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Dollarocracy: U.S. Congressmen Refuse to Address Keystone XL Southern Half Spill Concerns

2:00 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog  

What’s the U.S. congressional response to the safety issues with the 485-mile southern half of TransCanada‘s Keystone XL pipeline raised by Public Citizen‘s Texas office? Mostly what Simon & Garfunkel called “The Sound of Silence” in their famous song.

DeSmogBlog contacted more than three dozen members of the U.S. Congress representing both political parties to get their take on Public Citizen’s alarming findings in its November investigation (including dents, metal that had to be patched up and pipeline segments labeled “junk”), but got little in the way of substantive responses.

Set to open for business on January 22approved via an Executive Order by President Barack Obama in March 2012 and rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline Project” by TransCanada, the southern half of the pipeline has garnered far less media coverage than its U.S.-Canada border-crossing brother to the north, Keystone XL‘s northern half.

Over two dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter to President Obama on December 12 expressing concern over the conflicts-of-interest in the U.S. State Department’s environmental review process for the northern half of the line.

But none of them would comment on concerns with the southern half of the line raised in the Public Citizen report after multiple queries via e-mail from DeSmogBlog.

Two to Tango

Only two out the dozens contacted offered somewhat substantive comments.

And one of them, U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) (Left), did not respond to the meat and bones of the question at hand. He did offer some oft-used industry talking points, though.

“The Keystone pipeline will create jobs and help reduce dependence on oil supplies from unfriendly nations,” Hall told DeSmogBlog. ”The State of Texas has a proven track record of successful oversight of the oil and gas industry, including pipelines, and I am confident that they will be diligent in ensuring the pipeline’s safety.”

Hall — who took $59,500 from the oil and gas industry before the 2012 elections and has already taken $12,500 for the upcoming 2014 elections — is far from a neutral stakeholder in the debate over anything pertaining to the petroleum industry.

“Since 2010, Hall has earned as much as $1 million from a company that holds mineral rights along the Barnett Shale,” explained a March 2013 Sunlight Foundation article. “The money was disclosed as dividends from a company called North & East Trading Co. (N&E).”

On the other side of the aisle, U.S. Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) (Right) also responded toDeSmogBlog‘s request for comment, offering more cautious words of support for the southern half of the pipeline’s commencement.

“Over the past decades, our interstate and intrastate pipeline systems have had remarkable safety records, unmatched by rail or highway modes of transportation,” Green stated. Read the rest of this entry →

Pipeline Safety Agency Approves Startup of Keystone XL South

6:53 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

No Tar Sands banner

Despite serious safety concerns and months of protests, Keystone XL South is approved for tarsands.

DeSmogBlog has learned that TransCanada cleared the final hurdle for the southern half of its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, receiving a green light last week from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) following a review of several safety concerns.

TransCanada announced this week that it has begun injecting oil into the southern half of its Keystone XL pipeline in preparation for commercial operations.

Leading up to PHMSA giving Keystone XL south the go-ahead to start up, Public Citizen raised several questions about the safety of the pipeline.

Will TransCanada respond to greivances raised about dents, faulty welding, pipeline material designated “junk” and other issues raised in the consumer advocacy group’s November investigation? And what about September 10 and September 26 warning letters obtained by Public Citizen raising similar concerns from PHMSA to TransCanada?

Both TransCanada and PHMSA have provided DeSmogBlog answers to these questions.

Rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline Project” by TransCanada, the 485-mile Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas Keystone XL southern half — approved via a March 2012 Executive Order from President Barack Obama — is set to open for business by mid- to late-January.

PHMSA’s Initial Concerns

In September, PHMSA drafted two letters to TransCanada expressing concerns over the integrity of the pipeline during its construction phase.

“During the months of June and July 2013, a representative [from PHMSA]…inspected the construction of the Keystone Gulf Coast Project,” reads a September 10 warning letter from R.M. Seeley, Director of PHMSA’s Southwest Region Office to TransCanada’s Vice President Pipeline Safety and Compliance, Vern Meier. “As a result of the inspection, it appears you have probable violations of the Pipeline Safety Regulations, Title 49, Code of Federal Regulations.”

PHMSA’s September 10 warning letter said TransCanada had done a suboptimal job installing Keystone XL’s southern half, also writing that the coating utilized for Keystone XL’s southern half could easily degrade over time in the September 10 letter.

Two weeks later, PHMSA sent another warning letter to TransCanada on September 26, calling out TransCanada on its poor welding procedures. PHMSA could fine TransCanada up to $2 million, along with additional enforcement actions, if the company had failed to comply with PHMSA’s dictates outlined in both warning letters.

PHMSA Delays FOIA Response

After playing the “bad cop” role in its two September letters to TransCanada, PHMSA’s Southwest Office has backed off a bit.

In response to a FOIA request submitted by Public Citizen upon learning of the two September letters, PHMSA responded that, due to commercial reasons and the possibility of an ongoing investigation, Public Citizen will likely not be eligible for many of the records requested.

PHMSA Gives KXL South Green Light

TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard told DeSmogBlog he believes all is safe and sound with Keystone XL’s southern half.

Read the rest of this entry →

Dirty Details: Dents, Faulty Welds Found Along Keystone XL Southern Half in Texas

9:03 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

If an ecologically hazardous accident happens to TransCanada’s Keystone XL (KXL) tar sands pipeline, we can’t say we weren’t forewarned. That’s the latest from a press release and YouTube video recently disseminated by the good government group, Public Citizen.

Public Citizen’s Texas office explained, “Dozens of anomalies, including dents and welds, reportedly have been identified along a 60-mile stretch of the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline, north of the Sabine River in Texas.”

A recent report appearing in The Houston Chronicle revealed KXL’s southern half is over 75-percent complete and will be on-line by late-2013. That half of the pipeline brings tar sands – also known as diluted bitumen, or “dilbit” – from Cushing, OK (dubbed the “pipeline cross-roads of the world“) down to Port Arthur, TX, where it ends up exported to the global market.

KXL’s northern half is still in its proposal phase. Its eventual fate sits entirely in the hands of President Barack Obama and his U.S. State Department because it’s a border-crossing pipeline. In March 2012, President Obama issued an Executive Order for expediting building of KXL’s southern half.

Earlier this year, Tar Sands Blockade - a group committed to creative non-violent direct action to stop the building of KXL’s southern half – also detected defective welding in the pipeline, akin go that discovered by Public Citizen. The group did so when one of its activists went inside of the pipeline and discovered light seeping through it.

Despite this new concrete evidence from both Public Citizen and Tar Sands Blockade, the State Dept. recently denied Friends of the Earth-U.S.‘s (FOE) request to have its key Freedom of Information Act request expedited, one which would likely expose Big Oil’s influence over State’s KXL northern half decision. State argued the request doesn’t “meet any of the established criteria” for expedition, though Public Citizen’s latest spate of findings shows otherwise.

Faulty Welding: Dirt’s in the Details, Detail’s in the Dirt

An old adage goes, “the dirt’s always in the details” one digs up. So too with this latest revelation by Public Citizen - both figuratively and literally.

“Some of the new pipeline has been in the ground on some owners’ land for almost six months,” Public Citizen’s news release reads. “Landowners are concerned that this digging is indicative of faulty pipeline along the route that could potentially leak and threaten water supplies, and have requested TransCanada and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to provide more information about the work.”

The “dirt” in this situation was excavated not merely through landowner speculation, but straight from TransCanada’s own contractors.

“The anomalies and other problems were reported to landowners along the line…by several TransCanada vendors, including an independent inspector and a right-of-way representative,” Public Citizen further explained, also writing that each “marked section [has] a stake that reads ‘Anomaly.’”

“Anomaly” or More of the Same?

Yet, is any of this really an “anomaly”? Again, the “dirt’s in the details.”

Read the rest of this entry →

NY Fracking Scandal: 7 Groups Demand Conflict of Interest Investigation of Cuomo Administration

1:15 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

Lawrence Schwartz, Secretary to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo

New York could soon become the newest state in the union to allow hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the controversial technique used to enable shale oil and gas extraction. The green light from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo could transpire in as little as “a couple of weeks,” according to journalist and author Tom Wilber.  

That timeline, of course, assumes things don’t take any crazy twists or turns.

Enter a press conference today in Albany, where seven groups, including Public Citizen, Food and Water WatchFrack Action, United for ActionCatskill Citizens for Safe Energy, and Capital District Against Fracking, called for an Albany County District Attorney General investigation of the Cuomo Administration.

They are asking “whether Lawrence Schwartz, Secretary to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, has a conflict of interest between his stock investments and his involvement in the state’s decision on whether to allow high-volume hydraulic fracturing for shale gas.”

Schwartz – dubbed “the ringleader” of Governor Cuomo’s administration – potentially has what these groups describe as a legal conflict-of-interest. A months-long DeSmogBlog investigation reveals that Cuomo’s chief-of-staff actually has a direct financial interest in fracking going forward in New York state, potentially falling under the sphere of insider trading.  

Above and beyond Schwartz’s annual oil and gas industry stock holdings in corporations ranging from Occidental Petroleum, Williams Companies, ExxonMobil/XTO, and General Electric (GE) for the past decade, the Cuomo Administration has also held numerous meetings with lobbyists representing some of these same corporations dating back to when Cuomo assumed office in Jan. 2011, records obtained under New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) by DeSmogBlog reveal.

Dirty Details: Oil/Gas Industry Stock Holdings, Meetings with Lobbyists from Same Corporations

The details are dirty, both figuratively and literally.

A September 2012 investigation by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) examined Schwartz’s past three financial disclosure forms. That probe revealed that he had stock holdings of $1,000+ each in Occidental, Williams, Exxon/XTO, and GE in both 2010 and 2011, respectively. All four of these corporations possess a financial stake in Cuomo approving fracking in New York.

2009 saw much of the same, a year in which Schwartz had $1,000+ in his stock portfolio invested in GE, Williams, and Burlington Resources (purchasd as a subsidiary by ConocoPhillips in 2005).

DeSmogBlog followed in the footsteps of the EWG investigation by filing both an Executive Chamber FOIL request, as well a FOIL request to Schwartz’s former employer, the Westchester County Executive Office, asking for his financial disclosure forms dating back to 2002.

That latter request revealed that Schwartz has had stock holdings in the oil and gas industry dating back to 2002. At that time he was working as chief-of-staff to then-Westchester County Executive, Andrew J. Spano.

In 2002 and 2003, Schwartz had over $1,000 in stock holdings in Chevron and GE. Until 2001, Texaco – purchased in 2000 as a subsidiary by Chevron – was headquarted in Westchester. The Westchester County Executive Chamber did not possess Schwartz’s forms for 2004 or 2005.

His 2006 filings reveal $1,000 or more in his stock portfolio invested in Burlington Resources, GE, and Williams Companies.

Records obtained from Cuomo’s Executive Chamber also revealed that lobbyists from the very corporations Schwartz has thousands of dollars of stock holdings in have earned the ear of Cuomo in the form of exclusive meetings with his high-level aides.  

One case in point: Both in April 2012 and in Sept. 2012, Williams Companies lobbyists had meetings with Cuomo aides on the status of its proposed Constitution Pipeline, a joint venture between Cabot Oil and Gas, Piedmont Natural Gas and Williams Companies. That 120-mile long, 30-inch prospective pipeline, if approved, will carry gas produced in NY’s section of the Marcellus Shale to markets throughout the northeastern U.S.

The latter meeting was held between two Williams’ lobbyists – Tonio Burgos and John Charlson – and upper level Cuomo aides.

Read the rest of this entry →

BuyPartisan Consensus: ExxonMobil Donates $260,000 to Obama Inauguration

7:21 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

"Why do Big Oil, Gas and Coal have so much support on both sides of the aisle? Because they BuyPartisan."

The Other 98% and Oil Change International consider the inauguration.

President Barack Obama will be publicly sworn in today – on Martin Luther King Jr. Day – to serve his second term as the 44th President of the United States.

Today is also the three-year anniversary of Citizens United v. FEC, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that – in a 5-4 decision – deemed that corporations are “people” under the law. Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) – who now runs Progressives United (a rhetorical spin-off of Citizens United) - said in Feb. 2012 that the decision “opened floodgates of corruption” in the U.S. political system.

Unlike for his first Inauguration, Obama has chosen to allow unlimited corporate contributions to fill the fund-raising coffers of the entity legally known as the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Last time around the block, Obama refused corporate contributions for the Inauguration Ceremony as “a commitment to change business as usual in Washington.”

But not this time. With a fundraising goal of $50 million in its sights, the Obama Administration has “opened floodgates” itself for corporate influence-peddling at the 57th Inaugural Ceremony.

A case in point: the Obama Administration’s corporate backers for the Inaurguation have spent over $283 million on lobbying since 2009, the Center for Public Integrity explained in a recent report.

This has perturbed some.

“It’s a deeply disturbing move, and a reversal from the positive steps they took in 2009,” Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen told Roll Call. “Corporations make donations to events like the inaugural festivities because they get something back in return.”

One of the biggest givers so far is none other than what Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Steve Coll calls a “Private Empire” – ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil: Over $260,000 to Obama’s Inauguration Committee

According to a scoop by The Hill, ExxonMobil contributed $250,000 to the Inaugural Committee. Additionally, ExxonMobil attorney Judith Batty has given the Committee $10,750, according to the Center for Responsive Politics‘ OpenSecrets.org. Thus, ExxonMobil has given the Committee a grand total of over $260,000.

ExxonMobil earned a profit of $41.1 billion in 2011 and in the first three quarters of 2012 earned a profit of $34.92 billion, well on pace to surpass its 2011 profit margin.

Some mathematical context is warranted. This means ExxonMobil earned $9,935 per minute in the first three quarters of 2012, $596,107 per hour and $14.3 million per day in profits.

Despite these oligarchic-type bottom lines, ExxonMobil doesn’t even pay its fair share in taxes, as ThinkProgress explained in a March 2012 article:

Citizens for Tax Justice reported Exxon paid only 17.6 percent taxes in 2010, lower than the average American, and a Reuters analysis using the same criteria estimates that Exxon will pay only 13 percent in effective taxes for 2011. Exxon paid zero taxes to the federal government in 2009.

In practice, this means that ExxonMobil actually pays less in taxes by percentage than an average Middle Class American family.

For a corporation with financial wealth of this magitude and one that, to boot, evades paying taxes, $260,000 is truly a “drop in the bucket.” And yet in a political system favoring those who can “pay to play,” it’s a true game-changer in terms of gaining direct access to the Administration.

Obama Administration Responds…Sort Of

Critics say it’s more of the same out of an Obama Administration that in the first term had a cozy relationship with corporate patrons.

“It fits into a pattern of not treating this campaign-finance issue with concern when in fact it is of great concern to the integrity of the political process and our democratic system,” Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, told The Hill.

The Obama team’s response? According to them, they are champions of campaign-finance reform and anti-corruption measures.

“This president has done more to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington than any administration in history,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told The Hill.

It looks as if Oil Change International has hit the nail on the head in framing this one, asking and answering the following question with an accompanying graphic co-created with The Other 98%.