Blue Marble - September 2010

Climate Denialism Down, But So Is Caring About Climate

| Wed Sep. 22, 2010 3:48 PM PDT

Scientific American and Nature recently published the results of a survey they undertook to understand how Americans feel about science. Unfortunately, because they solicited participation via their respective websites, the 21,000 respondents were above-average in scientific understanding: a whopping 19% had doctorates, versus around 1% of the general population. Predictably, the #1 source of trusted information for this reader group was... wait for it... scientists! The least trusted was "religious authorities."

Despite this bias, one encouraging finding was that climate denialism is shrinking, and the US is not among the worst offenders. According to the survey, in the US 37% of people are "more certain" humans are changing the climate, while 14% were "more doubtful" of man-made climate change. In contrast, in Japan 22% were more doubtful, and in Brazil, 20%. Overall, however, "Among those respondents who have changed their opinions in the past year, three times more said they are more certain than less certain that humans are changing the climate," the survey reported.

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Murkowski Stays in Energy Post—For Now

| Wed Sep. 22, 2010 3:26 PM PDT

It was widely assumed that Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski would be booted from her position as ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee at Wednesday's caucus meeting. After all, she had been unceremoniously ousted from her role as vice chairman of the Senate Republican conference last week, shortly after announcing her intention to run as a write-in candidate against Joe Miller, the tea partier who beat her in last month's primary. So far, her colleagues in the Senate have not been particularly nice about the whole affair. But it looks like Murkowski will get to hold her powerful seat on the committee for now.

While Senate Republicans unanimously agreed to tap John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) as the next vice chairman of the caucus, they did not make a decision about her committee role, reports The Hill.

The piece makes it sound like they ran out of time to deal with Murkowski's post today, but the implications are important. Murkowski has been touting her seniority on the committee as something of value to the state. As the ranking member on that committee, she plays a major role in shaping legislation, working closely with Democratic chairman Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico on measures like last year's energy bill. She was also heavily courted as a potential vote for climate legislation, despite opposing most legislative efforts from Democrats on that front. Murkowski currently has a pretty big say in policies for her state—and the many oil and gas interests represented therein.

Needless to say, the Alaska race continues to be one to watch this year.

Pick Bill McKibben's Brain

Wed Sep. 22, 2010 10:30 AM PDT

Join us at noon Pacific time (3 pm Eastern) today when Chip Giller, founder of our Climate Desk partner site Grist, hosts a live chat with Bill McKibben, environmental activist and author of The End of Nature and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Ask McKibben about the latest news on climate science and climate politics, the need for direct action in the climate movement, and 350.org's big plans for a global work party on 10/10/10.

This chat was produced by Grist as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Front page image: 350.org/Flickr

RES Rises Again

| Tue Sep. 21, 2010 1:27 PM PDT

A bipartisan group of senators unveiled their bill to create a federal standard for renewable energy on Tuesday, a measure that renewable energy advocates have been urging Congress to approve this year. The renewable electricity standard (RES) measure represents the last, best hope for those pushing for action on climate and energy in the Senate this year.

The RES, from lead co-sponsors Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), hews closely to the standard passed in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year. Beginning in 2012, utilities will be required to draw 3 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. The percentage scales up to 15 percent by 2021, where it would remain through 2039.

Wind, solar, ocean, geothermal, biomass, new hydropower, and gas drawn from landfills would all qualify as renewable under the standard. States will also be allowed to meet a little more than a quarter of the requirement by improving efficiency at power plants. The definition is expanded somewhat from the version included in a larger energy package that Bingaman's committee approved in June 2009.

"This is an issue that should be addressed now, can be addressed now, and would be appropriate to address now," Brownback said, who sported a neck tie with an illustration of wind turbines. Brownback said he believes the scaled-back RES measure could get bipartisan support, and added that "the beauty of this is it's not cap and trade," the program to limit carbon dioxide emissions that the entirety of his party in the Senate now opposes. "This is a level we can attain," he added.

Bingaman said he isn't sure yet how many Democrats would support the measure. He said he will work in the coming weeks to gather support on both sides of the aisle, seeking confirmation of 60 votes before he asks Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring it to the floor. He anticipates that it would be offered in a lame-duck session after the November election at the earliest.

So far, the measure has the support of three Republicans—Brownback, John Ensign of Nevada, and Susan Collins of Maine—and six Democrats. Bingaman noted that a version of an RES has passed three times before in the Senate in previous congresses, but each time failed to pass in the House. The House has already passed one this year, leaving Senate passage necessary for it to become law.

While renewable energy advocates believe their proposed standard isn't high enough, they are hopeful that it is attainable this year.

After 'Glaciergate,' UN Panel on Climate Change Mulls Reforms

Tue Sep. 21, 2010 12:11 PM PDT

In March, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked a committee of leading academics to review the work of one of the world's most prestigious scientific bodies: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC, as it is often called, won the Nobel Prize in 2007 with Al Gore for its work on global warming. That year, the IPCC reported with more than 90 percent certainty that global warming was real, and that it was "very likely" caused by human activity.

As it turns out, there were some embarrassing errors in that report, and critics have seized on the mistakes as evidence that the IPCC's work is flawed. The panel charged with investigating the IPCC recently released the results of its five-month review, along with a slew of recommendations for how the body could improve its work and regain the public trust. The full body of the IPCC will consider the recommendations at a meeting in Korea next month.

Need to Know's Alison Stewart talks with the man who led the investigation, Harold Shapiro, a former Princeton University president and bioethics adviser to Bill Clinton. Shapiro explains how the mistakes have hurt the IPCC, how the panel has reacted to his findings, and whether the problems he discovered surprised him.

This podcast was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

BP's Press Harassment Continues

| Tue Sep. 21, 2010 10:37 AM PDT

As Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland found some months ago, members of the press trying to cover the BP oil spill have been repeatedly stopped by the company's goons. Some of those goons are local law enforcement who are working for BP trying to "strongly encourage" reporters to adhere to laws that don't actually exist. Like the supposed law that you can't dig in the sand on public beaches, not even if you want to build a sandcastle. This week, Florida ABC3 newsman Dan Thomas went to a local beach with a 2' long, blue plastic shovel to check on oil below the beach's surface.

BP workers aren't allowed to dig deeper than 6" to look for oil, even though oil is easily visible before the 6" mark, but Thomas wasn't allowed to dig at all. "You need a permit to do that," a Fish & Wildlife office told the reporter, encouraging him to move down the shore. Thomas did move, but was then accosted by a National Parks officer who told him it was "illegal" to film in a National Park and demanded to see his press pass. "You can't dig in a National Park," the officer told him. "So, no sandcastles, none of that?" a dubious Thomas asked. "You're right," the officer said. The park's superintendent later said he didn't know why Thomas was stopped and confirmed that it was, indeed, okay to dig for sandcastles on the beach.

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"I Don't Think Anybody's Going To Be Missing a Hill or Two Here and There"

| Tue Sep. 21, 2010 9:48 AM PDT

The Sierra Club is out with a new web ad today targeting what the group calls "extreme" views from Kentucky's Republican Senate candidate, Rand Paul.

The ad focuses mostly on his environmental views, which include statements like calling the administration's threat to hold BP accountable for the Gulf spill "really un-American." Paul also complained that President Obama's trip to Copenhagen to last year for the United Nations climate conference was just a meeting with socialist leaders "to apologize for the industrial revolution." And he made light of the environmental disaster of mountaintop-removal coal mining: "You got quite a few hills. I don't think anybody's going to be missing a hill or two here and there."

The video also throws in some of Paul's questionable remarks on civil rights and immigration and the 14th amendment for good measure. Sierra Club Independent Action is using the ads to raise funds for their efforts to keep Paul and other GOP candidates they have say are "extremists" when it comes to the environment. There's justifiable concern in the Kentucky race; Paul leads Democrat Jack Conway by 15 points, according to the latest polls.

"Tea Party Candidates like Rand Paul, Sharon Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Ken Buck, and Pat Toomey are trying to make Americans scared of even what little progress our country has made on clean energy, and global warming," said Cathy Duvall, Sierra Club's political director. "We are working to get the word out that we can't let these extremists run our government."

Here's the ad:

Nebraskans Cautious About Pipeline

| Tue Sep. 21, 2010 4:00 AM PDT

As I reported last month, even though the US government has not given the green light for a giant pipeline that TransCanada wants to build to move oil from Alberta to Texas, the oil giant is already sending threatening letters to landowners in Nebraska. The 1,980-mile pipeline would blaze right through the state—that is, if the federal government approves it. But Nebraskans aren't particularly excited about the pipeline, according to a new poll that found 48 percent of state residents oppose the project. Another 33 percent of state residents are still undecided, and only 19 percent approve of the proposal.

With concerns mounting about the safety of pipelines, it's not surprising that Nebraskans would be less than enthusiastic about allowing a giant one to run straight through their state. The poll was conducted on behalf of Bold Nebraska, a progressive group that opposes the pipeline. Seventy-six percent of those polled said they believe that there should be state regulations on pipelines, and 81 percent said they should have access to and input in the states's emergency response plan for an oil spill. Eighty-four percent of residents said they wanted their elected officials at the local and state level to be "very active" in raising questions about the proposed pipeline.

Republican Governor Dave Heineman has avoided the topic, stating that it's a "federal regulatory issue" and not something the state needs to be concerned with. But Republican Senator Mike Johanns issued a fairly strong statement last month urging TransCanada to remain "above board" in their negotiations with state residents. "Landowners tell me that TransCanada has set arbitrary deadlines for acceptance of payment offers and threatened the use of eminent domain without so much as an approved permit to move forward with the project," said Johanns, and called on TransCanada to "immediately lift any deadlines imposed on Nebraska landowners and to negotiate in good faith."

The poll is further evidence that Nebraskas don't want to be railroaded on the pipeline. "Citizens do not appreciate being misled by TransCanada and want our elected leaders to stand up and protect our land and water," said Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska.

Not Dead Yet! Renewable Electricity Standard Gets Another Chance

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 1:22 PM PDT

Good news for those who have been keeping the hope alive for a renewable electricity standard this year: A bipartisan group of senators plans to announce new legislation on that front on Tuesday.

Tomorrow afternoon, Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) will unveil their plan to create a national renewable energy standard at a press conference, where they'll be joined by Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Tom Udall (D-N.M.). While Brownback is better know for strident view on abortion and the creation of human-animal chimeras, he's been the most vocal Republican supporter of an RES in the Senate.

Hope for an RES this year dimmed after it was not included in the energy/oil spill package Harry Reid put together in July (which the Senate has yet to act on). But the announcement of stand-alone legislation—and bipartisan legislation at that—renews hope that it could be completed this year.

So far, they're not saying exactly how much renewable energy their bill will require. The RES included in Bingaman's previous energy bill called for utilities to draw 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2021. After that RES was approved in committee, the clean-energy industry complained that it was no better than the business-as-usual path. But they've since warmed to even the lower standard. calling it "the right RES to pass as a starting point at this moment of acute urgency."

Based on Bingaman's last RES effort and what the senators have indicated so far, the renewable electricity mandate in this bill will probably be on the low side. Brownback's statement emphasized the need for a "sensible and modest renewable energy standard" to kick-start the industry. It would probably be lower than the RES the House passed in June 2009 as part of the combined climate and energy bill, which required utilities to draw 20 percent of electricity to come from renewables by 2020.

"I think that the votes are present in the Senate to pass a renewable electricity standard. I think that they are present in the House," said Bingaman. "I think that we need to get on with figuring out what we can pass and move forward."

The Next Fossil Fuel Disaster?

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 12:00 PM PDT

Should the massive explosion of a natural gas pipeline in San Bruno, California, prompt an overhaul of the agency that's supposed to be regulating these pipelines? The September 9 explosion that killed four people, injured many others, and destroyed dozens of homes has state officials in California prodding owner PG&E Corp. for more information about the safety of the company's pipelines. But what's going on at the federal regulatory agency that's supposed to oversee the safety of 2.3 million miles of pipeline crisscrossing the country?

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Minerals Management Service (now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation, and Enforcement) was put through the wringer for the failed oversight that may have led to the catastrophe. The head of MMS got the boot shortly after the disaster, and the troubled agency was split into separate divisions in an effort to reduce the cozy relationship that had developed between regulators and the companies they're supposed to oversee.

There hasn't been quite the backlash against the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation, and its head, Cynthia Quarterman. But the division is now drawing some comparisons to the failures at MMS—most notably because Quarterman was the director of the MMS under former president Bill Clinton. (PHMSA associate administrator Jeffrey Wiese also comes from MMS—he worked in the offshore oil and gas division for 15 years; he was the chief of staff for offshore operations for five of those years.) After leaving MMS, Quarterman also represented two companies responsible for pipeline spills in the Midwest. One of those companies was Enbridge Inc., owner of the Michigan pipeline that dumped more than a million gallons of oil in July.

Greenwire reports on the concerns about Quarterman's leadership:

Quarterman—who took PHMSA's helm last November—has recused herself in matters involving Enbridge, an agency spokeswoman said in a statement. The statement added that Quarterman signed an ethics pledge that "precludes her from handling particular matters involving her former private sector clients for two years from the date of her appointment."

"Safety is this Department's top priority," the statement added.

But critics say her appointment conflicts with Obama's vow to avoid appointing regulators with industry ties.

"She was an advocate for one of the biggest pipeline firms in the nation," said Paul Blackburn, an attorney with Plains Justice, a Western environmental group fighting for tougher pipeline regulation. "I have a hard time believing that she would have an objective perspective on pipeline safety."

Like MMS, there have been serious concerns raised about PHMSA's relationship with the industry, and about deficiencies at the agency that may limit its ability to do its job. Right now, 110 inspectors are supposed to oversee all 2.3 million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines.

The Department of Transportation last week sent draft legislation to Congress aimed at strengthening pipeline oversight, a response to both the Michigan pipeline spill and the explosion in California. As Andrew Restuccia reports at the Washington Independent, the proposal would increase fines for companies whose pipelines cause death, injury, or environmental damage from $1 million to $2.5 million, and fund 40 additional pipeline inspectors. It also directs PHMSA to update its inspection policies.

But as Restuccia notes, House transportation and infrastructure committee chair Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is concerned that the proposal from the administration doesn't do enough—and besides, it probably won't be passed this Congress, considering the short time left on the legislative calendar this year. Oberstar notes that the proposal does not go far enough in mandating better systems to prevent leaks, and should give PHMSA more authority over the plans the companies must have in place for testing their pipelines.

In the months since the Deepwater Horizon spill, there's been a concerted effort to make long-needed changes at MMS. Perhaps PHMSA needs the same kind of attention.