Blue Marble - November 2011

Clogged! Obama Delays Keystone XL Pipeline

| Thu Nov. 10, 2011 12:07 PM PST

Days after State Department officials agreed to reexamine their own report on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the Obama administration announced this afternoon a 12-to-18-month delay on the deadline for the pipeline's approval. Originally expected by the end of this year, the administration will have until after the 2012 elections to give (or not) a final go-ahead, pending further study of the pipeline's environmental impact.

Bill McKibben, a Mother Jones contributor and founder of the environmental activist group 350.org, called the decision "an unspoken salute to the power of people who came together in the open to demand action" in a statement released this morning.

"We take courage from today's announcement," McKibben said, adding however that "if this pipeline proposal re-emerges from the review process intact we will use every form of nonviolent civil disobedience to keep it from ever being built."

The pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada's tar sands 1,700 miles to refineries in Texas, has faced stiff opposition from environmental groups over concerns about potential spills, the large carbon footprint of tar sands oil relative to other extraction methods, and possible conflicts of interest between the administration and TransCanada, the company behind the proposed pipeline.

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Gulf Oil Spill? What Gulf Oil Spill?

| Wed Nov. 9, 2011 3:42 PM PST

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement released its new five-year plan for drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf on Tuesday, its first plan since the Deepwater Horizon spill last year. But BOEMRE's economic analysis used to create the plan does not factor in a 4.9 million barrel spill.

The 28-page Economic Analysis Methodology from BOEMRE looks at the net economic and social value of the proposed 5-year plan. As the paper states, "The largest social and environmental costs modeled for the 2012-2017 proposed program decision document are OCS oil spills and air emissions." The agency also includes this handy formula:

Spill risk = probability of spill x impacts of spill

But then the feds note that their analysis of this latest plan for offshore drilling does not include the Deepwater Horizon spill:

The spill rates and size of spills are based upon all OCS spills from 1964-2010 excluding the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon (DWH) event.

It continues:

The BOEM is using the oil spill rate from the entire history of available program data, excluding DWH, as a rough balance between the remote chance of another DWH event and the otherwise much safer performance reflected in the more recent period.

Hmmm. I seem to recall government officials making similarly optimistic statements about the size and threat level of spills before the Deepwater Horizon.

A New Breed of Alaskan 'Hurricane'

| Wed Nov. 9, 2011 2:21 PM PST

Bering Sea superstorm on 8 November 2011. : Credit: NWS, NOAABering Sea superstorm on 8 November 2011. : Credit: NWS, NOAAThe superstorm that howled out of the Bering Sea and slammed coastal Alaska yesterday didn't get named, even though its lowest pressure of 945 millibars was as low as some Category 4 hurricanes. We haven't yet begun to name high-latitude monsters—though that may change. Jeff Masters, in today's WunderBlog, writes:

[M]ultiple studies have documented a significant increase in the number of intense extratropical cyclones with central pressures below 970 or 980 mb over the North Pacific and Arctic in recent decades. Computer climate models predict predict a future with fewer total winter storms, but a greater number of intense storms; up to twelve additional intense Northern Hemisphere cold-season extratropical storms per year are expected by the end of the century if we continue to follow our current path of emissions of greenhouse gases.

Shishmaref village, Alaska, inhabited for 400 years, battered by storm waves.: Credit: NOAA.Shishmaref village, Alaska, inhabited for 400 years, battered by storm waves. Credit: NOAA.I wrote in An Arctic Sea Change, a 2007 MoJo photo essay by photographer Robert Knoth, how the Alaskan coastal village of Shishmaref was falling into the sea. Now we know the dynamics affecting Arctic coast villages are more complex than just rising sea levels. Dwindling sea ice allows for more evaporation from the ocean, which fuels larger Arctic storms and their accompanying monster storm surges. The battered land disappears even in advance of significant sea level rise.

Hybrid tropical-extratropical storm 'Rolf' in the Mediterranean Sea 9 Nov 2011.: Credit: MODIS/NASA.Hybrid tropical-extratropical storm Rolf in the Mediterranean Sea 9 Nov 2011. Credit: MODIS/NASA.

In another interesting weather development reported by Jeff Masters, a rare hybrid extratropical/tropical storm named Rolf developed in the Mediterranean Sea this week. Generally the waters of the Med are too cold for tropical storm development, though an occasional 'Medicane' forms. Rolf has delivered more than 15 inches/400 millimeters of rain to parts of France and wind gusts of 95 mph/153 kph. One study forecasts the Med will warm by 5.4°F/3°C by 2100—plenty warm enough for hurricane formation.

Next Frontier in Natural Gas Wars: Psy Ops

| Wed Nov. 9, 2011 4:00 AM PST
Natural gas extractors want to use counterinsurgency tactics to deal with these ladies.

It's one thing to say that Pennsylvania has become a battleground in the debate over natural gas extraction. But it's quite another to actually endorse and employ counterinsurgency tactics to fight opponents of hydraulic fracturing, the controversial process used to extract the gas from the ground. But that appears to be exactly what industry insiders called for at a recent conference.

CNBC, which obtained the audio from the event, has the report. In the audio files, recorded by an environmental campaigner from Earthworks, one industry insider suggests that those who oppose gas drilling constitute an "insurgency." Another advocates hiring former military psychological operations specialists to handle local populations.

Here's the direct quote from Range Resources communications director Matt Pitzarella, from a from session titled "Designing a Media Relations Strategy To Overcome Concerns Surrounding Hydraulic Fracturing":

"We have several former psy ops folks that work for us at Range because they're very comfortable in dealing with localized issues and local governments," Pitzarella said. "Really all they do is spend most of their time helping folks develop local ordinances and things like that. But very much having that understanding of psy ops in the Army and in the Middle East has applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania."

And here's Matt Carmichael, the manager of external affairs for Anadarko Petroleum:

"Download the U.S. Army-slash-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, because we are dealing with an insurgency," Carmichael said. "There's a lot of good lessons in there and coming from a military background, I found the insight in that extremely remarkable."

Of course, the industry folks aren't fighting a hostile foreign enemy. They're talking about the people—Americans in fact—who live in these communities.

The EPA Isn't Protecting You From the Worst Polluters

| Tue Nov. 8, 2011 10:30 AM PST

The Center for Public Integrity has an eye-opening report on the Environmental Protection Agency's poorer-than-thought track record enforcing the Clean Air Act. The report comes out of an investigative team at the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News, and NPR, which delved into reams of EPA documents, federal and state data, interviewed with former officials, and dispatched reporters to 10 different states. The investigation reveals a grim picture of how declining EPA funding, staff cutbacks, and flawed enforcement structures have contributed to the agency's ability to regulate the most egregious toxic air polluters.

It's a must-read no matter where you live in the US because, for one, you can locate 17,000 toxic air polluters near you on an interactive map:NPR/Center for Public IntegrityNPR/Center for Public Integrity

Noteworthy among the iWatch and NPR's findings:

  • The EPA has specific limits on seven air toxins—including the familiar asbestos, benzene, and mercury. The Clean Air Act, however, covers 180 other chemicals, and those are loosely regulated under sector-wide laws, despite the chemicals' proven links to cancer, birth defects, brain impairment, respiratory disease, among other maladies.
  • Today, states receive about $200 million a year in federal grants, or about 25 percent of what it costs states to enforce private compliance with the Clean Air Act. When the act first went into effect in 1990, federal funds supported 60 percent of the cost.
  • The funding cutbacks have resulted in local environmental protection agencies relying on voluntary pollutant emissions reporting by industry players, which, as you might imagine, has made for some weak data. Mike Fisher, deputy director of the EPA's office of criminal enforcement, tells iWatch that of some 120 ongoing Clean Air Act cases his department manages, 90 percent involve polluters trying to mislead regulators.
  • In all, the EPA knows of more than 1,600 "high priority violators" of the Clean Air Act, a quarter of which appear on the internal EPA watchlist. Previously undisclosed, the list includes more than 383 chronic US polluters, ranging from chemical companies to corn processors, paint stripping operations, and tire makers spanning across the country. Among some of the more recognizable names are ArcelorMittal, Boeing, and Huntsman Corp., owned by the family of former Utah governor and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. Now that the list is public, you can sift through them yourself:

 

 

 

More than anything, the report serves as a reminder that wherever the ongoing Congressional debate over the EPA and Clean Air Act lands, the health of entire communities hang in the balance.

Health Tab for Climate Change: $14 Billion

| Tue Nov. 8, 2011 7:32 AM PST

Climate change-related disasters caused $14 billion in health costs in first decade of the 2000s, according to a new paper published this week in the journal Health Affairs. The paper looks at six case studies of weather events in the US, all of the type predicted to increase or grow more severe as climate change progresses, like hurricanes, floods, and heat waves. It then determines the cost of disease, injury, and death related to those events.

Each individual event can be pricey. Ozone pollution in the US over the period of 2000 to 2002 cost $6.5 billion in emergency room visits, missed days at work or school, or early deaths (a particular concern for the elderly and people with preexisting respiratory conditions). The California heat wave in 2006, during which record temperatures were recorded all over the state over a two-week period, cost $5.4 billion. A lot of those costs came from hospitalizations and ER visits for problems like dehydration and heat stroke.

Sure, going to the hospital is pricey. But dying isn't free, either. The researchers used the EPA's value of a statistical life—a rough estimate of how each individual life costs—of $7.9 million.

$14 billion is a pretty big number for just 10 years. But that's only looking at a handful of specific incidents. There are also costs associated with climate change that don't stem from extreme events—things like increased problems related to asthma or allergies, or even problems like kidney stones, as we reported last year.

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The Urban Turkey-Raising Diaries

| Tue Nov. 8, 2011 4:00 AM PST

From May to November, my friends and I raised a couple of heritage turkeys, Stripes and Tires, in a backyard in Berkeley, California. This is a diary about what it's like to care for (and become attached to) animals that you know you're going to eat. Apologies for the slow load time; shouldn't take more than a few seconds.

Seal Fur Sheds Light on Antarctic Krill

| Tue Nov. 8, 2011 4:00 AM PST

Antarctic fur seal (right), Weddell seal (left), Penguin Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica.: Credit: © Julia Whitty.Antarctic fur seal (right), Weddell seal (left), Penguin Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica.: Credit: © Julia Whitty.How do you assess the health of a marine invertebrate—namely Antarctic krill—when there's no historical baseline to measure it against?

In an intriguing piece of detective work reported in PLoS ONE a team of researchers from China and the US turned to analyzing old seal hairs to determine changes in abundance of krill in the past century.

Antarctic krill.: Credit: Uwe Kils via Wikimedia Commons.Antarctic krill.: Credit: Uwe Kils via Wikimedia Commons.

Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, is a keystone species in the Southern Ocean and the primary consumer in a foodweb supporting fish, penguins, seabirds, seals, and whales. They school in swarms of up to of 30,000 individuals per cubic meter and are perhaps the most abundant animal on Earth, with a total biomass estimated at ~379 million metric tons.

In the video below (starting at 00:01), you can see humpback whales bubble feeding on krill in Antarctic waters. 

 

There's evidence of a decline in krill biomass in parts of Antarctica in the past 30 years—but when did it begin?

To look deeper into history, the authors analyzed core samples from lake sediments near an Antarctic fur seal colony on King George Island in the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. They dated the fur in the cores via stable carbon (δ13C) in the samples. They inferred the abundance of krill in the seals' diet via the nitrogen (δ15N) isotopes in the fur. From the paper:

Since Antarctic fur seals feed preferentially on krill, the variation of [nitrogen] in seal hair indicates a change in the proportion of krill in the seal's diets and thus the krill availability in local seawater.

 

Antarctic krill grazing on algae living on the underside of sea ice.: Credit: Uwe Kils via Wikimedia Commons.Antarctic krill grazing on algae living on the underside of sea ice.: Credit: Uwe Kils via Wikimedia Commons.Their results indicate that krill began to decline in the diet of fur seals in this part of Antarctica nearly a century ago. That time frame correlates with increasing sea surface temperatures and dwindling sea ice. (See my post Life Inside the Sea Ice for more about the relationship between krill and sea ice.) From the PLoS ONE paper:

In this region for the past decades, the sea ice shows a decline trend, and this is in coincidence with the decline trend in krill populations. Like the seal [nitrogen] values, the sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly in Southern Ocean (50°S) also shows an obvious increasing trend for the 20th century, and the significant correlation between them... suggests that the inferred decreasing krill population is linked with warming ocean and declining sea ice extent.

 

 

 The paper: 

  • Huang T, Sun L, Stark J, Wang Y, Cheng Z, et al. Relative Changes in Krill Abundance Inferred from Antarctic Fur Seal. PLoS ONE. 2011. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0027331.

 

Inspector General to Review Keystone XL Process

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 2:13 PM PST

The State Department's Inspector General has agreed to investigate the department's handling of the Keystone XL review, after members of Congress and environmental groups have raised concerns about conflicts of interest.

In a Nov. 4 memo that went public on Monday, IG Harold W. Geisel says he will review whether State and other agencies followed federal laws and regulations in their consideration of TransCanada's request to build the 1,661-mile pipeline.

Last week, President Obama said he will make the final determination about whether the pipeline is approved. But the allegations that State mishandled the consideration have made an already contentious debate even more so. On Sunday, thousands came to the White House to protest the pipeline. After a rally in Lafayette Park, the protesters locked arms and formed a circle around the White House. Here are some photos from the event:

That Honey in Your Bear Might Not Be Honey

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 8:33 AM PST

Honey Bear: National Honey BoardHoney Bear: National Honey Board

If you've been feeding your kids spoonfuls of honey for their coughs this fall, you might want to think again about where that honey comes from. Food Safety News, a site set up by food safety lawyer Bill Marler, reports today that lab tests show that most honey sold on supermarket and drug store shelves today isn't really honey, according to safety requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration.

That's because it's been so ultra-filtered that it's largely pollen-free. Pollen is a key ingredient in real honey, and thought by some people to have medicinal and allergy-fighting properties.

But according to Food Safety News, you won't find much pollen it in American store-bought honey. Their tests found that:

• 76 percent of samples bought at groceries had all the pollen removed, These were stores like TOP Food, Safeway, Giant Eagle, QFC, Kroger, Metro Market, Harris Teeter, A&P, Stop & Shop and King Soopers.

• 100 percent of the honey sampled from drugstores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid and CVS Pharmacy had no pollen.

• 77 percent of the honey sampled from big box stores like Costco, Sam's Club, Walmart, Target and H-E-B had the pollen filtered out.

• 100 percent of the honey packaged in the small individual service portions from Smucker, McDonald's and KFC had the pollen removed.

According to FSN, most US distributors are selling pollen-free honey because it's likely coming from China, a country that's gotten into trouble for dumping large quantites of antibiotic-laden, dirt-cheap honey onto the US market and putting American bee keepers out of business. In 2001, the US slapped tarriffs on Chinese honey to prevent it from flooding the market. To get around the tarrifs, China is reportedly laundering its honey through other countries. Ultra-filtering the pollen ensures the honey that ends up in the US can't be traced back to its country of origin.

If you're looking for real honey, FSN recommends buying organic from places like Trader Joe's or farmer's markets, where the honey has plenty of pollen.