For American taxpayers, the biggest unheralded threat from the crisis in Ukraine may be its effect on the military budget. Foreign policy hawks already have seized upon the so-called "new Cold War" as a rationale for shelling out billions of additional dollars on nuclear weapons.
Russia's annexation of Crimea shows the need to "build up missile defenses and modernize the US nuclear force," James S. Robbins, a senior fellow for national security affairs for the American Foreign Policy Council, wrote last week in USA Today. "To live in the 21st century, the United States will need to relearn the lessons of the 20th."
Robbins' sentiment was echoed on Thursday by Loren Thompson, the CEO of the Lexington Institute, a military think tank funded by defense contractors: "Many people in Washington might have been prepared to forego spending money on a new generation of nuclear weapons before Putin made his move," Thompson wrote in Forbes, "but now he has changed the strategic calculation."
The Crimean takeover comes at the exact moment when military planners are debating how to update America's nuclear arsenal. The Defense Department plans to start procuring replacements for its aging fleets of nuclear bombers, submarines, and Trident missiles by around 2020. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this and the maintenance of our existing nuclear arsenal will cost $355 billion over the next 10 years. While most nuclear weapons experts believe that we could spend far less than that to effectively deter attacks, cuts to nuclear weapons spending no longer seem inevitable.
One of many models of vape pens that can be used to discretely smoke marijuana concentrates.
Last year, I joined some parents from my son's preschool for their semiregular "Dad's Night Out." We were at a crowded bar in Oakland, and somehow it emerged that I'd done some stories about marijuana. A dad immediately asked if I'd written about hash oil. Within a few minutes (for the sake of journalism, of course), I was trying a hit of nearly odorless vapor from what looked like a miniature flashlight. A single puff, and I was too high to order a second beer.
The concentrates used with vape pens are up to three times stronger than the most mind-bending buds.
It might be an understatement to say that marijuana concentrates smoked from so-called vape pens—the pot version of e-cigarettes—accomplish for stoners what flasks full of moonshine do for lushes: Portable, discreet, and fantastically potent, they're revolutionizing the logistics of getting high, and minimizing the risk of discovery. Stories abound of people using vape pens to blaze away undetected at baseball games, city council meetings, kids' soccer matches, and, of most concern to parents and educators, high schools. Even if pot brownies have been around forever, this is probably not what your average Colorado or Washington voter had in mind when they cast a ballot to legalize recreational marijuana.
The concentrates typically used in vape pens are made by extracting THC from pot with water ("bubble hash"), transferring it into butter ("budder"), or refining it into what's known as butane hash oil (BHO, or "errrl," since stoners need a slang term for everything pot-related). From there, it can be refined further into a wax or an amber-like solid ("shatter"). These products are up to three times stronger than the most mind-bending buds. In short, it ain't your father's schwag, and its snowballing popularity among young people is reshaping the culture of the pot scene: One customarily smokes (or "dabs") BHO from specially designed bongs known as "oil rigs," and not at the designated hour of 4:20, but rather at 7:10—which, in case you're wondering, is "OIL" upside down and backwards.
The epicenter of today's LA quake was eight miles from oil waste injection wells. Kyle Ferrar, FracTracker Alliance
Was the 4.4-magnitude earthquake that rattled Los Angeles on Monday morning caused by fracking methods? It's hard to say, but what's clear from the above map, made by Kyle Ferrar of the FracTracker Alliance, is that the quake's epicenter was just eight miles from a disposal well where oil and gas wastewater is being injected underground at high pressure.
Don Drysdale, spokesman for the state agency that oversees California Geological Survey, told me that state seismologists don't think that the injection well was close enough to make a difference (and the agency has also raised the possibility that Monday's quake could have been a foreshock for a larger one). But environmental groups aren't so sure.
In 2011, a 5.7-magnitude temblor in Oklahoma—where quakes are rare—destroyed 14 homes and baffled seismologists.
In other states, injection wells located 7.5 miles from a fault have been shown to induce seismic activity, points out Andrew Grinberg, the oil and gas project manager for Clean Water Action. "We are not saying that this quake is a result of an injection," he adds, "but with so many faults all over California, we need a better understanding of how, when, and where induced seismicity can occur with relation to injection."
"Shaky Ground," a new report from Clean Water Action, Earthworks, and the Center for Biological Diversity, argues that the close proximity of such wells to active faults could increase the state's risk of earthquakes. According to the report, more than half of the state's permitted oil wastewater injection wells are located less than 10 miles from an active fault, and 87 of them, or about 6 percent, are located within a mile of an active fault.
Scientists have long known that injecting large amounts of wastewater underground can cause earthquakes by increasing pressure and reducing friction along fault lines. One of the best known early examples took place in 1961, when the US Army disposed of millions of gallons of hazardous waste by injecting it 12,000 feet beneath the surface of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver. The influx caused more than 1,500 earthquakes over a five year period in an area not known for seismic activity; the worst among them registered at more than 5.0 on the Richter scale and caused $500,000 in damage. Geologists later discovered that the Army well had been drilled into an unknown fault.
As Michael Behar detailed in-depth last year in Mother Jones, fracking is now a leading suspect for a spate of serious earthquakes in places that hardly ever see them, such as Oklahoma, where in 2011, a 5.7-magnitude temblor destroyed 14 homes and baffled seismologists.
"In some locations of the US, the disposal of wastewater associated with oil/gas production, including hydraulic fracturing operations, appears to have triggered some low-magnitude seismic activity," concedes Drysdale, the Geological Survey spokesman. But in California, he adds, oil companies are required to evaluate surrounding geology before disposing of wastewater underground, and can't inject it at dangerously high pressures.
Yet Grinberg, a coauthor of the "Shaky Ground" report, says that the existing regulations don't go far enough now that quake-prone California is poised for a fracking boom. Though he'd like to see a moratorium on fracking while the risks are studied, he wants any eventual regulations to at least require seismic monitoring at or near injection wells and to look at the cumulative earthquake risk of entire oil fields.
No place in America grows as much marijuana as Northern California's Trinity, Mendocino, and Humboldt counties. Backcountry pot farming isn't just a leading industry in the so-called Emerald Triangle; it's pretty much the only industry. As I discovered on a recent road trip to investigate the environmental impacts of large-scale pot farming, nowhere is this more obvious than on the radio. Here's a sampling of actual ads you're likely to hear on the way to your neighbor's bud-trimming party:
UPDATE: Beau Kilmer of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center argues that the government estimates of domestic marijuana production used in this piece and many others are in fact too high. Kilmer's research, published last week, suggests that total US marijuana consumption in 2010 (including pot from Mexico) was somewhere between 9.2 and 18.5 million pounds.