Inland Oil Spills Could Threaten Lakes, Streams and Rivers if Keystone XL Approved
Below is a recap of this week's news related to the ongoing Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. A new report is more cause for concern regarding inland oil spills and the potential that Keystone XL could make worse and existing problem. Also, Republicans continue to slow negotiations on the transportation bill with their misguided insistence that TransCanada's tar sands pipeline be included. See below for more:
News & Developments:
This month's Risk Analysis magazine found that there is a significant risk of oil spills at inland locations that threaten lakes, streams, and rivers. This study is particularly relevant as Nebraska and other inland states determine the environmental impact of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Currently, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality has no particular process or checklist for determining whether or not a pipeline is environmentally sound.
USA Today reported on the findings saying, “Despite the attention paid to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, which released about 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the majority of oil spills, about 60%, are inland ones…The data in the study showed that inland crude oil spills occurred way more often near small towns of fewer than 10,000 people, accounting for 77% of the spills, which might raise concerns about response times to accidents. The study evaluated several dozen 'high-risk' watershed locations, rating them as two to five times as vulnerable to spills than the great mass of other watershed locations. 'Mostly it is where there are pipelines,' Brody says, not a big surprise."
Senate conferees attempted to move forward negotiations on the transportation bill putting together a proposal for their House colleagues. However, The Hill reports House Republicans “gave it an initially cool reception" because Senators Boxer and Inhofe, the bipartisan duo who pitched the plan, did not include a provision for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
While Republicans appear prepared to risk the passage of a necessary bill with their pet project, as the White House is threatening a veto of the bill if it includes the pipeline add-on. Politico's Morning Transportation this week quoted White House spokesperson Matt Lehrich who said “the GOP needs to 'put jobs and safety ahead of partisan politics.'" Anthony Swift of the NRDC agrees. Swift summed up why “Keystone has no place in the transportation bill" in an op-ed piece in The Hill.
In an AARP interview, President Obama states that Keystone XL is an export pipeline that will not reduce U.S. gas prices and acknowledges that the best way to keep gas prices low is to reduce demand. From the President: “they want to build a pipeline to pump from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, where they can then export that oil all around the world. It's not going to make a dent in gas prices here in the United States."
Quotes of the Week:
“We're fed up with the tactics. We demand transparency. We demand EPA involvement. And we demand that our concerns be openly and publicly addressed." – David Daniel, landowner affected by the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline
“Right now, we delivered our transportation [proposal] to them. The other [issues] we'll deal with after we do that. This is a transportation bill." – Senator Barbara Boxer
In Case You Missed It:
It's Time to Move America Beyond Oil – The Sierra Club released an animation this week, narrated by actor Joshua Jackson, called "The Dirtiest Oil on Earth" which illustrates the dangers of spills, destruction of natural areas, contamination of air and water supplies and political influence exerted by the oil industry to build pipeline projects designed to transport tar sands across the U.S. to reach foreign markets.
Netroots Nation: The Last Stand Against the XL Pipeline – Esquire blogger Charles Pierce stopped by a panel held by folks taking a stand against Keystone XL at Netroots Nation.
Keystone XL: Will EPA concern over 61 water crossings go unanswered? – “An EPA letter that was once a mere blip on the radar for the Keystone XL oil pipeline may now be the last federal regulatory obstacle facing the controversial project."
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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