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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Extraction & Transport of Fossil Fuels

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I. Corexit & The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Also referred to as the ”BP oil disaster” or the ”Macondo blowout,“ the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill was the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, with nearly five million barrels of oil (equivalent to about 210 million gallons) released in the Gulf of Mexico. The April 20, 2010 explosion on the British Petroleum-operated oil rig, the Macondo Prospect, resulted in the death of eleven people and massive damage to the marine environment. Record numbers of dolphins, tuna, and other marine wildlife were mortally injured, and marine habitats instantly became too toxic to sustain life. There was so much damage to the rig that the flow of oil couldn’t be stopped for a full five months. BP was found to be criminally negligent; in 2012 the oil company pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, two misdemeanors and one felony count of lying to Congress, and was fined more than $4 billion.

The oil spill response team employed the only methods available to them: floating booms, skimmer ships, controlled burns, and chemical dispersants. The dispersant selected, Corexit, was applied in massive quantities (over two million gallons) and was shown to be toxic to people and marine life that came into contact with it. GAP opened an investigation into overall response including the negative consequences of using Corexit, and launched a Know Your Rights campaign for the oil company employees and the many hired and volunteer workers who participated in the cleanup. Within a short time, over two dozen whistleblowers came forward with personal accounts, collectively disclosing significant harmful consequences to public health and the environment. Conclusions from our investigation strongly suggested Corexit was widely applied in the aftermath of the explosion because it caused the false impression that the oil disappeared, when it had in fact been relocated (“dispersed”) to the bottom of the ocean seabed. In reality, while the oil/Corexit mixture became less visible, the chemical mix in fact became 52 times more toxic than BP’s Macondo oil alone – decimating the Gulf coast, disrupting an entire ecosystem, and threatening the health and way of life for coastal communities dependent on Gulf seafood for food and income.

The troubling results of our findings, including evidence of a cover-up and false claims by BP that Corexit has low toxicity, were published in our 2013 White Paper, “Deadly Dispersants in the Gulf: Are Public Health and Environmental Tragedies the New Norm for Oil Spill Cleanups?” The report, extensively covered in the media, revealed ongoing health problems experienced by cleanup workers including skin lesions, rapid weight loss, kidney and liver damage, memory loss, migraine headaches, seizures, temporary paralysis, heart problems, and respiratory and nervous system damage. By the time GAP issued an updated Addendum Report published in 2015 on the fifth anniversary of the disaster, more than 40 whistleblowers had come forward and new witnesses were reporting that they were still experiencing a set of serious health effects that came to be known as ”BP Syndrome.”

Corexit is still on the Environmental Protection Agency’s approved list of dispersants; in the event of another oil spill – only a matter of time, given current plans for more offshore oil drilling – Corexit will likely be used and its deleterious effects repeated. GAP has submitted its findings as public comments in EPA proposed rulemaking, and continues to coordinate with other groups to ban the use of Corexit.

II. Hydraulic Fracturing, or ‘Fracking’

Fracking is a controversial oil and gas extraction method that entails the underground, high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and a mixture of proprietary chemical compounds in order to crack formations of shale containing hydrocarbons (oil and gas), and has led to increases in domestic oil and gas production over the last decade. There are serious environmental and public health problems associated with fracking that are, as yet, not well understood and largely unregulated. Several states have banned fracking altogether.

We know that hydraulic fracturing causes land, water, and groundwater contamination; pollutes the air; causes earthquakes; and contributes to global climate change through the release to the atmosphere of both methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and carbon dioxide. Greenpeace has put together a good summary of the environmental risks associated with fracking. However, the exact nature and extent to which fracking degrades our environment could be much better known by now if it weren’t for the fact that government studies have been compromised by energy industry involvement in the research and data collection. For example, multiple investigations found that the energy industry had undue influence on a five-year EPA study of the impact of fracking on groundwater supplies: “Energy company officials were allowed to edit planning documents, insisted on vetting agency contractors, and demanded to review federal scientist's field notes, photographs and laboratory results prior to publication,” according to DeSmog Blog. Worse, allegations that EPA had essentially committed fraud by systematically underestimating the amount of methane released from fracking operations in a study led by a professor known to accept funding from the oil and gas industry were never addressed. After being petitioned by a watchdog group to look into the matter, the EPA Inspector General refused to investigate.

There is currently no comprehensive set of national standards for the disposal of fracking wastewater. This is because in developing comprehensive energy legislation, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney insisted on provisions exempting fracking fluids from regulation under existing environmental laws, and from having to disclose the chemical compounds used; these exemptions are now known as the “Halliburton loophole.”

The Trump Administration is planning to repeal President Obama’s 2015 rule setting standards for hydraulic fracturing on federal land.
 

Sample Posts on Fracking

CSPW  06.09.2016  Notes From Underground: As With Climate Change, So With Fracking at ExxonMobil
CSPW  11.16.2015   Notes From Underground: Fracking – The Bridge to Nowhere, Part II
CSPW  10.04.2015   Notes From Underground: Fracking – The Bridge to Nowhere, Part I
CSW  09.08.2014    McKibben: Natural gas won’t work as a ‘bridge fuel’ – fracking may be worse than burning coal
CSW  06.30.2014    Bipartisan push for stepped up natural gas fracking and LNG export
CSW  05.28.2014    Leaked EPA draft fracking guidance raises water contamination concerns
CSW  02.18.2014    Texas Officials Turn Blind Eye to Fracking Industry’s Toxic Air Emissions
CSW  02.18.2014     Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Air Emissions on Texas Residents
CSW  07.28.2013     Internal EPA report shows division over fracking contamination study

III. PIPELINES

There are over 2.9 million miles of pipeline in the United States that transports natural gas, oil, and hazardous liquids. The boom in domestic oil and gas production from unconventional formations such as shales, using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, has resulted in increased investment in new pipeline infrastructure.

Map of major natural gas and oil pipelines in the United States. Red indicates hazardous liquid lines, blue indicates gas transmission lines. Source: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Pipeline ruptures, leaks, and major spills happen often and are sometimes accompanied by deadly explosions; accidental releases can result from excavation, corrosion, mechanical failure, control system failure and operator error; floods and earthquakes can also damage pipelines. The following are just a few examples of pipeline ruptures (sources: Wikipedia, Congressional Research Service). On January 25, 2017, the Magellan pipeline leaked 138,600 gallons of diesel fuel onto private farmland near Hanlontown, Iowa. On September 10, 2016, a Sunoco pipeline newly constructed in 2015 ruptured near Sweetwater, Texas, spilling about 33,000 gallons of crude oil. On May 19, 2015, a pipeline carrying crude oil near Goleta, California spilled 124,000 gallons of crude oil; so much of this oil reached the Refugio State Beach on the Pacific Ocean that the incident is known as the Refugio Oil Spill. On March 12, 2014, a natural gas distribution pipeline explosion in New York City – the “East Harlem gas explosion” – killed 8 people, injured 50 others, and destroyed two five-story buildings. On March 29, 2013 near Mayflower, Alaska, ExxonMobil’s 20-inch Pegasus crude oil pipeline ruptured and more than 300,000 gallons of diluted bitumen were spilled, flowed over private property, causing 22 homes to be evacuated; the oil flowed toward Lake Conway and coated wildlife. On November 23, 2012, a natural gas pipeline explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts injured 21 people and damaged more than a dozen nearby buildings. On July 1, 2011, the Silvertip Pipeline, a 12-inch ExxonMobil crude oil pipeline, ruptured and spilled 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River in south-central Montana, fouling the riverbank; about 140 people were evacuated, the cleanup cost $135 million, and ExxonMobil was fined $1 million.

While transport via pipeline is often, but not always, safer than transport via railway, truck, or boat, the US conversation needs to be about weaning ourselves from fossil fuels altogether, not building additional pipelines. The prolonged “protest” against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota throughout 2016 is indicative of a growing objection to oil and gas infrastructure that can pollute waterways and sources of drinking water, and that contributes to the climate crisis. GAP’s Climate Science & Policy Watch program (CSPW) is watchdogging the Trump Administration closely on its energy policies including those that affect pipeline safety, and will be reporting on key developments.

Sample Posts on Oil & Gas Pipelines
CSPW 10.11.2016  Notes from Underground – Where the Pipeline Ends: How the Dakota Access Pipeline Could – Or Could Not – Happen Again
CSW  08.12.2014    Climate and energy infrastructure: On cumulative impacts of multiple tar sands pipelines
CSW  04.22. 2013   Comments to the State Dept. on the Keystone XL pipeline Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement
CSW  03.29.2013   Where are the Keystone XL pipeline whistleblowers?
CSW 09.02.2011  Jim Hansen arrest at White House tar sands pipeline protest: “We had a dream”
CSW 01.15.2011   Scientists call on President to reject the Keystone XL pipeline

IV. RAILWAYS

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, considered technological advances in the oil extraction industry, have driven sharp increases in domestic oil and natural gas production. In fact, in 2014, the US became the top producer of oil in the world. Despite the upsurge in pipeline construction, railways are still a main form of transport: about 377,000 barrels of oil per day are transported by railway in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration.  Oil-by-rail transport increased from 9,500 carloads of crude in 2008 to more than 400,000 carloads in 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads–a 42-fold increase.

Graph Source: Association of American Railroads

Transporting crude oil by train is dangerous and poses public health hazards to communities across the nation; the uncomfortable truth is that the American public is extremely vulnerable as a result of crumbling rail infrastructure. One advocacy group has created an interactive map showing all oil-by-rail routes and the associated blast zones.

Two recent train derailments bring home the risks involved with carrying such a flammable substance in rail cars.

On June 3, 2016, a Union Pacific train carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to a refining facility in Tacoma, Washington derailed in the Columbia River Gorge, near Mosier, Oregon.  A brake system failure caused 16 of the 96 train cars to derail and catch fire, a fire so fierce that it could not be extinguished and was allowed to burn out. Mosier residents had to be evacuated for two days. More than 42,000 gallons of oil were spilled; much of it burned, but thousands of gallons spilled into the Columbia River.


Image Source: Wikipedia

On February 16, 2015, a CSX train, hauling Bakken crude oil from North Dakota’s shale fields crashed in Mount Carbon, West Virginia; an investigation revealed the cause of the crash to be a broken rail. A portion of the train hit and completely destroyed one home; hundreds of households were evacuated. Of the 107 tank cars, each carrying 30,000 gallons of oil, 26 derailed and 19 caught fire, a fire that could not be extinguished and took four days to burn out. A large fireball explosion occurred about a half hour after derailment, followed by a dozen more fireball explosions over ten hours, earning the moniker bomb train.

GAP was instrumental in the development and enactment into law of the Federal Railroad Safety Act, which protects and prohibits retaliation against railroad employees who become whistleblowers, and allows for remedies including job reinstatement, back pay, reimbursement of litigation costs, and compensatory and punitive damages. Still today, few railroad company employees are aware of their rights.

In 2015, CSPW Director/GAP Chief of Staff Michael Termini provided GAP Know Your Rights materials for a major railway safety conference in Olympia, Washington, and then presented these materials at a national Rail Safety Conference in Chicago, Illinois. The Pacific Northwest and the Midwest are central hubs of oil-by-rail activity; our presentation and the critical information on legal rights we provided drew the interest of many potential whistleblowers. GAP has been working behind the scenes with some of them, and remains prepared to provide full representation for others who come forward.

In our January 16 CSPW post, Trial for Climate Activists Protesting “Bomb Trains” Carrying Oil Makes Legal History, we cover the trial of five citizens so concerned about the dangers of bomb trains that they became activists and used their bodies to block a train for several hours. Remarkably, the judge in the case granted the defendants use of the “necessity defense” allowing them to argue that they had no other recourse to stop the climate change crisis than to engage in non-violent civil disobedience. The jury went easy on the defendants, who were made to pay modest fines.