To the undoubted surprise and delight of many in the climate change movement, this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in the category of National Reporting is the three-reporter team that covered the Enbridge pipeline rupture that occurred in July, 2010, along the Kalamazoo River for InsideClimate News. Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan, and David Hasemyer were commended by the Pulitzer jury in their category for their
rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), a controversial form of oil.The trio beat out two other finalists who wrote about important stories in their own right. The Boston Globe reporters investigated the nationwide outbreak of fungal meningitis tracked back to a compounding pharmacy in suburban Boston which had poor quality control and inadequate regulatory oversight. The Washington Post team reported on the escalation of drone usage as an instrument of war and the apparent lack of safeguards that have accompanied its increased deployment.
Nowadays, fewer and fewer mainstream news organizations maintain an environmental desk, staffed with reporters who are experienced enough in the field to understand and explain both relevant context and breaking news. For example, the New York Times, one of the last major dailies to staff an environment beat, dispersed its reporters and editors in January of this year and then suspended its “Green Blog” in March.
Under these conditions, the existence of independent news organizations that are willing to fund investigative reportage is more crucial than ever. InsideClimate News (ICN) is the third online publication to win the award, after ProPublica and the Huffington Post, in what may be a nod to the promise of smaller, perhaps more flexible, reporting outfits. Winning the Pulitzer also confirms what climate change activists have recognized for some while now: In its five short years of existence to date, ICN has become one of the few go-to sources of solid news and information about the key players on both sides of the effort to change the course of fossil fuel dependency in the U.S.
The editor of the online critique of science and environmental reporting at the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), Curtis Brainard, observed at the time of ICN's wrap-up of the Enbridge rupture in July of 2012 that
the outlet has grown into a bastion of investigative reporting with a long institutional memory, following up on stories that the rest of the attention-deficit-disordered media has either ignored or forgotten about. Because of that persistence, it was able to reveal important details about the dilbit disaster before other outlets, and before even the government’s own inspectors—exemplary work, to say the least.Reached yesterday via email, David Sassoon, the founder and publisher of ICN, had this to say in response to our questions regarding the potential significance of the award:
Q: What impact do you anticipate that winning the Pulitzer for [coverage of] a major environmental disaster might have on raising awareness of environmental issues generally, especially given the shrinkage or closure of environmental news desks around the country?We'll revisit Sassoon's comment later. Meanwhile, let's review just what Song, McGowan, and Hasemyer did to earn this distinction below the jump.
A: Aside from recognizing the work of our team, I think the Pulitzer judges were sending a signal about the importance of environmental security as a central part of the national conversation. I hope it is heard in newsrooms and boardrooms around [the] country.
Q: What impact do you hope might happen as a result of this prize toward public awareness of the risks of the [Keystone XL] pipeline, since the award-winning coverage documented what is essentially Exhibit 1 about the dangers of tar sands pipelines, the Kalamazoo River/Marshall MI rupture?
A: Our reporting makes it awfully clear that the nation's pipeline infrastructure and existing regulatory oversight are not ready to receive a flood of dilbit imports from Canada, and we haven't even begun speaking about climate change. I'm sure the Pulitzer Prize will bring renewed and greater attention to our work, and public awareness about these issues. Whether it will influence what goes on in the White House and Congress is anybody's guess.
One of the hallmarks of independent research is that the researcher goes where the material leads. At first, the reporters covering the Enbridge pipeline rupture in Marshall, MI, thought of it as an instructive example of what the effects of a break might be for those who lived near it, especially as the controversy over Keystone XL was heating up. But as they investigated further, they realized that the break itself—though enormous, costing over $1 billion in cleanup and still counting—was only one part of the story. It became evident that the lack of safeguards and oversight for transporting an entirely new and massively more toxic kind of “oil” was actually the deeper, more urgent story in the long run, with more serious implications for the proposed Keystone XL expansion than they had at first appreciated.
From Brainard of the CJR again, quoted in yesterday's article in the Washington Post about ICN's award:
“Nobody was paying attention to this,” Brainard said, adding that the series managed to “highlight flaws in the U.S. pipeline system. . . . They were just right on top of it and really stuck it to the federal government on this one, and to Enbridge, for that matter.”Enbridge, the pipeline company that operates the lines that run through Michigan, including the one that broke in 2010, is not connected to TransCanada, the owner/operator of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. But the technical and mechanical problems that became obvious in the wake of the Enbridge rupture have not been adequately addressed since then, nor does it appear that they can or would be soon enough (if even possible or cost-effective to do so) to make a difference in safeguarding the areas through which the pipeline would pass, in the event it were approved.
The Pulitzer Prize awards page lists the ten articles for which Song, McGowan, and Hasemyer received recognition. Reading them all gives one a strong background about the Enbridge pipeline rupture and about the underlying issues that make transport of dilbit a disaster in the making. One of the ten, “New Pipeline Safety Regulations Won’t Apply to Keystone XL” (July 26, 2010), is particularly worth reading for the summary it provides of the serious and yet unresolved problems related to dilbit pipelines. (The link provided goes to the original article, not to the PDF provided at the Pulitzer site; citations are noted and available there.) Here McGowan and Song focus on a piece of national legislation that was passed in January of 2012 in a classic example of the slow and inadequate legislative process.
The bill did address two problems that became apparent after the Michigan disaster. It authorized a study of diluted bitumen, or dilbit—the type of oil that spilled into the Kalamazoo and would also be carried on the Keystone XL. And it ordered the Department of Transportation to study the technology that the pipeline industry uses to detect leaks. PHMSA [Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration] is a division of the Transportation Department.After analyzing the implications of the legislation, McGowan and Song list five major problem areas that remain unaddressed. (Details at the original article.)
Neither of those studies will be done in time to have much impact on the new pipeline construction that is predicted for the United States.
The dilbit study won't be ready until next summer, and it will consist only of a review of the existing literature, not new research. The leak detection study won't be ready until 2014 at the earliest, because Congress stipulated that PHMSA spend two years on the Project.
1. Pipeline contents still a mysteryThere is no indication of progress since July of 2012 on any of these issues. What we have been hearing instead, over and over, from the oil transporters in particular is something like--Trust us. Breaks are rare events that can be handled expeditiously with few serious repercussions. We have safeguards in place in any case.
2. Little is known about dilbit
3. Deadlines for repairing corrosion and other defects still loose
4. Access to spill response plans limited
5. Spill reporting still lax
But the example from the Kalamazoo River spill, which occurred in part due to the systematic lack of adequate controls and oversight of these pipeline operations, gives the lie to these claims. We know this thanks in large part to the months of investigation done by InsideClimate News.
Reporters are of course required to maintain a modicum of detachment about the subjects they cover, and yet again, when the evidence suggests a particular conclusion, it would be irresponsible for them to avoid reaching it and explaining why they did so. That kind of measured, thoughtful judgment may also be what the Pulitzer jury wanted to recognize with this award.
The three award-winning reporters are not apparently collaborating on any projects at present. McGowan has since left ICN to work on other projects, though she is still listed as "Reporter Emeritus" on their staff page. Hasemyer, a freelancer, last wrote for ICN in October of 2012 about a proposal to extract tar sands in Utah, which would be the first such site in the U.S. Shortly before that article was published, Hasemyer covered the concerns raised by the National Wildlife Federation if another major spill were to happen from other aging pipelines run by Enbridge, particularly one that passes under the Straits of Mackinac--an issue now getting more attention thanks to other moves by Enbridge to expand their operations in and on the Great Lakes.)
Song is clearly still on the dilbit beat. Only a few days ago, she was ejected from the command center and threatened with arrest for trespassing at the site of the Mayflower AR pipeline breach, where she went in hopes of talking with EPA and DOT officials. Of course, that story is still unfolding, with clean-up only just beginning.
Quoting Sassoon again: “Whether [our winning the Pulitzer] will influence what goes on in the White House and Congress is anybody's guess.”
We cannot predict, let alone know, what kind of influence that InsideClimate News will have in the long run related to the fiercely contested Keystone XL. But neither did they know when they started--Sassoon, the executive editor Susan White, the managing editor Stacy Feldman, and the three reporters--what their investigations would uncover. Still, they persevered. Today we can congratulate them for winning this award and thank them for their hard work in excavating this story and explaining it in careful and accessible detail. We are far better off for their efforts than we would be without them.
Similarly, we cannot know, any of us, whether our public comments on the Keystone XL approval process will tip the balance in our favor. Activism like this is ultimately a leap of faith and a vote of confidence in our political system. We do know already, however, that our public comments at earlier stages of the approval process DID matter. It is all the more important that we now take the step to make our opinions known—to join the tens and hundreds of thousands who are declaring No KXL!
And, as is true for the folks at InsideClimate News, we are far better for our efforts than we would be without them.
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