Blue Marble - September 2012

States Aren't Enforcing Their Own Oil and Gas Rules

| Tue Sep. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The biggest domestic oil and gas boom in a generation is going unpoliced by regulators in many states, according to a report released today by the environmental group Earthworks. Since 2005, the United States has increased oil production by about 10 percent and gas production about 20 percent, largely due to technological advances in horizontal drilling and fracking. Meanwhile, enforcement actions in six major oil and gas states have not kept pace with all the new drilling.

The report, "Breaking All the Rules," examined oil and gas regulation in Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. It found that in recent years the number of oil-and-gas-related enforcement actions and total dollar amount in penalties in each state have either remained fairly constant or dropped. The only exception was in Colorado, where penalties increased because the state addressed a backlog of old cases.

One reason enforcement hasn't kept pace with drilling could be that regulators are overwhelmed. In Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, there are more than 2,000 wells for each oil well inspector (there are nearly 4,500 wells per inspector in New Mexico). In 2010, the report found that some states inspected only 1 in 10 oil and gas wells to determine whether they complied with state rules. Here's a chart of the percentage of oil and gas wells that went uninspected in the each state:

EarthworksEarthworks

When inspectors in these states do discover violations of the law, their findings often don't get recorded, or don't lead to penalties, or result in penalties that are too small to deter bad behavior, according to Earthworks. For instance, an oversight commission in Texas recently found that state regulators take "relatively few enforcement actions, resulting in a lack of deterrence for future compliance." In 2011, Pennsylvania collected about $1.3 million in total penalties related to oil and gas violations—a drop in the bucket considering that a single Marcellus Shale well on average grosses $2.9 million.*

Of more than 3,300 oil spills in North Dakota since 2009, the state has issued only 45 citations.

To be sure, the Earthworks report does not offer a complete picture of the industry. Most notably, it doesn't examine oil and gas regulation in North Dakota, Alaska, or California, which are, respectively, the second-, third-, and fourth-largest oil-producing states. Those three states have better inspector-to-well ratios than the states in the Earthworks report, with North Dakota leading the pack with a ratio of 1 inspector for every 368 wells. Yet even that number has not translated into a stellar record of environmental enforcement. Despite more than 3,300 oil spills in North Dakota since 2009, the state's industrial commission has issued only 45 enforcement citations. This recent ProPublica story exposed many of the gaping holes in North Dakota's oversight of its booming Bakken oil field.

The environment is not the only victim when states fail to hold the oil and gas industry accountable. The other casualty is often the governments of those states, as we've seen in the Middle East and Africa. People in the United States still "believe that rules matter—that after the rules are created, the government will enforce them," Earthworks points out. But "in the case of state oil and gas rules, that is simply not true."

Correction: Due to errors in the embargoed version of Earthworks' report, the original version of this article stated that Pennsylvania levied about $1 million in oil and gas fines in 2010. The actual number is $4 million. It also incorrectly stated the year that Chesapeake Energy received a record environmental fine in Pennsylvania. The fine was levied in 2011.

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Senate Votes to Block EU Plan for Plane Emissions

| Mon Sep. 24, 2012 5:40 PM EDT

The Senate voted unanimously over the weekend to block US airlines from participating in a carbon offset program for flights into and out of Europe. This might be the first issue in the past few years that enjoyed consensus support between the Senate and House, with agreement among both Republicans and Democrats. Too bad the consensus came on a measure to block the European Union's efforts to do something about climate-changing emissions.

WATCH: Freak Summer Cyclone Speeds Record Arctic Melt

| Mon Sep. 24, 2012 12:29 PM EDT

A freak summer cyclone churned already-weakened Arctic ice to slush, likely accelerating this summer's melt, say NASA scientists. The cyclone, which formed off Alaska and made a beeline for the North Pole in early August, severed chunks of ice and pushed them into warmer waters where some melted entirely. According to estimates by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in the last three decades only eight August storms have been this powerful.

This new visualization from NASA helps show just how far the Arctic ice has receded this summer. Strong winds colored red accelerated a record melt: Sea ice extent shrunk to 1.32 million square miles (3.41 million square kilometers), or 293,000 square miles less than the previous low, set in 2007.

August's freak Arctic cyclone assisted in this year's record melt. NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response.August's freak Arctic cyclone assisted in this year's record melt. NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response.

Video courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
The Blue Marble data is courtesy of Reto Stockli (NASA/GSFC).

SHOCKER: Fox News Misleads Audience on Climate Change

| Mon Sep. 24, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
UCS staff scientist Brenda Ekwurzel takes a red pen to misleading statements in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial.

Brace yourself for some shocking news: a new study on Friday found that the two major publications of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation greatly mislead their audiences about climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists combed six months of Fox News broadcasting and a year's worth of Wall Street Journal editorial pages for mentions of the science of "climate change" and "global warming," then compared each claim to "mainstream scientific understanding" of the topic at hand. Here's what they found:

Data from Union of Concerned ScientistsData from Union of Concerned Scientists

House Passes Extra-Terrible Pro-Coal Bill Before Heading Home

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 1:59 PM EDT

One of the difficult things about being a policy-minded environmental blogger these days is deciding what merits weighing in on. The House passes crazy measures rolling back environmental and health protections, and then the Senate…just does nothing with those bills. But on Friday, the House passed a monumentally terrible bill that is worth pointing out, as it would undo many laws—old and new—dealing with coal.

The "Stop the War on Coal Act" (H.R. 3409) would take away the power to regulate a lot of things—mountaintop-removal coal mining, greenhouse gas emissions, coal ash disposal, mercury and air toxins. Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee calls the the legislation the "single worst anti-environment bill to be considered in the House this Congress."

It's just all kinds of bad—throwing out many rules dealing with coal and preventing the EPA and the Department of Interior from regulating in the future. That includes both coal mining and coal burning in power plants. The House passed the bill by a vote of 233 to 175, which included 19 Democrats who voted for it as well. This is the last vote the House will take before the election, which is no coincidence. The bill isn't going pass; it's only meant to be an instrument to bludgeon Obama and other Democrats, which has been very clear from Republicans' remarks.

Fossil Fuel Group Whines About Tax Credits for Wind

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 12:35 PM EDT

The production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy is set to expire at the end of the year, and Congress doesn't look likely to extend it anytime soon. This precarious situation is already causing some layoffs in the industry, as the New York Times reports today. A study cited by the American Wind Energy Association predicts that as many as 37,000 jobs in the industry could be lost in the first quarter of 2013 alone if the PTC is not extended.

Of course, there's a healthy debate about how much and for how long we should subsidize any energy source. But wind power is still a relative newcomer to the energy scene, and subsidies that expand its use also help meet other national goals like reducing emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. Moreover, the US has provided billions of dollars in subsidies to the coal, oil, and gas industries for decades. Wind power has barely had a chance to catch up since the PTC was first enacted in 1992. Which is what makes this quote, from the spokesman for a fossil-fuel-funded interest group, really hilarious:

"Big Wind has had extension after extension after extension," said Benjamin Cole, a spokesman for the American Energy Alliance, a group partly financed by oil interests that has been lobbying against the credit in Washington. "The government shouldn't be continuing to prop up industries that never seem to be able to get off their training wheels."

Shame on the Times for not pointing out how pitiful this claim is. Fossil fuels haven't just had training wheels; these industries have been sitting in one of those little child seats on the back of the bike while the rest of us peddle. Via the Environmental Law Institute, this is what the breakdown has looked like in recent years:

Environmental Law InstituteEnvironmental Law Institute

Oil Change International has more. It's also worth noting that the tax credits for wind and other renewables have been short-term since 1999, granted in one- or two-year increments. That makes it really hard for companies to make long-term plans. Oil, gas, and coal have never really had to worry about whether they'll get their government dole.

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"New" CO2 Source Spells Trouble for Marine Life

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 6:07 AM EDT

CO2 from water pollution interacts with atmospheric CO2 in a warming ocean to intensify changes in acidity, spelling trouble for marine life: Witches: ~Brenda-Starr~; Scallop: walknboston; Anemonefish: lakewentworth; Seahorse: Mr. Mohammed Al Momany | NOAA. Starfish: MikeMurphy. Mashup: Julia Whitty.Witches' brew: CO2 from water pollution interacts with CO2 from atmosphere in a warming ocean to intensify acidification: Witches: ~Brenda-Starr~. Scallop: walknboston. Anemonefish: lakewentworth. Seahorse: Mr. Mohammed Al Momany | NOAA. Starfish: MikeMurphy. Mashup: Julia WhittyA new kind of witchy interaction is underway in the oceans, report the authors of a new paper in Environmental Science & Technology.

William G. Sunda and Wei-Jun Cai created a model to predict how CO2 from water pollution—that is, runoff from chemical fertilizers (farms), human waste (sewage), and animal waste (feedlots, ranches), plus nitrogen oxide from fossil fuel burning—might interact with the better-known source of CO2 that enters the ocean from the atmosphere, much of it a result of fossil fuel burning.

In either case, too much CO2 entering the ocean lowers the pH of seawater, which raises the acidity of the waters, preventing many marine organisms from getting access to the calcium carbonate needed to make their shells or skeletons. The result, called ocean acidification—sometimes called the "other CO2 problem," global warming being the original—is already impacting commercial oyster beds in the Pacific Northwest. This process has been firmly on the scientific radar for the past 10+ years.

But no one has spent a whole lot of time thinking about the excess CO2 created by water pollution running off the land. Here's what happens. Enriched waters wash off farms, feedlots, and cities to fertilize the ocean. Enough fertilized runoff triggers a cascade of catastrophic events:

  • Fertilizing huge algal blooms
  • Which lead to massive die-offs of the huge algal blooms
  • Which settle to the bottom and feed the growth of bacteria
  • Who consume much of the available oxygen in the water and release large amounts of CO2
Clams, oysters, scallops, mussels, and finfish could be the most heavily impacted in affected coastal regions such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea.

The result is a dead zone: where oxygen levels are too low (hypoxic) to support most marine life. A good example is the Gulf of Mexico dead zone that "blooms" every spring and summer when the spring and summer rains wash the excess nutrients from the bread basket of the American heartland downstream into the ocean. I wrote more about that here and here.

But there's the excess CO2 of a dead zone too—which also causes ocean acidification. Basically the other other CO2 problem.

So the authors wondered: what happens when you get ocean acidification from the atmosphere mixing with ocean acidification from water pollution?

Their model predicts that rising acidity from water pollution will interact synergistically—that is, more than just the sum of the two sources—with rising acidity from air pollution at intermediate to higher temperatures. Together, the two processes could substantially increase ocean acidification and impact commercial fisheries in places with dead zone problems, like the northern Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea.

Lead author Bill Sunda says: "The largest acidification effects from decaying algal blooms actually occur in colder waters such as those in coastal waters of Northern Europe or Alaska. However, in warmer ocean waters, where the acidification effects from this source are currently smaller, the rising atmospheric CO2 not only lowers the pH (raises the acidity) of the water, but makes the additional acidification effects from decaying algal blooms much worse; i.e., there's a synergistic effect (the effect of the two processes together are more than additive in lowering pH [or are more than multiplicative in raising acidity])."

From the paper:

Thus, while the impact of the two acidification mechanisms by themselves may be moderate in many instances, the combined effect of the two can be much larger. Such large combined acidification effects may cause significant negative impacts on coastal benthic [seafloor] ecosystems that are already stressed by hypoxia and rising water temperatures. Coastal systems support most world finfish production and the overwhelming majority of shellfish production, so the combined negative future impact of these anthropogenic stressors to marine ecosystems and fisheries production could be substantial. However, future impacts will not only be dependent on increasing atmospheric PCO2 [partial pressure of CO2] or the amount of respiratory depletion of O2 [oxygen], but also on temperature and salinity, which will be influenced in the future by a changing climate linked to increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.

 

The bubbling brew of CO2 synergies: Witches: ~Brenda-Starr~. Diagram: Sunda and Cai, ES&T doi: 10.1021/es300626f. Mashup: Julia WhittyThe bubbling brew of CO2 synergies: Witches: ~Brenda-Starr~. Diagram: Sunda and Cai, ES&T doi: 10.1021/es300626f. Mashup: Julia Whitty

The paper:

William G. Sunda and Wei-Jun Cai. Eutrophication Induced CO2-Acidification of Subsurface Coastal Waters: Interactive Effects of Temperature, Salinity, and Atmospheric PCO2. Environmental Science & Technology (2012). DOI:10.1021/es300626f

 

Climate-Related Disaster Coming Your Way? Your Insurance Could Bail

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 5:22 PM EDT

Not a pretty picture.

When it comes to grappling with the effects of climate change, insurance companies could be on the verge of failing the very people they're meant to protect.

According to a new report from Ceres, a sustainability-minded business nonprofit, the insurance industry has been relying on deflating financial reserves while being struck with record catastrophe damages—last year, the United States suffered an estimated $55 billion economic loss due to severe weather damages alone, and the $44 billion paid in insured losses for weather and catastrophes was the highest since the year Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Meanwhile, the industry's pricing models still follow outdated risk assessments, lacking plans for more extreme scenarios. The report argues that insurance companies' inability to adapt to current climate reality could result in unaffordable rates, loss of coverage where it's needed most, or force government into the role of last resort insurer, which would place more burden on taxpayers.

Sharlene Leurig, one of the report's co-authors, believes the insurance crisis that's plagued hurricane-prone Florida, for example, could play out on a national scale. When private insurers hiked their rates or simply pulled out of the area due to frequency of disaster, state-run insurance stepped in, providing cheap, subsidized premiums that encouraged development in vulnerable coastal areas. "The only way Florida was able to fuel its real estate boom was because of cheap insurance," Leurig told Mother Jones. But, "when the next Hurricane Andrew hits Florida, is there actually going to be insurance waiting for them?

It's an anxiety-inducing scenario, especially when the National Flood Insurance Plan—though newly-reformed as of this summer—is already $18 billion in debt. But, as extreme weather is demonstrating, floods aren't the only problem, and most insurance companies aren't jumping at the opportunity to model new risk assessments with this in mind.

"If insurance companies continue to pursue the risk management strategies that they have in recent years, where they either move out of certain geographies because they're too risky, or if insurers start cutting out sources of losses that their policies will cover, then what you have is either effectively the loss of any kind of insurance coverage, or you have the potential for risk pools to start expanding," Leurig explains. "And that's a very significant risk—to taxpayers, to customers, to consumers, and to the industry itself."

One of the report's more troubling hypotheses is already playing out. With more than half the US experiencing severe drought, breadbasket crops are shriveling up. For the majority of farmers who take out federal weather insurance, the government subsidizes those premiums—and for the insurers that provide private policies, the government provides reinsurance. That means that with this year's droughts, which scientists tie to climate change, public payout in taxes could be upwards of $9 billion, more than quadruple what it was a decade ago.

Leurig argues that in this critical moment, the insurance industry should be aggressively lobbying for updated building codes, better federal policies, and reducing carbon emissions.

Yet in some legislatures, policy-making seems headed towards the exact opposite: This past summer, North Carolina made it illegal to anticipate accelerated sea level rise when setting insurance rates and planning development. The good news is that this policy comes free—until an extremely rainy day.

Will Jim Lehrer Ask Romney and Obama About Climate Change?

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 12:08 PM EDT
Jim Lehrer

On October 3rd, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will face off in the first of three debates, this one on domestic policy. It could be a chance for Romney to regain lost ground after his week from hell, but for a few environmental groups the focus is less on the candidates and more on the moderator, PBS's Jim Lehrer. The question: Will he ask about climate change?

Just after the debate moderators were announced, the League of Conservation Voters began collecting signatures—60,000 so far—to petition Lehrer, a veteran presidential debate moderator, to ask the candidates how they plan to deal with the climate crisis. Other groups have since folllowed suit, including the Environmental Defense Fund and Al Gore's Climate Reality Project. They plan to officially deliver the petitions to Lehrer next week, LCV spokesman Mike Palamuso said.

"Even if the candidates were endorsing climate action at every campaign stop, there's such a bigger audience for the debates that we want to make sure this is part of the conversation," he said.

The odds aren't particularly good: On Wednesday Lehrer announced the broad topics he would bring up in the debate, none of which address the environment directly. And just this week PBS's NewsHour program, which Lehrer edits, came under fire for "balancing" a segment on climate change with a diatribe from Heartland Institute-connected meterologist and climate change skeptic Anthony Watts.

But hey, anything is possible. PBS spokeswoman Anne Bell wouldn't comment on Lehrer's plans, in part because she doesn't know them: Tweaks are often being made right up until the red light turns on. Still, he's always open to suggestions, she said.

"He takes in tons of information, and as for how he processes it out, that's his own magic formula."

How Many Refrigerators Does It Take to Store a Whale?

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Caroline Cannon, an Inupiat from the Alaskan village of Point Hope, fears oil companies aren't prepared for the challenges of the Arctic.

Caroline Cannon recalls walking onto the frozen Chukchi Sea with other women of her hometown of Point Hope, Alaska, and cooking hot lunches for the men out hunting at the ice's edge for whales, seals, and walrus. It was a long-time tradition in this remote Inupiat village of 700 on the North Slope at the northwestern edge of the state. But the tradition came to an end three years ago, when the increasingly thin ice became too dangerous to traverse on foot.

"It's a different thing when you have to cook in the village and transport the meals out into the ocean," says Cannon, who won the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize for her work opposing oil exploration in the Arctic. "We knew something was happening with climate change, but now it's critical that we take it to heart." 

Just days after ice cover in the Arctic reached the lowest level ever recorded, Cannon flew to Manhattan this week to speak at a Greenpeace-hosted panel on why Arctic ice is disappearing at an astonishing rate, and what international governments ought to do about it. Also on hand were a few of the usual climate-beat suspects: NASA scientist James Hansen, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, TIME environment editor Bryan Walsh, and Greenpeace International Director Kumi Naidoo, who was among those who boarded and temporarily shut down a Russian oil rig in the Arctic last month.

Many of the panelists, audience members, and reporters present were familiar to one another, and chatted chummily over coffee and mini-muffins at a mid-morning cocktail party before the panel. It was a telling scene in light of later panel discussion on how the world of climate-change activism is too insular, creating what Hansen called a disconnect between "what scientists understand and what the public knows."

Cannon was the exception, likely the only person in the room who's gone mano-a-mano on her own home turf with disappearing permafrost and rising sea levels. Her main beef was with oil companies ready to exploit vast Arctic oil reserves before being adquately prepared to handle a potential spill. She pointed to the fact that Shell closed its new Arctic shop early for the winter after less than a month of drilling as evidence that the company doesn't yet have the infrastructure in place to cope with the high seas, shifting icebergs, and brutal winds of the Arctic.