The irony is sharp enough to hurt. Americans are driving less and using less gas when we do drive. U.S. carbon pollution is down. Just about every car dealership in America is offering affordable, practical high gas mileage or zero gas mileage cars. Automakers are making them and the sales numbers show that Americans are buying them. Meanwhile, the Obama administration and automakers are poised to do even better with new standards that will double mileage again and slash pollution from our cars and trucks.
America is on the road to moving beyond oil, but the oil industry hasn't gotten the message, and there's no better evidence than its obsession with tar sands.
We don't need tar-sands oil from Canada, yet Big Oil is determined to force it down our throats anyway—or at least force us to let them pipe through our nation so they can export it abroad. And now we've got some pretty shocking evidence of just how high a price we could end up paying for their greed.
In 2010, more than 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River was transformed into an environmental disaster zone by a cracked tar sands pipeline and a tar sands pipeline company that neglected to turn off its pumps. Since then, a monumental $700 million cleanup effort has removed more than a million gallons of tar sands crude, along with 17 million gallons of polluted water, and 190,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris. Last week, after two years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially reopened the affected section of the river.
Now, though, a just-released in-depth report from Inside Climate News today shows that this massive cleanup effort was in fact a debacle—a failure that reinforces the reputation of tar sands as the dirtiest oil on earth, exposes the weakness of regulatory oversight, and casts an ominous shadow across the thousands of rivers and streams that millions of Americans who live downstream of proposed tar sands pipelines depend on.
Tar sand spills prove even more toxic and difficult to clean up than typical oil spills. That's because the heavy mixture of oil sand sinks in water, which means that tactics like skimming the surface can't be used. Instead, remediators must try to recover the oil from the bottoms of rivers, reservoirs, or wherever it has spilled—a far more difficult task. Tar sands already contain high concentrations of heavy metals, and chemical diluents mixed in for transport are also known to be carcinogenic. EPA lab tests following a December 2011 oil leak in Colorado found concentrations of cancer-causing benzene as high as 2,000 parts per billion in the creek where the leak occurred—well above the 5 ppb national drinking water standard.
This would be bad enough if such spills were rare occurrences—but they're not. In the past two months alone, three separate tar sands pipelines have reported spills in Canada. Enbridge Inc., whose pipe leaked into the Kalamazoo, reported a spill of 1,450 barrels of oil-sand crude in eastern Alberta just last week, while two other companies cited spills of 3,000 and 5,000 barrels respectively, the former into a reservoir used by a nearby small town.
And Canadian tar sands spills are not limited to Canada. Since May 2011, three major tar sands spills have occurred in North Dakota, Montana and Colorado. The North Dakota spill was the twelfth from TransCanada's Keystone I pipeline during its first year of operation.
Why are tar sands pipes so accident prone? To pass through the pipelines, tar sands must be brought to extreme temperatures and pressures. Add sand and powerful chemicals to this equation, and you've got a formula for corroding and rupturing steel pipes, leading to breaches that spill toxic goo into aquifers and rivers.
That would be bad enough if oil companies did a good job of maintaining and monitoring these pipeline systems—but they do not. All of the most significant spills over the last two years were discovered not by the oil companies, but by ordinary citizens. The new report documents how prior to the Michigan spill, Enbridge conducted an "integrity management assessment" with an ultrasonic in-line inspection device. The disastrous spill happened anyway. The same is true of other companies whose pipelines ruptured.
Given the environmental and health consequences of the Enbridge spill, as well as the millions of dollars still being spent to clean it up, Michigan Representative Fred Upton's position on the subject is puzzling at best. After the Kalamazoo spill occurred in his district, he did cosponsor a bill that would hold companies accountable for reporting incidents. But since then, he's come out in support of rebuilding the Enbridge pipeline and constructing even more pipelines, including Keystone XL. Given the inevitability of more spills, Upton is apparently willing to put the health and home of his constituents at risk, for dubious benefits. In a recent interview, Upton claims his constituents will be protected from gasoline price spikes "with the expansion and rebuilding to a number of refineries here." It seems he's forgotten that the Keystone XL pipeline will transport tar sands crude to refineries in Texas for export overseas, making it unlikely that anyone in his district will benefit.
Frequent tar sands spills and their devastating effects in places like Michigan make it clear that by continuing to develop tar sands we're not taking a risk that we will poison our water and land—we're ensuring it. And all for oil that we don't really need.
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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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