Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to indicate that the State Department will give its blessing to the massive, 1,661-mile Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries in Texas. On Thursday, Mike Johanns, the junior senator from Nebraska, pushed back.
The huge pipeline hasn't been officially green-lighted yet, and a decision isn't expected until early 2011. But Clinton's recent remarks made it sound like a done deal. The project has been especially controversial in Nebraska, where Johanns and Republican Gov. Dave Heineman have expressed concern about its environmental impacts.
Clinton's comment, Johanns wrote, is "premature" and "appears to prejudge the outcome as a foregone conclusion." He continued:
I do not object to oil pipelines in Nebraska, but there is heightened environmental sensitivity when a pipeline traverses an irreplaceable natural resource, the Ogallala Aquifer, with little examination of potentially preferable alternatives. Furthermore, your Department's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) fails to assess in a substantial manner the porous soil along the proposed route, which may make the aquifer especially susceptible to a potential spill. At stake is the essential source of 78 percent of Nebraska's drinking water, yet the DEIS and your comments lead me to believe it is this Administration's intention to simply accept the pipeline route as proposed.
There are probably plenty of folks in the Obama administration who also weren't particularly happy about Clinton's remark. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the State Department's initial assessment of the pipeline's potential impact a failing grade, stating that the evaluation "does not provide the scope or detail of analysis necessary to fully inform decision makers and the public." The agency suggested a need for closer scrutiny of the pipeline's implications for air pollution, public safety, and public health, and called for further evaluation of the capacity for spill response.
Additional study is still pending, but Clinton's remarks suggest that they might not affect the ultimate outcome.
UPDATE: Nebraska's senior senator, Democrat Ben Nelson, also sent Clinton a letter on the subject on Thursday afternoon."I am deeply concerned by your remarks last week to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, California, regarding the U.S. Department of State's approval process for pipeline projects," wrote Nelson. "These comments strike me, and many of my fellow Nebraskans, as an indication that a decision has been reached on the Keystone XL pipeline before your agency has done a thorough study of the environmental impacts which the pipeline will have on Nebraska's Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer."
Barbecues that remove CO2 from the air could play a role in the fight against climate change according to Durwood Zaelke, a leading expert on rapid responses to global warming.
This year's outdoor cooking season might be over, but Zaelke suggested at last week's 10:10 talk that from next summer consumers should start demanding barbecues that do their bit for the planet by generating rather than consuming charcoal—or biochar.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been pretty quiet about the proposed TransCanada XL pipeline, a 1,661-mile system that would carry oil from Alberta's tar sands all the way to refineries in Texas. Environmental groups have raised concerns about yet another pipeline that would bring tar sands oil, which has a larger carbon footprint than conventional sources, to the US, and about the proposed path it would blaze across the US. And between the BP spill in the Gulf and another major pipeline rupture in Michigan in July, there has been increasing anxiety about the expansion. The fate of the pipeline now lies with the State Department, and while it's not expected to make any final decisions about the project until early next year, Clinton signaled Tuesday that the pipeline is likely to be approved.
"We've not yet signed off on it," said Clinton in remarks at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. "But we are inclined to do so and we are for several reasons."
Her remarks were somewhat confusing, as they came in response to a question about the Alberta Clipper pipeline, yet another line running from Alberta to the US border that was approved in 2009 and is already up and running. It's the latest proposed pipeline from Canada, TransCanada's Keystone XL, that is generating controversy these days as environmental groups and landowners push back on the proposal. Recent press accounts have indicated that the pipeline would likely be rejected, but Clinton's remarks seem to indicate that it, too, will get a green-light from the federal government.
Here's the exchange; make of it what you will:
Question: Another international issue that you signed in on last year was the Alberta Clipper, a pipeline from Alberta that brings tar sands, oil sands directly into Wisconsin to the U.S. Midwest. This is some of the dirtiest fuel in the world. And how can the U.S. be saying climate change is a priority when we're mainlining some of the dirtiest fuel that exists. (Applause.)
Secretary Clinton: Well, there hasn't been a final decision made. It is -
Question: Are you willing to reconsider it?
Secretary Clinton: Probably not. (Laughter.) And we - but we haven't finish all of the analysis. So as I say, we've not yet signed off on it. But we are inclined to do so and we are for several reasons—going back to one of your original questions—we're either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada. And until we can get our act together as a country and figure out that clean, renewable energy is in both our economic interests and the interests of our planet—(applause)—I mean, I don't think it will come as a surprise to anyone how deeply disappointed the President and I are about our inability to get the kind of legislation through the Senate that the United States was seeking.
The remarks are more interesting today, as a letter from Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman to Clinton expressing concerns about the project also came to light. In the letter, Heineman urges Clinton to ensure that "Nebraska's natural resources are protected" as she considers the proposal. "Almost 300 miles of the proposed pipeline will come through Nebraska and be situated directly over the Ogallala Aquifer," he wrote, adding that the resource "is a lifeblood of Nebraska's agriculture industry."
The mola mola, also known as the ocean sunfish, and in science as Mola mola (Latin mola: millstone), is one of my favorite creatures. There aren't many species we informally call by their binomial names. But mola mola is catchy, and what else would you call such a strange and endearing creature?
This beautiful series of paintings below all come from an old book about ocean sunfish published online at the National Diet Library of Japan. According to Pink Tentacle, the artist was Kurimoto Tanshuu (1756-1834). I'd love to know what the text says.
The last page might be views of the slender sunfish, Ranzania laevis, a close relative.
Your first thought upon seeing a mola mola might be: That is one big fish. Full grown mola molas are the largest of all the teleost (bony) fishes, averaging 2,000 pounds/1,000 kilograms, with a maximum published weight of 5,000 pounds/2,300 kilograms.
Credit: Keith Wilson
Your second thought might be: That is one insanely improbable fish. Molas truly swim their own way, synchronously flapping their dorsal and anal fins. As if you and I could propel ourselves through the water—and with surprising speed—by waving one arm and one leg.
From this skeleton, you can also see how sunfish don't appear to have tails. The perplexing tail problem was only recently worked out by Ralf Britz at the Natural History Museum in London and G. David Johnson at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. From the London Natural History Museum:
Britz and Johnson studied the tails of the ocean sunfish in detail by looking at the developing skeleton of larvae under a microscope. They compared its development with that of a less modified relative of the sunfish, the pufferfish. They found no sign of the caudal fin at any stage of the development of the ocean sunfish and discovered that the dorsal and anal fins grow together to form the [rudderlike] clavus.
"The colossal ocean sunfish, a pelagic fish with a wide distribution, has lost its tail fin, the main locomotory structure in all other fishes. This was a very surprising and unexpected result!" said Britz.
Here's what it looks like all put together, as a young mola mola investigates some lucky divers off Catalina Island, California. You can also see that—when left unmolested—mola mola are naturally friendly and curious.
The mola was likely visiting the kelp beds for the services offered by señoritas—the major cleaner in the kelp beds—or some other cleaners. There's a good living to be made eating other fishes' parasites or debriding their wounds. More on that in a later post.
In the photograph above you can see a school of blacksmith, who—as they typically do when encountering señoritas—have stopped swimming and are hanging upside down, signalling their desire to be cleaned.
Here's a 2.7mm-long larva of the ocean sunfish, Mola mola, from the Ichthyology Collection of the National Science Museum, Tokyo.
Here's a larval Mola mola. Living proof that the ocean is rife with the fusion between the functional and the fantastical. [Although a friend who really knows fish pointed out that this little dude has a fairly well developed tail and tail stock. So I'm not sure where that leaves the research, above, regarding no-tail molas...]
For unwieldy swimmers, mola molas venture surprisingly deep. The video is from deep coral beds off Florida. From the YouTube page:
This ocean sunfish Mola Mola was about 5 [meters?] long and probably weighed 300-500 pounds. It was discovered during a Johnson-Sea-Link dive on a beautiful Lophelia coral reef located 40 miles east of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The white patches are where its skin has been taken off by unknown means, revealing the white cartilage beneath. Sunfish appear to have at least an ephemeral association with Lophelia coral pinnacles, as they have been seen in these locations numerous times by previous researchers. Video courtesy of Sandra Brooke, Florida Coast Deep Corals 2005, HBOI, NOAA-OER.
Some interesting research with Mola mola off southern California found they make repeated bounce dives below the thermocline (to about 150 meters /500 feet) during the daylight hours, presumably in search of their favorite gelatinous zooplankton, including salps, medusae and ctenophores. From [PDF] the paper in Marine Ecology Progress Series:
However, ocean sunfish rarely remained below the thermocline for more than a few minutes, even though surface temperatures in more northern parts of their range can be colder than the temperatures experienced during these dives. [It has been] suggested that due to physiological limitations, the magnitude and rate of change in water temperature, rather than absolute temperature, may limit vertical movements in yellowfin tuna, blue marlin and striped marlin, and the same may be true for ocean sunfish. Periodic ascents to the warm mixed layer [near the surface], therefore, may be attempts by the fish to rewarm its core body temperature (i.e. behavioral thermoregulation). Rewarming of the body could be advantageous in terms of increased mobility, digestion, assimilation and growth rates. Dive 'recovery times' (i.e. the post-dive period) of ocean sunfish spent in the mixed layer increased significantly as a function of maximum dive depth, further supporting this hypothesis.
The researchers only once recorded a mola mola dive below the thermocline after nightfall:
Curiously, the only instance in which a fish descended below the thermocline during the nighttime period was also the greatest depth recorded for any tracked fish. Almost 1 h after sunset, Ocean Sunfish 1 rapidly dove to 392 m (corresponding to an ambient water temperature of 6.8°C). Depth data were taken on a minute-by-minute basis during this dive period, and indicated that the fish descended at a rate of 53 m min–1, 6 times faster than typical descents observed during daytime dives (8.4 ±5.6 m min–1), and ascended at a rate of 25 m min–1. Based on the incongruous time period, swift descent rate, and the fact that other deep dives were typically associated with the initial post-handling stress, this dive could possibly represent a predator avoidance response. Ocean sunfish predators include large sharks and California sea lions Zalophus californianus, both of which are commonly found in the waters off Santa Catalina Island.
[UPDATE: David Guggenheim of 1planet1ocean and The Ocean Foundation shares the wondrous story of Sylvia Earle observing a mola mola at 1,300 feet deep during a submersible dive near Tortugas, and that it was bigger than the sub (presumably a smallish sub?). Perhaps it was fleeing a predator?]
Finally, the authors suggest another even more intriguing reason for the diurnal bounce dives. In other words, why the fish don't just stay down deep during the day:
The vertical movements of ocean sunfish may also be limited by dissolved oxygen concentration. Four of the ocean sunfish reached depths approaching 150 m during dives. During the months of August through October, average O2 concentrations at 150 m in the study area are between 2.5 and 3.0 ml l–1, a range known to induce avoidance responses in many marine fish species. While the physiology of ocean sunfish is not well studied, oxygen concentration may also play a role in defining their habitat preferences. Therefore recovery time spent in the mixed layer by pelagic fishes may be related not only to temperature, but to recovery from hypoxia, particularly for deeper-diving fishes.
Not mentioned in the paper, but jellyfishes thrive in hypoxic waters, and are some of the only creatures to do so. Perhaps they're trying to hide in a suffocating environment, which predators like molas—great jellyfish eaters—can only endure for short periods?
When my period hits, I usually snag the cheapest disposable product in the feminine hygiene aisle of my nearest Walgreen's. But then I read on the Sierra Club's website that the tampons and pads in my bathroom cabinet are not only clogging up US waterways and landfills, but they may also contain materials that could harm my body.
Slate's Green Lantern investigated the environmental impact of period supplies and found out that of the 62,415 pounds of total trash one US woman throws out doing her menstrual years, "pads, plugs, and applicators" only account for about 250 to 300 pounds of the garbage. Still, the individual plastic packaging on my pads isn't exactly helping to decrease my personal landfill load. Same goes for the 16,800 tampons I'm expected to use in my lifetime, though the non-applicator kind are marginally less wasteful: Slate'sNina Shen Rastogi points out that applicator-free tampon maker o.b. estimates that its design creates 58 percent less waste than its applicator-included counterparts.
Plastic applicators present some health concerns, too. Back in 2007, MoJo'sElizabeth Gettelman wrote that "Animal studies have linked phthalates [used in PVC plastics of which some applicators are made] to the same genital abnormalities that are now among the most common birth defects in American baby boys." There's no current evidence that applicators will cause these exact same maladies. But the long-term effects of periodically placing plastic near my nether-regions have yet to be investigated, which is a little worrisome.
Then there's the tampon or pad itself, which, in the US is usually made of non-organic cotton, rayon, or a combination of these materials, along with synthetic fibers like viscose rayon that are added in to increase absorbency. But the non-organic cotton in pads and tampons have soaked up at least some of the more than 55 million pounds of pesticides (PDF) sprayed on cotton fields in the US each year that occasionally make it into our surface water. Diuron, one of the herbicides used on cotton, has even been pegged as a "likely" human carcinogen by the EPA (PDF) and it's also linked to birth defects. Then there's the bleaching processes that gives pads and tampons their ivory white appearance. Most manufacturers bleach rayon by using the disinfectant chlorine dioxide in a process that produces trace amounts of a toxin called dioxin, which is known to cause reproductive and developmental impairment at certain levels, though the FDA says that dioxins in contemporary tampons exists at extremely low levels that are hardly detectable. Chlorine-free tampons and pads, however, are out there, made by companies like Seventh Generation, Natracare, and Maxim.
My mom turned me off of tampons in my younger years with stories of women getting toxic-shock syndrome (TSS) from them in the '80s. In 1980, RelyPR a high absorbency tampon made of polyester foam and cellulose gum caused rashes, vomitting, and high fevers in 812 women. The number of reported TSS cases since then has decreased significantly, according to the FDA. But almost half of all occurrences are still associated with the materials used in hyperabsorbent tampons and from not changing a tampon often enough. As a result, the FDA requires that high absorbency and TSS warning labels appear on all tampons. The synthetic fibers in most designs, however, still increase the chance of toxins forming and leading to toxic shock sydrome.
In the face of all these environmental and health risks from sanitary products, chlorine-free, organic cotton tampons and pads are looking a lot more appealing to me. And I've even found them online for my favorite price: pretty cheap. Maybe one day, I'll even go the way of the DivaCup—or the reusable pad.
Wednesday marks the six-month anniversary of the start of the BP oil spill, and even though Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced last week that the Gulf was once again "open for business," we still don't know exactly why the disaster occurred in the first place, or what its long-term impacts will be.
It's also still unclear how much money BP will have to shell out in penalties, and where that money will go. Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy and head of the restoration planning effort, has suggested that most of the money should go directly back to the Gulf, but Congress will need to act in order for that to happen.
Meanwhile, many victims of the spill are still struggling to cope. Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have pieces today looking at the Gulf Spill Fund and the difficulties it has faced in doling out the emergency compensation that folks in the Gulf so desperately need. While the fund has given out $1.49 billion to date, many claimants are still waiting for their checks to arrive.
It's also worth noting that, despite a disaster of unprecedented scale, lawmakers still have not taken action in response to the spill. The House passed a spill response bill, but like many pieces of legislation, it died a quiet death over in the Senate. The package would strengthen regulation of offshore drilling, eliminate the cap on liability for oil companies that cause spills, and block companies that repeatedly violate the rules from obtaining new leases, among other important overhauls of the industry. But for now, we won't know the fate of the legislation until after the Nov. 2 elections.
The lack of urgency in the Senate has left many environmental groups anxious. "If the explosion of an oil rig that leaves eleven people dead and results in the worst oil spill in our country’s history, devastating Gulf of Mexico communities and wildlife, does not move the Senate to act, what will it take?" said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. "It’s been six months since the BP oil disaster began and the Senate has done nothing to improve even the most basic safety and response standards."
Environmental groups have taken to the courts to force change, with the latest suit taking on BP for violating the Endangered Species Act by causing "ongoing unlawful harm or killing of endangered and threatened wildlife." The suit, from Southern Environmental Law Center, Defenders of Wildlife, Gulf Restoration Network, and Save the Manatee Club, notes that at least 27 endangered or threatened animal species live in the Gulf region, including five species of endangered sea turtles and four species of endangered whales.
The BP disaster has faded from the headlines, but there's still plenty of questions to answer and concerns that remain unaddressed.
Today marks six months since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, an event that caused oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months. Half a year later, we neither have a definitive answer about what caused the disaster, nor, as Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) points out, have we even heard from the company's new CEO, Bob Dudley.
Dudley officially took over as CEO on October 1. Markey, chair of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has sent multiple requests for Dudley to appear before Congress over the past few months, to no avail so far. Tony Hayward, Dudley's gaffe-prone predecessor, made a rather unproductive appearance before the committee in June. Dudley's appointment is supposed to reassure the American public that things are changing at BP, but he's so far found it impossible to make time to talk to Congress.
"Given the limited time available, I will need to focus my attention on ensuring a smooth and effective transition into the Chief Executive role and will therefore unfortunately be unavailable to attend the hearing," Dudley wrote to Markey in response to his last request for an appearance.
Markey isn't particularly pleased about the slight. "Six months ago, BP's Macondo well began its months-long eruption into the Gulf of Mexico," said Markey in a statement. "Now that Mr. Dudley has taken the reins of BP, he can at least dedicate a few hours to answering questions about his company’s efforts to clean up the Gulf region and prevent future incidents."
It's probably worth noting yet again that the National Oil Spill Commission—the bipartisan panel that the Obama administration created to investigate the spill and recommend how to move forward with offshore drilling—still lacks the ability to compel folks like Dudley to testify. The House passed legislation granting the power of subpoena to the commission nearly unanimously, but Senate Republicans have blocked the bill in the upper chamber. Thus, the panel (which has released some scathing draft reports to date) still remains largely toothless when it comes to forcing key players to testify and produce crucial documents.
So, six months after the disaster began, BP is still effectively avoiding scrutiny.
This may not be the most important thing in the world, but it drives me crazy: What do you call people who care about climate change and clean energy (PCCCCE)?
The political press still typically uses "environmentalists," but that terminology is woefully outdated and inapt. For one thing, not all environmentalists are primarily PCCCCE—there are still some, believe it or not, who focus on things like land preservation or biodiversity. More to the point, lots and lots of PCCCCE aren't environmentalists. They inhabit insurance companies, the cleantech industry, the military, religious groups, hunting and fishing groups. Some are just citizens of good conscience. What unites them is a belief that climate change and clean energy are the top-line issues of the 21st century.
Using the term "environmentalists" when you mean PCCCCE is not only inaccurate, it ends up hurting both the climate effort and environmentalism. PCCCCEism needs to be its own freestanding thing, detached from the limiting sociopolitical associations of environmentalism. (When people think environmentalism they think people who care about "the earth" and don't care about the economy, for better or worse.) Meanwhile environmentalism, which has been absolutely consumed by climate over the last few years, needs to re-engage with land, water, and species issues. Those are the issues that lead people to be environmentalists and the issues on which the movement has had its greatest successes.
Yesterday I reported on the environmental impact of new vs. refurbished computers. Refurbished computers won handily as the best choice for the planet (and your wallet). But what about when your electronic device is finally completely kaput? Best case scenario is that the company that you bought it from runs an excellent recycling program. But that's not always the case.
Today, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition issued a Green Electronics Recycling Report Card, evaluating companies on their programs for recycling their own products. The findings, according to a press release:
The highest marks go to Dell, Samsung, and Asus, but there were still some companies with failing grades, including Brother, Kodak, Lexmark, Philips, Funai, Epson, and RCA (now owned by Technicolor). Samsung also got a “dishonorable mention” because of concerns about their occupational health record at manufacturing plants in Korea where many young workers have been diagnosed with blood cancers and several have already died.
One overall trend: Companies that manufacture printers get woefully low grades. That's because most printer makers only take their products back through mail-in programs, but according to the ETC, most people don't actually bother to mail back a product as bulky as a printer. So what's the solution? Store-based drop-off stations? Or, like the death of the compostable SunChips bag, does this say more about consumers than it does about companies?
Check out the report card here, and ETC's grading criteria here (pdf).
Last month, I considered the potential leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee should Republicans take the majority this November. Michigan's Fred Upton is by far the most moderate option in a sea of strident right-wingers. He has co-sponsored energy legislation and believes that cutting emissions is a worthy cause. And according to reports, he's looking like the most viable candidate to take the chair. But that doesn't mean he will be sympathetic to environmental causes in the role. In an op-ed in today's Washington Times, Upton outlines his plans to gum up regulations at every opportunity.
Federal government agencies have overstepped their authority and have not been held accountable for their aggressive actions. No significant regulation should take effect until Congress has voted to approve it and the president has had an opportunity to approve or veto congressional action. Right now, these regulations are free to hide in the shadows of the Federal Register. By shedding additional light on the regulatory beast, we can keep government limited and accountable.
Upton pledges to block EPA regulations that he says are "smothering the economy." He's not just talking about the coming rules on carbon dioxide; he outlines a number of other rules he plans to take on:
The EPA is working on a regulatory train wreck that includes the following job-killing regulations:
Cooling water intake systems for power plants: Costs would range from $300 million per coal plant (413 facilities impacted) to $1 billion for nuclear (59 units impacted). As a result, many plants would be shuttered and energy prices will rise significantly.
Coal ash: Under current regulations, coal byproducts are widely recycled, creating jobs and protecting the environment. New EPA regulations could cost more than $20 billion and tens of thousands of jobs.
Industrial and commercial boilers: New EPA regulations put nearly 800,000 jobs at risk.
Revised ozone: Created without any new scientific evidence, this new rule would have a crushing impact on jobs (in the neighborhood of 7 million jobs lost) and business expansion nationwide with an estimated cost approaching $1 trillion annually.
These are just a handful of the job-killing regulations the EPA is finalizing, and that is just one agency.
In case you were harboring delusions that Upton might operate as a moderate as chair for the next two years, think again.