Environment, Energy, & Climate Change2021-02-05T09:52:19-05:00

Environment, Energy & Climate Change

The Environment, Energy & Climate Change program is designed to protect whistleblowers and support accountability in the environmental realm, emphasizing the deeply intertwined nature of environmental protection, energy production, and global climate change. While we focus considerable attention on environmental impacts related to the production, transportation, and consumption of fossil fuels – particularly as it relates to climate impacts – discreet topics like chemical pollution and nuclear safety are also well within our purview. We pay close attention to the interconnectivity among energy, climate, and the environment.

We provide effective, results-oriented legal representation to those with the courage to stand up to unlawful and unethical behavior in the public or private sector. Our clients have included government employees, corporate whistleblowers, and private citizens empowered to expose threats to environment and public health. The current patchwork of whistleblower laws offers varying degrees of protection and requires expertise to navigate.

The EE&CC team often works in collaboration with other Government Accountability Project programs, such as National Security, Education, Public Health, our International program, and our Food Integrity Campaign (FIC). We bring expertise in environmental law and policy to cross-cutting topics, from chemical pollution to climate impacts. Climate Science & Policy Watch (CSPW) – our flagship initiative founded in 2005 by federal whistleblower Rick Piltz – holds public officials accountable for responsibly using climate science research in policymaking with integrity. Through this variety of partners, allies, and colleagues, we are able to address a broad spectrum of issues where environment and accountability intersect.

Focus Areas

We are built to be flexible, timely, and capable of handling whistleblower cases relating to a broad spectrum of topics and issue areas. Our cases deal with whistleblower disclosures revealing waste, fraud, or abuse of power or resources, or wrongdoing resulting in threats to human health or the environment. We also explore topics where accountability and transparency issues intersect with environmental impacts where whistleblower disclosures may serve to provide effective oversight that is otherwise lacking.

Our areas of focus include:

  • Nuclear Safety
  • Offshore Oil Drilling
  • Major Oil Spills and Oil Spill Response
  • Oil and Gas Pipelines and Fracking
  • Breaches of Scientific Integrity
  • Rejection of Scientific Findings in Policymaking
  • Retaliatory Actions Against Climate Scientists

Whistleblower Profiles

Whistleblowers play an essential role in the environmental movement and in shaping public policy and corporate practices.

Notes from UndergroundAppropriate – is it not? – that the word “underground” carries connotations of secrecy, subversion, and conspiracy. In the context of fossil fuel production and transportation, underground is home to a number of activities about which the public has a dire need to be well informed. Instead, we remain largely misinformed, or not informed at all.

The focus of Notes from Underground will be issues surrounding the use of pipelines and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). This first post will provide a foundational overview of the problems associated with fracking and pipeline use, referencing some relevant events of the recent past. (more…)

NFUG, CSPW Fracking 2According to its proponents, natural gas is supposed to be the bridge between old, dirty energy and new, clean, sustainable energy. But if the benefits it provides are temporary, illusory, and carry great risk to public health and the environment, fracked natural gas is not so much a bridge as it is a short pier – on which we’ve started a long walk.
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NFUG, CSPW Fracking 2Its defenders like to claim that fracked natural gas is providing a bridge between the traditional fossil fuels of oil and coal, and clean, renewable energy like wind and solar power. I suggest that such a bridge is unnecessary, and that the investment in fracking and its associated infrastructure represents a step backward in the pursuit of widely available, sustainable energy, creating illusory benefits with real, negative side effects.
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Notes from the underground parisThe 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is taking place in Paris until December 11th.

The Paris Conference will hopefully yield real solutions to climate change — that is, provide measures to achieve sufficient mitigation of CO2-equivalent emissions to make adaptation to the unavoidable impacts of climate change possible. But even as the plans and deals are being hammered out, two things are clear: first, that the lead up to the conference has already forced important action on the part of various stakeholders, and second, that any resulting plan could still be dismantled before it can be carried out.
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NfU COP21, cThe year 2015 ended on an up note, but the real work lies ahead. An election year begins in the US, and the success or failure of the Paris agreement could come down to who, come 2017, controls the White House and the Senate, and whether the agreement is ratified.

The agreement reached in Paris in December is already being hailed as a success, and rightly so; perhaps most of all from the perspective of environmentalists in the US – where consensus even on scientific fact is apparently unachievable. Nearly 200 nations reaching an agreement on climate change is a tremendous victory for hope and reason.

However, anyone looking for many substantial elements to the agreement will be disappointed. A survey of the document forged in Paris will show no mention of fracking or pipelines, no discussion of nuclear power or wind turbines, and no firm timeline by which renewables must overtake fossil fuels as the chief source of global energy. The agreement simply points its signatories in the right direction, with the hope of stronger, bolder signposts along the way.

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NFTU, SOCALGASBy now, you may have heard about the massive natural gas leak in Southern California, which has been ongoing since late October; then again, given the dearth of major media coverage, you very well may not have.

It is an environmental catastrophe that The Guardian has called “the climate equivalent of the BP disaster.” [http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/04/california-natural-gas-leak-methane-climate-change-old-infrastructure] GAP knows this to most definitely be the case given our critical ongoing investigation in the Gulf region into the disaster which has garnered significant media attention and attracted over 25 whistleblowers exposing significant environmental and public health threats. Over 80,000 metric tons of natural gas – which is primarily composed of methane, a potent greenhouse gas – have been released from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage site, which is owned by the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas). This represents a substantial percentage of California’s total GHG emissions – as well as a threat to Porter Ranch, a community located near the site, due to other hazardous substances present in natural gas. But if this toxic cloud has a silver lining, it is that California might finally bring its legal stance on fracking and natural gas up to par with its other environmental policies.
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Notes from UndergroundThe smoking of e-cigarettes on airplanes has been banned by the FAA. Why? Because studies have not conclusively shown that “vaping” has no adverse impacts on human health.

And why is an article ostensibly about fracking and pipelines starting with this information? Because it is a rare example of the correct application of the Precautionary Principle.
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Notes from the underground blue 2Our prior Notes from Underground post offered Precautionary Principle 101. To reiterate, the Principle is simple and even obvious: one should not carry out a plan until one has some understanding of the likely consequences – that is, until one can be reasonably certain that enacting said plan will not lead to disastrous outcomes that outstrip the plan’s resulting benefits.

Like many legal principles, Precaution is a balancing test – measuring benefit versus the likelihood and potential gravity of risk. A greater benefit – such as reliable energy – may justify considerable risk. But significant potential risk to the well-being of most life on the planet will tilt the balance in any argument.
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Doc2

By Anne Polansky and  Adam Arnold

On September 17th of 2014, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology voted 4-3 to grant subpoena powers to the Committee Chair, useable without consultation of the Committee as a whole. This extraordinary power became available for the first time during the current Congress, with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) serving as Committee Chair. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) expressed concerns about the potential abuse of this power in January of 2015. This summer, the concern has been justified.
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where-the-pipeline-ends

Source: “Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein, adapted by Adam Arnold.

The DC Court of Appeals has given the go ahead for construction of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which opponents say will threaten the environment, human health, and sites sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Despite the setback, there remains hope that the tide is turning against construction of new pipelines.
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Rick Piltz

Rick Piltz was best known for blowing the whistle on the George W. Bush White House over political interference in federal climate change science programs. As a senior associate for the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) for ten years, in 2005 he sought whistleblower protection representation from Government Accountability Project and provided evidence to the New York Times of editing of federal climate science reports designed to disregard and downplay the dangers of known climate change impacts in official scientific reports by a high-ranking White House official and former oil lobbyist. Piltz resigned in protest and established a new watchdog operation within our organization, Climate Science Watch, which he directed until he passed away in late 2014. During this time Piltz testified several times before Congress and developed a strong media presence and public platform from which he underscored the critical importance of defending scientific integrity in the face of climate denial influences. His act of courageous whistleblowing is featured in the award-winning documentary film, Everything’s Cool. Piltz won the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling in 2006.

JOEL CLEMENT

Joel Clement is a PhD biologist who was serving as a Senior Executive Service-level advisor to the Secretary of the Interior on the adverse impacts of climate change when, in the summer of 2017, he was arbitrarily reassigned as an act of retaliation by then-Secretary Ryan Zinke to the office that collects and processes oil and gas royalty payments. Although dozens of other SES-level employees were similarly notified, Clement was the only one to hire counsel and blow the whistle. He placed an op-ed in The Washington Post in June 2017 that was a stinging rebuke of Sec. Zinke’s action and promptly filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. Clement has become a convincing spokesperson for adherence to scientific integrity in climate science. He is a recipient of the 2017 Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage from The Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest.

JEFFREY MISSAL

Jeffrey Missal is a federal employee with the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), charged with ensuring regulatory compliance by offshore oil exploration drilling companies operating in the Arctic waters surrounding Alaska. He disclosed systemic corruption and chronically lax oversight intended to circumvent NEPA requirements, raising the risk of a major oil spill. Although Missal’s whistleblower case has been successfully settled, continued corruption at BSEE is still a problem in need of stronger Congressional oversight.

WILLIAM SANJOUR

William Sanjour had been a hazardous waste specialist at the EPA for 24 years when he took legal action against the agency in 1994 in order to protect his First Amendment right to free speech. Sanjour frequently spoke out about his deep concerns regarding hazardous waste problems at the US Department of Energy’s Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, a decommissioned nuclear weapons production complex. His wrongful termination settlement of $4.1 million is the largest known legal award paid to a whistleblower in the Energy Department’s vast nuclear waste cleanup program. Notably, he won a landmark lawsuit against the federal government which established the First Amendment rights of federal employees to blow the whistle on their employer.

KEVIN CHMIELEWSKI

Kevin Chmielewski was a high-level Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appointee in the Trump administration who took issue with former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s chronic abuse of taxpayer dollars. With legal representation and programmatic support from Government Accountability Project, Chmielewski took his grievances public, backed them up with solid evidence, and gave several media interviews. He provided critical testimony to Congressional oversight committee members and set off a chain reaction that resulted in Pruitt’s forced resignation in July 2018.

Controversial Chemical Used in Oil Spills, Banned in Many Countries, Can Be Used in Narragansett Bay

This article features Government Accountability Project and was originally published here.

A chemical dispersant that is linked to making thousands of members of the Coast Guard as well as clean-up workers sick in the Gulf oil spill of 2010 is authorized to be used in Narragansett Bay.

The chemical dispersant called COREXIT is banned in nearly two dozen countries including the United Kingdom and Sweden.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster was the largest U.S. oil spill and second-largest overall oil spill in world history. COREXIT 9500 and 9527’s became a global controversy during the BP oil spill and cleanup in the Gulf Coast in 2010.

“The nearly 2,000 Coast Guard members who reported exposure to oil dispersants suffered a range of illnesses — lung irritation, skin rash, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea — at higher rates than members who were not exposed to the chemicals or were exposed to oil alone, according to research by the Uniformed Services University, a Maryland health sciences and medical school run by the federal government,” reported NOLA.com in 2018.

“With increased levels of exposure there was a higher prevalence of reporting cough and shortness of breath, and more reporting of wheeze than non-exposed people,” said Jennifer Rusiecki, a USU researcher involved in two recent studies on the health of Coast Guard personnel who responded to the disaster.

Authorized for Use in Rhode Island

Both Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management officials and the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed to GoLocal that COREXIT is authorized for use in Rhode Island waters.

“These kinds of dispersants are typically used for large-scale oil spills and before use would require approval by DEM, the US Coast Guard, and/or USEPA. Here’s how the specific RI reg (Oil Pollution Control Regulations Section 2.12D) reads: “No chemical agents, dispersants, surface collecting agents, biological additives, burning agents, or sinking agents shall be used without prior consent of the Office of Emergency Response,” said RIDEM spokesman Michael Healey.

And the Coast Guard confirms the authorization.

“In response to your question, ‘is the petroleum dispersant CoRexit 9527 and 9500 still allowed for usage in a spill response?”, The answer is yes, dispersants COREXIT 9500 and COREXIT 9527 are currently on the NCP Product Schedule (Subpart J) and are approved for use,’” wrote Petty Officer 2nd Class Amanda Wyrick of the Coast Guard 1st District for External Affairs in an email to GoLocal.

COREXIT was developed after Rhode Island’s two major spills — one in 1989 and in 1996. If a spill of those sizes took place today, COREXIT is authorized to be used.

The dispersant is applied through air drops or injection into the contaminated waterbody.

U.S. EPA staff had repeatedly made recommendations to discontinue the use of COREXIT according to a federal lawsuit, but neither the Obama nor the Trump administration took action.

Rhode Island Oil Spills – If Today, COREXIT Would Likely Be Used

In 1989 and 1996 Rhode Island waters suffered two significant oil spills.

First, on June 23, 1989, the M/V World Prodigy oil tanker ran aground on Brenton Reef, off Newport, pouring 290,000 gallons of home heating oil into the water that encompasses a 123-square mile area of Narragansett Bay. The spill closed the bay and impacted wildlife, shellfish and lobster beds.

The pollutant was a lighter oil and as the temperatures were high and the oil stayed primarily on the surface much of the pollutant burned off over the weekend.

Hundreds of RIDEM workers and contractors worked for weeks in the emergency response and the ongoing cleanup.

“The tanker World Prodigy, which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into Narragansett Bay in June 1989, was not under the control of any of her officers for several minutes before she ran aground, the National Transportation Safety Board said today. In a report on the accident, the safety board blamed the ship’s captain, Iakovos Georgudis, for the spill, saying he was so tired after nearly a day and a half without rest that he allowed himself to get distracted with paperwork while the vessel passed on the wrong side of a buoy and onto a reef several hundred feet off Rhode Island,” wrote the New York Times in 1990 followup on the review of the spill. “The captain and the Greek concern, the Ballard Shipping Company, pleaded guilty in August 1989 to Federal charges of causing the spill, a misdemeanor, and agreed to pay fines of $510,000. Although many details of how the accident occurred have been known for a year, today’s report is the first official and comprehensive explanation.”

On January 19, 1996, the tank barge, North Cape, and the tugboat, Scandia, grounded off Moonstone Beach in southwestern Rhode Island, spilling an estimated 828,000 gallons of home heating oil. This spill was the worst in Rhode Island history.  Oil spread throughout Narragansett Bay and spread to Block Island Sound and beyond, including shoreline of the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge.

According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, the spill killed massive numbers of marine animals including 9 million lobster, 150 million surf clam, 4.2 million fish, and over one million pounds of other organisms such as worms, crabs, and mussels.

A 250-square mile area of Block Island Sound was closed to fishing and shellfishing for an extended period following the spill, and 3,300 lost commercial charter-boat trips resulted. In the coastal salt ponds, one-half million fish, 6.5 million marine worms, amphipods, and more than one million crabs, shrimp, clams, and oyster were killed by the spill.

Additionally, 2,100 marine birds, including 402 loons, died as a result of oiling.

COREXIT’s Long-Term Health Impacts on Clean Up Teams

For ten years, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) has tracked the impact of the Gulf spill on the workers.

In one of GAP’s initial reports, “Deadly Dispersants in the Gulf: Are Public Health and Environmental Tragedies the New Norm for Oil Spill CleanUps?,” it concluded: [C]leanup efforts were more destructive to human health and the environment than the spill itself. British Petroleum (BP) and the federal government intend for their joint response to be the precedent for a new cleanup standard operating procedure (SOP), centered on the widespread use of the chemical dispersant COREXIT. When this product is mixed with oil, a deadly synergy occurs that scientists have estimated is over 50 times more toxic than oil alone. The only so-called advantage of COREXIT is the false impression that the oil disappears – in reality, the more toxic chemical mixture spreads throughout the environment, or settles on the seafloor.”

A 2020 GAP report recapped a Coast Guard study. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Coast Guard Cohort Study: A Cross-Sectional Study of Acute Respiratory Health Symptoms, found USCG personnel exposed to dispersants and oil during the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster response and clean-up experienced acute respiratory symptoms at higher rates than USCG personnel exposed only to oil. In a related article, USCG Director of Health and Safety Rear Admiral Erica Schwartz acknowledged that USCG personnel were “terrified of the concept of dispersants” during the response. Those fears, though well-founded, are in stark contrast with the USCG and federal government’s official position on the safety of COREXIT.

Legal Action

In January of 2020, the University of California-Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to issue rules restricting use of chemical agents such as COREXIT to clean up oil spills.

The lawsuit asserts, “Instead of mitigating environmental harm, these chemical dispersants have proven to be more toxic to humans and the environment than oil alone. According to the lawsuit, “U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Inspector General, Report: Revisions Needed to National Contingency Plan [NCP] Based on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (Aug. 2011). 113. On November 14, 2012, Plaintiff ALERT, along with Plaintiffs Rosemary Ahtuangaruak and Kindra Arnesen, petitioned EPA to amend the NCP regulations.”

The suit goes on the claim, “The petition’s principal concern was that the 1994 NCP and its chemical testing procedures allowed for the massive release of Corexit into U.S. waters in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, harming human and marine life. The petition highlighted the documented harms of dispersants to human health and sea life dating back to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The petition noted that the combination of dispersants and oil is more harmful to life than oil alone, and that dispersants kill beneficial oil-eating bacteria. The petition implored EPA to issue a final rule that discontinues use of harmful chemical dispersants, that has more protective testing standards, and that has a protocol for the public to petition for delisting of products and removal from the Product Schedule.”

The rule-making change to ban COREXIT continued to meander through the process until 2017, but then was eliminated by the Trump administration.

Victims’ groups, whistleblowers and environmental groups are expected to pressure President Joseph Biden’s administration to move forward with the change to ban COREXIT. There has been no effort by Rhode Island legislators to take action and RIDEM continues to follow the federal model.

Our Work

Resources

Speaking Up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees and Contractors (2018)

Science whistleblowers have historically functioned as one of the most powerful vehicles for exposing environmental, health, and safety risks, research censorship, gross mismanagement, and other abuses that undermine the missions of federal agencies to protect the public interest. This free guide seeks to empower and protect federal employees of conscience by offering guidance about their legal rights to blow the whistle and practical advice for making disclosures about wrongdoing in the safest and most effective ways possible.

Protecting Science at Federal Agencies: How Congress Can Help (2018)

This report was developed by a coalition of prominent watchdog and advocacy groups – including Government Accountability Project – and chronicles a litany of recent attacks on federal science and scientists by Trump administration officials intent on undermining the critical regulatory role government plays in safeguarding public health and safety.

Promoting and Sustaining the National Climate Assessment After a Period of Suppression and Political Influence (2016)

This report analyzes the suppression of the first National Climate Assessment during the George W. Bush administration. By detailing how officials systematically censored sensitive climate change information, it presents a strong case for supporting and defending the USGCRP and the climate change impacts assessment process.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Disaster

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster was the largest U.S. oil spill in history. Evidence, including accounts from dozens of impacted residents and volunteer cleanup workers, suggests that cleanup efforts were more destructive to human health and the environment than the spill itself.

Our initial report from 2013 has led to two follow-up reports, through which it can be seen that the human and environmental health impacts associated with oil and chemical dispersants from the disaster are ongoing:

Media

Notes from Underground: The Frack Dance

Notes from Underground: The Frack Dance This blog, along with our previous post regarding pipelines, provides an impression of key topics at the intersection of environmental protection and accountability at the start of the Biden administration. The new United States administration has already shown an inclination to go beyond merely undoing the deregulation of the Trump administration. But many good indicators for increased accountability and a focus on environmental protection do not add up to [...]

Notes from Underground: A New Landscape

Notes from Underground: A New Landscape The change of US administration is set to significantly impact federal environmental policy as well as government transparency, both of which were particularly problematic during the Trump administration. This post provides a view of the state of affairs for pipelines under the Biden administration, as it ties to overall environmental policy and accountability. The Biden administration has kick-started its environmental agenda with an urgency appropriate for the scale of [...]

Notes from Underground: The Pipeline Pipeline (Part 2)

Notes from Underground: The Pipeline Pipeline (Part 2)  This series assesses the current state of the pipeline industry, with consideration of future prospects for pipeline development and the potential downsides they represent. Part 1 provided an overview of the role of public opinion in the development of infrastructure projects. Part 2 will look at the courts and whistleblowers as potential backstops to prevent ill-advised pipeline projects. Parts 3 and 4 will look at biogas as a possible next step for the pipeline market [...]

Notes from Underground: The Pipeline Pipeline (Part 1)

Notes from Underground: The Pipeline Pipeline (Part 1)  While recent court decisions have stopped or slowed construction on major pipelines, the industry appears to have no intention of capitulating.  In a collaborative four-part series between Government Accountability Project’s Environment, Energy & Climate Change (EE&CC) program and Food Integrity Campaign (FIC), we will look at the present and future of pipeline production in the United States.  In Parts 1 and 2, EE&CC’s Notes from Underground series will discuss the lines of defense for accountability [...]