Blue Marble

Obama Okays Shell's Plan to Drill for Oil in the Arctic

"It's a dangerous folly to think that this can be done."

| Mon May 11, 2015 3:31 PM EDT
Protesters in Seattle have taken to kayaks as Shell's Arctic drilling fleet approaches the city.

Royal Dutch Shell cleared a major hurdle this afternoon when the Obama administration announced conditional approval for the company's application to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's North Slope. The decision came after a few months of public comment on Shell's exploration plan, which was roundly condemned by environmental groups and several North Slope communities.

Shell's plan involves drilling for oil in a patch of ocean called the Burger Prospect. The drilling is slated to take place this summer when sea ice is at its lowest. In anticipation of this decision, two massive oil drilling ships owned by Shell are en route to a temporary dock in Seattle; from there, they are scheduled to press on to the Arctic.

If the ships make it to the planned site, it will be the first attempt Shell has made to drill in the Arctic (an area believed to hold massive subterranean reserves of oil and gas) since its disastrous effort in 2012. Back then, Shell faced a yearlong series of mishaps as it tried to navigate the icy waters, culminating in a wreck of the Kulluk, one of its main drilling ships. For many environmentalists, that botched project was a sign that Shell is ill-equipped to handle Arctic waters.

Moreover, today's decision underscored what many describe as an inconsistency in President Barack Obama's climate change policy: Despite his aggressive rhetoric on the dangers of global warming, and a suite of policies to curb the nation's carbon footprint, Obama has also pushed to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. Earlier this year, he announced a plan to limit drilling permits in some parts of the Arctic while simultaneously opening a vast new swath of the Atlantic ocean to drilling.

Allowing Shell to forge ahead with its Arctic ambitions flies in the face of the president's own climate agenda, said Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"It's a total mystery why the Obama administration and [Interior] Secretary [Sally] Jewell are continuing down this path that is enormously risky, contradicts climate science, and is completely unnecessary to meet our energy goals," Matzner said. "It's a dangerous folly to think that this can be done."

Before Shell can start drilling, it still needs to secure a few final federal and state permits, including one that requires Shell to demonstrate how it plans to protect ocean life during drilling and in the case of a spill. Those decisions are expected within the next month or so.

A spokesperson for Shell told the New York Times: "Before operations can begin this summer, it's imperative that the remainder of our permits be practical, and delivered in a timely manner. In the meantime, we will continue to test and prepare our contractors, assets and contingency plans against the high bar stakeholders and regulators expect of an Arctic operator."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

After a Mother Jones Investigation, Starbucks Says It Will Stop Bottling Water in California

Just one problem: The Pennsylvania county it's switching to is also in a major drought.

| Fri May 8, 2015 2:49 PM EDT

On the heels of a Mother Jones investigation last week that found that Starbucks sources its bottled water from a spring in the heart of California's drought country, Starbucks announced yesterday that it will phase out use of its California bottling plant for Ethos Water over the next six months. Because of "the serious drought conditions" in California, the company will transition to its Pennsylvania supplier while looking for another source to cover the western United States, Starbucks officials said in a press release.

The Pennsylvania county to which Starbucks is now shifting its water production is itself facing drought conditions.

The California counties from which Starbucks sources and bottles Ethos have been in a drought emergency for years now. Placer County, where Ethos' spring water is drawn, was already declared a natural disaster area by the USDA because of the drought back in 2012. Reports from more than a year ago noted that the county was already scrambling to deal with the area's "extreme drought." Merced county, where the bottling facility is located, declared a local emergency due to drought more than a year ago, as "extremely dry conditions have persisted since 2012."

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania county to which Starbucks is now shifting its entire national production of Ethos Water is itself facing drought conditions. While not as catastrophic as California's historic water emergency, Luzerne County, where Starbucks' east coast supplier sources and bottles Ethos, was declared to be under Drought Watch by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection back in March. DEP issued the declaration after below-normal rainfall over the past year has led to low groundwater levels in the region, which the agency noted has the potential to cause well-fed water supplies to go dry. The state is asking local residents to voluntarily reduce water consumption and to "run water only when absolutely necessary." DEP has put large water users on notice to plan for possible reductions in water supplies.

Nevertheless, Ethos' Pennsylvania bottler, Nature's Way Purewater, which bottles a number of other brands at its facility, announced in January that it planned to double production going forward.

This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from the Puffin Foundation.

These Scientists Just Lost Their Lives in the Arctic. They Were Heroes.

Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo were studying thinning sea ice.

| Thu May 7, 2015 3:14 PM EDT
Philip de Roo (left) and Marc Cornelissen.

Early last month, veteran polar explorers and scientists Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo set out on skis from Resolute Bay, a remote outpost in the patchwork of islands between Canada and Greenland. Their destination was Bathurst Island, a treacherous 70-mile trek to the northwest across the frozen sea, where they planned to document thinning Arctic sea ice just a few months after NASA reported that the winter ice cover was the lowest on record.

It wasn't hard to find what they were looking for, according to a dispatch Cornelissen uploaded to Soundcloud on April 28.

"We're nearing into the coast of Bathurst," he said. "We think we see thin ice in front of us…Within 15 minutes of skiing it became really warm. In the end it was me skiing in my underwear…I don't think it looked very nice, and it didn't feel sexy either, but it was the only way to deal with the heat."

His next message, a day later, was an emergency distress signal picked up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. According to the Guardian, a pilot flying over the spot reported seeing open water, scattered equipment, and a lone sled dog sitting on the broken ice. By last Friday, rescuers had called off the search. The pair are presumed to have drowned, victims of the same thin ice they had come to study. Cornelissen was 46; de Roo had just turned 30.

Yesterday, Cold Facts, the nonprofit with whom the pair was working at the time, dispatched a snowmobile expedition to attempt to recover their belongings. You can follow their progress on Twitter here. The dog, Kimnik, was found a few days ago and is doing fine, the group said.

In a blog post on the website of the European Space Agency, Cornelissen was remembered by former colleagues as "an inspirational character, an explorer and a romantic. He had fallen in love with the spellbinding beauty of the poles and had made it a personal mission to highlight the magnitude of the human fingerprint on this last wilderness."

It's not clear whether the ice conditions the pair encountered were directly attributable to climate change, according to E&E News:

That the region had thin ice is evident. Perhaps the ice had been thinned by ocean currents that deliver warm water from below, or by the wind, which could generate open water areas. It is difficult to know. Climate change may have played a role, or it may not have…the impacts of the warming on ice thickness regionally can be unpredictable, [ESA scientist Mark] Drinkwater said.

Still, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. We rely on the work of scientists like these to know exactly what is happening there and how it will affect those of us who choose to stay safe in warmer, drier places. Their deaths are a testament to the dedication and fearlessness required to stand on the front lines of climate change.

Rest in peace, guys.

The World's Carbon Dioxide Levels Just Hit a Staggering New Milestone

The kind of record we don't want to break.

| Wed May 6, 2015 3:17 PM EDT

The monthly global average concentration of carbon dioxide just broke 400 parts per million for the first time since record-keeping of greenhouse gas levels began.

The milestone, reached last month, was announced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday.

"It was only a matter of time that we would average 400 parts per million globally," said NOAA scientist Pieter Tans in a press release. "We first reported 400 ppm when all of our Arctic sites reached that value in the spring of 2012. In 2013 the record at NOAA's Mauna Loa Observatory first crossed the 400 ppm threshold. Reaching 400 parts per million as a global average is a significant milestone."

Crossing the 400 ppm threshold is equal parts disheartening and alarming. Less than a decade ago scientists and environmental activists, including Bill McKibben, launched a campaign to convince policy makers that global CO2 concentrations needed to be reduced to 350 ppm in order to avoid massive impacts from global warming. McKibben, who co-founded the group 350.org, explained the significance of that figure in a 2008 Mother Jones article entitled "The Most Important Number on Earth":

And so we're now in the land of tipping points. We know that we've passed some of them—Arctic sea ice is melting, and so is the permafrost that guards those carbon stores. But the logic of Hansen's paper was clear. Above 350, we are at constant risk of crossing other, even worse, thresholds, the ones that govern the reliability of monsoons, the availability of water from alpine glaciers, the acidification of the ocean, and, perhaps most spectacularly, the very level of the seas.

[…]

It's not clear if a vocal world citizenry will be enough to beat inertia and vested interest. If 350 emerges as the clear bar for success or failure, then the odds of the international community taking effective action increase, though the odds are still long. Still, these are the lines it is our turn to speak. To be human in 2008 is to rise in defense of the planet we have known and the civilization it has spawned.

We're now at 400.

Obama Administration Gives Rail Companies Three Years to Fix Their Most Explosive Oil Cars

Critics say that's too long.

| Fri May 1, 2015 3:53 PM EDT
Oil trains backed up in a rail yard in North Dakota.

Trains hauling crude oil have continued to explode across the United States and Canada this year as oil production booms in North Dakota and Alberta. Nearly two dozen oil trains have derailed in the past two years, many causing fiery explosions and oil spills. Lawmakers, environmentalists, and communities in the path of these trains have ramped up pressure on the Obama administration to toughen what they see as lax safety regulations at the heart of the problem.

Finally, some new regulations. This morning, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx stood next to Lisa Raitt, Canada's transportation minister, to announce coordinated rules across both countries aimed at making the industry safer by catching up to surging crude-by-oil shipments, which increased 4,000 percent from 2008 to 2014.

According to the new rules, older tank cars will have to be replaced or retrofitted with new "protective shells" and insulation to prevent puncture (and potential explosion) after derailment. New tank car construction will have to comply with these standards, too.

Oil trains will also be required to install enhanced "electronically controlled pneumatic" [ECP] braking, which allows for more control over the train when required to stop suddenly, and they will be limited to to speeds of 50 mph, and 40 mph in urban areas. Many recent train derailments and explosions have occurred at speeds far below those, however.

And lastly, train companies will now be required to minimize the chances of explosions and oil spills happening near towns and environmentally sensitive areas by assessing route options and rail conditions more closely. Once the routes are made, companies will need to tell local and state officials along the train's pathway.

Transportation Secretary Foxx described the rules as, "a significant improvement over the current regulations and requirements and will make transporting flammable liquids safer."

But the new rules have already drawn criticism from regulation proponents and industry players alike. The American Railroad Association believes the new braking technology is unnecessary. "The DOT has no substantial evidence to support a safety justification for mandating ECP brakes, which will not prevent accidents," said Edward R. Hamberger, AAR president and CEO said in a statement. "This is an imprudent decision made without supporting data or analysis."

But Senator Maria Cantwell, D-WA, who introduced legislation in March to toughen crude-by rail standards, said they didn't go far enough. "The new DOT rule is just like saying let the oil trains roll," she said. "It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to reduce the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars."

Indeed, rail companies will have several years to bring their fleets up to scratch. The now-infamous DOT-111 oil tankers, involved in nearly half of oil train explosions since 2013, must be fixed within three years. And the so-called "unjacketed" CPC-1232 cars, which are newer but don't have protective shells (and have also been involved in explosions) will still be in network for up to five years.

That amount of time is too long too wait given the potential dangers, said Anthony Swift, a deputy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We can only hope the federal government revisits the broader issue of crude oil unit trains before it's too late."

We're in the Process of Decimating 1 in 6 Species on Earth

The extinction rate is rising rapidly, a new study finds. And climate change is to blame.

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 3:10 PM EDT
A wood frog lays eggs on a pond surface. Many frogs like this are breeding earlier in the spring because of climate change.

Plants and animals around the world are already suffering from the negative impacts of manmade global warming—including shrinking habitats and the spread of disease. A great number are also facing the ultimate demise—outright extinction—among them the iconic polar bear, some fish species, coral, trees... the list goes on.

While most of the research on this topic so far has been piecemeal, one species at a time, a new study out today in Science offers the most comprehensive view to date of the future of extinction. The outlook is pretty grim.

The research, conducted by evolutionary biologist Mark Urban of the University of Connecticut, analyzes 131 other scientific papers for clues about how climate change is affecting the overall rate of species extinction. The result is alarming: One out of every six species could face extinction if global warming continues on its current path. The picture is less dire if we manage to curb climate change, dropping to only 5.2 percent of species if warming is kept within the internationally-agreed upon target of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The analysis makes clear that the climate change threat isn't necessarily a separate issue from things like habitat loss and disease; indeed, it's often climate change that is the driving force behind those impacts. The risk appears to be spread evenly across all types of plants and animals (i.e., trees, amphibians, mammals, etc.), but is more severe in geographic ares where there are more unique species and exposure to climate impacts.

South America takes the lead, with up to 23 percent of its species threatened. One classic case study there is the golden toad, a native of mountaintop rain forests that was last seen in 1989. The toad was driven to extinction in part due to an epidemic of chytrid fungus (which is wiping out amphibians worldwide), and because climate change-related drought is destroying the forests they called home. Australia and New Zealand also ranked highly at risk, with up to 14 percent:

Urban, Science 2015

Urban's paper offers perhaps the most comprehensive scientific companion to a terrifying narrative made popular last year in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Sixth Extinction," by Elizabeth Kolbert. The New Yorker journalist argued that when you look at the combined toll that pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change is taking on the planet's biodiversity, humans are driving extinction on a scale only preceded in the geologic record by cataclysmic natural disasters (like the meteor that likely brought about the demise of the dinosaurs). Never before has one species been responsible for the demise of so many others. (Check out our interview with Kolbert here).

Still, Urban's study makes clear that many species that avoid extinction still face grave threats from climate change:

"Extinction risks are likely much smaller than the total number of species influenced by climate change," Urban writes. "Even species not threatened directly by extinction could experience substantial changes in abundances, distributions, and species interactions, which in turn could affect ecosystems and their services to humans."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The 10 American Cities With the Dirtiest Air

Nearly half of us live in places with unhealthy air, the American Lung Association finds. And that's actually an improvement.

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Nearly 44 percent of Americans live in areas with dangerous levels of ozone or particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association's annual "State of the Air" report, published yesterday.

The good news is that's actually an improvement over last year's report, which showed that 47 percent of the population lived in these highly polluted places. Overall, the air has been getting cleaner since Congress enacted stricter regulations in the 1970s, and the American Lung Association report, which looked at data from 2011 through 2013, showed a continuing drop in the air emissions that create the six most widespread pollutants.

This year, short-term particle pollution was especially bad in the West, in part due to the drought and heat.

But don't pat yourself on the back just yet. Many cities experienced a record number of days with high levels of particle pollution, a mixture of solid and liquid droplets in the air that have been linked to serious health problems. Short-term particle pollution was especially bad in the West, in part due to the drought and heat, which may have increased the dust, grass fires and wildfires. Six cities—San Francisco; Phoenix; Visalia, California; Reno, Nevada.; Yakima, Washington; and Fairbanks, Alaska—recorded their highest weighted average number of unhealthy particle pollution days since the American Lung Association started covering this metric in 2004.

Los Angeles held its rank as the metropolitan area with the worst ozone pollution, even as it saw its best three-year period since the first report 16 years ago: the city experienced a one-third reduction in its average number of unhealthy ozone days since the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, states on the east coast showed the most headway in cleaning up their air, with major drops in year-round particle pollution. The American Lung Association attributed the improvement to a push for cleaner diesel fleets and cleaner fuels in power plants.

"The progress is exactly what we want to see, but to see some areas having some of their worst episodes was unusual," said Janice Nolen, an air pollution expert with the association, referring to the record-breaking days of short-term particle pollution.

Data is missing for some of the dirtiest cities in the Midwest, including Chicago and St. Louis, due in part to problems at data labs in Illinois and Tennessee. Similar problems in Georgia also prevented researchers from assessing changes in Atlanta, another city notorious for air pollution.

Outdoor air pollution has been linked to about 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide, by causing or exacerbating lung cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease, acute lower respiratory infections, ischaemic heart disease, and strokes. And unfortunately, it seems people of color and with low incomes are often exposed to the dirtiest air.

Using data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Lung Association ranked cities around the country in terms of their year-round particle pollution, or the annual average level of fine particles in the air. These fine particles can come from many sources, including power plants, wildfires, and vehicle emissions, and breathing them in over such long periods of time have been linked to lung damage, increased hospitalizations for asthma attacks, increased risk for lower birth weight and infant mortality, and increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

Here are the 10 cities with the lowest levels of year-round particle pollution:

1. Prescott, Arizona

2. Farmington, New Mexico

3. Casper, Wyoming

3. Cheyenne, Wyoming

5. Flagstaff, Arizona

6. Duluth, Minnesota-Wisconsin

6. Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida

6. Salinas, California

10. Anchorage, Alaska

10. Bismarck, North Dakota

10. Rapid City-Spearfish, South Dakota

And the cities with the most year-round particle pollution:

1. Fresno-Madera, California

2. Bakersfield, California

3. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, California*

4. Modesto-Merced, California

5. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California

6. El Centro, California

7. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California

8. Cincinnati; Wilmington, Kentucky; Maysville, Indiana

9. Pittsburgh; New Castle, Ohio; Weirton, West Virginia

10. Cleveland-Akron-Canton, Ohio

To see city rankings for short-term particle pollution and ozone pollution, check out the report

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the state in which Visalia, Porterville, and Hanford are located.

Chipotle Says It's Getting Rid of GMOs. Here's the Problem.

Actually, there are a lot of problems.

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 4:08 PM EDT

Chipotle announced this week that it will stop serving food made with genetically modified organisms. The company wants you to think the decision is "another step toward the visions we have of changing the way people think about and eat fast food," apparently because GMOs are regarded with at best suspicion and at worst total revulsion by lots of Americans.

There's data to support that notion: A Pew poll released earlier this year found that less than 40 percent of Americans think GMOs are safe to eat.

Here's the thing, though: GMOs are totally safe to eat. Eighty-eight percent of the scientists in that same poll agreed. As longtime environmentalist Mark Lynas pointed out in the New York Times recently, the level of scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs is comparable to the scientific consensus on climate change, which is to say that the disagreement camp is a rapidly diminishing minority. Lynas also made the equally valid point that so-called "improved" seeds have a pretty remarkable track record in improving crop yields in developing countries, which translates to a direct win for local economies and food security. (Although there is evidence that widespread GMO use can lead to an increased reliance on pesticides.)

But there's an even more important reason why Chipotle's announcement is little more than self-congratulatory PR, even if you think that GMOs are the devil. As former MoJo-er Sarah Zhang pointed out at Gizmodo:

For the past couple of years, Chipotle has been getting its suppliers to get rid of GM corn and soybean. Today’s "GMO-free" announcement comes as Chipotle has switched over to non-GMO corn and soybean oil, but it still serves chicken and pork from animals raised on GMO feed. (Its beef comes from pasture-fed cows.) A good chunk of the GM corn and soybeans grown in America actually goes to feed livestock, so a truly principled stance against GMOs should cut out meat from GM-fed animals, too.

The same caveat applies to soda, which is also made mostly from corn.

This Stat Will Make Deforestation Hit Home

| Fri Apr. 24, 2015 4:33 PM EDT
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Okay, so deforestation is sad, and it's Arbor Day so we should be extra sad about it. But there are so many things to be sad about, right? Well maybe this stat, from a study that came out last month, will make the loss of the world's forests sink in for you:

More than 70 percent of the worlds's forests are within 1 kilometer of a forest edge. Thus, most forests are well within the range where human activities, altered microclimate and nonforest species may influence and degrade forest ecosystems.

That's right, we've arrived at the point where the majority of the forest in the world is just a short walk from the stuff humans have built. If you need that in graph form, here you go:

Science Advances

According to the study, which was published in the journal Science Advances, the largest remaining contiguous forests are in the Amazon and the Congo River Basin. The study also synthesized past forest fragmentation research and found that breaking up habitats to this degree has reduced biodiversity by as much as 75 percent in some areas.

Happy Arbor Day…

This Is Why You Crave Sugar When You're Stressed Out

A new study explains how sweets relieve stress—and why that's not a good thing.

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Here's something that won't come as a surprise to anyone who has ever devoured a pint of Rocky Road after a miserable day at work: Researchers at the University of California-Davis recently found that 80 percent of people report eating more sweets when they are stressed. Their new study, published in the the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, offers a possible explanation.

Sugar, the researchers found, can diminish physiological responses normally produced in the brain and body during stressful situations. With stress levels on the rise, this could explain why more people are reaching for sweets.

The three-phase study involved 19 women, ages 18 to 40, who spent three days on a low-sugar diet at the research facility. Saliva samples and MRIs were taken and stress was induced through timed math tests. After being discharged, over the course of 12 days, the women consumed sweetened drinks three times a day. Half had beverages sweetened with the artificial sweetener aspartame, while the rest had drinks sweetened with real sucrose. This phase was followed by an additional three-day stint at the facility during which MRIs and saliva samples were taken again.

After the 12-day period, the group that had sucrose-sweetened beverages showed higher activity in the left hippocampus (an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory that is sensitive to chronic stress) and significantly reduced levels of cortisol (the hormone released in response to stress) compared to those who had artificially sweetened beverages.

While this study was one of the first to show that sugar can reduce stress responses in humans, it followed up on previous studies that found similar conclusions in animal subjects. The researchers noted the need for future research—especially on whether long-term sugar consumption has the same effect.

"The concern is psychological or emotional stress could trigger the habitual overconsumption of sugar," lead author Kevin D. Laugero told Science Daily. Not exactly great news for those of us who enjoy eating our feelings.