Category Archives: Keeping Watch on Earth News

Big Oil aims to buy democracy in WA State

Repost from Sightline Institute 
This article is part of the series Look Who’s Taking Oil & Coal Money 

BIG OIL AIMS TO BUY DEMOCRACY IN WASHINGTON

Local Northwest elections targeted with huge fossil fuel spending.
By Eric de Place, October 25, 2017 6:30 am
Bow of oil tanker by Roy Luck used under CC BY 2.0

With no statewide races or federal level races, 2017 is supposed to be an “off” year election. But for the fossil fuel industry and their allies it’s proving to be a spending bonanza. Coal, oil, and railroad shippers have dumped a jaw-dropping $1.5 million into three relatively small caliber Washington races: a Vancouver port commission seat, a state senate race in suburban King County, and a Spokane city ballot initiative.

Coal, oil, and railroad shippers have dumped a jaw-dropping $1.5 million into three relatively small caliber Washington races.

The big media story this election has been at the Port of Vancouver, where the oil company Tesoro aims to build a 360,000 barrel-per-day oil train facility called Vancouver Energy. Two of the three port commissioners back the project, but the outcome of the election could change that. Candidate Don Orange is likely to join current port commissioner Eric LaBrant in opposing Tesoro’s plans, and they could end the project by declining to renew the company’s lease.

Running against Orange is Kris Greene with heavy backing from the company he would be responsible for permitting. So far, the project’s backer has contributed a staggering $370,000 to Greene, far and away the largest corporate donation in the history of Vancouver’s port and the largest direct donation to any candidate in all of Washington in 2017. This princely sum comes on top of a $162,000 independent expenditure from Enterprise WA Jobs, a political action committee (PAC). The biggest donors to the PAC this year are none other than Tesoro to the tune of $200,000 and BNSF with $215,000, the two companies who profit from the terminal’s operations.

Reports from the Columbian newspaper have also revealed a shocking degree of coordination between Greene and his oil business sponsors. In effect, Tesoro has operated Greene’s campaign, doing everything from writing his press releases to speaking for the campaign to hiring DC-based communications firms with connections to some of the worst anti-environmental campaigns in the nation. (Tesoro is no stranger to big spending for right-wing spending in Washington, but 2017 marks a new level of aggression for the Texas oil company.) In September, Greene’s former campaign manager Robert Sabo even quit because of Tesoro’s outside influence on the campaign. He told the Columbian in an article earlier this month “Big Oil is completely dictating where every penny is going.”

Meanwhile, a state senate race on the eastside of Lake Washington is setting new spending records. The match in the 45th district pits Republican Jinyoung Englund against Democrat Manka Dhingra in a contest that could have major implications for the state legislature. If Dhingra wins, the Senate will flip to the Democrats, giving them majorities in both houses along with control of the governor’s office. Democratic control would likely take action on long-stalled environmental priorities like oil transportation safety requirements, funding for toxic waste cleaning up and prevention, or statewide clean energy investments.

A trio of right-wing PACs are spending big to support Republican Englund with a combined $820,000. The same Enterprise WA Jobs PAC playing in the Vancouver race is also spending big in the 45th. Beyond the hundreds of thousands from Tesoro and BNSF, the PAC has another $100,000 from Chevron and $25,000 from Koch Industries (the fossil fuel company of Koch Brothers notoriety). Meanwhile, the Citizens for Progress Enterprise WA PAC is registering another $350,000 from Texas oil company Phillips 66. And the Leadership Council PAC shows yet more oil and railroad money: $25,000 more from Tesoro, $20,000 from BNSF, and $10,000 from Union Pacific.

Backing Democrat Dhingra are the New Directions PAC and the Working Families PAC, with funding from State Democratic Campaign Committee, The Leadership Council, state unions, the Washington Conservation Voters, and big national names like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.

In Spokane, a citizen’s ballot initiative, Proposition 2, proposes to levy fees on coal and oil trains that pass through the city. It has garnered predictable opposition from fossil fuel companies, as well as the railroads that ship their products. So far, the industry’s PAC has $180,454 worth of contributions, including an eyebrow-raising October contribution of $39,500 from Lighthouse Resources, the struggling company behind a Longview coal terminal development that was effectively killed by state permitting agencies in September. Lighthouse had previously given $25,000 to the PAC, an amount that was matched by Cloud Peak, a company that exports modest volumes of coal via a terminal in British Columbia, as well as Tesoro, and the railroads BNSF and Union Pacific.

The Northwest is proving to be the graveyard of ambitions for coal, oil, and gas schemes as a region-wide groundswell of opposition has fought back project after project. Now, stymied at every turn, the fossil fuel industry is deploying what may be its most dangerous weapon: piles of cash and a willingness to overwhelm democratic institutions, even at a local level. If the “off” year elections of 2017 prove successful for Big Oil, there is every reason to think the industry will play hardball in the big ticket races of 2018.

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Deadly Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster Was Avoidable Corporate Crime

Repost from DeSmogBlog

Deadly Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster Was Avoidable Corporate Crime

By Justin Mikulka, October 24, 2017 – 17:39
Lac-Mégantic before oil train explosion leveled its downtown
Lac-Mégantic before oil train explosion leveled its downtown. (See below for before/after photo.)

Damning new testimony from an engineer of the locomotive involved in the deadly 2013 oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, reveals several ways corporate cost-cutting directly led to the accident, which claimed 47 lives.

We already knew for certain that a fire on the locomotive, which had been left parked and running for the night, per standard practice, was the direct cause of the disaster. That blaze resulted in the local fire department, directed by a rail company employee, to turn off the power to the locomotive. However, that action also shut off power to the air brakes, which eventually failed and caused the train to roll down the tracks into downtown Lac-Mégantic, where it exploded and leveled the area.

However, in newly released testimony reported by CBCNews, we learn about a troubling exchange between train engineer François Daigle, who had driven the oil train two days before its fiery derailment, and his supervisor:

Daigle said on that trip he noticed the locomotive kept losing speed and produced black smoke.

Daigle told the court he reported the problems to his supervisor, Jean Demaître, and sent a fax to the repair shop in Maine at the end of his shift.

Daigle said he asked Demaître to change the lead locomotive because of the repair issues.

“What was Demaître’s answer?” Crown prosecutor Marie-Éve Phaneuf asked.

“You’re complaining again?” Daigle said Demaître told him, continuing: “This is what we have, and at any rate, you are going to be receiving your pension after me.”

Daigle said he understood that to mean no changes would be made.

If that locomotive had been replaced, the Lac-Mégantic disaster most likely would not have happened.

A Train Much, Much Too Heavy

A second factor in the accident was related to its braking system. Once the fire department shut off the locomotive’s brakes, the train was only held in place by manual handbrakes, which proved insufficient for the train’s weight.

In Daigle’s testimony, which is part of the criminal trial of three of his Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) colleagues, he revealed that the train was almost 50 percent heavier than regulations allowed. The train’s maximum allowed weight was 6,300 tonnes. The actual weight was 9,100 tonnes. Would the handbrakes have been sufficient to hold the train in place if it wasn’t so much heavier than permitted?

In his testimony Daigle also stated that management would not allow him to refuse to operate that train even when he knew it was overweight.

On top of all this, we already knew that it was company policy for employees to save time by not engaging a train’s third “automatic” braking system. Even with everything else going wrong, if the automatic braking system had been engaged, this disaster would likely have been averted and 47 lives spared.

It’s Not Them We Want

Less than a week after the 2013 disaster, Martin Lukacs, columnist for The Guardian, wrote a prophetic statement: “the explosion in Lac-Mégantic is not merely a tragedy. It is a corporate crime scene.” He couldn’t have been more right.

At DeSmog we have previously detailed the many other cost-cutting steps that led to this oil train disaster.

However, there was one other person who certainly knew who was to blame long before Daigle’s testimony was released. Thomas Harding is the engineer currently on trial with two fellow employees, none of them executives. In 2014 I wrote a piece about Lac-Mégantic for DeSmog, titled, “Should CEOs Get Jail Time For Oil-By-Rail Accidents Like Lac Megantic?” In that story, I included the following description of the crowd of people who watched as Harding and the others were taken into court after their arrests:

When Harding and two other crew members were frog marched into court after their arrest, Ghislain Champagne, the father of a woman who died in the Lac-Mégantic accident, yelled out, “It’s not them we want.”

But perhaps the management at MMA would be inclined to reply: “Are you complaining again?”

Images: Lac-Mégantic before and after the oil train explosion in 2013. | Credit: Claude Grenier, Studio Numéra, Lac-Mégantic.
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GAO: Climate change already costing U.S. billions in losses

Repost from the Los Angeles Daily News
[Editor: This came to us in an E-Alert from Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, who wrote, “The red lights are flashing – hottest summers and fall, greatest hurricane force, worst fires in history of California, lives lost, air pollution killing millions, and all of this is costing us billions… …rising sea level will affect structures near the Benicia waterfront at 6 feet above current sea level.  Our water (sewer) will be affected by rising sea level before 2050.  Our water supply may be uncertain.  We can mitigate and adapt….”  – RS]

US Government Accountability Office: Climate change already costing U.S. billions in losses

By Michael Biesecker, Associated Press, October 23, 2017 8:13 pm
california wildfires
Sarah Boryszewski is helped by her father Gerald Peete as they dig for belongings in the remains of Boryszewski’s home in Coffey Park, Friday Oct. 20, 2017 in Santa Rosa, Calif. Northern California residents who fled a wildfire in the dead of night with only minutes to spare returned to their neighborhoods Friday for the first time in nearly two weeks to see if anything was standing. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP)

WASHINGTON — A non-partisan federal watchdog says climate change is already costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars each year, with those costs expected to rise as devastating storms, floods, wildfires and droughts become more frequent in the coming decades.

A Government Accountability Office report released Monday said the federal government has spent more than $350 billion over the last decade on disaster assistance programs and losses from flood and crop insurance. That tally does not include the massive toll from this year’s three major hurricanes and wildfires, expected to be among the most costly in the nation’s history.

The report predicts these costs will only grow in the future, potentially reaching a budget busting $35 billion a year by 2050. The report says the federal government doesn’t effectively plan for these recurring costs, classifying the financial exposure from climate-related costs as “high risk.”

“The federal government has not undertaken strategic government-wide planning to manage climate risks by using information on the potential economic effects of climate change to identify significant risks and craft appropriate federal responses,” the study said. “By using such information, the federal government could take the initial step in establishing government-wide priorities to manage such risks.”

GAO undertook the study following a request from Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“This nonpartisan GAO report Senator Cantwell and I requested contains astonishing numbers about the consequences of climate change for our economy and for the federal budget in particular,” said Collins. “In Maine, our economy is inextricably linked to the environment. We are experiencing a real change in the sea life, which has serious implications for the livelihoods of many people across our state, including those who work in our iconic lobster industry.”

The report’s authors reviewed 30 government and academic studies examining the national and regional impacts of climate change. They also interviewed 28 experts familiar with the strengths and limitations of the studies, which rely on future projections of climate impacts to estimate likely costs.

The report says the fiscal impacts of climate change are likely to vary widely by region. The Southeast is at increased risk because of coastal property that could be swamped by storm surge and sea level rise. The Midwest and Great Plains are susceptible to decreased crop yields, the report said. The west is expected to see increased drought, wildfires and deadly heatwaves.

Advance copies were provided to the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency, which provided no official comments for inclusion in the GAO report.

Requests for comment from The Associated Press also received no response on Monday.

President Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax, announcing his intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords and revoke Obama-era initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Trump has also appointed officials such as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, all of whom question the scientific consensus that carbon released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is the primary driver of global warming.

Earlier this month Trump nominated Kathleen Hartnett White of Texas to serve as his top environmental adviser at the White House. She has credited the fossil fuel industry with “vastly improved living conditions across the world” and likened the work of mainstream climate scientists to “the dogmatic claims of ideologues and clerics.”

White, who works at a conservative think tank that has received funding from fossil-fuel companies, holds academic degrees in East Asian studies and comparative literature.

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