Blue Marble - July 2013

The Alberta Oil Sands Have Been Leaking for 9 Weeks

| Tue Jul. 23, 2013 3:54 PM EDT
Photos provided by a government scientist show the site of an oil spill in Cold Lake, Alberta.

Nine weeks ago, an oil leak started at a tar sands extraction operation in Cold Lake, Alberta, and it's showing no signs of stopping.

On Friday, the Toronto Star reported that an anonymous government scientist who had been to the spill site—which is operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.—warned that the leak wasn't going away. "Everybody [at the company and in government] is freaking out about this," the scientist told the Star. "We don't understand what happened. Nobody really understands how to stop it from leaking, or if they do they haven't put the measures into place." The Star reported that 26,000 barrels of watery tar have been removed from the site.

The impacted area spans some 30 acres of swampy forest, said Bob Curran, a spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), which oversees these sites. According to the Star, pictures and the documents provided by the scientist show that dozens of animals, including loons and beavers, have been killed, and some 60,000 pounds of contaminated vegetation have been removed. (You can see the pictures at the Star's website.)

Curran confirmed to Mother Jones that the leak was ongoing as of Tuesday afternoon and said AER was working with the company on a plan to contain the damage. He added that he couldn't make a firm assessment of what caused the leak until after AER had completed its investigation. "We don't get into probable causes," he explained. But he did say that AER was concerned, adding that the leak was "very uncommon—which is why we've responded the way we have."

In response to specific questions about the spill, the company sent Mother Jones a previously prepared statement: "The areas have been secured and the emulsion is being managed with clean up, recovery and reclamation activities well underway. The presence of emulsion on the surface does not pose a health or human safety risk. The sites are located in a remote area which has restricted access to the public. The emulsion is being effectively cleaned up with manageable environmental impact. Canadian Natural has existing groundwater monitoring in place and we are undertaking aquatic and sediment sampling to monitor and mitigate any potential impacts. As part of our wildlife mitigation program, wildlife deterrents have been deployed in the area to protect wildlife…We are investigating the likely cause of the occurrence, which we believe to be mechanical."

The Primrose bitumen emulsion site, where the leak occurred, sits about halfway up Alberta's eastern border and pulls about 100,000 barrels of bitumen—a thick, heavy tar that can be refined into petroleum—out of the ground every day. But unlike the tar sand mines that have scarred the landscape of northern Alberta and added fuel to the Keystone XL controversy, the Primrose site injects millions of gallons of pressurized steam hundreds of feet into the ground to heat and loosen the heavy, viscous tar, and then pumps it out, using a process called cyclic steam stimulation (CSS). Eighty percent of the bitumen that can currently be extracted is only accessible through steam extraction. (CSS is one of a few methods of steam extraction.) Although steam extraction has been touted as more environmentally friendly, it has also been shown to release more CO2 than its savage-looking cousin.

There have been accidents before with steam injection mining. At another kind of steam injection site, the high pressure at which the steam is injected exceeded what the terrain could bear and blasted wild-looking craters, hundreds of feet wide, into the landscape.

Curran said that although the current leak is extremely unusual, a similar—but smaller—incident occurred at Primrose back in 2009. In that case, tar started bubbled out of "thin fissures" in the ground near the wellhead. According to a report from the Energy Resources Conservation Board—an oversight agency that was folded into AER last year—new limits on steam pressure were imposed, and extraction was allowed to resume.

But on May 21, something new went wrong at the Primrose site. According to Curran, springs of watery bitumen started popping up, seeping out of the earth. When the first three appeared, AER shut down nearby steam injection. When a fourth appeared in a body of water close by, AER shut down all injection within a kilometer of the leaks, and curtailed adjacent steaming operations. "The first three are just leaking right there at the surface," Curran says. "Small cracks in the ground, just kind of bubbling out."

It's unclear what long-term consequences might result from the spill. "They don't know where this emulsion has gone, whether it has impacted groundwater," says Chris Severson-Baker, managing director of the Pembina Institute, a nonprofit group that studies the impacts of tar sand mining. According to Severson-Baker, the question is what will happen if the geology at Primrose is to blame. "[If] the problem is inherent to the project itself, are they going to remove the permits for the project?" Even so, he claims the damage might already be done. "At this point, what can actually be done to prevent the impact from continuing to occur? I don't think there is anything that can be done."

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Income Inequality and the Fracking Boom

| Tue Jul. 23, 2013 3:45 PM EDT

The New York Times had a big feature on Monday looking at how where you live can affect your upward mobility in the US. Researchers from Harvard University and UC Berkeley found stark geographical differences in the likelihood that children will earn more than their parents did, which my colleague Erika Eichelberger covered yesterday.

The researchers looked at millions of tax records and compared the 2011 earnings of people born in 1980 and 1981 to that of their parents. They found that a variety of factors influence social mobility—things like how segregated a town is, the quality of the public school system, and the affordability of local colleges. But one thing that stuck out to me was the high social mobility in places like North Dakota and eastern Montana, which don't really seem to have many advantages on those fronts. (More than two-thirds of North Dakota public schools failed to meet federal standards this year, for example.) But they do happen to be places with heavy oil development right now, which the NYT article doesn't really talk about at all.

You can see here that the blue regions of high income mobility fall almost right on top of the Bakken Formation, which has seen a boom in employment and earnings in the past six years:

New York Times
Energy Information Administration

The area around Williston, ND, has the highest chance that a child raised on the bottom fifth of the income scale had made it to the top fifth—33.1 percent—of anywhere in the country. This gibes with the previous news stories about local economies now flooded with cash thanks to the oil boom, which started around 2008 with the advent of new fracking technology.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Mark Perry also noticed this trend. His piece ends with the declaration that the Bakken Formation "is bringing wealth, prosperity, jobs and upward income mobility to America's 'economic miracle state.'"

I would classify it more cautiously. The study looks at a particular year—2011—when the boom near its peak. But a boom is just that—it doesn't last forever. Nor can every other part of the US rely on tapping into massive oil reserves beneath it as the way to solve income inequality.

Why Won't This Cat Answer My Questions About Climate Change?

| Mon Jul. 22, 2013 3:22 PM EDT
Mayor Stubbs relaxes outside of West Rib Pub & Grille in Talkeetna, AK.

When I visited Alaska last week, much of the state was still reeling from June's stunning heat wave, featuring numerous record temperatures. That includes 96 degrees in Talkeetna, a bustling tourist town near the base of 20,320-foot-high Mount McKinley (or Denali), featuring gift shops overflowing with moose and bear paraphernalia, restaurants overflowing with salmon and King crabs…and one feline elected official, longtime incumbent @MayorStubbs, who has gotten more than his share of media attention.

Despite the fact that their state is suffering from extreme climate change—Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the lower 48, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency—Alaska politicians haven't always led on this matter. Sarah Palin, for instance, is a notorious climate change denier. But I hoped Mayor Stubbs might be different. After all, he's extremely outspoken on Twitter, e.g.:

So naturally, as my fiancée and I drove south through scenic Alaska on our way to Anchorage, and neared Talkeetna, I figured I'd try the Mayor out on the subject of climate change. After all, 96 degrees in his hometown might be considered rather worrisome. First, I tried flattery:

At the West Rib Pub & Grille, my fiancée learns about Mayor Stubbs.

Alas, this Tweet didn't garner a quick reply.

What's more, when we stopped at the restaurant that serves as one of the Mayor's haunts—West Rib Pub & Grille—the feline official was nowhere to be found, though documentation of his existence was plentiful (see image). Our friendly waitress explained that Mayor Stubbs was the owner's cat, but the owner wasn't in at the moment.

Thus instead of an interview, all I got was a cut finger from being far too careless with some King crab legs. ("Deadliest Catch" indeed.)

Later that night, however, came a coy Tweet from the Mayor:

This was not exactly a "yes" to my request. Next, I appealed to the Mayor's sense of civic duty:

This didn't work either:

This left me scratching my head, and wondering whether hot, sunny days might actually be good for Talkeetna, which is chilly much of the year:

One can only conclude, then, that perhaps the Mayor has bigger fish to fry. Or eat.

Or eat before they're fried by climate change.

UPDATE: Mayor Stubbs responds!

And again:

US Won't Fund a Massive Coal Plant in Vietnam

| Fri Jul. 19, 2013 2:42 PM EDT

On Thursday, the board of the US Export-Import Bank voted against backing a new coal-fired power plant in Vietnam. The 1,200 megawatt Thai Binh Two plant was the first test of one of the policy changes President Barack Obama laid out in his big climate speech last month.

Reuters reports that Ex-Im said the decision came after "careful environmental review." In his speech, Obama called for an end to public funding for new coal plants "unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies, or there's no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity."

As I've reported here before, the US has loaned millions of dollars to energy projects abroad through Ex-Im, like the $805 million it loaned to a massive coal plant in South Africa in 2011. Despite a stated commitment to evaluating the greenhouse gas emissions from each project, Ex-Im loaned $9.6 billion to fossil-fuel projects in 2012, which was almost twice as much as it gave in 2011, according to data that the environmental group Pacific Environment compiled.

Earlier this week, five environmental groups wrote to President Obama, the head of Ex-Im, and its board members asking the bank to turn down the request for Thai Binh Two. "[T]his dirty coal plan will emit unacceptable air pollution that will worsen climate disruption and poison local communities," they wrote. The decision, they said, would be "the first crucial test case" for Obama's climate plan.

Thus, turning down the Vietnam plant is a pretty big deal. "It has significance far beyond this project because it sends a message to the international community that financing dirty coal is no longer acceptable practice," said Doug Norlen, policy director at Pacific Environment. "The impact will spread."

Senate Finally Approves Gina McCarthy for EPA

| Thu Jul. 18, 2013 6:10 PM EDT

It only took 137 days, but on Thursday Senate Republicans allowed the confirmation of Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency to proceed.

President Obama nominated McCarthy back in March. But after a Republican boycott of the first committee vote on her appointment and a two-month-long filibuster threat from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), McCarthy finally got a Senate vote.

Her nomination was approved 59 to 40.

Before serving as the assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation during Obama's first term, McCarthy worked for Republican and Democratic governors, which made the continued opposition to her nomination even more puzzling.

 

Climate-Related Power Outages Aren't Just a Coastal Problem

| Thu Jul. 18, 2013 1:44 PM EDT

This story first appeared in The Atlantic Cities and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Eerie images of flooded, pitch-black lower Manhattan following Superstorm Sandy made it clear just how stark an effect climate change and extreme weather can have on our everyday access to electricity.

A report from the US Department of Energy released on last week shows that New York City and other coastal regions aren't the only ones at risk. And it's not just a question of the future. No American region, it turns out, has been exempt from the possibility of mass power outages. The report focuses on three major causes: rising temperatures; wider-spread, more severe droughts; and more devastating flooding, storms, and sea level rises. 

DOE also created a map of energy and power-related disruptions over the past decade that experts have attributed to large-scale, long-term disruptions in climate and weather patterns (for the full, interactive map, click here). 


Department of Energy

Several memorable mass power failures make the list, including Sandy, 2004's Hurricane Jeanne, and this February's major New England blizzard. The map also includes less-publicized and less obviously catastrophic events in which climate change had an impact on the US power grid. For example, drought conditions and low water levels on the Mississippi River last summer made it difficult for barges to transport resources like coal and petroleum. On the other end of the spectrum, flooding of the Yellowstone River in Montana ripped open an oil pipeline in July 2011, causing $135 million in property damages.

Droughts and extreme heat have made it more difficult for power plants to do their job. Storms and rising sea levels put the physical power grid, including power plants and individual power lines, at risk in places ranging from coastal communities to Tornado Alley. And, to make it all worse, rising temperatures will continue to put an ever-increasing strain on electricity resources.

As part of the climate change initiative launched in June by President Obama, the report offers several recommendations to help mitigate these trends. Long-term suggestions include new technologies to make power plants more efficient, increased emergency back-up systems for local power grids, and strategies to reduce the amount of energy consumers need.

In the meantime, it's clear that inland communities have as much to worry about in terms of climate change as the coasts.

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Burning Fossil Fuels Imperils Our Ability to Burn Fossil Fuels

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 6:33 PM EDT

Pretty much every power plant requires water to work. Coal, natural gas, nuclear, and even some types of renewable energy need water to create steam and to cool down. These plants account for more than 40 percent the fresh water drawn from lakes and rivers in the US each year. But climate change limits access to that water and poses a major threat to our ability to keep power plants running, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

If plants don't have enough water, they can't operate. The report notes that the summer drought in Texas in 2011 forced one power plant to cut its hours of operation, while others had to pump in water from new sources, which led to fights over rights to water. Last summer, a power plant in Tennessee had to shut down because it was too hot, while others had to scale back production because of heat and drought.

The report makes clear that these large power plants are basically stuck in a horrible cycle. Many of them burn fossil fuels, which heat up the planet. A hotter planet leads to more droughts, which make it harder for the power plants to operate.

The report is optimistic about opportunities to change that cycle. It notes that if the US significantly lowers its carbon output—with more renewables, better efficiency, and newer power plants—we could cut power plants' water consumption by 85 percent by 2050. That would also, of course, slow down global warming.

Read the full report here.

Map: Oysters, Reefs, and Swamps Protect Billions' Worth of Real Estate—for Free

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 10:00 AM EDT
Natural reefs like this one in Florida protect billions of dollars in real estate, the study shows.

Among the hundreds of recommendations listed in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's $20 billion plan to protect New York from climate change is a call to stock up on oysters. Not the kind you'd want to knock back with a nice pilsner on a Friday afternoon: The idea is to build large underwater oyster reefs around the harbor that could prevent coastal erosion and absorb storm surges. "Soft" infrastructure like this—reefs, wetlands, dunes, and other "natural" systems—is gaining in popularity over "hard" levees and sea walls as an effective way to insulate cities from sea level rise.

Turns out, some of the best of these defenses might already be in place: Yesterday the journal Nature published the first-ever nationwide maps that reveal just how much existing coastal habitats are going to save our butts from rising seas and wild storms. Remove reefs, coastal forests, marshes, kelp beds, and other coastal habitats, the study finds, and twice as much coastline and 1.4 million more people will be highly exposed to climate risks.

Stanford marine ecologist Katie Arkema and her colleagues pulled a vast trove of data—Census Bureau population stats; property values from real estate site Zillow; wave and wind exposure data from NOAA; published climate models; and maps of coastal ecosystems from the scientific literature—and mixed them together to visualize where these natural systems offer the most, or least, protection.

The map below shows where the greatest risk from sea level rise and storm surge will be in 2100, based on models from the 2013 National Climate Assessment. Red areas represent not just places where sea levels are projected to rise the most, but also factor in the presence of protective offshore habitats; the type of shoreline (beach, cliff, etc.); and the spot's exposure to wind, waves, and other weather. Coastal southern Florida, for example, which is generally expected to get inundated by sea level rise, actually appears yellow, because of its abundant ocean-absorbing wetlands. Except Miami, that is: That city, the little red dot at the bottom right corner of the state, is still screwed. But things could be worse. The inset bar graph shows how many more people would be in high-risk red areas if those natural barriers were removed; in Florida, roughly an additional 300,000 people would be exposed, in New York another 300,000. 

Courtesy Nature

The Truth About Bagged Lettuce

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

I'm a major salad enthusiast. I'm not just saying that to sound virtuous—I really like the stuff, especially when it's drizzled with balsamic and a good olive oil and paired with a crusty piece of toast. Since we've already established that I'm a lazy cook and that I love Trader Joe's, you probably won't be surprised to hear that I usually opt for TJ's bagged lettuce mixes instead of whole heads. Packaged greens are perfect: all the salad, none of the tedious salad spinner.

So you can imagine my disappointment when, last week, I heard author Jo Robinson trash bagged lettuce on Fresh Air. (My colleague Tom Philpott recently wrote about her new book Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health.) "Many of these prepackaged greens might be two weeks old," said Robinson ruefully. "They're not going to taste as good, and many of their health benefits are going to be lost before we eat them." Instead, she suggested, I should buy my lettuce whole and coddle it a bit. "If you take your lettuce right from the store and rinse it and dry it—and then if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it—you're going to increase the antioxidant activity…fourfold."

"What I know is that the bagged, triple-washed variety is enormously water costly."

I'm not sure that the promise of an antioxidant payoff could carry me through the doldrums of lettuce washing and tearing. But Robinson's reality check also got me wondering: What about the potential environmental benefit of bagged lettuce? Isn't it much more efficient for all that washing to be done in bulk, rather than leaf by annoying leaf in my kitchen sink? I decided to call some experts.

Now, no one I talked to was aware of any actual studies about lettuce and the environment, and they were careful to emphasize that their responses were just speculation. But they brought up some interesting points. Gidon Eshel, a professor at Bard College's Center for Environmental Policy, reminded me that ever since the great bagged spinach E. coli scare of 2006—which sickened 205 people and killed 3—produce companies have been triple washing most of their packaged greens. "What I know is that the bagged, triple-washed variety is enormously water costly," Eshel said. "I visited such an operation and saw for myself. I don't have numbers sadly, but the washing was just staggering."

But Eshel noted that the location of such washing is a key factor: If it's in the Northeast, where there's generally water to spare, it's not such a big deal. "If, on the other hand, it's in [California's] Central Valley, then it most likely becomes the single most important environmental consideration, and the triple-washed thing becomes very difficult to defend." According to the federally funded Agricultural Marketing Research Center, 90 percent of US lettuce is produced in California and Arizona.

And water isn't the only resource that bagged lettuce uses. Sean Cash, an associate professor of agriculture, food, and the environment at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition and Science and Policy, pointed out that bagged salads require much more mechanical prep work than heads of lettuce. (Machines require electricity to tear lettuce into bite-sized pieces, whereas us people who do it require only zenlike focus and patience.) "The processing and packaging of bagged salad would still outweigh the cost of making the plastic bags that a consumer might use [to carry home whole heads of lettuce] at the store," Cash said. "And it's not clear to me that for bagged salad there would be less food waste at an industrial processor (although they may handle it more efficiently)."

And what about that E. coli threat? Even in this age of triple washing and rigorous germ testing, should we still worry that our greens may harbor dangerous pathogens? A 2010 Consumer Reports investigation suggests that the answer is yes. Researchers tested 208 containers of greens from 16 different brands; while they didn't find any of the big-name food-borne pathogens like E. coli or salmonella, they did turn up evidence of coliforms and enterococcus, "bacteria that are common indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination." More than a third of the samples tested contained coliforms that surpassed levels deemed acceptable by food safety experts, and about a fifth had unacceptable levels of enterococcus. Just this past February, Salinas, Caliornia-based Taylor Fresh Foods, Inc. voluntarily recalled its prepackaged organic baby spinach in 36 states because of potential E. coli contamination. (Meanwhile, in cuter/weirder news, in 2011 a woman in Pasadena found a live frog in her Costco organic bagged greens, took him home, and named him Dave.)  

I couldn't find any literature on pesticide residues in bagged greens, but it's likely that the triple washing gets rid of most of the chemicals. Still, lettuce is a notoriously pesticide-intensive crop—the Environmental Working Group lists it as number 14 on its tally of the most chemical-laden produce.

So do I have to ditch my beloved bagged salads? Not if it's going to mean I ditch my daily serving of veggies altogether, says Cash. Packaged greens are "a big win for some (not all) consumers in terms of convenience—folks who might not eat as many leafy greens if the convenience wasn't there." I don't think I fit into the latter category—so I should probably start buying my lettuce whole and spend an extra few minutes washing and cutting my lettuce at home to cut down on water, energy use, and maybe even nasty bugs. Okay, okay, Jo Robinson and salad spinner, you guys win.

Why Climate Change Has Darwin Down for the Count

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Green tree frog (Hyla cinerea)

If you live near water in the American Southeast, you may have run across the green tree frog—or at least heard the species as it croaks (in a sound that kind of resembles rapid fire quacking). It's a small frog that's often found in pet stores. It's the state amphibian of Louisiana and Georgia. And it's one of many species of amphibians, reptiles, birds and even mammals that may be incapable of evolving fast enough to keep up with what global warming has in store.

That's the upshot of a new study in the journal Ecology Letters, whose authors used a vast body of data on 540 separate species' current climatic "niches," and their evolutionary histories of adapting to different conditions, to determine whether they can evolve fast enough to keep up with the changing climate. More specifically, the study examined "climatic niche evolution," or how fast organisms have adapted to changing temperature and precipitation conditions in their habitats over time.

Under normal circumstances, the answer is very slowly. On average, the study found that animals adapted to temperature changes at a rate of less than 1 degree Celsius (or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) per million years. By contrast, global warming is expected to raise temperatures on the order of 4 degrees Celsius (or 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) in the next 100 years.

"It seems like climate change is too fast, relative to how quickly the climatic niches of species typically evolve," explains evolutionary biologist John Wiens of the University of Arizona, who conducted the research along with a colleague at Yale University.

Take the green tree frog. According to data provided by Wiens, the annual mean temperature in the species' range across the Southeast is about 66 degrees Fahrenheit. For its closely related "sister" species the barking tree frog, meanwhile, it's 65.3 degrees. The two species diverged some 13.4 million years ago, and their common ancestor is estimated to have lived in mean climatic conditions somewhere in between these two numbers, at 65.5 degrees.

The rate of evolutionary change in response to temperatures for these frogs is therefore extremely slow—"about 100,000 to 500,000 times slower than the expected rate of climate change within the range of the species from 2010 to 2100," Wiens says.

Even if you take a species that evolved much more rapidly in relation to changing temperatures, the conclusion remains the same. The species still didn't change fast enough in the past for scientists to think that it can evolve to keep up with global warming in the future.

Northern banded newt (Ommatotriton ophryticus) Max Sparreboom
 

An example of a faster evolving species would be the Northern banded newt, which lives at relatively high altitudes in a range that spans from Russia to Turkey. Annual mean temperatures in its habitat are about 50.4 degrees Fahrenheit; but for a closely related species, the Southern banded newt, the average temperature is vastly different—65.7 degrees. The two species' common ancestor is estimated to have lived only 350,000 years ago, amid mean temperatures of about 59.5 degrees. Adaptation to new climatic conditions among these newts thus happened much faster than among tree frogs—“but still about 1,600 to 4,700 times slower” than the kind of changes we expect from global warming, according to Wiens.

In the new paper, Wiens and his coauthor apply a similar analysis to several hundred other species, ranging from cranes and crocodiles to hawks and turtles. And none adjusted to temperatures in the evolutionary past at anything like the rate at which temperature change is now coming.

This does not mean that each and every species will go extinct. Some may shift their ranges to keep up with favorable temperatures. Some may perish in certain locales but not others. And some may find a means of coping in a changed environment. Just because these species have never experienced what climate change is about to throw at them doesn't prove that they're incapable of surviving it.

Nonetheless, the new research as a whole validates a striking statement made recently by the renowned climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University. At a Climate Desk Live event in May, Mann remarked that there is "no evidence" from the planet's past to suggest that life can adapt to changes as rapid as the ones we've now set in motion.

Wiens' data add an exclamation point to Mann's statement. And it also raises an unavoidable question: What is going to happen to the species responsible for all of this, namely, humans?

"Humans will be fine," says Wiens, "because we have things like clothes and air conditioning."