June 27, 2012

Floods and Wildfires

Firefighters again will battle inferno-like conditions on Wednesday as they try to tame an explosive wildfire that has already chased some 32,000 residents from their homes near Colorado Springs, Colorado. [CNN]

Vacation homes and commercial properties in flood-prone areas could see their flood-insurance premiums more than double over a four-year period under a bill poised to clear the Senate this week. [Wall Street Journal]

Granting Fossil Fuel Permits

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that it was "highly likely" that the agency would grant Shell permits to begin drilling exploratory wells off the North Slope of Alaska as early as next month. Mr. Salazar said he believed the company's claims that it could collect at least 90 percent of any oil spilled in the event of a well blowout. 

"Secretary Salazar says there's not going to be an oil spill. That's astonishing," said Holly Harris, a staff attorney with Earthjustice based in Juneau, Alaska. "No oil company has ever come close to cleaning up 90 percent of spilled oil in the open ocean. The administration is hoping for the best but not preparing for the worst."

Obama administration grants Keystone XL pipeline permit in Texas. The Corps of Engineers are still reviewing permits for other sections of the pipeline.  http://nyti.ms/NMT8AC

The Interior Department also conducted a major oil and gas lease sale for the Gulf of Mexico this month, attracting $1.7 billion in bids. The administration has also issued a number of permits for major natural gas, solar and wind projects on public lands. http://nyti.ms/NMTOWC

Federal court upholds Clean Air Act

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld a finding by the Environmental Protection Agency that heat-trapping gases from industry and vehicles endanger public health, dealing a decisive blow to companies and states that had sued to block agency rules.

A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia declared that the agency was "unambiguously correct" that the Clean Air Act requires the federal government to impose limits once it has determined that emissions are causing harm.
The judges unanimously dismissed arguments from industry that the science of global warming was not well supported and that the agency had based its judgment on unreliable studies.
In addition to upholding the E.P.A.'s so-called endangerment finding, the court let stand related rules setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and limiting emissions from stationary sources. Opponents had also challenged the agency's timetable for enforcement and its rules singling out big polluters, but the court said the plaintiffs lacked the standing to do so.

Goodbye to Mountain Forests?

When the smoke finally clears and new plant life pokes up from the scorched earth after the wildfires raging in the southern Rockies, what emerges will look radically different than what was there just a few weeks ago. According to Craig Allen, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey in Los Alamos, New Mexico, forests in the region have not been regenerating after the vast wildfires that have been raging for the last decade and a half.

Dr. Allen, who runs the Jemez Mountains Field Station at Bandelier National Monument, says those forests are burning into oblivion and grasslands and shrublands are taking their place. "Rising temperature is going to drive our forests off the mountains," he said.
During two presentations at environmental conferences in Aspen, over the weekend and on Monday morning, Dr. Allen sketched a bleak picture of how climate change is redrawing Southwestern landscapes.
Using data from tree ring studies, scientists have reconstructed a history of fires in the Southwest. The wildfires of the past were frequent and massive, but they stayed close to the ground and mainly helped prevent overcrowding. Take 1748. "Every mountain range we studied in the region was burning that year," Dr. Allen said. "But those were surface fires, not destroying the forest but just keeping an open setting." Cyclical wildfires were the norm.

But beginning in 1900, when railroads enabled the spread of livestock, cattle devoured the grassy surface fuels and the fire cycle stopped. A decade later, a national policy of forest fire suppression formalized this new normal. Over the next century, forest density went from 80 trees per acre to more than 1,000.
Then in 1996, the climate emerged from a wet cycle into a dry one — part of a natural cycle for this region. Winters became drier. And "we immediately began seeing major fires," Dr. Allen said.
With so many trees crammed into the forest, fires climbed straight to the canopy instead of remaining on the ground.
"These forests did not evolve with this type of fire," said Dr. Allen. "Fire was a big deal in New Mexico, but it was a different kind of fire." The result, he said, is that the species that now live there — ponderosa pines, piƱon, juniper — cannot regenerate, and new species are moving in to take their place.
"Ecosystems are already resetting themselves in ways big and small," Dr. Allen said. The challenge for managing these ecosystems, he said, is to try to help them adapt.
Seeking to preserve existing systems is futile, he said.

Major oil pipeline spills in Alberta

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline running from Alberta's tar sands south to Nebraska and Texas continues to stay in the public eye. 

But this week it was reported that over the past few months, a million liters (quarter million gallons) of oil from several pipelines have spilled in Alberta. Canada's The Star reported on Wednesday that cleanup crews are working to prevent contamination from the three major oil spills:
The latest spill occurred earlier this week in northeastern Alberta near the town of Elk Point, where Enbridge confirmed a spill of about 230,000 liters through its pumping station on the Athabasca pipeline.  The biggest incident was earlier this month near Red Deer and Sundre in central Alberta, where 475,000 liters of oil from Plains Midstream Canada leaked, some of it spilling into the Red Deer River.
This is not the first time the Canadian tar sands giant, Enbridge, has been involved with an oil spill. In July 2010 one of its pipelines ruptured in Marshall, Michigan and spilled an estimated 819,000 gallons.
Even proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline see these incidences as worrisome, and confidence in the tar sands extraction and transportation throughout Canada has clearly been shaken. 

Pipeline News - Canadian Pipelines coming to New England

Crews prepare a boom on the Gleniffer reservoir to stop oil from a pipeline leak near Sundre, Alta., on Friday, June 8, 2012.
Three large Canadian oil spills over the past 30 days have increased concern over pipeline safety here, just as the government and the Canadian petroleum industry are trying to drum up support for a series of new pipeline projects. [Wall Street Journal] [CTV.CA] [http://bit.ly/NVhGZb]

Environmental groups in Maine and Vermont are raising an alarm about the potential for tar sands oil to be piped across northern New England. [Associated Press]

Mercury protections withstand repeal attempt

The Senate rejected another attempt to block vitally important public health safeguards. Forty-eight Democratic Senators and 5 Republican colleagues voted against Senator Jim Inhofe's (R-OK) Congressional Review Act resolution, S.J. Res 37, which would have blocked the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. Forty-one Republicans and 5 Democrats voted for it to stop the mercury protections.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, or MATS, was finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency in December 2011. It would require steep reductions of mercury, lead, arsenic, and other toxic pollutants from coal-fired power plants, the largest domestic source of mercury emissions in the United States. These plants spew 53,510 pounds of mercury into the air each year. Mercury and other airborne toxics are linked to birth defects, brain damage, learning disabilities, cancer, and other serious ailments.

The 46 Senators who voted in favor of blocking these important health protections received over $12.5 million in direct campaign donations from the coal and utility industries throughout their congressional careers. The senators who voted against the resolution received just $4 million, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.

Senators who opposed mercury safeguards received an average of $273,500 in contributions, while supporters of protections received an average of $83,000 from the polluting companies.  In other words, Senators who wanted to block clean air standards received over $3 in campaign cash for every $1 received by supporters.  These contributions don't include any donations to Super PACs that support them.

June 20, 2012

Cities making progress on CO2

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes said that four-dozen cities in the so-called C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group are reducing emissions by launching energy efficiency programs, capturing methane in city landfills, installing more efficient street lighting, and other initiatives.

They cite the CO2 reductions as proof that the world's cities can make significant progress on slashing greenhouse gases even in the absence of a global agreement on cutting carbon emissions. "We're not arguing with each other about emissions targets," Bloomberg told reporters in a teleconference.

"What we're doing is going out and making progress." Bloomberg and Paes said that 59 cities have committed to cut their carbon emissions by a total of 1 billion tons by 2030, equivalent to the combined greenhouse gas emissions of Canada and Mexico.

Japan approves feed in tariffs

The Japanese government has approved generous green energy feed-in tariffs as part of a drive to significantly expand renewable power generation.

Under the feed-in tariffs, utilities will pay 42 yen (53 U.S. cents) per kilowatt hour for solar-generated electricity and 23 yen per kilowatt hour for wind-generated electricity. The subsidies, designed to encourage individuals and businesses to install solar panels and wind turbines, have been essential in developing a renewable energy sector in countries such as Germany.

EPA regs under attack from coal companies

Two essential Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, regulations to protect children, seniors, the infirm, and others from air pollution are under attack from the coal industry and many utilities.

Last year the EPA issued two rules that would reduce smog, acid rain, and airborne toxic chemicals: the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

On July 6, 2011, the EPA finalized the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution—two of the main ingredients in acid rain and smog—from power plants in upwind states that were polluting downwind states. An interactive EPA map demonstrates that pollution doesn't stop at state borders.
Then, on December 16, 2011, the EPA finalized the first standards to reduce mercury, arsenic, lead, and other toxic air pollution 21 years after controls on such pollution became law.

More than 130 coal companies, electric utilities, trade associations, other polluting industries, and states are suing the EPA in federal court to obliterate, undermine, or delay these essential health protection standards. A parallel effort is underway to block the mercury reduction rule in the Senate, which is scheduled to vote on it this week

This Cross-State Air Pollution Rule investigation found that these utilities were responsible for 33,000 pounds of mercury and 6.5 billion pounds of smog and acid rain pollution in 2010 alone.

White House will veto Inhofe's bill to weaken mercury protections

The White House has threatened to veto a Congressional Review Act repeal of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, if S.J. Res. 37 is presented to President Obama.

The Executive Office of the President released a statement disapproving of Sen. Inhofe's (R-OK) resolution that would prevent the EPA from limiting mercury and other air toxins from power plants. Inhofe's bill would block the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that protect children, seniors, the infirm, and everyone else from air pollutants from air pollution such as mercury and arsenic that are emitted from coal-burning power plants. 

The standards "will prevent as many as 11,000 avoidable premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks, annually. The annual value of these health benefits alone is estimated to be as much as $90 billion." The veto threat makes it easier for moderate Democrats and Republicans to oppose Inhofe's resolution because they can argue that S.J. Res 37 will never become law, so its futile debate and vote on it.

Arctic Sea Ice Takes a Nosedive

The melting season is well underway now and in the last two weeks sea ice has been disappearing so fast that 2012 is leading all other years on practically all sea ice extent and area graphsSea ice area has never been so low for this date in the satellite record, not even close to it. 2012 has over half a million of square kilometres less ice than record minimum years 2007 and 2011.

Environmental News

Japan's Prime Minister ordered the reactivation of two nuclear reactors, the first to go back online since Fukushima. [NY Times]

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed updated clean air standards that will prevent thousands of premature deaths and take steps toward clearing hazy air. The EPA's proposal comes in response to legal action filed on behalf of the American Lung Association and the National Parks Conservation Association by Earthjustice. The groups called upon the EPA to adopt final protections against particle pollution that follow the Clean Air Act's requirements to protect public health and iconic national parks. The agency is also proposing separate standards to limit the visible haze caused by particle pollution in many communities and national parks. 

Breathing particle pollution can cause premature death, heart and lung damage. Soot or particle pollution—a microscopic mixture of smoke, liquid droplets and solid metal particles released by sources such as coal-fired power plants, factories and diesel vehicles— causes thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks and asthma attacks every year. The particles are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream, making soot one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution. [Earth Justice]

Australia creates world's largest marine reserve network

Australia has created the world's largest network of marine reserves and will restrict fishing and oil and gas exploration in a major step to safeguard the environment and access to food.
The area will cover 3.1 million sq km (1.2 million sq miles) of ocean including the entire Coral Sea, and encompass a third of the island continent's territorial waters. The Coral Sea and adjoining Great Barrier Reef will be protected from oil and gas exploration [Guardian]

The Heat is On - Massachusetts and Rhode Island lead country in temperature rise


Public Understanding of Climate Change Rebounds

Public Understanding Of Climate Science Rebounds, 72% of Independents Say There Is 'Solid Evidence' Of Global Warming

Brookings has released a new survey that confirms other recent polls: Public understanding of climate science is rebounding, and the recent record-smashing extreme weather events are playing a key role.

Just under two thirds of those who believe global warming is occurring stated that they were very confident of this position. This 63 percent confidence level is 14 percentage points higher than in the fall of 2011 and marks the highest level since the NSAPOCC began in 2008.

A123 Battery Breakthru

A123 Systems, the troubled Massachusetts-based battery maker, is banking on a new lithium ion battery technology to boost its prospects.
The company is calling the lithium ion battery, named the Nanophosphate EXT, a "game-changing breakthrough" for energy storage.
"By delivering high power, energy and cycle life capabilities over a wider temperature range, we believe Nanophosphate EXT can reduce or even eliminate the need for costly thermal management systems," said David Vieau, CEO of A123 Systems, in a statement today.
A123 Systems claims that its Nanophosphate EXT technology solves the temperature problem. The company says that the new battery no longer needs the heating and cooling systems and is immune to the effects of extreme temperatures. This could have a huge practical impact. In addition to increasing the efficiency and range of electric vehicles — and therefore their practicality and commercial appeal — the new battery could make electric cars viable in a broader range of markets.
If the technology performs as claimed, the Nanophosphate EXT could also reduce costs. As it stands, the battery packs of hybrid electric or electric cars are expensive and need to be replaced every 100,000 miles or so. According to A123, the Nanophosphate EXT lasts 2-3 times as long as traditional lithium ion batteries — eliminating the need for after-market battery replacements.
The Nanophosphate EXT is scheduled for use in the Chevy Spark, an all-electric city car due out in 2013.

Take a young person to a park

This past week, NBC News reported on a rather upsetting trend among national parks visitors. It seems that instead of the young backpacker often associated with national parks, the average national park visitor is actually middle-aged.

In Rocky Mountain National Park, for instance, the average age of a visitor is 46. In Yosemite National Park, only 11% of visitors are in their 20s. And in Yellowstone that number is down at 6%. By comparison, a 1996 study conducted in Death Valley National Park revealed that almost a third of visitors were in their 20s.

So why are these statistics such a problem? Well, it could mean less support for national parks in the future. Once older generations of park goers become unable to travel, who's going to visit the parks? How will the parks continue to maintain a steady source of revenue?

Even more worrisome is the fact that if future generations don't appreciate national parks, the parks may lose some of their political protection and government funding. After all, politicians respond to the will of the populace. And if the populace doesn't care about national parks…

Extreme Weather Events

The High Park fire swept across 20,000 acres with a roar and by Sunday had destroyed at least 18 structures, forced hundreds to flee and spewed smoky plumes that turned the sun blood red and blotted out the Rockies. [Denver Post]

Floodwaters from 20 inches of torrential rains damaged homes and closed roads throughout the Florida Panhandle, cutting power to the county jail and sending residents to emergency shelters as the area braced for additional rains Sunday. [Associated Press]

Four major heat records fell in a stunning new climate report from NOAA. The lower 48 states set temperature records for the warmest spring, largest seasonal departure from average, warmest year-to-date, and warmest 12-month period, all new marks since records began in 1895. [Climate Central]

June 8, 2012

Coal plants poisoning Great Lakes

Coal power plants are poisoning the Great Lakes. Report names 25 worst emitters of Mercury 

Mercury is a dangerous brain poison that doesn’t belong in our Great Lakes. It puts the health of kids and pregnant women at risk and adds an unwelcome danger to eating what our fishermen catch. That’s why it is so important that we support the EPA’s standards to reduce mercury pollution by holding polluters accountable.  Even more critical is that every single US Senator from the region stand up for the Lakes by rejecting reckless attempts to derail the long overdue Clean Air Act updates that can help tame this problem.

RGGI States cut CO2 by 23 percent

According to the program administrator of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) — a nine-state cap-and-trade market established in the Northeast in 2008 — average annual CO2 emissions have fallen by 23 percent compared to emission levels before the start of the program:

Average annual CO2 emissions for the three-year period were 126 million short tons, a 23 percent reduction when compared to the preceding three-year period, 2006-2008. Three-year average electricity consumption across the ten-state region declined only moderately, by 2.4 percent, between the same periods, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
CO2 emissions were collectively reduced to 33 percent below the annual pollution cap of 188 million short tons.

Sink or Swim

A “North Carolina bill would require coastal communities to Ignore global warming science.” 

Stephen Colbert had a hilarious discussion of that bill on his show:

Renewable Electricity - Excellent Option for Massachusetts starts today

Viridian Energy has just introduced a 100% wind power electricity option for Massachusetts and it looks very attractive. 

It is a Green-e Certified wind product (the website says they use local wind power). 

The neat thing is that it costs (a tiny bit) less than buying conventional basic electricity from NSTAR. 

NSTAR's current power generation rate is $0.07982 / kWh.

Veridian's offering for 100% wind power is $0.0785 / kWh. 

By way of comparison - the NSTAR Green rate for 100% wind power is now $0.14307 / kWh.

They also provide a 20% renewable energy product. The way this works is that you would buy 20% of your energy from Veridian and 80% of your energy from NSTAR's basic service. 

The 20% renewable energy product comes from biomass, hydro and solar power sources. 
Veridian's rate for their 20% renewable product is $0.0572 / kWh. 

If you choose this option, your combined Veridian/NSTAR rate would be $0.07486 / kWh. 
That is only 5% less than buying 100% wind powered electricity. 

There is no cost to sign up and you can cancel the variable rate plan at any time with no fees. 
If you chose to sign up for the fixed rate plan, you'll get a fixed rate for 6 months. You can cancel anytime, but there is a $50 fee for canceling the fixed rate plan. 

California requires Solar Ready Roofs

California regulators are expected to approve strict state energy efficiency standards that will require roofs for all new residential and commercial buildings to be "solar-ready" starting in 2014. [The San Jose Mercury News]

Seems like a pretty good idea! 

CO2 levels reach 400 ppm

For the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, carbon dioxide levels in the Arctic atmosphere have exceeded the level of 400 parts per million, monitoring shows. Although the milestone for this heat-trapping gas had been anticipated, the global monitoring director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Lab says it's a reminder that "we're still in trouble." (Globally, the level is around 395 parts per million.) [The Christian Science Monitor]

Seattle votes against coal terminal

The Seattle City Council has unanimously passed a resolution opposing development of coal-export terminals in Washington over concerns about increased train traffic and potential harm to health and the environment. The vote Tuesday came as the federal government is reviewing the first of at least six port facilities proposed in Washington and Oregon to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to Asia.

Electric Utilities split with Coal Companies

Coal companies and electric utilities, long allied, are beginning to split. More than 100 of the 500 or so coal-burning power plants in the United States are expected to be shut down in the next few years. While coal still provides about a third of the nation's power, just four years ago it was providing nearly half.
The decline is largely because new pollution rules have made coal plants more costly, while a surge in production of natural gas through the process of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, has sent gas prices plummeting. Together, the economics of coal have been transformed after a century of dominance in Washington, state capitals and the board rooms of electric utilities.
"The math screams at you to do gas," said Mr. Morris, the chairman of American Electric Power, whose company is the nation's largest consumer of coal.