Blue Marble - April 2010

Massey Under Fire for Mine Safety Failure

| Thu Apr. 8, 2010 9:35 PM EDT

It's sad that it takes a tragedy like Monday's coal mine explosion in Montcoal, W.Va. to call attention to the failures of Massey Energy and its CEO, Don Blankenship. And as news reports in the past days have demonstrated, their transgressions against worker health and safety are numerous.

Today Mike Lillis at Washington Independent reports that 41 other Massey mines have tallied 2,074 safety violations since January. "At the Upper Big Branch — where rescue teams were still searching Wednesday night for four missing miners — investigators had cited 124 similar safety violations this year. More than 50 of them were issued in March alone," writes Lillis.

Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette reports that parts or all of the Upper Big Branch Mine were ordered closed more than 60 times in 2009 and 2010. "[T]he mine was repeatedly cited in recent months for allowing potentially explosive coal dust to accumulate," writes Ward, citing newly released government documents. In the past year, inspectors have fined Massey more than $382,000 for safety violations at just that one mine.

President Barack Obama announced today that he is pressing for answers on mine safety, and will meet next week with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Mine Safety and Health Administrator Joe Main. He called for a report on "the steps that the Federal government should take to improve safety enforcement and prevent future tragedies." It's really unfortunate that it took a disaster of this magnitude to get the kind of attention to the issue, since the red flags have been up at this mine and many other Massey mines for years.

As Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said in statement this week, miners "deserve … an employer who respects and values their safety."

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Conservation Triage

| Thu Apr. 8, 2010 3:18 PM EDT

It's the International Year of Biodiversity. Sad irony in this same year that CITES failed to protect endangered species in desperate need (bluefin tuna, sharks), because their commercial worth was deemed worthier.

At Yale 360, John Waldman writes a compelling and poignant piece about how the natural world vanishes and species cease to matter. He and colleague Karin Limburg have given the phenomenon known as shifting baselines—the fact that each generation encounters degraded environmental conditions it considers "normal"—a new name:

"[We] have come up with another term for the broader context of this phenomenon: "eco-social anomie." Anomie is defined as a state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown of social priorities and values. Eco-social anomie describes a biological and cultural feedback loop that spirals toward this breakdown: As species disappear, they lose both relevance to a society and the constituency to champion their revival, further hastening their decline. A vivid example of this was highlighted in a recent study in Conservation Biology, in which researchers found that younger residents along China’s Yangtze River knew little or nothing of the river dolphin, the bajii—now believed to be extinct—and the threatened paddlefish."

Waldman describes how anadromous fishes—those that migrate between fresh and saltwater environments—have fallen dramatically from our consciousness:

"In the case of migratory fish, their once-vital niche in society is often reduced to vestigial place names, such as the Sturgeon Pool in the Hudson watershed in New York and the Salmon Kill on the Housatonic in Connecticut, which today offer local color—but no eponymous fish. Numerous measures show that the two-dozen migratory fishes of both shores of the North Atlantic have seen profound reduction… Of 35 studies of the long-term fate of migratory fish, relative abundances had dropped below 98 percent from historic highs for 13 species, and below 90 percent for another 11, with most species reaching their lowest levels in recent years."

In light of the failure at CITES (and Copenhagen), many are seeking a new direction forward, believing we've already missed our chance at meeting the loftiest goals for maintaining a thriving world and must now settle for lesser ones. Rob Goldstein at Conservation Maven writes how conservationists are being forced to make difficult choices on where to spend limited resources—a kind of conservation triage. Some are suggesting we focus on species with few relatives and rare genetic lineages:

"Two new research articles take a less common, but compelling, approach to prioritization by focusing on the evolutionary distinctiveness of species—i.e. the extent to which a given species is lacking in close relatives. This phylogenetic approach is based on the idea that maintaining evolutionary diversity should be an important objective."

Goldstein points to the paper, the Rarest of the Rare in Diversity and Distributions, where the authors have developed a new metric for determining how worthy a species is of receiving scarce conservation funds. Their metric includes genetic isolation and the rarity of species. In other words, evolutionary distinctiveness is definitely worth spending money on—though less so if an evolutionarily distinct species also has an abundant population.

In A Phylogenetic Approach to Conserving Amazonian Biodiversity in Conservation Biology, Colombian researchers found that some of this triage was already happening on the ground in the Amazon. They ranked large areas of rainforest based on their relative conservation importance, specifically on their rates of endemism—the numbers of species occurring only in those areas—and found places with high endemism were already being protected more vigorously than those with lower endemism. Goldstein summarizes:

"The study ended up ranking Guyana and the Brazilian states of Roraima and Amazonas as the most important areas. Interestingly they also calculated the more conventional metric of species richness and found that it gave a similar prioritization of regions. Moreover, their rankings matched up well with where conservation dollars are actually spent."

That's a hopeful finding. Conservation triage may be working—at least in the Amazon—at least as well can be expected in a system where some of the patients are going to be left to die.

GAO: Alaska Offshore Drilling Decision Based on Faulty Analysis

| Thu Apr. 8, 2010 12:55 PM EDT

Remember the Obama administration's big announcement last week that it plans to expand offshore drilling? It turns out that the environmental analysis of at least one of the new drilling areas may have been faulty.

According to a Government Accountability Office report released yesterday, the Alaska regional office of the Minerals Management Service within the Department of Interior failed to follow internal policy and hid from employees industry-generated reports examining the environmental impacts of more drilling. Office management claims it kept information secret to "protect proprietary information" of oil and gas companies.

Regional staff say that the secrecy within the office "has hindered their ability to complete sound environmental assessments." The report was just released, but the Interior Department had drafts sometime before March 1—well before the agency decided to go ahead and open areas of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska to drilling.

Robert McClure at Investigate West has more on the GAO report, noting that some scientists who were fed up with being forced to do half-baked reports quit. Writes McClure:

Remember, folks, we are talking here about the Obama administration, which, as we noted recently, seems reminiscent of the Bush administration on some enviro matters lately. This latest finding flies in the face of President Obama's chest-pounding about how his administration would end the era of arm-twisting government scientists.

"If the same managers who manipulated and suppressed scientific evaluations are still in charge, why should the public expect candid assessments of environmental impacts to suddenly begin?" asked Jeff Ruch, executive director of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, in a statement. Alaskan anti-drilling advocates are calling for the Obama administration to rescind its decision to open these areas of Alaska until the environmental analysis can be reviewed. 

Why Does Google Care About Your Power Bill?

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 1:28 PM EDT

Like most people, I don't have much information readily available about my power use. A bill containing information on my energy use during the previous month arrives via email every month, and I pay what it says I owe the utility. I have no idea what appliances suck the most power in my house, or how I could best reduce my overall consumption. But now Google wants to make sure everyone has more and better information about how much energy we use.

Google has already released a prototype PowerMeter, a web-based energy monitoring tool that provides real-time information about home usage. The company is also eyeing the market for other tech innovations that could help cut consumer energy use. But in order to work, their system and most others require smart grid technology like meters that can connect homes with their utilities. They also require information from power providers that would make it possible to use these meters.

Thus, Google and other high-tech companies are ramping up pressure on the government to ease access to the information and innovations that would expand use of these products. The company hosted a summit on access to energy information on Tuesday at its DC office, and joined 45 other major companies, venture capitalists, and environmental groups in calling on the Obama administration to "adopt the goal of giving every household and business access to timely, useful and actionable information on their energy use" in a letter. By giving energy users better information, they write, government can help "unleash the forces of innovation in homes and businesses."

The groups list three top-line requests: "clear rules on consumer access to information; incentives to promote the deployment of technologies, including cost recovery; programs that educate and engage both providers and energy users; and encouragement of diverse technologies."

The Obama administration last fall announced $3.4 billion in smart grid funding, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu is a big fan of the technology. White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner endorsed the goals at Tuesday's event. "Giving people this kind of real-time feedback will start to change not only their behavior, which is important," said Browner. "But, equally important, it will start to drive the demand for more efficient appliances."

It's clear that Google and other tech companies see a lot of potential in improving access to energy information. I, for one, welcome our new energy conservation overlords, if it means we can get real time information sometime soon. Google's entry into the space will be something to keep an eye on.

Summers: "Eclectic" Energy Agenda Needed

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 8:41 AM EDT

The Obama administration says it wants a comprehensive approach to energy and climate policy, and anything short of that would be "unfortunate." But Larry Summers, director of Obama's National Economic Council, also said yesterday that they're willing to take an "eclectic" approach that can appease all sides.

Via Energy & Environment News, here's Summers at an event hosted by the Energy Information Administration yesterday:

If ever there was an issue where we needed to move from either/or to both/and, that it is energy …Instead of debating the relative importance of the priorities of different camps on the left and on the right, of the Southwest and of those in New England, of those oriented to the economy or those oriented to the environment, instead we have the opportunity to move forward by embracing the priorities of multiple groups, by taking an eclectic approach to formulating a new energy policy.

What does that mean?

Obama's big offshore drilling announcement last week was intended to signal that his administration is willing to make concessions on energy policy in order to advance a broader environmental agenda. That was also at least part of the motivation for administration's major expansion of nuclear power. The problem is, so far Obama has made all the compromises, with no sign that any Republicans or even moderate Democrats might come around to support his agenda.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday April 6

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 8:00 PM EDT

Stories on health, the environment, and energy from our other blogs.

We Wish: Shell doesn't apologize to Niger Delta, but the Yes Men pranksters do.

Stork Insurance: Banning abortion insurance coverage isn't a new issue.

Taking Stock of Copenhagen: Three months later, what have we achieved?

Counting Calories: Turns out calorie counters are flawed for future weight predictions.

Lone Ranger: Fred Karger's fight for gay rights intersects with Salt Lake City's.

Race and Obamacare: Minorities aren't the only ones who'll benefit from healthcare reform.

No Reform Here: One urologist wants Obama fans to go elsewhere.

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Browner: Energy-Only Bill Would Be "Unfortunate"

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 3:37 PM EDT

There are growing tensions in the Senate over whether Democrats should wait for a comprehensive energy and climate bill or move forward right away with a (mediocre) bill that addresses narrower energy issues. But Barack Obama's energy and climate adviser Carol Browner affirmed on Tuesday that the administration is holding out for comprehensive legislation.

"You will hear talk about maybe an energy-only bill" Browner at an event Tuesday afternoon. "We think that would be unfortunate."

Browner acknowledged that last week's announcement on offshore drilling probably wasn't very popular among environmentalists, but said it should be viewed as part of the administration's bigger plan. The White House, she said, is engaged in talks with senators and have made their desire for a comprehensive bill "very clear." Browner said she has been "encouraged by the work" of Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Of course, there's still no legislation from the climate troika yet. Perhaps the big question now is whether the White House will start pressuring them to pick up the pace.

Climate Change in the Deep

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 3:03 PM EDT
What happens at the surface doesn't stay at the surface. It seems that changes in Earth's climate can cause unexpectedly large changes in deep-sea ecosystems. Based on 18 years of studies, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute's Ken Smith and coauthors show that such ecosystem changes occur over short time scales of weeks to months, as well as over longer periods of years to decades. The paper, Climate, carbon cycling, and deep-ocean ecosystems, is in PNAS. From the From the abstract:
 
"The dependence of deep-sea communities on surface water production has raised important questions about how climate change will affect carbon cycling and deep-ocean ecosystem function. Recently, unprecedented time-series studies conducted over the past two decades in the North Pacific and the North Atlantic at >4,000-m depth have revealed unexpectedly large changes in deep-ocean ecosystems significantly correlated to climate-driven changes in the surface ocean that can impact the global carbon cycle. Climate-driven variation affects oceanic communities from surface waters to the much-overlooked deep sea and will have impacts on the global carbon cycle. Data from these two widely separated areas of the deep ocean provide compelling evidence that changes in climate can readily influence deep-sea processes."
The MBARI video illuminates some of the changes underway in the permanent darkness of the deep sea floor.
 

Hope in the Coal Fields

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 11:54 AM EDT

The news from Montcoal, West Virginia, where at least 25 miners have died following an explosion, is unspeakably sad. It's tragic in large part because it's clear that the mine's owner, Massey Energy, has repeatedly violated health and safety laws and endangered the lives of its workers.

One miner who survived lost his son, older brother and nephew in the blast, which speaks to the reality of towns like Montcoal, where mining is both a family tradition and often the only employment available.

But amid the sad news, I will point to one hopeful opportunity in Raleigh County. At nearby Coal River Mountain, advocates for local jobs and clean energy have been trying to push officials to protect the mountain from mining and instead build a 328-megawatt wind farm on the site. Rather than Massey blowing up Coal River Mountain and destroying it forever, the wind farm, they say, could create at least 250 local jobs and sustained income for the county. State officials have so far sided with Massey, but local residents are now appealing to the federal government to intervene on their behalf. Of course, the tragic mine accident occurred in an underground mine, and the proposal for Coal River is a mountaintop removal site, but both have devastating effects on surrounding communities.

As Coal River activist Lorelei Scarbro told me recently, the project stands as hope for the future of Appalachia:

In the coal fields, people have been oppressed for generations by the coal industry. We live in a mono-economy. We don't have any choices. With this wind project, we have begun to see a glimmer of hope. There are people here who are actually beginning to hope that things won't be the way they've always been.

Transit and the Climate Bill

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 10:56 AM EDT

If a gas tax is included in a climate and energy bill, will it actually achieve the desired goals of reducing emissions and oil use? From what the three senators devising the plan have said, probably not. Now eight senators are calling for the revenues from a tax to be invested in programs that do much more to cut planet-warming emissions.

Lead author Tom Carper (D-Del.) in a letter sent to Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Monday caling for the revenue to be "reinvested into infrastructure strategies that will reduce transportation emissions and oil consumption," they write. The bill should send the money to transportation projects, both for roads and public transit, and require the states and city planning organizations who receive funds to set goals for both greenhouse gas emissions and oil reduction. And in doling out the funds, the government should evaluate whether projects demonstrate savings in both areas.

The senators cite a recent study from the University of Massachusetts that found that every $1 billion of investment in transportation can create 23,000 jobs -- a job-creation rate 36 percent higher than investments in things like incentive programs for renewable energy production. It could also save consumers significant amounts of money, the senators write. The Department of Transportation currently needs another $30 billion just to maintain current systems; a real improvement in our infrastructure would require another $75 billion in investment, they write.

Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Michael Bennet (D-Col.) also signed the letter.

The Obama administration's plan to reduce automobile emissions, issued last week, is a good start. But unless the climate bill triggers other meaningful reductions in transportation-related pollution, it will miss a huge opportunity to address the linked problem of emissions and oil dependence.