Blue Marble - September 2010

Needed: A 50-State Strategy on Climate

| Fri Sep. 10, 2010 4:21 PM EDT

I don't spend much time "inside the Beltway," so I've reserved judgment in recent years on the Beltway-centric strategy to advance climate policy. I'm willing to grant that all those Congress-focused lobbywonks are rational. As a seventh-generation Montanan who's physiologically dependent on wide open spaces, I wouldn't want to stay in DC long enough to find out. The place creeps me out.

But in the aftermath of the climate-legislation train wreck, I'm starting to wonder. Here's the view from the cheap seats.

My organization works in states that will have to come along if the US Senate is ever going to pass a climate bill: Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. This is the home of the Prairie Populists, the last true moderates, red states that elect blue leaders; a place of political conundrums that coastals find endlessly perplexing and try to avoid.

In the push for climate legislation, we've played host to a legion of parachuting climate groups that somehow don't see themselves as parachutists: one-issue activists hired by national campaigns to organize low-population states outside the existing grassroots structure in those states. They draw resources away from in-state groups and often poison the public discourse on sensitive issues like climate with their tone-deaf messaging and hard-sell tactics. I'd say you know who you are, but apparently you don't. If you did, you'd stop it, because it doesn't work.

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EPA to Gas Drillers: Give Us the Fracking Data!

| Fri Sep. 10, 2010 3:13 PM EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency has asked companies that extract natural gas to voluntarily disclose the chemicals in the liquids they use to tap gas reserves. Hydraulic fracturing, a method that uses a high-pressure blast of chemical compounds, sand, and water to fracture rock and access natural gas reserves, has drawn plenty of criticism, as companies have been caught injecting diesel and other toxic chemicals into the ground.

While the EPA's request is voluntary, the letter it sent to nine companies was pretty forceful. Because the data the agency is looking for "is similar to information that has already been provided separately to Congress by the industry," the agency state in a realease, "EPA expects the companies to cooperate." If they don't, "EPA is prepared to use its authorities to require the information needed to carry out its study."

In the letter to the companies, the agency is even more direct: "EPA is requesting that you provide this information voluntarily; however, to the extent that EPA does not receive sufficient data in response to this letter, EPA will be exploring legal alternatives to compel submission of the needed information."

BJ Services, Complete Production Services, Halliburton, Key Energy Services, Patterson-UTI, PRC, Inc., Schlumberger, Superior Well Services, and Weatherford received the letter. They are asked to indicate whether or not they intend to provide that information within seven days, and to actually cough it up within 30 days.

Natural gas extractors have been caught using toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene in their fracking fluids. But in 2005, the industry successfully lobbied to have fracking fluids exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act—meaning they currently don't have to tell the public what they're injecting into the ground. Yet with the rapid expansion of the natural gas industry and backlash in areas where drilling has now become an issue, the industry is getting more scrutiny. Earlier this year, Halliburton and BJ Services admitted to injected hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel-based chemicals into the ground.

The EPA has undertaken a multiyear study of the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water and public health. The first results of the study are expected in 2012. But efforts to force companies to disclose the chemicals have met quite a bit of backlash. Many of the gas companies have been reluctant to provide even the most basic information to the agency. They argue that the chemical mixtures are proprietary information and are as safe as Coca-Cola. (In the request letter, the EPA states that companies can request that the data they provide be considered Confidential Business Information, which means while the agency gets to see it, the public would still be in the dark.)

There are also some signs that Congress might legislate disclosure in the near future. The Senate energy bill (which is effectively dead for now anyway) drew a lot of heat for a provision that would have forced disclosure. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) has introduced a similar measure in the House.

Health Shots: Stem Cells & Teeth, Rx from Hell, Dr. Internet

| Fri Sep. 10, 2010 1:12 PM EDT

A sampling of the latest medical findings. DIY stem cells in your teeth. Why some dentistry fillings are worse than cavities. Worried, can't sleep? Sorry, the meds for that might kill you. Plus, the healing internet.

  • A new study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry shows that wisdom teeth contain a valuable tissue reservoir for the creation of stem cells. Which means everyone still in possession of their wisdom teeth might also possess his/her own personal stem-cell repository. If and when needed.
  • Researchs published in Pediatrics finds the plastic resins used in pediatric dentistry for fillings and sealants leach bisphenol A (BPA), which is detectable afterwards in kids' saliva, raising further concerns about exposure to these endocrine-disrupting, estrogenic plastics.
  • Cause for more worry: Taking medications to treat insomnia and anxiety increases mortality risks by 36 percent, according to a study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.
  • An interesting report from Susannah Fox at KevinMD on the fact that people with chronic disease, including depression, are less likely to use the internet. Yet if they do, the benefits of social media are likely to improve their health, by blogging, by participating in online health discussions, and by accessing hospital reviews, doctor reviews, and podcasts.

Clean Tech, Trade, and the Chinese Finger-Trap

| Fri Sep. 10, 2010 12:56 PM EDT

The US Steelworkers and a couple members of Congress are asking the Obama administration to confront China over subsidies and other policies to support its domestic clean energy industry that they say violate international trade laws. It's a challenge that highlights some of the toughest issues facing the US today: domestic job creation, the climate challenge, and the rising power of China.

USW filed a 5,800-page petition with the US Trade Representative on Thursday, urging the administration to sue China in the World Trade Organization to force it to drop the subsidies. USW warns that China's policies (which are covered quite well in this Times piece) are putting the US further behind in the clean energy race. If the government doesn't act, says Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, the US will become the "schoolyard patsy" as China eats our clean-tech lunch.

The complaint argues that China is using restrictions to block the export of the raw materials used for products like electric batteries and solar panels, has discriminated against foreign firms and goods, and has distorted the price of their goods with major subsidies, loans, and grants for domestic products. These constitute "illegal practices that stimulate and protect its domestic producers of green technology," USW argues, and "have enabled China to emerge as a dominant supplier of certain green technologies."

"Green jobs are key to our future," Gerard said in a statement. "Right now, China is taking every possible step—many of them illegal under international trade laws—to ensure that it will control that sector. America can't afford to cede more of its manufacturing base to China."

Now, given the always precarious state of diplomatic relations with China, it's unclear if the administration will want to pursue this; it has 45 days to decide whether to address the issue with China. In 2009, the Steelworkers filed a complaint about the surging volume of tires imported from China, and the feds responded by imposing tariffs on Chinese tires. This did not please China, to say the least.

Between the sagging US economy and the Obama administration's repeated warnings about China beating us in the clean-tech race if we don't get our national act together on the issue, questions about China's clean tech market are even more touchy than the tire issue. There's potentially a lot of money and jobs at stake here; one study last year estimated that China's market for renewable technology could grow to $1 trillion a year in the near future. The country already produces 43 percent of the world's solar panels, and its products are up to 20 percent cheaper than those made elsewhere.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday September 10

| Fri Sep. 10, 2010 7:01 AM EDT

News on the environment, health, energy and other Blue Marble topics from our other blogs.

Wrong Turn: Joe Romm says Obama's prioritization of health care over climate was wrong.

Co's MO: Insurance companies say premium hikes are due to reform. True?

Fear Up Harsh?: Border agents are accused of raping, torturing, and killing illegal immigrants.

Coal Country: The original Mother Jones fought for coal-workers' health, and raised hell doing it.

Oh Crap: Why feces is what comes up when you Google Rick Santorum.

 

Jimmy Carter's Solar Panel Returns To DC

| Thu Sep. 9, 2010 3:48 PM EDT

Whether Obama wants them or not, Jimmy Carter's solar panels will soon arrive at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The group 350.org started a campaign in July urging the Obama administration to install solar on the White House. Today the group plans to deliver one of the original panels that the Carter administration erected in 1979 to Obama's doorstep.

The panels, which eventually found a new home at Unity College in Maine after Ronald Reagan booted them from the West Wing in 1986, are dated but still functional. The group plans to offer one of the 6-by-3 foot panels to the White House, a symbolic move but one the group says could have real significance (they'd actually like him to install a new, more modern set of solar panels). Since the Senate put the kibosh on any hope of passing a climate bill this year, installing solar could still be a strong signal from the White House that it's serious about action on the issue.

"We'd rather have tough climate legislation, but that's not happening—not this year, maybe not in a couple years," said Bill McKibben, an author, activist, and founder of 350 (and frequent Mother Jones contributor). "We have to build a real movement. This is part of it."

The group also argues that installing new panels will raise public awareness about solar power, McKibben tells me via cell phone as the group rolls down I-95 in a van, en route to the White House. "When Michelle [Obama] planted her garden on the White House lawn, that was one reason seed sales grew the next year," says McKibben. "This kind of stuff counts. It's important to get it up there where people can see it."

The group has requested a meeting with White House staff on Friday to discuss installing new panels on the building, but says they've so far received "no commitments one way or the other" from the administration. (Council on Environmental Quality spokesperson Christine Glunz confirmed that the group will meet with "a White House representative" to "discuss support for renewable energy.") "They keep saying it's complicated. That's what we've heard so far," said McKibben. "Everything is complicated," he continued—but in this case, at least you don't need 60 votes (a nod, of course, to the threshold to overcome the filibuster in the Senate, a number that has stymied action on climate so far.) They've asked for a commitment to install new panels by Oct. 10, which the group has planned as a day of action on climate change.

Of course, you can't escape the significance of the panel's origin. McKibben points out that they highlight the fact that solar technology is nothing new; it's been around for 30 years. But there's also the Carter factor; I'm guessing he's not a president that the White House is particularly fond of thinking about these days. I asked whether there's any concern, heading into what's expected to be a rough election season, about calling to mind a Democratic president who was voted out of office after just one term. McKibben wasn't too worried.

"Everybody thinks of [Carter] as ineffective, but he was able to get solar panels," said McKibben. "It strikes me that this is one of the more popular things he ever did."

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60 Miles Per Gallon or Bust?

| Thu Sep. 9, 2010 3:04 PM EDT

With any hope that Congress will pass a climate and energy bill in 2010 now completely nonexistent, several environmental groups are turning their attention to a goal they think is achievable this year: raising the fuel economy standards for automobiles in the US to at least 60 miles per gallon over the next 15 years.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Environment America announced a new campaign Thursday to push the Obama administration to set ambitious goals for the country's automobile fleet in the coming months. Enviros also want the Environmental Protection Agency to lower the limit on greenhouse-gas emissions to 145 grams per mile.

The administration is expected to release guidance on future increases in fuel economy at the end of the month, following this spring's significant raising of standards. In April, the Obama administration announced new rules that will require light vehicles to get 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, up from the previous average of 27.5 miles per gallon. (The standard had been stuck at that level since 1990.) The rules combine guidelines for how much fuel the fleet should use with standards for emissions, and also require that vehicles emit less than 250 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. Improving the efficiency of automobiles is a significant step in fighting global warming: personal automobiles are responsible for about 60 percent of emissions in the transportation sector, and that sector alone accounts for nearly a third of all US emissions.

Environmentalists say the goal is entirely obtainable and should be a priority for the administration. "[Automakers] have the know-how to put the technology to work," said David Friedman, research director of the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We're just asking them to do what they already know how to do."

Freidman said the goal can be met with by offering more alternative-fuel vehicles and improving the efficiency of gasoline-powered models. He suggested that a realistic breakdown for achieving that goal would be moving 55 percent of the auto market to hybrids by 2025, increasing the number of plug-in hybrids and electric-battery vehicles to 15 percent. "We're looking for a hybrid in every garage and a plug-in vehicle on every block," he said.

The groups estimate that the increase would save 49 billion gallons of fuel and cut 535 million metric tons of planet-warming gases by 2030. Debbie Sease, national campaign director for Sierra Club, pointed to the Gulf oil disaster and the recent spill in Michigan as factors that should ignite public support for a significant increase in standards for automobiles. The coalition has launched a website, Go60mpg.org, and plans a media and grassroots campaign to back their proposal.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (a division of the Department of Transportation) are supposed to release initial proposals by the end of September. It's not clear how ambitious those standards will be, but automobile efficiency has been a significant focus for the administration; last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it is considering a plan to put stickers on automobiles with a letter grade based on their fuel-efficiency.

A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers could not be reached for comment on the proposal.

UPDATE: Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the Auto Alliance, released a statement dismissing the campaign Thursday afternoon: "Just last year automakers supported reaching 35+ MPG by 2016, and before we have even achieved those new heights, the calls have begun to almost double mileage. Clearly we live in a period of extreme political volatility, and some groups are promoting their political wish list prior to the elections. Instead of plucking numbers out of the air, we should base policy on science and expert reviews of all the factors, like affordability of technology, availability of low-carbon fuels and the state of the electric infrastructure."

What a BOEMRE

| Thu Sep. 9, 2010 1:30 PM EDT

In the days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appointed a panel to assess the problems at the Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) that may have made the disaster more likely. The Outer Continental Shelf Safety Oversight Board released its findings on Wednesday, and they weren't pretty. "It is honest," Secretary Ken Salazar said of the report. "It does not sugar-coat problems."

Indeed. The report found that BOEMRE does not have enough staff to conduct adequate inspections and the staff it does have is under-trained. Investigators also noted that the agency also doesn't have a great track record on conducting surprise inspections on offshore operations, or following up on the violations it discovers. 

Given the well-known issues at MMS, much of this isn't shocking. But the report does highlight the degree to which the agency has been ignored over the years. The bureau's Gulf operations have been especially neglected. While the Pacific region has five inspectors assigned to 23 production facilities, the Gulf of Mexico has just 55 employees assigned to 3,500 facilities. Since 1982, leasing in the outer continental shelf has increased 200 percent and oil production has increased 185 percent. But staff has been cut 36 percent over a similar period.

The report also outlines the inadequacies of the current penalties for environmental and safety violations. Civil penalties are capped at $35,000 per day, which many staffers said was not a sufficient deterrent. The cap is in place even if someone dies on the job due to an infraction, which demonstrates "the inequities of the current civil penalty fine matrix," the report concludes. And even when concerns are raised about violations, they're seldom acted upon. Of the 2,298 reported incidents in 2009, only 87 actually resulted in fines. The report notes that the agency collected just $919,000 in fines last year.

Investigators also pointed to problems with the agency's review of the oil spill response plans that companies are supposed to provide (the ones with the walruses and dead sea turtle experts). Currently, the agency's review of the plans "does not ensure that critical data are correct or that other relevant agencies are involved in the review process," according to the report. Current practices also don't adequately ensure planning for worst-case scenario accidents like the Deepwater Horizon spill. 

That's a whole lot of issues. Investigators concluded that all the agency's failures stem from a central problem:

Above all, through each of the topics addressed in this report runs a single theme: BOEMRE must pursue, and industry must engage in, a new culture of safety in which protecting human life and preventing environmental disasters are the highest priority, with the goal of making leasing and production safer and more sustainable.

If there's any silver lining to this report, it's the possibility that things might finally change at the agency formerly known as MMS. The Department of Interior does have plans to improve its wayward child, including a $29 million increase in the budget for offshore drilling inspections and better enforcement also announced yesterday. The agency also plans to hire hundreds of additional inspectors; Salazar said he plans to request an additional $100 million in next year's budget to add staff. And last week, staffers were informed that they'll no longer be allowed to have meth parties on company time, so maybe things are looking up. It only took a 4.9 million-barrel oil disaster to get there.

 

Science Séance: CEO Testosterone; Predicting Extinction, Sharks Not Basking; Beach Speak

| Wed Sep. 8, 2010 5:21 PM EDT

Whereby we communicate with the spirits of science and attempt to discern the meaning of a few of the latest papers. In this issue: how to predict extinction in only eight generations; why soaring testosterone levels ground CEOs; what's keeping basking sharks from rebounding; and who's speaking for beaches.

  • On the road to extinction, dwindling populations pass a tipping point beyond which they may not be able to recover. The ability to anticipate this tipping point and to, theoretically, at least, take measures to avoid extinction remains elusive. Now a new paper in Nature argues the causes of a population’s decline are central to the predictability of its extinction. "Specifically, environmental degradation may cause a tipping point in population dynamics, corresponding to a bifurcation in the underlying population growth equations, beyond which decline to extinction is almost certain." Working with lab populations of water fleas, the authors found four statistical indicators heralding extinction as early as 110 days (~8 generations) before the tipping point was passed. Critical to anticipating correctly: reliable baseline data from before environmental deterioration begins. Good reason to exponentially grow the funding for field work.
  • According to a new study in the September issue of Management Science, an Icarus effect, of sorts, is caused by the soaring testosterone levels of CEOs. Those suffering high testosterone levels during merger-and-acquisition negotiations drop more deals and also bulldoze their way into more hostile takeover attempts. "We find a strong association between male CEOs being young and their withdrawal rate of initiated mergers and acquisitions," say the authors, who characterize rejectionist younger executives as victims of their own dominance-seeking behavior. "High testosterone responders tend to reject low offers even though this is against their interest."
  • NOAA's Fisheries Service has designated the eastern North Pacific basking shark a "species of concern," since it continues to suffer a dramatic population decline despite decreasing fishing pressures. US and Canadian fishing programs ended in the 1970s, yet the population has not rebounded, probably because of low reproductive rates, vessel strikes, fisheries bycatch, and illegal shark finning. Whereas schools of thousands used to occur off California in the mid 20th century, no more than three individual basking sharks have been observed at any one time since 1993. More or less ditto for Canadian waters. The current eastern North Pacific population size is estimated at 300 to 500 animals. That means the current basking shark population in the northeast Pacific is roughly 10 percent of pre-hunting levels. A fate befalling so many of the big fish. (What would the model from the Nature study, above, show if we plugged the basking shark data into it?)
  • Four IPCC reports on global climate change mostly overlooked the impacts of a warming world on marine ecosystems. That prompted a review in Science last June by noted marine researchers. And that led to a letter in the current Science arguing that beaches are getting even less of their due than other marine ecosystems. "Specifically, there are no studies of climate change impacts to sandy beach ecosystems. Rather than any oversight by... previous authors, we believe that the omission of beaches from this and other assessments of anthropogenic impacts reflects a relative lack of appreciation of beaches as ecosystems. This paucity of beach studies is alarming, not only because beaches comprise ~70% of open-ocean coasts and have high socioeconomic and ecosystem value, but also because their position at the land-sea margin renders them highly vulnerable to climate change... The inadequacy of information on ecological impacts of climate change on this vulnerable and challenged coastal ecosystem must be addressed."

Enviro Links: BP Helps Draft Public School Curriculum, Arizona GOP Recruits "Green" Drifters, and More

| Wed Sep. 8, 2010 4:59 PM EDT

Today in oil spill news:

A new NOAA report finds that while oxygen levels in the Gulf are down 20 percent since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, they're still not low enough to create new "dead zones."

The Times-Picayune outlines the errors that caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster, gleaned from the more than 100 hours of testimony to investigators. The report concludes that "five key human errors and a colossal mechanical failure combined to form a recipe for unprecedented disaster."

The oil industry admits that they should be better prepared for an oil spill in a set of recommendations provided to the Department of Interior.

BP has been helping develop environmental curriculum for California public schools.

Thousands flocked to Louisiana's annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival last weekend, a tradition that might have seemed a bit odd this year given the havoc oil has brought to the shrimping industry this year. Here's a photo to prove it's real.

And in other environmental news:

The actual Green Party of Arizona is not pleased that Arizona Republican Party has reportedly recruited "drifters" to run for a number of public offices this November.

The auto industry doesn't like the new grades for automobiles that the EPA announced last week.

A new report from Environment America details why more Snopocalypses may be on the horizon thanks to global warming.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) argues that the Obama administration's $50 billion infrastructure proposal should be paid for by increasing the gas tax, which has been the same since 1993.