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The Chemical Weapon Next Door

The Chemical Weapon Next Door

The morning of Wednesday, February 18, 2015, had started just like any other day for Summer Spencer. Back then, she was a sixth grader at South High School in Torrance, a coastal city in the South Bay region of Los Angeles County. But at around 9am, Spencer and her classmates were given a ‘shelter in place’ order by their teacher. It was, the now 17-year-old says, pretty exciting at first. “I just figured I might not have to go to my next class.” 

Summer’s teachers closed the doors, secured the windows, and pulled the drapes shut. It was only when she went home that day and spoke to her dad, an environmental safety expert, that she realized she, her classmates, and thousands of other Torrance residents, had had a near miss with a chemical so deadly the Department of Homeland Security lists it as a substance of interest for terrorists.

“I told [my dad] all we did was shut the windows and he explained it wouldn’t have been enough to protect the students,” she recalls.

Spencer’s dad explained if the chemical had been released, “thousands of Torrance residents would have died”.

The threat came from the Torrance Refinery, just three miles away from Summer’s school, a 700-acre plot which processes around 155,000 barrels of crude oil every day, and uses hydrofluoric acid (HF)—or “modified hydrofluoric acid” (MHF) as refineries often refer to the substance—to make high octane gasoline. Around 400,000 people live within three miles of the refineries.

On that Wednesday morning, unbeknown to Summer, pent up gases at the refinery, back then owned by Exxon, had triggered an explosion so big that it registered as a 1.7 tremor. A processing unit had burst open, propelling a large piece of equipment into the air, which narrowly avoided hitting a tank …

read more
We’ve had Corporate Personhood for a decade…what about ecosystem personhood?

We’ve had Corporate Personhood for a decade…what about ecosystem personhood?

In our last narrative season, La Lucha En La Jungla, about the decades-long fight over oil pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I mentioned something unique about Ecuador’s constitution. It includes a provision for the rights of nature. Ecuador rewrote its constitution in 2008 to include a chapter called Rights for Nature. Other countries have toyed with this idea since then, and it freaks a lot of people out, especially people running large multinational corporations, mainly because it challenges one of the core tenets of capitalism: private property. Rather than treating nature as property under the law, rights for nature articles acknowledge that nature in all of its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate, and that we, the people, have the legal authority to enforce those rights on behalf of ecosystems. Here’s Natalie Green with the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature, explaining how the concept works in Ecuador.

“Well, Ecuador in 2008 rewrote its constitution and it was passed by the majority of Ecuadorians. And what we decided is that we don’t want to follow a model for development like a socialist model or capitalism model, because all those models were proven to be wrong. And we decided to recognize something that is that we are going to fight for and we’re going to be working for a model based on well-being. What’s what’s established in the Constitution is a model based on well-being and what is well-being, or bien vida in Spanish? It will be this notion of living in harmony with nature.”

And here is a handy explainer from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has been leading a lot of the fights for rights of nature in the US.

“Under the current system of law, nature is considered to …

read more
All Eyes on Weymouth as FERC Signals Interest in Environmental Justice

All Eyes on Weymouth as FERC Signals Interest in Environmental Justice

Local activists and legislators have been fighting the Enbridge natural gas compressor in Weymouth for years. It’s too close to residents and businesses, and poses too many health risks to a community that’s already borne the burden of too much pollution, they say. The project was approved by FERC in 2019, built and became operational in 2020. Then it had an emergency shutdown. And another. Now FERC is considering the unprecedented move of re-thinking its permit, a decision that could have broad ramifications.

Check out Miriam Wasser’s ongoing reporting on this at WBUR: https://www.wbur.org/earthwhile/2021/03/19/weymouth-compressor-ferc-precedent-enbridge-natural-gas

Transcript

Amy Westervelt: Early last year, I started hearing from some activists in Massachusetts about a natural gas project proposed in their town. One woman in particular really thought this was something I should look into.

Her name is Andrea Honoré.

Andrea Honoré: But it took me a good year to understand what was going on. I’d never heard of a compressor. I’d never heard of FERC. I didn’t understand the process.

Amy: Andrea lives in the town of Weymouth, Massachusetts, a coastal town of around 50000 people in the South Shaw region, about half an hour south of Boston. And in 2015, Spectra Energy, a gas company from Texas, wanted to put what’s called a natural gas compressor right on the water at the north end of town. Natural gas needs a little help to travel the whole length of a pipeline and compressor stations help to sort of goose the gas along the way. If you’ve never heard of these things, it’s probably because they usually don’t put them in the middle of cities or even heavily populated areas, period. They’re generally placed on the middle of nowhere because they explode sometimes.

Local news montage: Also breaking overnight in Greene County, an explosion at …

read more
Frackalachia and the great fracking jobs myth

Frackalachia and the great fracking jobs myth

When a report makes oil and gas companies—and the politicians they help elect—this mad, you know the author is on to something. Researcher Sean O’Leary, with the Ohio River Valley Institute, joins us to talk about his new report, which found that the local economic benefit of fracking to communities in the Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia gas corridor was slim to none.

Transcript

Sean O’Leary: If you live in the region, you only have to walk through the downtowns to see what I’m saying, whether it’s, you know, Steubenville, Ohio, Boléro, Ohio, Wheeling, West Virginia, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, all of those downtowns are hollowed out shells of what they once were.  

Amy Westervelt: Hey there, this is Drilled, I’m Amy Westervelt, and that was Shaun OLeary from the Ohio River Valley Institute.  

O’Leary is a native West Virginian who’s watched firsthand what first coal and then gas did to his community. He doesn’t live in West Virginia anymore. And that has become a topic of criticism from people who did not appreciate some of his recent work. Last month, O’Leary and the organization he works for released a report that really made the oil and gas guys mad. It takes on a simple question did the fracking boom actually deliver all those economic benefits? We’ve heard the industry talk so much about. The report specifically looks at the region O’Leary has dubbed “Frackalachia”, encompassing parts of the Ohio River Valley in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. As you might recall, from every election cycle in the last decade, whenever people start talking about the environmental impacts of fracking or the potential of a fracking ban, the industry has the same response.  

Fox News: The amount of jobs that are created by this technology cannot be overstated. …

read more
The Supreme Court’s Obscure Procedural Ruling in Baltimore’s Climate Case, Explained

The Supreme Court’s Obscure Procedural Ruling in Baltimore’s Climate Case, Explained

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on an important case about whether major oil and gas companies should be held accountable for engaging in a systematic marketing campaign to deceive the public about the catastrophic threat that fossil fuel products pose to the planet. 

The Court didn’t consider the merits of the case but rather answered an obscure procedural question in a way that permits the defendants to continue to delay litigation in state court, and thereby also serves to deny the public essential information about the fossil fuel industry’s attempt to spread disinformation about its products’ role in fueling the climate crisis.

In the case, Baltimore alleges that the companies used deceptive marketing tactics to hide the danger of fossil fuel products in order to preserve their massive profit streams, in violation of state tort and statutory law. Baltimore argues that these companies should thus help pay for the city’s efforts to respond to sea level rise, increased flooding, extreme heat, and other dangers to the city’s residents and infrastructure caused by the climate crisis. Numerous other cities, counties, and states have filed similar cases.

“The only question before us is one of civil procedure,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the opening of the majority opinion. His qualification may seem odd, as the fossil fuel companies based their petition for review on a question of civil procedure. To understand the thinking behind it, it helps to understand the industry’s litigation strategy in these cases.

Litigation strategy

Instead of defending the local governments’ state law claims on the merits, the oil and gas companies have sought to shift the cases from state to federal court, where they believe they are more likely to succeed. All but one federal district court has rejected their jurisdictional arguments, remanding the …

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Climate Guilt, Brought to you by Big Oil

Climate Guilt, Brought to you by Big Oil

A new study from Harvard science historians Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran points to the use of language targeted specifically to downplay the reality of climate change and shift responsibility for the problem entirely onto consumers. Geoffrey Supran, the lead...

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Climate Accountability Is a Solution—Why Isn’t It Treated Like One?

Climate Accountability Is a Solution—Why Isn’t It Treated Like One?

What can we do about climate change? Which policies will work? Which technologies? What can individuals do, and what sort of collective action should they support? The appeal of “solutions journalism” addressing climate change is undeniable, but there is a large hole in much of it: understanding the root causes of the problem. 

Catastrophic climate change is a symptom of an intertwined web of problems. Untangling that web and the various forces that created it is not just a worthy exercise, it’s absolutely critical to developing solutions that actually work. The focus on technological and policy solutions to climate has put the cart before the horse, and in doing so, created a solutions framework that is hopelessly inadequate. Americans in particular have a tendency to skip right over accountability and straight to solutions, but failing to understand how a problem came about in the first place tends to deliver…not solutions, but new problems. And on climate, examples of that abound. 

People talk about “the energy transition” as an aspirational, future phase, for example, which ignores the fact that we’ve just spent the past 20 years living through an energy transition, one that required major investments in infrastructure, a new distribution system, all of that. The conversion of U.S. energy sources from coal to natural gas was a massive transition, on par with the transition currently being proposed from fossil fuels to renewables. But we don’t often talk about it that way, which means we miss key lessons from that transition: simply swapping in one energy source for another, focusing on only one greenhouse gas, and allowing the fossil fuel industry to drive and manage that transition were all enormous missteps. In the past five years, study after study has come out revealing under-explored impacts of natural gas, from the global

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The Radioactive Underbelly of the Oilfield

The Radioactive Underbelly of the Oilfield

In towns and cities across northern Appalachia industrial and manufacturing jobs have emptied out and men and women hungry for work have been drawn by the beckoning call of the oil and gas industry. Over the past decade that industry has tapped vigorously into the Marcellus and Utica, two massively rich gas layers that underlie the region. But these workers don’t always end up drilling for oil and pulling pipe, wellhead jobs stamped with a certain gritty glamour upon the American imagination. They often end up at a far seedier and even less regulated end of the oilfield, working in the largely unknown underworld of radioactive oilfield waste. Scooping it up and hauling it hither and thither in trucks. 

It was just about ten years ago that drillers—many of them from prominent oilfield states like Texas and Oklahoma—first descended upon eastern Ohio to tap the Utica and Marcellus, opening up an unknown yet lucrative new world for Tom McKnight, who had a wife in healthcare and three college-age kids to help support.

“I was selling John Deere tractors, then I got fired at John Deere and went to work selling used cars,” says McKnight. “Meanwhile I am looking at these hillbillies in cowboy boots and cowboy hats coming in with these big-ass pay stubs and buying these expensive trucks. And I am thinking, I want one of those big-ass checks.”

Tom McKnight, during his years as a brine hauler.

While out for a ride with his wife on a Sunday afternoon in 2013 the couple drove through the parking lot of one oil and gas waste management company and McKnight happened to encounter the general manager. Next thing he knew he was seated in the man’s office for an interview. “No phone calls, no introductions, no points of reference, no …

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Gulf Coast Oil Workers Are Building America’s Offshore Wind Industry

Gulf Coast Oil Workers Are Building America’s Offshore Wind Industry

“The biggest misconception about transitioning from offshore drilling to offshore wind is the idea that oil platforms can be reused to hold wind turbines,” Louisiana state Representative Joseph Orgeron said in a recent phone interview. Offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico weren’t designed to handle that sort of load. The weight distribution of an offshore wind turbine is like trying to mount a “pumpkin on a pole,” Orgeron said. 

To function, the vertical base needs to be stout enough to handle the movement of the blades spinning and the face rotating directions with the wind. 

But while offshore drilling platforms don’t quite work as offshore wind platforms, what can be repurposed are the workers and building techniques that have supported offshore oil drilling. A single offshore wind farm could employ more than 4,000 people during construction and 150 people long-term, according to a 2020 analysis by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a national laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Rep. Orgeron didn’t start out considering the engineering difficulties of renewable energy. He grew up in the bayous of Louisiana, the homebase for his family’s business of offshore oilfield service vessels. When the oil work started to dry up, he realized that offshore wind could help his family’s company, Montco Offshore Inc, stay afloat. 

“I was fully enamored by offshore wind,” he said. “They’ll need offshore energy production expertise to do those buildouts. The people of South Louisiana would be prime to facilitate that.”

Montco was one of several Louisiana-based companies that helped build the first U.S. offshore wind farm, off the coast of Rhode Island. But exporting Louisiana knowledge gleaned from offshore drilling was just the first step. Next, Orgeron wants to see wind farms built in the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana’s governor supports …

read more
The Chemical Weapon Next Door

The Chemical Weapon Next Door

The morning of Wednesday, February 18, 2015, had started just like any other day for Summer Spencer. Back then, she was a sixth grader at South High School in Torrance, a coastal city in the South Bay region of Los Angeles County. But at around 9am, Spencer and her classmates were given a ‘shelter in place’ order by their teacher. It was, the now 17-year-old says, pretty exciting at first. “I just figured I might not have to go to my next class.” 

Summer’s teachers closed the doors, secured the windows, and pulled the drapes shut. It was only when she went home that day and spoke to her dad, an environmental safety expert, that she realized she, her classmates, and thousands of other Torrance residents, had had a near miss with a chemical so deadly the Department of Homeland Security lists it as a substance of interest for terrorists.

“I told [my dad] all we did was shut the windows and he explained it wouldn’t have been enough to protect the students,” she recalls.

Spencer’s dad explained if the chemical had been released, “thousands of Torrance residents would have died”.

The threat came from the Torrance Refinery, just three miles away from Summer’s school, a 700-acre plot which processes around 155,000 barrels of crude oil every day, and uses hydrofluoric acid (HF)—or “modified hydrofluoric acid” (MHF) as refineries often refer to the substance—to make high octane gasoline. Around 400,000 people live within three miles of the refineries.

On that Wednesday morning, unbeknown to Summer, pent up gases at the refinery, back then owned by Exxon, had triggered an explosion so big that it registered as a 1.7 tremor. A processing unit had burst open, propelling a large piece of equipment into the air, which narrowly avoided hitting a tank …

read more
We’ve had Corporate Personhood for a decade…what about ecosystem personhood?

We’ve had Corporate Personhood for a decade…what about ecosystem personhood?

In our last narrative season, La Lucha En La Jungla, about the decades-long fight over oil pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I mentioned something unique about Ecuador’s constitution. It includes a provision for the rights of nature. Ecuador rewrote its constitution in 2008 to include a chapter called Rights for Nature. Other countries have toyed with this idea since then, and it freaks a lot of people out, especially people running large multinational corporations, mainly because it challenges one of the core tenets of capitalism: private property. Rather than treating nature as property under the law, rights for nature articles acknowledge that nature in all of its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate, and that we, the people, have the legal authority to enforce those rights on behalf of ecosystems. Here’s Natalie Green with the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature, explaining how the concept works in Ecuador.

“Well, Ecuador in 2008 rewrote its constitution and it was passed by the majority of Ecuadorians. And what we decided is that we don’t want to follow a model for development like a socialist model or capitalism model, because all those models were proven to be wrong. And we decided to recognize something that is that we are going to fight for and we’re going to be working for a model based on well-being. What’s what’s established in the Constitution is a model based on well-being and what is well-being, or bien vida in Spanish? It will be this notion of living in harmony with nature.”

And here is a handy explainer from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has been leading a lot of the fights for rights of nature in the US.

“Under the current system of law, nature is considered to …

read more
All Eyes on Weymouth as FERC Signals Interest in Environmental Justice

All Eyes on Weymouth as FERC Signals Interest in Environmental Justice

Local activists and legislators have been fighting the Enbridge natural gas compressor in Weymouth for years. It’s too close to residents and businesses, and poses too many health risks to a community that’s already borne the burden of too much pollution, they say. The project was approved by FERC in 2019, built and became operational in 2020. Then it had an emergency shutdown. And another. Now FERC is considering the unprecedented move of re-thinking its permit, a decision that could have broad ramifications.

Check out Miriam Wasser’s ongoing reporting on this at WBUR: https://www.wbur.org/earthwhile/2021/03/19/weymouth-compressor-ferc-precedent-enbridge-natural-gas

Transcript

Amy Westervelt: Early last year, I started hearing from some activists in Massachusetts about a natural gas project proposed in their town. One woman in particular really thought this was something I should look into.

Her name is Andrea Honoré.

Andrea Honoré: But it took me a good year to understand what was going on. I’d never heard of a compressor. I’d never heard of FERC. I didn’t understand the process.

Amy: Andrea lives in the town of Weymouth, Massachusetts, a coastal town of around 50000 people in the South Shaw region, about half an hour south of Boston. And in 2015, Spectra Energy, a gas company from Texas, wanted to put what’s called a natural gas compressor right on the water at the north end of town. Natural gas needs a little help to travel the whole length of a pipeline and compressor stations help to sort of goose the gas along the way. If you’ve never heard of these things, it’s probably because they usually don’t put them in the middle of cities or even heavily populated areas, period. They’re generally placed on the middle of nowhere because they explode sometimes.

Local news montage: Also breaking overnight in Greene County, an explosion at …

read more
Frackalachia and the great fracking jobs myth

Frackalachia and the great fracking jobs myth

When a report makes oil and gas companies—and the politicians they help elect—this mad, you know the author is on to something. Researcher Sean O’Leary, with the Ohio River Valley Institute, joins us to talk about his new report, which found that the local economic benefit of fracking to communities in the Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia gas corridor was slim to none.

Transcript

Sean O’Leary: If you live in the region, you only have to walk through the downtowns to see what I’m saying, whether it’s, you know, Steubenville, Ohio, Boléro, Ohio, Wheeling, West Virginia, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, all of those downtowns are hollowed out shells of what they once were.  

Amy Westervelt: Hey there, this is Drilled, I’m Amy Westervelt, and that was Shaun OLeary from the Ohio River Valley Institute.  

O’Leary is a native West Virginian who’s watched firsthand what first coal and then gas did to his community. He doesn’t live in West Virginia anymore. And that has become a topic of criticism from people who did not appreciate some of his recent work. Last month, O’Leary and the organization he works for released a report that really made the oil and gas guys mad. It takes on a simple question did the fracking boom actually deliver all those economic benefits? We’ve heard the industry talk so much about. The report specifically looks at the region O’Leary has dubbed “Frackalachia”, encompassing parts of the Ohio River Valley in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. As you might recall, from every election cycle in the last decade, whenever people start talking about the environmental impacts of fracking or the potential of a fracking ban, the industry has the same response.  

Fox News: The amount of jobs that are created by this technology cannot be overstated. …

read more