Blue Marble

North Carolina GOP Pushes Unprecedented Bill to Jail Anyone Who Discloses Fracking Chemicals

| Mon May 19, 2014 10:15 AM EDT

As hydraulic fracturing ramps up around the country, so do concerns about its health impacts. These concerns have led 20 states to require the disclosure of industrial chemicals used in the fracking process.

North Carolina isn't on that list of states yet—and it may be hurtling in the opposite direction.

On Thursday, three Republican state senators introduced a bill that would slap a felony charge on individuals who disclosed confidential information about fracking chemicals. The bill, whose sponsors include a member of Republican party leadership, establishes procedures for fire chiefs and health care providers to obtain chemical information during emergencies. But as the trade publication Energywire noted Friday, individuals who leak information outside of emergency settings could be penalized with fines and several months in prison.

"The felony provision is far stricter than most states' provisions in terms of the penalty for violating trade secrets," says Hannah Wiseman, a Florida State University assistant law professor who studies fracking regulations.

The bill also allows companies that own the chemical information to require emergency responders to sign a confidentiality agreement. And it's not clear what the penalty would be for a health care worker or fire chief who spoke about their experiences with chemical accidents to colleagues.

"I think the only penalties to fire chiefs and doctors, if they talked about it at their annual conference, would be the penalties contained in the confidentiality agreement," says Wiseman. "But [the bill] is so poorly worded, I cannot confirm that if an emergency responder or fire chief discloses that confidential information, they too would not be subject to a felony." In some sections, she says, "That appears to be the case."

The disclosure of the chemicals used to break up shale formations and release natural gas is one of the most heated issues surrounding fracking. Many energy companies argue that the information should be proprietary, while public health advocates counter that they can't monitor for environmental and health impacts without it. Under public pressure, a few companies have begun to report chemicals voluntarily.

North Carolina has banned fracking until the state can approve regulations. The bill introduced Thursday, titled the Energy Modernization Act, is meant to complement the rules currently being written by the North Carolina Mining & Energy Commission.

Wiseman adds that, other than the felony provision, the bill proposes disclosure laws similar to those in many other states: "It allows for trade secrets to remain trade secrets, it provides only limited exceptions for reasons of emergency and health problems, and provides penalties for failure to honor the trade secret."

Draft regulations from the North Carolina commission have been praised as some of the strongest fracking rules in the country. But observers already worry that the final regulations will be significantly weaker. In early May, the commission put off approving a near-final chemical disclosure rule because Haliburton, which has huge stakes in the fracking industry, complained the proposal was too strict, the News & Observer reported.

For portions of the Republican-controlled North Carolina government to kowtow to the energy industry is not surprising. In February, the Associated Press reported that under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, North Carolina's top environmental regulators previously thwarted three separate Clean Water Act lawsuits aimed at forcing Duke Energy, the largest electricity utility in the country, to clean up its toxic coal ash pits in the state. Had those lawsuits been allowed to progress, they may have prevented the February rupture of a coal ash storage pond, which poured some 80,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

"Environmental groups say they favor some of the provisions [in the Energy Modernization Act]," Energywire reported Friday. "It would put the state geologist in charge of maintaining the chemical information and would allow the state's emergency management office to use it for planning. It also would allow the state to turn over the information immediately to medical providers and fire chiefs."

However, environmentalists point out that the bill would also prevent local governments from passing any rules on fracking and limit water testing that precedes a new drilling operation.

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VIDEO: Is the BP Oil Spill Cleanup Still Making People Sick?

| Fri May 16, 2014 3:20 PM EDT

After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, when an oil rig explosion sent five million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the company behind the spill, BP, went swiftly into damage-control mode. One of its first steps was to buy up a third of the world's supply of chemical dispersants, including one called Corexit that was designed to concentrate oil into droplets that sink into the water column, where in theory they can be degraded by bacteria and stay off beaches.

After the spill, roughly two million gallons of Corexit were dumped into the Gulf. There's just one problem: Despite BP's protestations to the contrary, Corexit is believed to be highly toxic—not just to marine life but also to the workers who were spraying it and locals living nearby—according to a new segment on Vice that will air tonight on HBO at 11 pm ET. (For its part, BP has said that its use of dispersants was approved by the federal government and that it isn't aware of any data that the disperants pose a health threat.)

The show follows cleanup workers, local doctors, and shrimpers, and suggests that four years after the spill, Corexit contamination could be nearly as big a problem as the oil itself. You can watch a short clip from tonight's show above.

That Amazing 'Solar Roadways' Project Has a Working Prototype

| Fri May 16, 2014 2:48 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the CityLab website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Four years ago, Scott and Julie Brusaw announced their provocative concept of "Solar Roadways,"a system of modular solar panels that could be paved directly onto roads, parking lots, driveways, bike paths, "literally any surface under the sun." Since then, the Brusaws have received two rounds of funding from the Federal Highway Administration as well as a private grant to develop their project.

They now have a working prototype featuring hexagonal panels that cover a 12-by-36-foot parking lot. In addition to the potential to power nearby homes, businesses, and electric vehicles, the panels also have heating elements for convenient snow and ice removal, as well as LEDs that can make road signage. According to the Brusaws' calculations, Solar Roadways, if installed nationwide, could generate over three times the electricity currently used in the United States.

solar roadways
Concept rendering by Sam Cornett
solar roadways
Concept rendering by Sam Cornett and Craig Fine

Before you ask—the panels have indeed been tested for traction, load testing, and impact resistance. It's supposed to withstand a 250,000-pound load, typical of the heaviest trucks. For starters, here's footage of a tractor driving over the prototype.

In their current Indiegogo campaign, the Brusaws are trying to raise $1 million to help move Solar Roadways into production and start installing additional projects. With the campaign only 8 percent funded so far, their plan faces a long road ahead.

Here's the full demo.

This Year's Wildfires Could Incinerate the Nation's Fire Budget

| Thu May 1, 2014 5:27 PM EDT
California has already logged 1,000 wildfires this year.

The upcoming wildfire season could cost $400 million more to fight than the Forest Service and Interior Department have in their available budgets, according to a report those agencies released today.

The forecast estimates that the Forest Service and Interior will need to spend a combined total of about $1.8 billion fighting wildfires this year (though the actual amount could be significantly higher or lower), while only $1.4 billion is available for that activity. The difference will have to be drawn out of the budget reserved for other activities, including fire-related work like clearing brush and controlled burns. In other words, the cost of fighting fires will take resources away from the very programs designed to keep fires in check.

The projected expenditures are the highest in several years, according to a statement from the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service. After record-breaking drought in the West over the last year, this year's fire season is expected to be especially frightful—by mid-April, California had already tallied nearly 1,000 fires for 2014 (without even counting fires occurring on federal land).

"With climate change contributing to longer and more intense wildfire seasons, the dangers and costs of fighting those fires increase substantially," Interior Dept. Assistant Secretary Rhea Suh said in the statement.

If you live in a wildfire-prone area, don't panic—federal firefighters will still be hard at work across the country this summer. But this is a familiar song and dance for the Forest Service: The agency has had to borrow against itself for firefighting costs in 7 of the last 12 years. (Last year was especially bad, as the sequester slashed the fire prevention budget.) The problem stems from the fact that firefighting costs have to be drawn out of the agency's fixed operating budget, rather than a special emergency fund like the kind used by FEMA to pay for recovery from other natural disasters. When costs exceed that budget, preventative programs—which likely do more to limit the devastation than firefighting itself—suffer.

"This is obviously not a sustainable approach to managing any budget," especially with the high firefighting costs of recent years, said Nature Conservancy policy analyst Cecilia Clavet.

Budget legislation recently introduced in Congress and backed by the White House aims to remedy the recurring problem by creating an emergency fund for federal firefighting agencies to tap when their costs go beyond the fixed budget. But that bill is still in its early stages, and in any case it would only take effect starting in fiscal year 2015, which begins in October—after the fire season has largely passed.

Virginia Oil Tanker Derailment: "The River Was On Fire"

| Thu May 1, 2014 4:56 PM EDT

On Wednesday afternoon, a CSX train carrying crude oil jumped its tracks in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, sending three tankers careening into the James River with a fiery load; it was the second derailment for the company this year. While no one was injured, the fire burned for hours, and more than 300 people were evacuated from the nearby area. "The river was on fire," deputy city manager Bonnie Svrek told The Washington Post.

It's still unclear how much of the missing 50,000 gallons of crude was burned and how much spilled into the river. The video footage above—shot from a drone—shows just how close the derailment was to both the town and the river.

Meanwhile, this next Instagram video shows the intensity of the fire:

This derailment is the latest in a series of fiery accidents involving oil tankers. According to the Association of American Railroads, the amount of crude oil traveling by rail skyrocketed from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 in 2013. Our analysis published in February showed that in the United States, seven of the 10 worst railroad oil spills of the past decade happened in the last three years, totaling nearly $2 million in damages. (This number doesn't include the catastrophic accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July, which decimated the town and killed 47 people.)

US regulators have promised safer, more robust tanker cars in new regulations due out soon. Spurred by Lac-Megantic disaster, the Canadian Government last week issued tough new laws for the transportation of oil by rail, promising to retire older cars and replace them within three years, and making sure railways have emergency plans for responding to explosions.

Yet—despite evidence that shows the older tank cars are more susceptible to rupture after a derailment—the United States lags behind Canada: Its proposed new rules have yet to be passed. As recently as mid-April, policy makers met in Washington to discuss the problem, showing videos of older cars rupturing during a puncture tests and spraying their contents, according to reportsRobert Fronczak of the Association of American Railroads told the meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board that eliminating them by attrition alone could take 40 to 50 years.

US Supreme Court Endorses EPA's Efforts to Reduce Cross-State Pollution

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 2:19 PM EDT

This story originally appeared on the Guardian's website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The US supreme court endorsed the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to deal with air pollution blowing across state lines on Tuesday, in an important victory for the Obama administration as well as downwind states.

The court's 6-2 decision unblocks a 2011 rule requiring 28 eastern states to reduce power-plant emissions that carry smog and soot particles across state lines, hurting the air quality in downwind states.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing the court's majority opinion, said the EPA's formula for dealing with cross-state air pollution was "permissable, workable and equitable".

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No, New York Times, Keystone XL Is Not a "Rounding Error"

| Fri Apr. 25, 2014 1:16 PM EDT
keystone chart
Tim McDonnell

The New York Times had an interesting story earlier this week that aimed to put the carbon footprint of the Keystone XL pipeline, widely derided by environmentalists as the coup de grâce for climate change, in a broader context. The main takeaway was that even if the pipeline gets built, the carbon emissions from the oil it will carry will be such a small slice of the global pie as to be practically negligible; one analyst quoted in the story dismisses Keystone's carbon footprint as a "rounding error."

The story is right about a couple things: For the Obama administration to take a strong stance on climate change, finalizing and enforcing tough new limits on emissions from cars and coal-fired power plants will likely have a much bigger impact than blocking this one pipeline (a final decision on the pipeline was delayed once again by the State Department last Friday). And in any case, according to the State Department's latest environmental assessment, most of the Canadian oil that the pipe would carry is going to get dug up and burned one way or another, so blocking the pipeline won't necessarily be a win for the climate.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that, as the chart above shows, the footprint of this one infrastructure project is much less than that of the entire US economy. But that doesn't mean we should write off all that oil's carbon footprint altogether. In fact, the Times story's own such chart dramatically understates what that footprint will really be, using a statistic out of context that's an order of magnitude lower than the latest official estimate.

The Times writes that the pipeline will be responsible for an annual 18.7 million metric tons of emissions, citing a 2013 letter from a top EPA administrator to senior State Department officials offering feedback on their environmental review of the pipeline. But in the letter, that figure isn't presented as an estimate of the pipeline's total footprint. Instead, it's an estimate of how much greater the emissions will be as a result of the pipeline carrying oil sands crude, the exceptionally carbon-heavy oil that will run in the pipe, as opposed to an equivalent volume of conventional crude oil.

In other words, 18.7 million metric tons is only the difference between conventional and oil sands oil, the extra carbon boost that comes from using a dirtier fossil fuel, what the EPA letter calls "incremental emissions."

The real number to look at is from the State Department's final environmental analysis (last paragraph on page ES-15) released in January, and it's much higher. According to that report, over its full lifecycle (from production to refinement to burning) the oil carried by the pipeline will emit 147-168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually—more than the whole nation of Pakistan, according to Energy Information Administration statistics, and about as much as 41 coal-fired power plants.

The Times analysis is also problematic because it makes an erroneous apples-to-oranges comparison between country-level emissions data from the Energy Information Administration that counts only carbon dioxide, and Keystone emissions estimates that are given in terms of "carbon dioxide equivalent" and thus count other greenhouse gases like methane (although CO2 still accounts for the lion's share). For a better apples-to-apples comparison, I only included the US in my chart (and not the other nations included in the Times chart), because an official estimate of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions is only available for that country.

Although even the State Department Keystone estimate is a small-ish chunk of total US emissions, it's certainly nothing to sneeze at, especially when President Obama has repeatedly linked approval of the pipeline to a finding that it won't have a major impact on climate change.

6 Photos of the Oldest Living Things in the World

| Tue Apr. 22, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
3,000-year-old llareta, a relative of parsley, Atacama Desert, Chile

For the last decade, photographer and artist Rachel Sussman has traveled the world to document its oldest living organisms. Her photographs, stories, and essays are interwoven in her new book, The Oldest Living Things in the World. I talked with Sussman about her first encounter with a very old tree, climate change, and how she tracked down her ancient subjects.

Mother Jones: How did you come up with the idea for this project?

Rachel Sussman: I had gone to Japan in 2004.  I wasn't having the best time, and was even at one point thinking of going home. I had learned this one phrase, "fundoshi o shimete kakaru" which literally means "tighten your loin cloth"—a saying that basically means "buck up." I ended up taking that advice. A couple of people had told me that I should go visit this 7,000-year-old tree. So instead of going home, I went the opposite direction, to this island called Yakushima, where this tree lives. The funny thing is that I didn't have an epiphany standing in front of the tree. It was incredible and obviously had an impact. But it was over a year later, sitting at a restaurant in Soho, eating Thai food with some friends that I had my eureka moment.

100,000-year-old sea grass, Baleric islands, Spain

MJ: What was the research process like?

RS: One thing that is really interesting is that there is no area that deals with longevity across species. For example, dendrochronologists study tree history, and mycologists study fungi. But they don't talk to each other. So there was no list of old organisms. Apart from a lot of Google searches, I would try to find the published scientific research. It might start out with a rumor in a local newspaper—"hey, here is this 100,000-year-old sea grass"—and I then track down some hard facts and contact the researchers, who nine out of 10 times, are so thrilled that someone is interested in their esoteric work.

2,000-year-old Parfuri Baobab, Kruger Game Preserve, South Africa

MJ: What's the oldest thing you've photographed?

RS: Half-million-year-old bacteria found in Siberian permafrost. Unfortunately, I didn't get to go to Siberia. The research was done in the Neils Bohr institute in Copenhagen, so I went there and looked at a soil sample under the microscope and made some digital images.

Soil sample containing 400,000-600,000-year-old Siberian bacteria

MJ:  How will climate change affect these organisms?

RS: On the one hand they are these amazing symbols of resilience and perseverance; on the other hand if you think of almost every marker of climate change, they are impacted—by rising temperatures, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, rising carbon dioxide, polar ice caps melting, basic human encroachment.

2,000-year-old brain coral, Speyside, Tobago

 

80,000-year-old colony of Quaking Aspens, Fish Lake, Utah

MJ: What does it feel like to gaze at something that's so old and majestic?

RS: It's different for different ones. For the giant sequoias, of course, they take your breath away. Whereas some of these other things—the 3000 year old lichen living in Greenland—that does not take your breath away, I would walk right past it without even knowing the difference. Some of them, the fact that they're so diminutive and have been alive for millennia is just mind-blowing.                                                    

3,000-year-old lichen, Southern Greenland

Poll: More Than Half of America Doesn't Believe in the Big Bang

| Mon Apr. 21, 2014 3:33 PM EDT

According to a new poll, 51 percent of Americans do not believe in the Big Bang. Fifty-one percent of Americans are wrong.

Forty-two percent of Americans are not falling for this "evolution" mumbo jumbo. They too are wrong.

Thirty-seven percent of Americans are not convinced that humans are causing global warming. Wrong.

Thirty-six percent of Americans are not buying this whole "the Earth is 4.5 billion years old" thing. Wrong wrong.

Fifteen percent of Americans are unsure that vaccinations are safe and effective. Wrong wrong wrong.

Have a nice day.

This Climate Scientist Just Won Another Victory in Court

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 4:15 PM EDT
Michael Mann called the decision "a victory for science."

Michael Mann, the perennially embattled climate scientist best known for his "hockey-stick" temperature graph, came out victorious yesterday in a court battle against a Virginia legislator and a conservative think tank that had sought to obtain thousands of Mann's emails and research documents from his time as a University of Virginia professor.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that unpublished scientific research can be exempted from the state's Freedom of Information Act requirements, because disclosing such information would cut into the university's competitive advantage over other universities. As a result, some 12,000 of Mann's emails and papers won't be released to the Energy & Environment Legal Institute (formerly known as the American Tradition Institute) and Virginia Delegate Robert Marshall (R-Prince William), who had requested the documents in 2011.

In a statement on his Facebook page, Mann called the decision "a victory for science, public university faculty, and academic freedom."

Back in 2012, a lower Virginia court ruled that the documents in question were considered "proprietary," and thus shielded from FOIA requests. ATI appealed the decision, and the case landed with the state's Supreme Court last October. The main question was whether research-related documents should get the same kind of protection as trade secrets and other information that could cause financial harm if released. ATI argued that Mann's emails didn't merit such protection, while Mann and U-Va. maintained that scientists should be able to hammer out their work behind closed doors before presenting a finished product to the public.   

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court late last year, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued that in protecting Mann's research, the lower court had actually set the scope too wide, leaving open the possibility that a university could claim virtually any document to be proprietary. But yesterday's Supreme Court ruling revised the exemption criteria so that non-research-related documents—things like budgets and communications between administrators—could still be accessed with a FOIA, said Emily Grannis, the Reporters Committee staffer who authored the brief.

Of course, Grannis said, the ruling is only binding in the state of Virginia, but it could serve as a model for how other states set limits for what qualifies as proprietary if similar cases arise elsewhere.