Inspector General to Investigate Keystone XL House of Cards
By Michael Marx
Last Friday, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General confirmed that it will investigate evidence that the agency violated ethics guidelines when it hired an oil industry consultant to draft the Keystone XL environmental impact statement. This evidence adds to the growing criticism that the State Department’s conclusion, which minimizes the Keystone XL’s profound impact on U.S. carbon pollution, is based on a faulty and biased review. In fact, the tar sands pipeline is a climate disaster waiting to happen.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
In April and again in July, the Sierra Club and partner groups presented evidence of ethics violations by State and their consultant, Environmental Resources Management (ERM). We requested that the Office of the Inspector General investigate how and why the State Department hired ERM despite the company’s close ties to TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline proposal, and to the American Petroleum Institute, the industry lobbying group that is leading PR efforts to promote the pipeline and an organization of which ERM is a dues-paying member.
ERM was legally obliged to disclose both its connection to Big Oil as well as any way in which it might financially benefit from completion of Keystone XL. But ERM failed to disclose its conflicts of interest, and the State Department failed to verify ERM’s assertions that it had no interest in the outcome of the pipeline decision. When these conflicts first appeared in documents that demonstrated the connections between ERM employees and oil companies that would benefit from the Keystone XL, the State Department redacted these biographies on its website in an attempt to conceal the connections from the public.
This situation is, sadly, a repeat of the State Department’s hiring of Cardno-Entrix, another “conflicted” oil industry consultant, which the department hired to draft the 2011 environmental review of Keystone XL. An Inspector General investigation of that process concluded in 2012 that the consultant was biased and went on to recommend that the State Department redesign its process to ensure that consultants who might profit from a decision are not in charge of the environmental review for that decision. The State Department clearly ignored that recommendation that the fox should not guard the henhouse.
So it’s not surprising, with ERM as the primary author, that this past spring, the State Department put forward yet another distorted draft environmental review that dismissed the critical climate, human health and environmental threats posed by the proposed pipeline. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency saw straight through the rouse when it issued a failing grade to the review for “insufficient information” on greenhouse gas emissions, pipeline safety and community and environmental justice effects. Each of these are important factors in the review of a project that promises to deliver massive amounts of carbon pollution and air and water pollution for communities near refineries and along the pipeline route.
In the 2013 draft environmental review, the State Department and ERM dismiss some of the project’s most significant environmental concerns, such as its climate impacts, asserting that the development of Alberta tar sands is inevitable and that Keystone XL won’t have a direct bearing on climate pollution. They also ignore concerns about air and water pollution, human health and safety, wildlife and the rights of landowners. There is no shortage of evidence that the report’s assumptions are wrong. The Sierra Club and our partners presented a long list of the problems with the pipeline and with the review process both in our April 2013 comments and in a recent request for a new review based on new information from government, oil industry and Wall Street sources that undermine the State Department’s conclusions. We also filed a lawsuit to make sure that the public has access to all of the information about Keystone XL and the hiring of ERM before the State Department reaches its decision.
The real question here is how did the State Department get it so wrong? The answer, simply, is that the State Department once again hired the oil industry to evaluate itself—and, not surprisingly, the industry gave itself a passing grade. But we’ve come a long way since this pipeline was first proposed in 2008. We’ve built opposition to this dirty and dangerous pipeline into a national movement. Americans recognize a bad deal when they see one, and now that they are getting a better look at this one, it’s looking less like some kind of favor from our friends to the north and more like a house of cards.
The State Department needs to go back to the drawing board. It needs to listen to the Office of the Inspector General this time and stop hiring consultants with deep oil-industry ties. It needs to look at the facts about this pipeline and the threat it poses to the climate and to the American people. Even the pro-pipeline consultants drafting this tainted review couldn’t hide the fact that the pumps that would be used to move tar sands across the U.S. alone would create as much carbon pollution each year as is produced by 626,000 cars. That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the harm that the Keystone XL pipeline would bring, but that’s all you need to know to see that the pipeline will “significantly exacerbate” climate pollution.
It doesn’t really matter which card you pull when you want to bring down a house of cards. The Keystone XL proposal is teetering with false assumptions, biased information and a shaky conclusion that won’t withstand even the slightest breeze of scrutiny. Secretary Kerry and President Obama have everything they need right now to conclude that this pipeline fails the “national interest” test. It’s time for the State Department to get the oil industry out of the business of reviewing its own projects on behalf of the American people. And it’s time to reject this dirty, dangerous pipeline once and for all.
Visit EcoWatch’s KEYSTONE XL page for more related news on this topic.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bd9fda1316965a9ba24dd60fd9cc34d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3KaMnkmf0tc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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