WatchDog follows Keystone, other secrets

Posted by Christine, July 3, 2013

This biweekly newsletter focuses on freedom-of-information issues of concern to environmental journalists. You can find the full text, along with other tools and information on the Web site of the Society of Environmental Journalists. The SEJ WatchDog is produced and distributed by the SEJ as an ongoing activity of its Freedom of Information Task Force.

In This Issue …

  • Exxon Seeks To Keep Pegasus Inspections Secret As KXL Twists in Wind
  • National Pipeline Mapping System, Though Hobbled, Can Help Journalists
  • Corporations: Our Pollution Is a Trade Secret
  • What the Public Doesn’t Know About Treaties Won’t Hurt the Corporations

Exxon Seeks To Keep Pegasus Inspections Secret As KXL Twists in Wind

“ExxonMobil Corp.’s bid to shield from public view its inspection results for a shuttered pipeline that leaked at least 5,000 barrels of heavy Canadian oil sands crude in Arkansas this spring is galvanizing a debate over transparency and spill readiness that could affect the future of Keystone XL.”

That story by Elana Schor came out June 27, 2013, in EnergyWire, raising questions that have still to be answered. Why on Earth would Exxon’s pipeline company want to hide the results of a self-inspection done just a few weeks before the March 29, 2013, spill that inundated parts of Mayflower, Arkansas. The company also sought “confidential treatment” for results of another Pegasus self-inspection in 2010.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has not yet ruled on Exxon’s claim of trade secrecy, but is expected to do so soon.

As the Obama administration faces a high-stakes political decision on whether to permit the Keystone XL pipeline, secrecy may be its Achilles heel. Will the U.S. public believe that the secrecy protects trade secrets, intellectual property, and homeland security? — Or will they conclude that the secrecy protects regulators’ negligence, pipelines’ poor maintenance, decision-makers’ conflicts of interest, and political deal-making? Government accountability and credibility are on the line. The potential safety of the KXL pipeline is a bone of contention — and PHMSA is unlikely to build public confidence in its ability to regulate effectively if it operates in secrecy.

This is not the only instance in which secrecy has dominated the Exxon Mayflower spill — or the oversight and regulation of pipeline safety. Even if we disregard Exxon’s threat to arrest a reporter from the Pulitzer-winning InsideClimate News for trying to talk to a press officer — urgent pipeline safety issues that critically impact the public have been shrouded in secrecy since 9/11.

In the Mayflower incident, PHMSA is still waiting for Exxon to provide it with full metallurgical analysis of the pipe failure. PHMSA has extended the deadline for Exxon to turn over its full report three times (the latest deadline being July 10). And while PHMSA says officially that it is investigating the spill, those facts suggest PHMSA may in large part be relying on Exxon to investigate itself.

Whatever sense of urgency there may be about pipeline safety may be partly demonstrated by PHMSA’s recent failure to provide for public availability of the safety standards they use in rulemakings. The safety standards are set by industry and incorporated into regulations by reference. In a 2011 pipeline safety reauthorization, Congress gave PHMSA one year to make those standards public. PHMSA hasn’t done it. Now a new “bipartisan” bill from leaders in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would give PHMSA two more years to comply.

National Pipeline Mapping System, Though Hobbled, Can Help Journalists

Is a dangerous pipeline running through your community? Journalists searching for stories may get some limited help from the National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS). Though deliberately hobbled, it can yield some useful information at a local scale.

Before 9/11, the NPMS was online and searchable — its only drawback being inaccurate and out-of-date data. It was the principal tool by which both the public and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration could track pipelines that could present hazards to communities. Like many other environmental infrastructure databases, the NPMS was taken down after 9/11, ostensibly to protect the public from terrorist attacks — but also conveniently protecting the pipeline companies and PHMSA from oversight and accountability.

Historically, faulty pipelines have consistently presented a far more lethal threat to U.S. residents than terrorists. After a gas transmission line explosion killed 12 near Carlsbad, NM, in August 2000, journalists Jeff Nesmith and Ralph Haurwitz did a landmark investigative series exposing U.S. neglect of pipeline safety that ran in the Austin Statesman-American in July 2001. Congress responded with Pipeline Safety Act amendments in 2002. But, perhaps because of rampant secrecy in the name of “homeland security,” few journalists for the next decade investigated whether the federal government was enforcing safety rules. It was not until the devastating pipeline explosion of 2010 killed eight and leveled 35 homes that pipeline safety returned to the agenda of U.S. journalism.

Today after a decade of neglect, the NPMS is partly back online and marginally functional. You can only search and view maps at the level of individual counties (a feature possibly meant to deter terrorists and journalists alike). The information is not necessarily complete or accurate. Parts of the NPMS site simply do not work, for reasons unknown. But if you want to get a general clue about the location of major natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines in your community, the NPMS is one place to start.

Of course, if you are serious about pipeline safety you will want to pay for a commercial map or data product — not the one used by the PHMSA regulators. Pennwell, the company that publishes Oil & Gas Journal, publishes an excellent set of state-by-state maps. Rextag, a Hart Energy company, publishes a comprehensive geotagged data set. These are available to the public.

The search page for the NPMS is here.

Oh, and if you want the national pipeline overview map that PHMSA is denying you, you can get it from the Energy Information Administration.

Another reliable and independent source of information is the Pipeline Safety Trust. Their site offers help using the NPMS.

Corporations: Our Pollution Is a Trade Secret

The White House is having secret meetings with industry over industry’s claims that its greenhouse pollution data should be secret.

On June 25, 2013 — yes, that’s the day President Obama was giving his climate speech — officials from the Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Environmental Protection Agency held a closed-door meeting with lobbyists from the oil and chemical industries who don’t want the public to know how they calculate their greenhouse gas emissions.

Present were representatives from Dupont, Marathon, Dow, Eastman, ExxonMobil, and the American Chemistry Council. Under a Clinton-era executive order, the fact of the meeting must be published, though who said what to whom remains secret. Industry lobbyists short-circuit the public regulatory process all the time this way, and OMB essentially dictates to agencies regs that are supposed to be based on evidence in an open docket.

Companies base their calculations of their greenhouse emissions on factors like the amount of fuel they consume or how efficiently they turn feedstock into product. They fear competitors could exploit such information.

EPA requires major companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions. The dispute is over a rule governing disclosure of the data companies use to calculate their own emissions. Public watchdogs say that without disclosure, the public can’t tell whether companies’ calculations are accurate, and companies could escape accountability.

What the Public Doesn’t Know About Treaties Won’t Hurt the Corporations

If you are looking for yet another category of environmental information that the U.S. public is not allowed to know about, try international trade agreements.

A recent court decision — one that got little attention from the news media — upheld the federal government’s authority to keep secret some information about the health and environmental impacts of trade treaties. A federal appeals court on June 7, 2013, overturned a lower court’s ruling in favor of openness. The case was Center for International Environmental Law v. U.S. Trade Representative. The Center had sought a document outlining the U.S. position on how health and environment in the U.S. would be affected by the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now being negotiated.

The whole dispute is clearly explained in a recent article by the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch), which includes links to further information.

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Next WatchDog: July 3, 2013

Journalists: Please tell your colleagues about the SEJ WatchDog. For free subscription send name and full contact information to Have a tip? Comments? Contact Joseph A. Davis, editor, at 301-656-2261, WatchDog team includes Ken Ward, Jr., SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force Chair; Robert McClure, SEJ Board/Task Force Liaison; Beth Parke, SEJ Executive Director; Cindy MacDonald, Web Associate; and you. The WatchDog is made possible in part by a grant from the Journalism Program of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation .

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