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Oil spill, eagles and fracking: the news you missed during the shutdown

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Cally Carswell | Oct 18, 2013 12:10 PM

The staff of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was welcomed to work yesterday by a "coffee cake bite"-bearing Joe Biden, and a grinning administrator so thrilled to have her employees back on the job she jumped up and down as they entered the building. There wasn't, I expect, a lot of jumping and grinning happening in the public at large as the federal shutdown ended and the country barely escaped financial self-implosion. Instead, we collectively let out a quiet sigh of relief, and wiped away the blood accumulating on our foreheads from repeated bangings against walls. Some of us then wondered: What did I miss while the soap opera we call Congress was greedily hoarding all the newsprint? Here, dear readers, are some answers.

There's so much oil in North Dakota, it bubbles up from the ground! Er, scratch that. Crude did start to spit from a North Dakota farmer's wheat field in late September, but far from a scene from an industry-funded fantasy novel, it was the result of one of the worst oil spills in the state's history. A ruptured Tesoro pipeline leaked an estimated 20,600 barrels, coating 7 acres, and the accident wasn't made public for 11 days. It has, once again, spotlighted the potential consequences of relatively lax pipeline safety requirements, and raised questions about how North Dakota is managing the hazardous side of its great big oil boom.

California condors and golden eagles catch a break in California. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in mid-October making it illegal for hunters to use lead bullets in the state. Birds that feast on carcasses that have been shot with lead bullets can be poisoned by the neurotoxin. Lead bullets, 400,000 pieces of which litter single acres in some popular hunting spots, according to public television station KCET, have been fingered as a primary culprit in the ongoing demise of California condors.

Colorado anti-fracking campaigns heat up. Four Front Range communities will vote on fracking moratoriums or bans in November. According to recently released campaign finance reports, the activists pushing these timeouts on drilling are being far outspent by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which has so far contributed around $600,000 to campaigns to defeat the ballot measures -- nearly 40 times the amount the pro campaigns have raised.

EPA lands itself in the Supreme Court. Again. High-profile legal battles over the agency's efforts to regulate climate changing emissions continue. The High Court declined to review EPA's so-called "endangerment finding," which determined that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare, and underpins its efforts to regulate the gases. It also declined to hear objections to EPA's clean-car standards, meaning those will stand. The court did, however, agree to consider a narrower question: Whether carbon regulations for cars and trucks automatically "triggered" the development of similar Clean Air Act regulations for big polluters, like power plants. As Wonkblog reports, exactly how the court's ruling could impact the regulatory program isn't clear yet. But since it involves the EPA's most important climate program to date, however, this is definitely a case to watch.

(If you really want to dive into the legal weeds of all this, check out Legal Planet's analysis.)

EPA: An equal opportunity defendant. Of course, it's not just industry that's upset with the EPA. Green groups, too, quite like to sue the agency. The Center for Biological Diversity is now taking EPA to court for the second time for failing to use the Clean Water Act to address ocean acidification, a troubling and potentially catastrophic consequence of all of the CO2 oceans have absorbed in the past century.

Montana dims prospects for small wind developers. The state appears to have followed Idaho's lead, changing rules that required utilities to buy power from small renewable projects in a way that effectively boxes smaller developers out of the market.

Cally Carswell is the assistant editor at High Country News. She Tweets @callycarswell.

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