Tag Archives: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

Repost from Circle of Blue

U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

By Codi Kozacek, Circle of Blue, 10 December, 2015 16:07

Report urges new regulations, research, and technology to respond to spills of diluted bitumen.

China Shenzhen economic development office park economy Guangdong Province
Oil gathers in a sheen near the banks of the Kalamazoo River more than a week after a spill of crude oil, including tar sands oil, from Enbridge Inc.’s Line 6B pipeline in 2010. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy Sam LaSusa

Spills of heavy crude oil from western Canada’s tar sands are more difficult to clean up than other types of conventional oil, particularly if the spill occurs in water, a new study by a high-level committee of experts found. Moreover, current regulations governing emergency response plans for oil spills in the United States are inadequate to address spills of tar sands oil.

The study by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine confirmed what scientists, emergency responders, and conservationists knew anecdotally from a major oil spill that contaminated Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 and another spill in Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013. Tar sands crude, called diluted bitumen, becomes denser and stickier than other types of oil after it spills from a pipeline, sinking to the bottom of rivers, lakes, and estuaries and coating vegetation instead of floating on top of the water.


“[Diluted bitumen] weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.”

–Diane McKnight, Chair 
Committee on the Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment


“The long-term risk associated with the weathered bitumen is the potential for that [oil] becoming submerged and sinking into water bodies where it gets into the sediments,” Diane McKnight, chair of the committee that produced the study and a professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Circle of Blue. “And then those sediments can become resuspended and move further downstream and have consequences not only at the ecosystem level but also in terms of water supply.”
“It weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.” McKnight added. Weathering is what happens after oil is spilled and exposed to sunlight, water, and other elements. In order to flow through pipelines, tar sands crude oil is mixed with lighter oils, which evaporate during the weathering process. In a matter of days, what is left of the diluted bitumen can sink.

The study’s findings come amid an expansion in unconventional fuels development and transport in North America. Over the past decade, Canada became the world’s fifth largest crude oil producer by developing the Alberta tar sands. U.S. imports of Canadian crude, much of it from tar sands, increased 58 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Though oil prices are at a seven-year low, and market turbulence is expected to persist for several more years, tar sands developers are working to double the current tar sands oil production — around 2.2 million barrels per day — by 2030. Pipelines to transport all of the new oil are expanding too, producing a greater risk of spills.

China Shenzhen economic development office park economy Guangdong Province
A sign held by a protester at a 2013 climate rally in Washington, D.C. notes the lingering difficulties associated with spills of diluted bitumen –namely that the oil can become submerged in the water. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy DCErica via Flickr Creative Commons

Whether tar sands producers achieve that level of oil supply is not assured. Public pressure is mounting in Canada and the United States to rein in tar sands development due to considerable environmental damage and heavy carbon emissions. U.S. President Barack Obama last month scrapped the Keystone XL pipeline, an 800,000-barrel-per-day project to move crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf of Mexico refineries. An international movement to divest from fossil fuels and a legally binding global deal to cut carbon emissions –if it is signed in Paris– could curb demand for tar sands oil.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study adds new data to arguments made by critics of tar sands development.

“The study really confirms a lot of the information that has been out there, there are no real surprises,” Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, told Circle of Blue. “You don’t want these things to be affirmed because it’s bad news for communities. But the good part about a study like this is hopefully it will prompt some action. Some folks were hiding behind the lack of a study like this, saying we don’t really know. Those excuses have gone away.”

“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges,” he added.

Nonetheless, energy companies are pursuing pipeline expansions, most notably in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions. Enbridge, Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil, operates a 3,000-kilometer (1,900-mile) pipeline network, known as the Lakehead System, that carries crude oil from Canada to refineries on the Great Lakes. The Lakehead system, in concert with Enbridge’s Canadian main line, is capable of transporting 2.62 million barrels of oil per day. The pipeline responsible for the 2010 oil spill in Kalamazoo was part of the Lakehead system. A link in the Lakehead system ruptured in 2010 and spilled more than 3 million liters (843,000 gallons) of tar sands oil into southern Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history and its effects still linger because of oil that sank and is embedded in the river’s sediments.

 
“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges.”

–Jim Murphy, Senior Counsel
National Wildlife Federation


Enbridge is currently pursuing upgrades to its Alberta Clipper pipeline, which runs through Minnesota and Wisconsin, in order to boost the line’s capacity to 800,000 barrels per day from 450,000 barrels per day. A second project aims to increase the capacity of Line 61, a pipeline that runs from Wisconsin to Illinois, from 560,000 barrels per day to 1.2 million barrels per day. Opposition to the company’s operation of a pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron join, has been especially fierce, though the line does not currently carry tar sands oil.

“I think at the very least we should be saying no to more tar sands through the [Great Lakes] region until we get a firm handle on how to deal with the unique challenges that tar sands spills present,” Murphy said. “We should also be taking a hard look, as the president did with the Keystone XL decision, about the other negative impacts of more tar sands oil, like the consequences in Alberta with the habitat destruction there, and also the higher carbon pollution content of the fuel.”

The National Academies study concluded that the characteristics of diluted bitumen are “highly problematic for spill response because 1) there are few effective techniques for detection, containment, and recovery of oil that is submerged in the water column, and 2) available techniques for responding to oil that has sunken to the bottom have variable effectiveness depending on the spill conditions.”

“Broadly, regulations and agency practices do not take the unique properties of diluted bitumen into account, nor do they encourage effective planning for spills of diluted bitumen,” it continued.

China Shenzhen economic development office park economy Guangdong Province
A tar ball recovered on the edge of a cove in Mayflower, Arkansas, after tar sands crude spilled from ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline in 2013. Click image to enlarge.

The study’s authors made a series of recommendations to help reduce the damage from future tar sands spills, including:

  • Update regulations that would require pipeline operators to identify and provide safety sheets for each crude oil transported by the pipeline, catalogue the areas and water bodies that would be most sensitive to a diluted bitumen spill, describe how they would detect and recover sunken oil, provide samples and information about the type of oil spilled to emergency officials, and publicly report the annual volumes and types of crude oil that pass through each pipeline.
  • Require the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency that regulates pipelines in the United States, to review spill response plans in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard to determine if the plans are capable of responding to diluted bitumen spills.
  • Develop methods to detect, contain, and recover oil that sinks to the bottom of water bodies.
  • Require government agencies at the federal, state, and local level to use industry-standard names for crude oils when planning spill responses.
  • Revise oil classifications used by the U.S. Coast Guard to indicate that diluted bitumen can sink in water.
  • Collect data to improve modeling of diluted bitumen oil spills.
    Improve coordination between federal agencies and state and local governments when planning and practicing oil spill response exercises.
  • Develop a standard method for determining the adhesion –a measure of how sticky the oil is–of diluted bitumen in the event of a spill.

After the study’s release, PHMSA said it would develop a bulletin advising pipeline operators about the recommendations and urge voluntary improvements to their spill response plans. The agency also plans to hold a workshop next spring to hear public input on how to implement the recommendations, coordinate with other federal organizations to “advance the recommendations”, and work with industry representatives to improve spill response planning.

“We appreciate the work the National Academy of Sciences has done over the last few years in analyzing the risks of transporting diluted bitumen, including its effects on transmission pipelines, the environment and oil spill response activities,” Artealia Gilliard, PHMSA spokesperson and director for governmental, international and public affairs, said in a statement. “All pipelines transporting crude oil or any other hazardous liquid are required to meet strict federal safety regulations that work to prevent pipeline failures and to mitigate the consequences of pipeline failures when they occur.”


Codi Yeager-Kozacek is a news correspondent for Circle of Blue based out of Hawaii. She co-writes The Stream, Circle of Blue’s daily digest of international water news trends. Her interests include food security, ecology and the Great Lakes.

Please share!

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.

 

Please share!

Tell EPA: Cut Airplane Carbon Pollution

Repost from Center For Biological Diversity

Tell EPA: Cut Airplane Carbon Pollution

August 3, 2015

Airpline contrailThe EPA recently determined that skyrocketing greenhouse pollution from airplanes hurts our climate and endangers human health. But instead of fighting this fast-growing threat, the agency wants to pass the buck to an international organization virtually run by the airline industry.

If commercial aviation were considered a country, it would rank seventh after Germany in terms of carbon emissions — and those emissions are projected to more than triple by 2050. That’s an unacceptable threat to our climate.

Yet the EPA plans to just sit back and wait for another authority to take action — the International Civil Aviation Organization, which hasn’t produced a single measure to curb aircraft-induced global warming in 18 years.

The EPA has set climate standards for cars, trucks, buses and power plants — now the agency must do the same for airplanes.

Take action — CLICK HERE — urge the EPA to set airplane carbon rules now.

Please share!