead to 49 more injuries and six more deaths per year. If that oil were to be moved by the Keystone XL pipeline, there would be one additional injury and no fatalities.

    Environmentalists, who have been fighting the Keystone XL, point to the State Department’s finding that pipeline spills are often bigger than those from trains and trucks.

    They also point to declining oil use and the collapse of prices as great excuses to leave it in the ground.

    Zach Drennen, legislative associate at the League of Conservation Voters, said with oil prices as low as they are, it’s economic folly for oil companies to drill in the Canadian tar sands. Without high oil prices, companies can’t afford to build pipelines. They also can’t afford to ship by rail.

    That is why green groups think oil companies could be willing to leave the oil in the earth.

    “If you look right now, a lot of oil companies are just deciding that’s not where they want to put their money at,” Drennen said.

    To Kish, environmentalists’ goal is to make it too expensive to drill.

    “They’re going to try and fight against every damn pipeline they can,” he said, “because if they can choke off production and delay construction of pipelines, it causes disruptions.”

    But Ken Green, senior director of natural resource studies at the Fraser Institute, said environmentalists’ dream of keeping oil in the ground isn’t feasible.

    “The oil in the ground has a market value and everyone knows what the market value is,” he said. “It’s not hard to calculate that market value … My assumption is sooner or later, that value will be sought.”

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