Blue Marble - November 2010

Hillary Clinton's Pipeline Problem

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 12:03 PM EDT

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should remove herself from deliberations over a controversial pipeline proposal, a group of environmental and consumer advocates said Thursday. Clinton said recently that the pipeline from Canada to Texas is likely to be approved, despite the fact that a full analysis of its impacts has not been completed.

The groups said that Clinton's remarks indicate she is "biased" in favor of TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL expansion, as the full environmental impact statement isn't expected to be finalized until next year. A numbers of senators have also criticized Clinton's statements, asking her not to "pre-judge" a massive pipeline project that would bring "dirty oil" to the US from Canada's tar sands.

"As the State Department's review is ongoing, it is inappropriate for you to make statements about what final decision you are 'inclined' to make," the enviro groups, including Friends of the Earth, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Greenpeace, wrote to Clinton. "The decision about whether or not to permit this pipeline is a key environmental decision for this administration, yet your recent comments make it clear that you are biased."

The proposed 1,661-mile pipeline from Alberta, Canada to Nederland, Texas has drawn criticism from senators and a number of environmental and citizens' rights groups. Green groups have expressed concern about drawing more oil from Canada's tar sands, which has a substantially higher carbon impact than conventional oil. There are also concerns about the pathway of the XL line, which would cross environmentally sensitive areas of the Great Plains. Citizens groups are also unhappy about the prospect of an expansion, citing recent accidents involving pipelines and a lack of consultation with the communities that the new pipeline would cross.

The groups say that Clinton's remarks expose the State Department to potential lawsuits (probably from the groups themselves), since they indicate that approval of the pipeline is a foregone conclusion and a more extensive review of the environmental implications may not be considered in the decision-making process. "Her comments demonstrate disregard for her agency's legal responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act and suggest that she cannot serve as an objective arbiter of this process," said Marcie Keever, legal director for Friends of the Earth.

Advertise on

California's Climate Law Still in Jeopardy

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 11:12 AM EDT

Environmentalists were quite relieved when California voters soundly rejected a ballot measure that would have delayed implementation of the state's landmark climate law—but perhaps they shouldn't be. While that ballot measure was shot down, another initiative, Proposition 26, snuck in—and it could very well undermine the climate law that citizens voted to protect.

The measure expands the definition of a "tax," and would require a two-thirds majority of the California's legislature to approve any new fee on companies or taxpayers instead of a simple majority. This, of course, would make it considerably harder to levy fees on things like pollution, alcohol, or tobacco. Prop. 26 didn't get very much attention, but it quietly drew support from a number of companies who oppose new fees. Chevron, Exxon, and PG&E contributed big bucks to the $18 million campaign to pass the measure.

Opponents of Prop. 26 were caught completely off-guard by its success; it passed by a 6-point margin, with 53 percent of voters supporting it. "We actually thought we were going to beat them, so I'm not sure what happened," Heidi Pickman, a spokesman for the "No on Prop. 26" campaign, told the LA Weekly. "They had a lot of money."

The measure could have profound implications. A UCLA School of Law study, for example, found that it "could have substantial and wide-ranging impacts on implementation of the state's health, safety and environmental laws." The study lists the Global Warming Solutions Act (also known as AB32)—the very law that voters defended against Prop. 23—as one measure that would suffer most due to the two-thirds majority requirement:

The state currently uses regulatory fees—the type that would be transformed into taxes by Proposition 26—to help pay for its environmental and public health programs. Proposition 26 would make it harder to impose or revise fees to fund these programs in the future.

AB32 was passed in 2006, but implementation begins next year and would likely include some increased fees on oil, gas, and other pollution sources that the law aims to cut. It's not clear to what extent the two-thirds requirement would actually impact AB32, since it was signed into law before the change, but the UCLA study predicts that, "[a]t a minimum, we expect that industry would mount a challenge to future AB 32 fees."

So while the overwhelming majority—61 percent—of California voters weighed in to support their climate law, this other measure could still cause major problems in implementing it. It looks likely, however, that the issue will end up in court, and opponents are hoping they can prevent it from taking effect.

Election 2010: The Senate Gets Lots of New Climate Deniers

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Republicans failed to take the Senate, but added a number of new climate deniers to its ranks. Some climate hawks did fend off defeat—most notably, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Environment Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). And key races in Alaska, Colorado, and Washington have yet to be decided. But overall, the Senate next year will be more hostile to climate action than ever before.

Here are all the Senate results, with winners marked by a red check:


William Barnes (D)


Richard Shelby (R)—opposes climate action



Scott McAdams (D)


Joe Miller (R)—a climate denier


Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R, write-in)



Rodney Glassman (D)


Sen. John McCain (R)—a climate conspiracy theorist

On the Quest To Keep Politics Out of Climate Science

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Atmospheric scientist Judith Curry—much-discussed on the blogs these days thanks to a recent Scientific American story on her skirmishes with fellow climate scientists—has offered some interesting thoughts in response to my climate hawk posts. I look forward to reading the rest of her series on decision-making in the face of uncertainty, which is certainly at the heart of the climate challenge.

In the meantime, it's worth saying something about this part of her post:

One of the things I really like about David Roberts' scheme is that climate scientists are removed from the political debate. Scientists and science inform the debate, but the political battles stay in the realm of politics.

While I support the general idea of the climate hawks and doves, I don't support this idea put forward by John Rennie and Keith Kloor that somehow I could make this all work by declaring my position as a climate hawk. I think this is exactly what not to do: the beauty of this idea is that it separates the climate science from the politics. This only works if the scientists stay out of the politics.

Climate scientists have no particular expertise on politics, economics or social ethics. A scientist's personal sense of values and morality has no more legitimacy in this debate than any other individual's personal sense. There's an additional reason for climate scientists to stay out of the public debate on this topic: they are biased because of their personal research interests and results, with professional egos and other factors likely weighing into their policy preferences.

Staying out of politics does not preclude engagement in the policy process. Climate scientists have a key role to play in developing future scenarios, characterizing uncertainties, and analyzing policy options.

People ask me where I stand and what my preferred policy options are. I am not being coy when I say that I want clean green energy, economic development and "world peace." And that I don't have any particular wisdom or ideas on what the actual solution might be.

There's a lot going on in this passage, so I want to pick a few threads apart.

Science Shots: Climate Shifts Everywhere

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 4:48 PM EDT

An idiosyncratic sampling of the latest science papers. Forthwith, a few drops from the deluge of climate-related papers. 

  • A new paper in Nature describes how Earth's climate change during the ice of 20,000 years ago likely reversed the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean, illustrating just how sensitive is the global conveyer belt to changing salinity levels. Similar warming-driven changes in North Atlantic salt concentrations are expected over the next century. The new work offers climatologists new data with which to calibrate their models. The paper: Reversed flow of Atlantic deep water during the Last Glacial Maximum. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature09508. From the abstract:

The meridional overturning circulation (MOC) of the Atlantic Ocean is considered to be one of the most important components of the climate system. This is because its warm surface currents, such as the Gulf Stream, redistribute huge amounts of energy from tropical to high latitudes and influence regional weather and climate patterns, whereas its lower limb ventilates the deep ocean and affects the storage of carbon in the abyss, away from the atmosphere... Here we show that the basin-scale abyssal circulation of the Atlantic Ocean was probably reversed during the Last Glacial Maximum and was dominated by northward water flow from the Southern Ocean. This broader perspective suggests that the modern pattern of the Atlantic MOC—with a prominent southerly flow of deep waters originating in the North Atlantic—arose only during the Holocene epoch.

The gobal convereyer, or thermohaline system, with surface currents in red, deep cold currents in blue. Image by Avsa, courtesy Wikiemdia Commons.The global conveyer, or thermohaline system, with surface currents in red, deep cold currents in blue. Image by Avsa, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • The extreme record warming in the South Pacific and western Antarctica during 2009-2010 was likely amplified by a strong central Pacific El Niño. Central Pacific El Niños exhibit maximum warming in the central Pacific and have become more common and more intense in recent decades. (This as opposed to classic El Niños, which exhibit maximum warming in the eastern equatorial Pacific and which seem to be decreasing in frequency.) The authors note that if extreme warming such as seen in the 2009 south central Pacific becomes more common, the ocean-ice-atmosphere system in Antarctica could further destabilize too. The paper: Record warming in the South Pacific and western Antarctica associated with the strong central-Pacific El Niño in 2009-10. Geophysical Research Letters. DOI:10.1029/2010GL044865.


El Niño as seen through chlorophyll measurements. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, The SeaWiFS Project and GeoEye, Scientific Visualization Studio. El Niño as seen through chlorophyll measurements. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, The SeaWiFS Project and GeoEye, Scientific Visualization Studio.

  • Melt water flowing into ice sheets along fractures in the ice, crevasses, and large drains also carry warmth into the icy interiors, greatly accelerating the effects of a warming climate. The new paper in Geophysical Research Letters shows how the Greenland Ice Sheet responds to warming on the order of decades rather than the centuries as projected by conventional thermal models. The paper: Cryo-hydrologic warming: A potential mechanism for rapid thermal response of ice sheets. Geophysical Research Letters. DOI:10.1029/2010GL044397.

Rate of change in ice sheet height for Greenland. Credit: NASA.Rate of change in ice sheet height for Greenland. Credit: NASA.


A Referendum on Climate Action?

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 12:58 PM EDT

Heading into the election, much attention focused on the votes that House members took on specific pieces of legislation—with the voted on health care reform and the climate legislation getting the bulk of it.

But it turns out that the June 2009 vote on the Waxman-Markey bill wasn't actually a very good predictor of how Democrats would fare on Tuesday (despite what the "Day of Reckoning" headline over at Politico would indicate). A number of Democrats who supported the bill were defeated last night; thirty-four of the 211 Democrats who voted for the bill lost their reelection bid. But the vulnerable Democrats who voted against the bill actually fared worse proportionally—27 of the 43 who opposed it lost last night.

Thus, how these Democrats fared didn't really mirror their vote on the bill at all. Vulnerable Democrats in red districts didn't do well, period, and it was for reasons including but not limited to the climate vote. Take a look at Virginia, a good study in the vote. There you had Tom Perriello in Virginia's fifth district, a progressive in a red area who voted for the bill. He lost his bid for a second term to Republican Robert Hurt by a four-point margin. Environmental groups spent quite a bit his behalf, but he faced a tough race no matter what.

Then there's 14-term Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who suffered a major upset in the ninth district. His Republican challenger Morgan Griffith beat him 51 percent to 46 percent. Boucher played a major role in shaping the climate and energy bill, pledging to ensure that "the future of coal will be intact." That included $60 billion in support for the coal industry. Nevertheless, his opponent still cast him as a foe of coal, and political observers are now pegging the vote as the key reason for his loss. "I don't think there's any question about it, cap-and-trade was the issue in the campaign," Andy Wright, a former Boucher chief of staff, told Politico. "If Rick had voted no, he wouldn't have had a serious contest."

But then you have Glenn Nye, a Democrat in Virginia's second district, who voted against Waxman-Markey, as well as health care reform. He lost by a 10-point margin last night. Clearly, distancing himself from Democrats and their policy priorities didn't help him out.

On the flip side, the tiny group of Republicans that voted for the Waxman-Markey bill did very well last night. All five who were up for reelection won, despite a lot of "cap and traitors" rhetoric in the weeks following the vote. Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who also voted for the bill, won his Senate race. John McHugh of New York left the House to serve as the Secretary of the Army. Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware was the other "yes" vote among House Republicans, but he made a run for Senate this year and lost his primary bid to Christine O'Donnell.

It's safe to say that the Democratic slaughter last night probably means nothing will happen in the House on climate over the next two years. Environmental groups are trying to strike a positive tone, however, guessing that the new Republican majority will take this as a mandate and overreach on the issue, hurting themselves in the long run. Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund said in an email late last night:

As they did after the 1994 elections, polluters will probably push the new Congress to overreach and roll back environmental protections. But that would backfire today just as it has backfired then. The real appetite in the new Congress will be for bipartisan, bite-sized pieces of energy policy that protect our environment and grow our economy.

I wouldn't go that far; I predict gridlock or apathy on the issue in the House. But I would say that last night's results really don't say all that much about the vote on last year's climate bill in particular.

Advertise on

California Voters Uphold Climate Law, Defeat Prop 23

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 1:42 AM EDT

Looks like Proposition 23, the attempt to torpedo California's landmark AB32 climate bill, is going down by a very large margin. According to the most recent tally, 61 percent of state voters said "No" to the initiative.

Enviros cheered the defeat of Prop 23, which would have rolled back the 2006 law that required the state to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Implementation of that law is set to begin next year. "Tonight California voters delivered a decisive win for the clean energy economy," said Steven Maviglio, spokesman for the "No on Prop 23" campaign. " In the midst of a major economic downturn, and with a barrage of fear mongering and scare tactics, voters still chose clean energy over dirty energy."

The debate about the law—which had bipartisan support, including the backing of Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—prompted quite a bit of spending from both sides. Oil companies, many of them from out of state, spent almost $10 million on the campaign to defeat AB32. The "No" campaign, with major backing from the clean-tech community, venture capitalists, and environmental groups, raised $29.8 million.

Notably, Prop 23 represents the first time that American voters have been asked to weigh in directly on such a comprehensive climate and energy plan. It is also seen as a way, by example or by the dint of California's economic clout, for progress to be made on climate policy even in the absense of federal leadership.

California's Other Ballot Initiative

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 5:50 PM EDT

We've written about Proposition 23 in California, the ballot initiative that would delay California's landmark climate law if it passes tonight. The measure has drawn quite a bit of spending from both oil companies and green groups, and will be the most-watched environmental question posed to voters today. The good news is that polls heading into tonight are looking pretty good for the supporters of climate action, and the measure is expected to be voted down by a large margin.

That doesn't mean enviros are resting easy about California tonight. Another measure, Proposition 26, has gotten much less attention, but could be almost as damaging. This measure would require a two-thirds majority of the California State Legislature to approve any fee on companies or taxpayers, rather than a simple majority. This, of course, would make it considerably harder to assess these fees. The Consumer Federation of California called it a "sneak attack on environmental and health regulations."

Like its companion on the ballot, Prop. 26 has enjoyed the support of big oil companies; Chevron has given $4 million to the effort to pass Prop 26, and ConocoPhillips and Occidental Petroleum have also contributed, as has tobacco company Phillip Morris.

Anyway, both Prop 23 and 26 will be worth watching tonight.

Cyclists Face Lack of Legal Protection in Crashes

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 2:11 PM EDT

Today is election day, but one candidate that won't be on the ballot is Maryland candidate for Senate Natasha Pettigrew. Thirty-year-old Pettigrew, who represented the Green Party, was struck and killed by an SUV while biking on September 20. The driver of the Cadillac Escalade who hit Pettigrew said she thought she had hit a deer or a dog so she didn't stop and continued driving for four miles until reaching her home. Upon parking the SUV, she saw Pettigrew's bicycle lodged beneath it and called police. Pettigrew's mother, Kenniss Henry, is running in her place but looks like Maryland is re-electing Democrat Barbara Mikulski. 

The death of a promising young person is tragic, but at least charges for the driver are pending. (An eyewitness says she saw the SUV stop after striking Pettigrew, then take off with sparks and smoke trailing behind due to the bicycle stuck beneath the vehicle.) Often, charges aren't filed in cases where bicyclists are killed by cars because it's an accident. One could argue that's what manslaughter charges are for, but of course traffic laws (and their execution) vary from state to state and city to city. Pettigrew's mother has advocated stricter laws in Maryland, where if a driver hits a pedestrian or cyclist, they must be impaired, grossly negligent, or show intent to cause harm in order to be charged with a crime. Cases in other states show similar outcomes: in Florida this July, a Navy vet and executive was struck and killed by an SUV driven by a nurse, but no charges were filed because police considered it an accident. The same was true in a 2009 case involving the death of a Virginia bicyclist by an SUV. In 2008, there were 716 cyclists killed in crashes with motorized vehicles, making up 2% of all traffic fatalities.

A few weeks after Pettigrew's death, a Maryland law was enacted that requires a 3 foot buffer zone between cars and bikes on roads, and require vehicles yield right-of-way to bicycles. But the fine for motorists who cause a crash that involves a bike is just $1000. "A loss of life is a loss of life," Henry told the Maryland Gazette. "We seriously need to look at how we balance these scales."

Speed the Turbine, Spare the Bat

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 5:45 PM EDT

For some time now I've been reporting on studies showing that wind turbines are deadly to bats—maybe even more deadly even than they are to birds. Well, I'm really happy to be able to report this new paper in today's Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment showing how the industry might minimize or even eliminate bat mortality at wind turbine sites. Experimenting with small changes in turbine speeds, researchers were able to reduce bat deaths by as much as 93 percent while reducing power generation by only 1 percent or less.

Credit: Harvey McDaniel, Wikiemdia CommonsCredit: Harvey McDaniel, Wikimedia CommonsMigratory bats, like the hoary bats that fly up and down the forested ridges of the eastern US, are especially at risk of collision with turbines and the pressure waves they create. Since we know that turbine towers and non-spinning blades don't kill bats, some scientists have proposed shutting off or limiting turbines during migrations.

Hoary bat. Credit: William Leonard, NPS.Hoary bat. Credit: William Leonard, NPS.Currently most wind turbines in the US are programmed to begin rotating and producing power once wind speeds reach ~8 to 9 mph—what's known as the cut-in speed. Wind turbines with a low cut-in speed run more frequently than those set at higher cut-in speeds since they begin rotating at lower wind speeds.

But by raising the cut-in speed to ~11 mph, bat fatalities were reduced by between 44 percent and 93 percent, with an annual power loss of less than 1 percent. The exeriments were conducted during months with seasonably low wind speeds, so the overall energy loss was marginal when calculated against annual power output.

The researchers monitored 12 of the 23 turbines at the Casselman Wind Project in Somerset County in the Pennsylvania Appalachians and recorded bat fatalities for 25 summer and fall nights in both 2008 and 2009. They analyzed fatalities following nights when the turbines were fully operational and when they were set to 11 mph and 14.5 mph, reporting mortality rates on average 3.6 to 5.4 times higher at the fully functioning turbines compared with higher cut-in speeds.

The investigation was conducted by reserachers from Bat Conservation International, Oregon State University, and the University of Florida, Gainesville. Here's the abstract:

Wind-turbine operations are associated with bat mortality worldwide; minimizing these fatalities is critically important to both bat conservation and public acceptance of wind-energy development. We tested the effectiveness of raising wind turbine cut-in speeddefined as the lowest wind speed at which turbines generate power to the utility system, thereby reducing turbine operation during periods of low wind speedsto decrease bat mortality at the Casselman Wind Project in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, over a 2-year period. Observed bat mortality at fully operational turbines was, on average, 5.4 and 3.6 times greater than mortality associated with curtailed (ie non-operating) turbines in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Relatively small changes to wind-turbine operation resulted in nightly reductions in bat mortality, ranging from 44% to 93%, with marginal annual power loss (≤ 1% of total annual output). Our findings suggest that increasing turbine cut-in speeds at wind facilities in areas of conservation concern during times when active bats may be at particular risk from turbines could mitigate this detrimental aspect of wind-energy generation. 

 The paper:

  • Edward B Arnett, Manuela MP Huso, Michael R Schirmacher, and John P Hayes. 2010. Altering turbine speed reduces bat mortality at wind-energy facilities. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (e-View) DOI:10.1890/100103