Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Archive for the ‘Utilities’ Category

Seattle NGOs echo concerns of USAID Haiti audit

by Zachariah Bryan May 23rd, 2012

A program aimed at improving watersheds and water quality in Haiti and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development hasn’t made inroads against major environmental risks and could be facing potentially expensive setbacks, according to an audit by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Discussing the audit’s concerns, representatives of two NGOs in the Seattle region which track Haiti respectively accented ongoing cholera risk from unsafe water; and the need for a deeper level of personal investment from citizens to augment external aid for environmental and public health problems. But underlying these challenges is a staggering unemployment rate which defies easy answers.

Haiti’s troubled environment is compounded by a weak government and wanting infrastructure resulting in part from the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Trash pick-up, environmental regulation, and water systems are especially problematic. Haiti’s watersheds have been long in decline due to decades of unchecked logging and charcoal demand, leaving the island with an estimated two percent forestation today, according to the audit. This boosts susceptibility to tropical storms and hurricanes which can bring flash floods to communities from eroded watersheds, taking lives and damaging property.

USAID in response launched a partnership with Chemonics International Inc. named the Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources program (WINNER). It has $128 million in authorized funding and is designed to reduce environmental and economic vulnerability by rehabilitating watersheds and reducing flood risk along rivers. It also aims to train farmers in agricultural practices. Haiti produces less than half the food it consumes.

U.S. has diverse energy for electricity, but not transport

by Matt Rosenberg May 17th, 2012

A series of data visualizations accompanying the recent “Energy Security in the United States” report by the Congressional Budget Office shows the lion’s share of energy used in the United States still comes from fossil fuel sources such as oil, coal and natural gas. The three accounted for 84 percent of total energy use in the U.S. in 2010 with nuclear and renewable energy sources each providing eight percent of the mix. Looking at major energy-using sectors of the economy, CBO found that 94 percent of U.S. 2010 transportation energy spending was used for oil. In the electric sector, 21 percent of the energy spending was on nuclear power, 10 percent on renewables, 19 percent on natural gas and 48 percent on coal. The related data visualization – the first of three from the report that we reproduce here – also breaks down the sourcing of energy to the HVAC and industrial sectors.

Source: Energy Security In The United States, Congressional Budget Office

Different regions source their electricity differently. In percentage of 2009 electricity production by region, the West relied most heavily on wind power versus any of the seven other regions, while the North Central and Great Lakes regions leaned most on coal. Nuclear power to generate electricity was most prevalent in the Northeast, and natural gas was tops in Florida.

Source: Energy Security In The United States, Congressional Budget Office

Whereas U.S. consumers have some protection against sharp electricity price spikes because of diverse sources, the same is not true in the transportation sector, says the CBO report.

Source: Energy Security In The United States, Congressional Budget Office

The report says that among policy options elected leaders can examine more closely to limit consumer vulnerability to transportation energy price spikes, one is to increase transit in major metro regions and raise the gas tax. CBO warns that rail transit carries especially high infrastructure costs versus expanded bus service, and that in any event, broader transit adoption in metro regions depends heavily on door-to-door travel times and service reliability. CBO also suggests policymakers consider how to develop greater incentives for telecommuting and urban density although both have been slow to truly take hold in many U.S. metro regions.

The report also mentions further subsidies for research and development of alternative fuels to power passenger vehicles but says that whole endeavor involves “significant uncertainties” around economic feasibility and implementation. Reaching into the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve is also an option, but that would likely be counteracted by a tightening of oil supply to the U.S. from major producer nations, says CBO.

Data viz: major U.S. pipeline incidents, 2008-2010

by Henry Apfel April 23rd, 2012

A study released by the Congressional Research Service on U.S. energy pipeline management and security says that despite potential vulnerability to accidental malfunction or purposeful sabotage, the risk of a terrorist threat is low, but safety oversight could be improved, particularly by beefing up staffing of inspectors. Roughly 170,000 miles of pipeline in the United States carry material that is toxic, flammable, or otherwise dangerous, including approximately 75% of the nation’s crude oil. Around 200 interstate pipelines account for about 80% of United States pipeline use.

Vast network, some fatal accidents, property damage
Overall, pipeline discharges cause few deaths. Hazardous liquid pipelines caused an average of 1.8 fatalities yearly from 2006 to 2010, while natural gas transmission and distribution pipeline accidents caused an average of 3.0 and 9.8 deaths yearly over the same time period. However, an individual pipeline accident can cause significant damage and loss of life. A gasoline pipeline in Bellingham, Washington, exploded in 1999, killing three people and causing millions of dollars in property damage. In 2000, a natural gas pipeline exploded near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and killed 12 campers. Pipeline breakages can release of thousands of gallons of hazardous material; a leak caused by corrosion on the North Slope of Alaska released more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil in 2006, and in 2011 a pipeline spill in Montana released approximately 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.


Following is a mapped data visualization of U.S. pipeline accidents from 2008-10 that caused fatalities and/or more than $5 million USD of damage. Click on individual points to see more data; click and drag to move the map. Click on the +/- signs to zoom in or out. Click the “x” to close a pop-up box.

Data sources: The Congressional Research Service
PHMSA Incident Reports


Pipeline security threats elsewhere, but not so much in U.S.
Pipelines may also be vulnerable to purposeful sabotage; in the case of certain pipelines, this may even extend to computer-based attacks. Groups in Mexico, Colombia, and Nigeria have made efforts to bomb pipelines in their respective countries, and pipelines in British Columbia were bombed six times between 2008 and 2009. While pipelines make tempting targets, the United States has not experienced a major attack by an individual or group on its pipelines. According to the CRS report, recent threat assessments indicate that, realistically speaking, the risk of a foreign or domestic terrorist attack on U.S. pipelines is very low.

A series of oversight laws have been passed
Under the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968 (P.L. 90-481) and the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Act of 1979 (P.L. 96-129) state that the Transportation Secretary has authority to regulate the design, construction, operation, maintenance, and response planning for interstate pipelines. A presidential decision during the Clinton administration assigned main responsibility for pipeline security to the Department of Transportation, while the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-355) created an inter-agency committee meant to streamline the review process for new pipelines. The Pipeline Safety Improvement Act also included “whistle blower” protection and required that operators of regulated natural gas pipelines in high-consequence areas to implement risk analysis and management procedures similar to those used for oil pipelines.

Additionally, President Bush established the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in 2004 within the Department of Transportation. President Bush also signed into law the Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement and Safety Act of 2006 (PIPES Act, P.L. 109-468). This bill created a program of grants given to states for damage prevention efforts. It also mandated a minimum standard for integrity management of natural gas pipelines. Additionally, the Transportation Security Administration was created and given the authority to handle pipeline security operations.

Pipeline safety inspector staffing a challenge
Due to a relative dearth of qualified applicants, delays in the hiring process, and inspector turnover, the PHMSA inspector program is often understaffed. The recession has also affected PHMSA, forcing numerous budget cuts and preventing expanded inspector hiring, according to the CRS.

Automatic shut-off valves not mandated by DOT
The TSA also requires greater resources for pipeline security, since air transportation has received comparatively enormous amounts of money and personnel. In order to more fully secure pipelines, some have argued for the installation of automatic or remote shutoff valves; particularly since the San Bruno incident of 2010 in which a natural gas pipeline exploded, killing eight people. However, the DOT concluded that automatic shutoff valves would not activate in time to stop an explosion and would be susceptible to false alarms. Such installations would also require significant investments in time and capital, and would probably raise transmission rates for all concerned. However, the PHMSA mandated that all single-family homes recieve excess flow valves, which can minimize the amount of natural gas that escapes in the event of a leak.

Some issues still remain. New regulations may be required since oil sands, often imported from Canada, are significantly more corrosive to current pipe materials. Maintenance of accurate, complete, and current pipeline system records is difficult, and debates over the best practices for pipeline inspection continue. Overall, however, industries and federal agencies have generally increased pipeline safety over the past decade.


Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the Seattle-based 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News; Donate.

Ex-Marine, and ex-Seattle news exec warn U.S. Senate against overly broad disclosure shields

by Zachariah Bryan March 21st, 2012

In a recent testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee, a retired Marine and a national proponent of government transparency with long and deep ties to Seattle, ratcheted up concerns about a recent military attempt to censor from the public eye information on drinking water and public health risks. Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger (Ret.), who believes his daughter died of leukemia as a result of contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in 1985, was disappointed that the U.S. Marine Corps decided to remove from an official study, information regarding locations of water sources in the area. It has been the latest in a series of hurdles he has had to overcome in the case.

Coal, gas will still power most electricity in 2035, unless…

by Matt Rosenberg February 10th, 2012

Without a major shift in government policy such as extension of expiring renewable energy subsidies, or a carbon tax, coal will continue to be the predominant source for generating electricity used in the United States in 2035. This is according to the 2012 Energy Outlook – Early Release, from the U.S. Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration. The report includes a data visualization reproduced below.

It shows that if policy continues on its current and expected future course – in the so-called “reference case” scenario – coal will account for 39 percent of U.S. net electricity generation in 2035 compared to 45 percent in 2010. (Net generation is the amount of power produced minus that used at the facility where it’s generated.) Natural gas would follow, accounting for 27 percent of U.S. net electricity generation in 2035, up from 24 percent in 2010. The percent of net electricity generation from renewable energy sources will rise from 10 percent in 2010 to 16 percent in 2035 in the EIA’s reference case scenario, with nuclear-sourced electricity declining from 20 to 18 percent of the generation mix over the same time span.

Source: Annual Energy Outlook 2012 - Early Release/U.S. Energy Information Administration

RELATED; Electricity Generation Overview, Annual Energy Outlook 2012 – Early Release


Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the Seattle-based 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News; Donate.

Washington state remains a leader in low-carbon energy

by Matt Rosenberg January 11th, 2012

Washington state ranks second among 50 states behind only Vermont in the low-carbon intensity of its energy supply, according to a report issued Monday by a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy. Washington is also just outside the lowest tenth of states in the carbon intensity of its economy and within the lowest fifth in per-capita carbon dioxide emissions stemming from energy consumption. Titled “State-Level Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2000-2009,” the report underscores the clean energy benefits of Washington’s reliance on hydropower – which itself is the source of some ongoing environmental controversy because of the challenges that hydro-electric dams can pose to migrating salmon.

Infographic: deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions

by Matt Rosenberg January 6th, 2012

Because trees help absorb greenhouse gases, forest preservation plays an important role in controlling climate change. When forests are destroyed or degraded that harms our ability to control climate change. The problem is primarily concentrated in tropical developing nations. A new report from the Congressional Budget Office says there are three big challenges: building capacity to better document forest absorbtion capacity and its loss; improving governance in countries where the problem is most pronounced; and calibrating policy responses so they’re effective on a global scale. The study is titled “Deforestation and Greenhouse gases.” A related CBO infographic helps tell the story. Excerpts of the infographic follow.

First, the backdrop. Five different categories of energy-related activities account for two-thirds of manmade greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to CBO. Of the remaining one-third, 12 percent comes from destruction of forests for agriculture, primarily in developing tropical nations.


State Auditor: Douglas County PUD worker stole $12K in fuel

by Matt Rosenberg October 11th, 2011

Chelan County Deputy Prosecutor Doug Shae said today a pre-trial settlement involving full restitution is likely in the case of a Douglas County Public Utility District employee whoaccording to a fraud investigation report released last week by the Washington State Auditor’s Office defrauded the PUD of at least $12,384.68 by using its fuel credit cards to repeatedly buy gas for his private vehicle over a stretch of more than four years.