Blue Marble

Fracking Chemicals, Brought to You by Susan G. Komen

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 8:36 AM EDT

Here's some news that frankly, I initially thought was a spoof: for the second year in a row, breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure—which caused massive outrage when it defunded Planned Parenthood in 2012—has partnered with Baker Hughes, a leader in the fracking industry. The Houston-based oilfield services company will donate $100,000 to Komen over the year and sell 1,000 pink-painted drill bits used for fracking.

According to Baker Hughes' "Doing Our Bit for the Cure" campaign website, "The pink bits serve as a reminder of the importance of supporting research, treatment, screening, and education to help find the cures for this disease, which claims a life every 60 seconds."

The irony here is that one of the primary criticisms of fracking is that the fracking process injects possible and known carcinogens, including benzene, formaldehyde, and sulfuric acid, into the ground and surrounding environment. A 2011 senate investigation of 14 leading fracking companies found that, between 2005 and 2009—far from the height of the fracking era—the companies had "injected 10.2 million gallons of fracturing products containing at least one carcinogen."

Only adding to the irony is the fact that Komen's very own website, "Environmental Chemicals and Breast Cancer Risk," informs readers of "Common chemicals that may be associated with breast cancer," and some of the chemical categories listed are exactly those released when fracking.

Here are a few of those chemicals, along with the Komen website's very own explanations of the cancer risks of their chemical categories:

  • Naphthalene, a type of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon: "Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – found in vehicle exhaust, air pollution, tobacco smoke, and grilled and smoked food...are produced by combustion and can be found in household sources such as car and other vehicle exhaust; cigarette smoke; and barbequed, smoked or charred foods. They are also found in industrial sources from petroleum production, waste incineration and coal or oil-fired power plants. Inhalation is the major means of PAH exposure because it can become suspended in the air. Like other chemicals associated with breast cancer risk, PAHs are stored in fat tissue and are considered EDCs because they can interact with the estrogen receptor. They can also act directly on DNA to cause mutations."
  • Lead and Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, a type of phthalate: "It has been well accepted that our body's own hormones, especially estrogen, play an important role in breast cancer risk. However, research has found that numerous environmental chemicals can act like estrogen. These chemicals are often referred to as endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) and some researchers believe they may contribute to breast cancer risk by mimicking or disrupting the effects of the body's natural estrogen. Some commonly recognized EDCs are DDT, BPA, PAHs, dioxin, PCBs, phtlalates and heavy metals (e.g., arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury)."

According to Fuel Fix, "Each steel bit—weighing 85 to 260 pounds—is painted by hand at the company's drill bit manufacturing facility in The Woodlands and then shipped to the drill site in a pink-topped container containing information packets with breast health facts, including breast cancer risk factors and screening tips."

Advocacy group Breast Cancer Action called the Komen/Baker Hughes partnership "the most ludicrous piece of pink sh*t" they've seen all year.

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Buzz Kill: Pot Growers May Be Wiping Out This Cute Furry Mammal

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
A fisher

Weed smokers, here's some news to bring you down from your high: On Monday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed listing the western population of fishers, furry relatives of weasels, as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. According to a press release, the "major threats" to the species include "toxicants associated with anti-coagulant rodenticides" used at "illegal marijuana cultivation sites...on public, private, and tribal lands."

Fishers are forest-dwelling, cat-sized mammals—and one of the only known predators of porcupines—that were nearly wiped out by trapping and logging during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the current threats to the fishers are familiar, like wildfires and logging. But FWS found the misuse of rodenticides, more commonly known as rat poison, to be a "relatively recent and troubling threat." There are now about 4,000 fishers left in dispersed pockets in California, Oregon, and Washington. FWS cited a study that found rat poison in the blood of 85 percent of fishers studied between 2012 and 2014.

The rise in rodenticide usage stems partly from the proliferation of "trespass grows," or hidden spots in public parks, forests, and tribal lands where marijuana growers cultivate their goods. Each year, the United States grows about 22 million pounds of marijuana, and nearly half of the cannabis eradicated by law enforcement comes from trespass grows. It's difficult to overstate how much the grows contribute to the weed industry: In 2013, 72 percent of the outdoor plants seized by law enforcement in California came from trespass grows.

The decline of fishers is only one of a number of side-effects to this booming, secretive cultivation. Illegal grows divert streams, use tremendous amounts of water and energy, apply unregulated or banned rodenticides, and, in some cases, pose safety risks to researchers like Mourad Gabriel, who led the rat-poison study cited by FWS.

This video, produced by my colleagues Brett Brownell and Josh Harkinson for their deep-dive on the topic earlier this year, gives a sense of the shady world of trespass grows:

Monday's proposal to add the western population of fishers to the threatened species list would make it illegal to harm, kill, wound, or trap fishers in Oregon, Washington, and California. The Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking comment on the proposal for 90 days, during which several public informational meetings will be held in the three states.

Let's Watch the Moon Drip Red With Blood!

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 1:39 AM EDT

Don't look now but the blood moon is back. The full lunar eclipse should begin to be visible around 2:15am PT. No, it does not mean the world is ending.

Watch it here or, you know, just go outside and look up...or don't! You don't have to go outside. Maybe you're a shut in. Maybe it's cloudy. Maybe you're blind. Maybe you've never been outside because your father was killed by a bear when you were very young and now you have a debilitating fear of bears and there are a lot of bears outside so you don't go outside. Whatever. It's not important. What I'm saying is, your inability to go outside is not a deal breaker for me. I'm not going to let our relationship die on this hill. We can make this marriage work whether you want to go outside and watch it or not. Here's a livestream:

If These 35,000 Walruses Can't Convince You Climate Change Is Real, I Don't Know What to Tell You

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 10:36 AM EDT
AP Photo/NOAA, Corey Accardo

This an image from a NOAA research flight over a remote stretch of Alaska's north shore on Saturday. It shows approximately 35,000 walruses crowded on a beach, which according to the AP is a record number for this survey program.

Bear in mind that each of the little brown dots in this image can weigh over 4,000 pounds, placing them high in the running to be the world's biggest climate refugees.

Why are so many walruses "hauled out" on this narrow strip of land? Part of the reason is that there's not enough sea ice for them to rest on, according to NOAA.

On September 17, Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent for 2014, which according to federal data is the sixth-lowest coverage since the satellite record began in 1979.

"The massive concentration of walruses onshore—when they should be scattered broadly in ice-covered waters—is just one example of the impacts of climate change on the distribution of marine species in the Arctic," Margaret Williams, the managing director of WWF's Arctic program, said in a statement.

If you've ever seen these blubbery beasts duke it out, then you know there's some serious marine mammal mayhem in store. Thanks, climate change!

Budget Cuts "Eroded Our Ability to Respond" to Ebola, Says Top Health Official

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
The CDC's Dr. Jordan Tappero, about to don his goggles just prior to entering the Ebola treatment unit

On Tuesday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States; the infected patient was a man who traveled from Liberia to visit family in Texas. It's the latest development in the ever-worsening outbreak of the virus, which so far has sickened more than 6,500 people and killed more than 3,000. The United States government has pledged to send help to West Africa to help stop Ebola from spreading—but the main agencies tasked with this aid work say they're hamstrung by budget cuts from the 2013 sequester.

On September 16, the Senate Committees on Appropriations and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held a hearing to discuss the resources needed to address the outbreak. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asked NIH representative Anthony Fauci about sequestration's effect on the efforts.

"If even modest investments had been made…the current Ebola epidemic could have been detected earlier, and it could have been identified and contained."

"I have to tell you honestly it's been a significant impact on us," said Fauci. "It has both in an acute and a chronic, insidious way eroded our ability to respond in the way that I and my colleagues would like to see us be able to respond to these emerging threats. And in my institute particularly, that's responsible for responding on the dime to an emerging infectious disease threat, this is particularly damaging." Sequestration required the NIH to cut its budget by 5 percent, a total of $1.55 billion in 2013. Cuts were applied across all of its programs, affecting every area of medical research.

Dr. Beth Bell, director of the CDC's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, testified before the committee, making a case for increased funding. Her department, which has led the US intervention in West Africa, was hit with a $13 million budget cut as a result of the cuts in 2013. Though appropriations increased in 2014 and are projected to rise further in 2015, the agency hasn't yet made up for the deficit—according to Bell, $100 million has already gone toward stopping the Ebola epidemic, and much more is needed. The United Nations estimates it will take over $600 million just to get the crisis under control.

Bell also argued that the epidemic could have been stopped if more had been done sooner to build global health security. International aid budgets were hit hard by the sequester, reducing global health programs by $411 million and USAID by $289 million. "If even modest investments had been made to build a public health infrastructure in West Africa previously, the current Ebola epidemic could have been detected earlier, and it could have been identified and contained," she said during her testimony. "This Ebola epidemic shows that any vulnerability could have widespread impact if not stopped at the source."

Still, CDC officials have pledged to do everything in their power to stop Ebola in its tracks. "The sooner the world comes together to help West Africa, the safer we all will be," Director Tom Frieden says in a statement released in early September. "We know how to stop this outbreak. There is a window of opportunity to tamp this down—the challenge is to scale up the massive response needed."

Half the World's Wildlife Has Disappeared in Just 40 Years

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 3:54 PM EDT
The forest elephant population has fallen by more than 60 percent since 2002, according to research cited in a new World Wildlife Fund report.

Global wildlife populations have declined by a stunning 52 percent over the past four decades, and humans are largely to blame.

That's according to a newly released study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, which analyzed an index of 10,000 different animal populations (referred to in the study as the Global Living Planet Index) comprised of more than 3,000 species of vertebrates, a group of animals that includes mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians, and birds.

The report attributes this insane drop almost entirely to human activity, including overfishing, unsustainable agriculture, a dramatic loss in natural habitats, and—of course—climate change.

The most severe decline was experienced by freshwater species, whose populations fell a shocking 76 percent—nearly twice the rate experienced by marine and terrestrial species (both of which dropped by 39 percent). The most significant reductions in wildlife occurred largely in the tropics, especially in South America.

"This damage is not inevitable but a consequence of the way we choose to live," said the Zoological Society's Ken Norris, according to the AP. "There is still hope. Protecting nature needs focused conservation action, political will and support from industry."

While Norris' message leaves room for a bit of encouragement, it remains to be seen if the WWF's latest data will spur significant political action, particularly in light of the upcoming United Nations climate change and sustainability meeting in 2015.

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It's Now Illegal to Kill Wolves in Wyoming

| Wed Sep. 24, 2014 12:24 PM EDT

For the past two years, killing a wolf in Wyoming was pretty simple. In a trophy game area near the border of Yellowstone, licensed hunters were allowed to take a certain number of gray wolves. In the rest of the state, or about 80 percent of Wyoming's land, anyone could kill a limitless number of them on sight.

But that's about to change. A judge ruled Tuesday that the animals' delisting in 2012, which handed management of the species over to the Wyoming government, was "arbitrary and capricious," and that the state isn't ready to manage wolf populations on its own. The move has wolf activists breathing a sigh of relief; Wyoming's management plan, as Sierra Club's Bonnie Rice put it, could have potentially taken wolves "back to the brink of extinction." Judge Amy Berman Jackson did not challenge the previous finding that wolves had recovered and that the species "is not endangered or threatened within a significant portion of its range." But even so, her ruling means that Wyoming's wolves will again enjoy protections under the Endangered Species Act and can no longer be hunted—at least in the short term.

"The court has rightly recognized the deep flaws in Wyoming's wolf management plan."

While as many as 2 million gray wolves once roamed North America, the carnivores were nearly wiped out by humans by the early 1900s. Roughly 5,500 remain today, though an uptick in laws permitting wolf hunting in states like Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, and Idaho all threaten to keep the animals scarce. Wyoming's hunting and "kill-on-sight" policies, for instance, meant 219 wolves were gunned down since 2012, according to Earthjustice.

In part because wolves were reintroduced in Wyoming, whether to kill or protect this predator remains a very polarizing issue in the state. Wolves kill farm animals and pets, pissing off ranchers and rural landowners alike and feeding into the attitude that the canids are just a deadly nuisance. A Facebook photo posted last year by hunting outfitters, for instance, shows a group of hunters posing with a dead wolf with blood covering its paws and mouth. The caption reads "Wyoming is FED up." Commenters responded with notes like "the only good Canadian gray wolf to me is a dead Canadian gray wolf" and "Keep on killing guys!"

But scientists and conservationists have fought hard to restore this species into the North American ecosystem. Studies have shown that wolves maintain balance in the environment: they prey on other large mammals like moose and elk, whose populations (and eating habits) can get out of control without a predator to keep them in check; their hunting helps feed scavengers like wolverines, bald eagles, and mountain lions; their predation can force elk to hang out in smaller groups, thereby reducing the spread of diseases; and they've even been found to be good for the soil.

By restoring protections to gray wolves, states Rice in a press release, "the court has rightly recognized the deep flaws in Wyoming's wolf management plan." She argues that the state needs to reevaluate how it treats the animal and develop "a science-based management plan that recognizes the many benefits wolves bring to the region."

The conservation groups that sued after the wolves were delisted in 2012 include Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity. Though yesterday's news comes as a victory to these groups, a bigger hurdle lies ahead: The US Fish and Wildlife has proposed to remove the gray wolf from the federal Endangered Species list altogether based on the animals' perceived recovery. A final decision is expected later this year.

Carbon Emissions Are Higher Than Ever, and Rising

| Mon Sep. 22, 2014 1:34 PM EDT

Yesterday was a good day for the climate movement, as over 300,000 people—according to the event's organizers—descended on Manhattan for the biggest climate change march in history. The record-breaking turnout was a powerful sign that climate change is gaining traction in mainstream consciousness.

But even as the marchers were marching, new science was released that underscores how just how little time the world has left to break its addiction to fossil fuels. Global carbon emissions are the highest they've ever been, and are on the rise, according to a new climate study published in Nature Geoscience over the weekend.

The study totaled global carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production—which together account for over 90 percent of total emissions—and found that they rose 2.3 percent in 2013 to their highest level ever recorded, approximately 36.1 metric gigatons.

We'll use up our remaining carbon "budget" in the next 30 years.

Emissions have been on the rise for decades, setting a new record almost every year. The rate of emissions growth has increased since the 1990s—when it was 1 percent per year—to the last decade, when the average annual growth rate has been around 3 percent. The rate of growth in 2013 was actually slower than in 2012, the study found, reflecting energy efficiency improvements in the US and Europe that have reduced the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP. But that obscures increasing rates of growth in emissions from China and India. Globally, greenhouse gas emissions are still on pace to trigger what scientists say could be a catastrophic amount of warming, said Pierre Friedlingstein of the University of Exeter, the study's lead author.

"China will be twice as much in 10 years," Friedlingstein said. "We need to change the trend. There's a need to reduce emissions in every country."

Which brings us to the really unsettling part of this report—its attempt to pin down exactly how long we have to make that happen. Climate scientists often talk about a carbon "budget," which is the total cumulative emissions that will lead to a specified level of global warming. To have a better-than-even chance to stay within a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit increase over 1990s temperatures, the international standard for a reasonably safe level of warming, our global carbon budget is 3,200 gigatons. Since the Industrial Revolution, we've used up about two-thirds of that. On our current path, the study finds, we'll use up the rest in just the next 30 years.

In other words, if the emissions trend isn't reversed before 2045, we would have to drop immediately to zero carbon emissions on the first day of 2046. Since an instantaneous gearshift like that is obviously impossible, there's a need to bring emissions under control in the short term. That way we can stretch the "budget" for many more years and not face a choice between catastrophic climate change or a plunge into the Dark Ages.

We'll get an updated sense of how serious world leaders are about that goal at tomorrow's United Nations climate summit, which is meant as a curtain-raiser for major international climate negotiations next year in Paris.

World Leaders Have Failed to Seriously Confront Climate Change. Could That Change Next Week?

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 1:14 PM EDT
New York City will host history's biggest climate march this weekend.

Break out your protest sign materials and take your polar bear costume to the dry cleaner, boys and girls: This coming weekend marks the kickoff of Climate Week NYC 2014, a flurry of meetings and protests about climate action. It all starts with the People's Climate March in Columbus Circle on Sunday. Organizers are already calling it the biggest climate march in history, with over 100,000 folks expected to turn up.

But the week's main event is on Tuesday at the United Nations, where Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will preside over a confab of heads of state (including President Obama), diplomats, CEOs, and policy wonks who will all be talking about how to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic levels. 

The UN conference is meant as a preparation for the major international climate negotiations scheduled for next winter in Paris, a summit that is theoretically intended to produce an aggressive carbon-cutting treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. In other words, in classic UN fashion, it's a meeting about a meeting, or as Mashable's Andrew Freedman more eloquently put it, "the cocktail party ahead of a formal dinner." So it's probably safe to assume that next week we'll be served appetizers and amuse-bouches rather than a substantive meal, climate action-wise.

Still, New York is a city on the front lines of climate change: Just yesterday the last subway line damaged two years ago by Hurricane Sandy finally came back online. So the excitement is building. Here are a few things to look for:

BP Lashes Out at Journalists and "Opportunistic" Environmentalists

| Thu Sep. 4, 2014 12:36 PM EDT
An oiled bird on Louisiana's East Grand Terre Island after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

News of this morning's federal court decision against BP broke as I was aboard a 40-foot oyster boat in the Louisiana delta, just off the coast of Empire, a suburb of New Orleans.

The reaction: stunned silence. Then a bit of optimism.

"This is huge," said John Tesvich, chair of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, his industry's main lobby group in the state. "They are going to have to pay a lot more." Standing on his boat, the "Croatian Pride," en route to survey oyster farms, he added: "We want to see justice. We hope that this money goes to helping cure some of the environmental issues in this state."

On Thursday, a federal judge in New Orleans found that the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster—in which the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 people and spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf—was caused by BP's "willful misconduct" and "gross negligence."

Tesvich says he's seen a drastic decline in his company's oyster production since then—company profits down 15 to 20 percent and oyster yields slashed by 30 percent. He says he's suspicious that this new decision will force the kind of action from local politicians needed to clean up the Gulf once-and-for-all. The politicians in Louisiana, he says, "haven't been the best environmental stewards."

BP's own reaction to the news has been fast and pointed. "BP strongly disagrees with the decision​," the company said in a statement on Thursday, published to its website. "BP believes that an impartial view of the record does not support the erroneous conclusion reached by the District Court."

The company said it would immediately appeal the decision.

"It's clear that the apocalypse forecast did not come to pass," said a BP official.

With the fourth anniversary of the busted well's final sealing coming up in a couple weeks, BP has been pushing back aggressively against the company's critics. On Wednesday night—just hours before the court's ruling—Geoff Morrell, the company's vice president of US communications, spoke in New Orleans at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference, and blamed the media and activists for BP's rough ride.

The company's efforts to clean up the spill have been obscured, he said, by the ill-intentioned efforts of "opportunistic" environmentalists, shoddy science, and the sloppy work of environmental journalists (much to the chagrin of his audience, hundreds of environmental journalists).

"It's clear that the apocalypse forecast did not come to pass," he said. "The environmental impacts of the spill were not as far-reaching or long-lasting as many predicted."

Back in 2010, BP's then-CEO Tony Hayward lamented—a month after the explosion—that he wanted his "life back." He didn't find much sympathy at the time. Within a couple months, he resigned out of the spotlight (with a $930,000 petroleum parachute). But his flub didn't retire so easily, and it became emblematic of BP's astonishing capacity for tone-deafness, something Morrell seemed intent on continuing Wednesday.

Morrell said that while "impolitic" remarks had been made by BP officials in the past, the spill's aftermath has been "tough on all of us."

I can only imagine.

I can faithfully report that no rotten tomatoes were hurled during Morrell's talk, and grumbles and cynical chuckles were kept to a polite murmur. But the response on Twitter was more free-flowing:

Yup, that last one is true.