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Can This 36-Year-Old Unseat the Biggest Climate Denier in Congress?

A climate activist and organizer is hoping to put "the worst climate denier in Congress" out of his job.

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Judge to Exxon: Pay $20 Million for Violating Clean Air Act More Than 16,000 Times

ExxonMobil must pay $20 million for violating the Clean Air Act more than 16,000 times at a Texas plant, a district judge ruled this week.

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Fracking
Oil drilling site, with a pond for fracking water, Cotulla, Texas. Photo credit: Al Braden

Texas Town Opposes BLM's Plan to Frack Public Lands

The mayor of Brenham signed Monday the city council's unanimous resolution opposing the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) plans to auction lands beneath and around Lake Somerville for oil and gas development. The resolution cited concerns that loss or contamination of the lake's water supply would be "catastrophic" for its residents. Lake Somerville is the city's sole drinking water source.

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Exxon Dealt Big Blow as Texas Judge Kicks Climate Lawsuit to New York Court

In a decision released Wednesday, ExxonMobil lost its bid to have their complaint against Attorneys General Eric Schneiderman and Maura Healey heard by a sympathetic Texas judge.

"The decision is a major blow to Exxon's efforts to distract from the valid investigations into whether the company lied to the public and its investors about the dangers of global warming," Jamie Henn, 350.org strategic communications director, said.

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Scientists Link Fracking to Explosion That Severely Injured Texas Family

Scientists have determined that methane from a fracked well contaminated a Texas family's water supply and triggered an explosion that nearly killed four members of the family.

The family's ranch in Palo Pinto County is located only a few thousand feet away from a natural gas well.

Scientists have found that methane escaped from a poorly constructed natural gas well and leached into a Texas family's water well, causing it to explode.WFAA

In August 2014, former oil field worker Cody Murray, his father, wife and young daughter were severely burned and hospitalized from a "fireball" that erupted from the family's pump house.

A year later, the family filed a lawsuit against oil and gas operators EOG Resources and Fairway Resources, claiming the defendants' drilling and extraction activities caused the high-level methane contamination of the Murrays' water well.

"At the flip of the switch, Cody heard a 'whooshing' sound, which he instantly recognized from his work in the oil and gas industry, and instinctively picked his father up and physically threw him back and away from the entryway to the pump house," the complaint states. "In that instant, a giant fireball erupted from the pump house, burning Cody and [his father], who were at the entrance to the pump house, as well as Ashley and A.M., who were approximately twenty feet away."

While the state's oil and gas regulator—the Texas Railroad Commission—has yet to definitely prove what caused the blast, new scientific studies commissioned by the Murrays' attorneys has directly linked the explosion to fracking operations.

As the Texas Tribune detailed, the studies found that methane and drilling mud chemicals had escaped from a poorly sealed Fairway gas well and traveled through underground fractures and eventually into the Murrays' water supply.

The hired experts include Thomas Darrah, a geochemist at Ohio State University; Franklin Schwartz, an Ohio State University hydrologist; Zacariah Hildenbrand, chief scientific officer at Inform Environmental; and Anthony Ingraffea, a civil engineering professor at a Cornell University with expertise in fracking.

"The timing is undeniable, the location is undeniable, the chemistry of the gas is undeniable," Chris Hamilton, the Murray's attorney, told news station WFAA. "This is not naturally occurring gas. This is gas that came from 4 to 6-thousand feet below the ground."

Hamilton shared a video with WFAA that shows the bubbling, methane-saturated water that caused the 2014 explosion.

"What you can see in the video here is just super carbonated water that is saturated with methane gas that's bubbling out of the Murray's water," he explained.

"This is an explosive gas," Hamilton added. "Large bubbles and pockets of this methane escaping from a water well, any sort of spark will start a fire."

Groundwater contamination is one of the biggest concerns about unconventional oil and natural gas development. While the industry maintains the safety of the process, in December the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its highly anticipated final report identifying cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.

Incidentally, the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission—a state legislative body that reviews agencies—has been highly critical of the Texas Railroad Commission's effectiveness at regulating the oil and gas industry.

As WFAA reported:

"It's the 3rd such report since 2010, and is critical of Railroad Commission's effectiveness and operations. 'The commission's lack of a strategic approach to enforcement and inability to provide information persists.' The report cites: 'no accurate counts of major violation,' 'no accurate measure of violations referred for legal enforcement action' and '(Oil and gas) operators have a reasonable expectation they will not be penalized.'"

Fairway Resources declined to provide a comment to WFAA due to the ongoing lawsuit. The Texas Railroad Commission also declined to comment citing their ongoing investigation.

Renewable Energy
Photo credit: Lorne Matalon / Marfa Public Radio

Wind Pays More Than Oil in Lone Star State

By Steve Hargreaves and Courtney St. John

Two stories this week—both from Texas—illustrate the precarious nature of fossil fuel jobs and the economic power of renewable energy.

The first, published in the New York Times, shows how oil production is making a comeback in West Texas, but many of its jobs are not. Like manufacturing before it, the oil industry is undergoing a period of rapid automation. Tasks that once required an actual worker are now being performed by software and machines.

"I don't see a future," one worker, whose job laying cables was eliminated by wireless technology, told the Times. "Pretty soon every rig will have one worker and a robot."

Automation is just the latest threat to labor in an industry where hiring has long been subject to the boom and bust cycle of commodity prices. Roughly 30 percent of oil workers nationwide lost their jobs when crude prices tanked in 2014, according to the Times. Falling prices forced oil firms to cut costs, replacing workers with labor-saving technology. Up to half of those jobs will not come back even as oil prices rebound, according to the paper.

The second story, from the Guardian, tells of ranchers making big money off of royalty payments from Texas wind power. A single turbine can produce between $10,000 and $20,000 a year for landowners.

"I never thought that wind would pay more than oil," one landowner told the paper amid the thrum, thrum, thrum of rotating blades. "That noise they make—it's kind of like a cash register."

And it's not just landowners making money. In Nolan Country, the tax base jumped from $400 million a year to $3 billion, largely as a result of wind power, according to the Guardian.

Because clean-power prices are generally set by decades-long contracts, renewables tend to produce a predictable flow of cash to public coffers. The oil industry, on the other hand, slashed the taxes it paid to state and local governments across Texas in 2016 by 40 percent from 2014—another drawback to an industry dependent on volatile commodity pricing. When oil is cheap, tax revenue dries up.While wind turbines provide a steady stream of income to local governments, the industry is not immune to automation. But, unlike oil, wind companies are adding jobs right and left. Last year, the number of wind jobs grew by 32 percent nationwide, according to the Energy Department. According to the Department of Labor, wind technician is the fastest growing occupation in the country.

Fossil fuel jobs may be well paid, but they are volatile and they are in decline. The growth is in renewable power.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

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Texas Pipeline Spills 600,000 Gallons of Oil One Week Before DAPL Is Approved

By Steve Horn

On Jan. 30, 600,000 gallons (14,285 barrels) of oil spewed out of Enbridge's Seaway Pipeline in Blue Ridge, Texas, the second spill since the pipeline opened for business in mid-2016.

Seaway is half owned by Enbridge and serves as the final leg of a pipeline system DeSmogBlog has called the "Keystone XLClone," which carries mostly tar sands extracted from Alberta, Canada, across the U.S. at a rate of 400,000 barrels per day down to the Gulf of Mexico. Enbridge is an equity co-owner of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which received its final permit needed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Feb. 7 to construct the pipeline across the Missouri River and construction has resumed.

The alignment of Native American tribes, environmentalists and others involved in the fight against Dakota Access have called themselves "water protectors," rather than "activists," out of concern that a pipeline spill could contaminate their drinking water source, the Missouri River.

Just Spewing

Brittany Clayton, who works at a nearby gas station in Blue Ridge, which is 50 miles from Dallas, Texas, was close to the scene of the spill when it occurred.

"You could just smell this oil smell. A customer walks in and says 'nobody smoke.' You could see it just spewing," Clayton told KDFW-TV, the local Fox News affiliate in the area. "It was just super huge. It was like a big cloud. The fire marshal said, 'This is like a danger zone. You guys have to evacuate immediately.' I was totally freaked out. I kept texting the boss man."

Enbridge and co-owner Enterprise Products Partners said in press release that the spill had been contained and it resumed service on Feb. 5.

"The incident … resulted in no fire or injuries and the pipeline has been shut down and isolated," the companies said. "Seaway has mobilized personnel and equipment to the site and is working closely with emergency responders, law enforcement and regulatory authorities to conduct clean-up operations and develop a plan to resume operations as quickly and safely as possible."

Government Reaction

According to KDFW, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intend to do water and environmental testing in the coming days. TxDOT also told the local National Public Radio affiliate, KETR-FM, that it would take "several weeks" to complete a full cleanup.

"It remains too early in the investigation to know where final blame lies for the accident," wrote KETR, also noting that "it is also too early to tell how much the cleanup and loss of product will cost."

TxDOT referred DeSmog to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for details on the spill, cleanup and related issues. We have reached out to TCEQ and will update the article as details come in and have also filed open records requests to learn more about the spill.

Chris Havey, Lieutenant Sheriff for the Collin County Sheriff's Office, confirmed with DeSmog that a spill investigation is ongoing under the umbrella of the EPA and the Texas Railroad Commission, which is the state's oil and gas regulatory agency.

"The Sheriff's office is not conducting any parallel investigation," said Havey. "As to whether or not the line has been shut off/capped, it's my understanding that within an hour after the line ruptured it was successfully shut off."

Neither the EPA Region 6 Office nor the Texas Railroad Commission responded to a request for comment. EPA, though, has been ordered not to speak to media by President Donald Trump's White House until the agency has a new administrator, likely nominee Scott Pruitt and senior-level staff in place.

As momentum and tensions alike mount surrounding oil and gas pipeline projects around the country, this oil spill is a reminder of the risks and consequences that come with them.

GMO
In his vineyard, Bobby Cox uses hand-for-scale to show how long his grape leaves should actually be. Chemical damage from herbicide drift causes leaves to shrivel and suffer from strapping, interrupting the grape productivity. Photo credit: Bobby Cox

Texas Wineries Worry EPA Approval of Monsanto, Dow Herbicides Will 'Kill' Industry

Wineries in Texas are worried that federal approval of two highly volatile and drift-prone herbicides used on neighboring genetically modified (GMO) cotton fields will cause widespread damage to their vineyards, The Texas Tribune details.

Dicamba damage on a grape leaves. Uky.edu

The herbicides in question are Monsanto's dicamba-based XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology, which was approved in November by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Dow AgroSciences' 2,4-D-based Enlist Duo, which the EPA also proposed to register for use on GMO cotton seeds. Enlist Duo is already used on GMO corn and soybean crops in 15 states.

"The approval of these formulations will wind up affecting every vineyard up there," explained Paul Bonarrigo, a Hale County vintner who believes that his withering grapevines have been damaged by the illegal spraying of dicamba and 2,4-D on nearby cotton farms. Bonarrigo believes that the state's $2 billion wine industry is in jeopardy.

The debacle is yet another chapter in the expanding issue of herbicide-resistant weeds, or superweeds, that have evolved to resist the herbicide glyphosate, or Roundup. In response to weeds such as pigweed that have infested farms across the U.S., agribusinesses such as Monsanto and Dow have developed ever stronger weedkillers to help farmers.

As noble as that might sound, Monsanto was especially criticized when it decided to sell its dicamba- and glyphosate-resistant soybean and cotton seeds to farmers before securing EPA approval for the herbicide designed to go along with it. Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton was introduced in 2015 and Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans was introduced earlier this year.

Without having the proper herbicide, cotton and soy farmers resorted to spraying older versions of dicamba on their crops. But dicamba, as well as the herbicide 2,4-D, are extremely prone to drift, meaning the chemicals can be picked up by the wind and land on neighboring fields that cannot withstand the chemical damage. When exposed to the herbicide, leaves on non-target plants are often left cupped and distorted.

Researchers from Ohio State University published a study in September showing that herbicide spray drift from the 2,4-D and dicamba can severely damage wine grape plants near agronomic crops.

Common leaf injury symptoms observed in vines 42 d after being treated with (a) glyphosate, (b) 2,4-D, (c) dicamba, and (d) nontreated controlOhio State University

Although Monsanto said it warned farmers against illegal dicamba spraying, this past summer, dicamba drift caused 10 states to report widespread damage on thousands of acres of non-target crops such as peaches, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons, rice, cotton, peas, peanuts, alfalfa and soybeans.

Last month, Missouri's largest peach grower filed a lawsuit against Monsanto over claims that dicamba drift damaged more than 7,000 peach trees on the farm, amounting to $1.5 million in losses. This year, the farm said it lost more than 30,000 trees, with financial losses estimated in the millions.

Regulators assured to The Texas Tribune that the new pesticides are less likely to vaporize and drift, and the risk of damage will lessen if farmers follow safety precautions.

"I don't see this as being any more of an issue than what we have today," Steve Verett, executive vice president of the Plains Cotton Growers, told the publication. "I understand there are other sensitive crops as well. No matter what the product is or the farmer that's spraying, they need to make sure that the product they're spraying stays on their farm."

Kyel Richard, a spokesman for Monsanto, added that the company has conducted training exercises and education efforts to minimize "the opportunity for movement off- site and ensuring those herbicides are staying on target and controlling those weeds on the field that they're intended for."

State wineries, however, are worried that with the EPA's approval, use of dicamba and 2,4-D will expand to include 3.7 million acres of cotton fields.

"I could see it basically killing the [wine] industry, honestly," Garrett Irwin, owner of Cerro Santo vineyard in Lubbock County, countered. "If we get the levels of damage that I'm afraid we'll get, vineyards will not be able to recover or produce grapes at any sustainable level, and we're just going to have to go away."

Irwin also commented that cotton and soy farmers are likely to stick with old dicamba and 2,4-D herbicides because the new formulations are more expensive. Additionally, farmers have to upgrade their equipment with anti-drift nozzles to use the new products.

"I honestly don't think farmers will buy the new formulations when older labels that cost less are available and just as effective as the new labels," he said. "In short, I think farmers will buy generic chemicals without the additives to save money because the cotton won't know the difference."

And if they do buy the new herbicides, there will still be some farmers who "will do nothing to correct for negligence in spraying," Irwin said.

Pheasant Ridge Valley winery owner Bobby Cox told The Texas Tribune that he is worried that cotton farmers will have no choice but to switch to the new seeds system.

Cox said that 2,4-D drift in 2015 caused the amount of sugar in his grapes to be about 5 percent less than ideal.

"It will be catastrophic not only to vineyards but to oak trees, to pecan orchards, to shrubs," Cox said. "If they apply the amount of 2,4-D that they did Roundup and are equally irresponsible with that, it will kill everything green up here. I wish people would understand how important wine growing is for this area, how wonderful of a crop it is on the High Plains. It would be a shame to lose it when we're starting to get recognized."

Not only that, environmental experts worry about dicamba's threat on biodiversity and wonder if pesticide-makers are just creating another cycle of herbicide resistance.

"Once again the EPA is allowing for staggering increases in pesticide use that will undoubtedly harm our nation's most imperiled plants and animals," said Nathan Donley, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, after the EPA approved the Xtend weedkiller. "Iconic species like endangered whooping cranes are known to visit soybean fields, and now they'd be exposed to this toxic herbicide at levels they've never seen before."

"We can't spray our way out of this problem. We need to get off the pesticide treadmill," he continued. "Pesticide resistant superweeds are a serious threat to our farmers, and piling on more pesticides will just result in superweeds resistant to more pesticides. We can't fight evolution—it's a losing strategy."

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