A World of Slow Drips

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

Carlsbad, New Mexico

Some farmers near Carlsbad, New Mexico (shown here) find it more profitable to sell their water to fracking operations than to irrigate their drought-stricken land.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the last in a four-part series on this briefing.

Dennis Dimick, executive editor of environment at National Geographic, spoke of a nexus where food, water, and energy issues meet. Much of the petroleum extraction being done today, including water-intensive fracking operations, is being done in arid regions. Many arid regions in the U.S. are under stress because of decreases in the mountain snow pack that replenishes rivers and lakes every year.

Heavy demands from the extraction industries, agriculture, and growing cities have tended to push aside concerns for the indigenous animal and plant life. This neglect could have serious repercussions for human populations because of complex cause-and-effect relationships and the interconnecting roles that drive environmental effects. “It’s not just a water supply for people, you have to look at the whole ecosystem,” Dimick said.

At the same time that arid regions in the western U.S. are dealing with extended drought periods and diminishing snow melt, they are experiencing significant population growth. Cities in these regions, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, are already experiencing water shortages. Their demand for water is outstripping the ability of their aquifers to replenish themselves, and in essence, they are “mining fossil water”, said Dimick. Water stress is not limited to the southwestern deserts, however. Orlando, Atlanta, and the San Francisco Bay area are also feeling the pinch. (See this article in Yahoo Finance on the ten largest U.S. cities dealing with water shortages.)

Snowstorm

Slow drips, hard knocks. Shifts in climate patterns produce weather extremes of all kinds.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

These stories are sometimes not covered in the news as well as they could be, noted Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”. In part, this is because the long development times for phenomena including climate change and ecosystem degradation are hard to report on a journalistic time scale. It’s much easier to generate a news item about a particular wildfire in California than to report on a decades-long increase in the number and intensity of wildfires across the Southwest. However, “it’s a world of slow drips that set up hard knocks,” Revkin noted.

Dramatic elements of a news story often overshadow the factors that contributed to the drama, Revkin continued. For example, Tacloban, a city in the Philippines that sustained massive damage during last November’s Super-typhoon Haiyan, saw its population triple over the past 40 years, according to the National Census Office for the Philippines.

Poverty and infrastructure neglect are common in this city, located in a particularly storm-prone area. About one-third of Tacloban’s homes have wooden exterior walls. One in seven homes has a grass roof (down from about a quarter of all homes in 2000), according to the National Census Office report. (Revkin discusses this in detail in his Dot Earth blog.)

More humans means more human loss when a “fairly typical” disaster hits, Revkin said. This is especially true when more humans concentrate in particularly sensitive or disaster-prone areas. He noted that “misguided incentives” encourage people to build in harm’s way, including insurance policies that cover rebuilding in risky areas. “Insurance costs should rise” to cover the risks, he said.

Revkin noted the effects of confounding factors in creating climate models and predicting resource levels in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Changes in the environment and living standards there are driven by more than just greenhouse gas levels. He noted complexities in climatology and widespread mismanagement of water resources as examples.

When considering the effects of population growth and resource consumption on climate change, “consumption is key,” said Revkin in response to a question from an audience member. “Nine billion vegan monks” would have a much smaller impact on global resources than, say, a world of upper-middle-class Americans. However, large family sizes can reduce the quality of life for dense local pockets of urban poor people, and localized family planning efforts can have positive effects on such things as deforestation. The issue doesn’t get discussed much, he added.

Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian, noted that rich nations are the “main perpetrators” of climate change effects because the scale on which they extract and consume fossil fuels so far outstrips that of less prosperous countries. Large international agencies and treaty organizations have made little progress on targeting efforts toward getting rich nations to act, but small side negotiations could produce significant results, she said.

A Matter of National Security
What about the impact of climate change on national security? Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, noted the 20-year effort by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to address climate change issues. She asserted that the State Department is heavily focused on climate effects and their influence on national security. She also noted that the Department of Defense is acutely aware of the issue. “The awareness is there … and it’s growing,” she said.

Goldenberg noted that the U.S. military’s leadership is pushing to reduce or eliminate dependence on petroleum-based fuels. They have put great pressure on unit commanders to “green” their establishments (but they don’t call it “green”), she said. Davenport explained that the military’s push toward alternative fuel sources is driven by security concerns, with the environmental benefits as a fortuitous side effect. Transporting fuel to remote or hostile locations is prohibitively expensive in terms of money and danger to the lives of servicemen, and oil convoys are prime targets for attack, she added.

Food shortages are another national security concern. Several recent riots in other countries have been attributed to food price increases driven by crop failures brought on by drought. The problem is beginning to make itself felt in the U.S. as well, said Dimick. Farmers in the southern high plains of Texas can no longer grow corn, he said. Instead, they have begun to raise dry-land crops such as grain sorghum. (Other sources note that the high plains water shortage is caused both by drought and by depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. Farmers have switched to short-season corn, grain sorghum, and cotton to reduce demand for water.)

Effecting Changes in the Political Climate
Given the polarized and combative atmosphere in Congress, is there any hope that legislators representing deeply conservative constituents in the “red states” could support efforts to address climate change? Is there hope for a carbon tax, or will big business defeat any efforts in this direction?

Davenport stated that when large companies see their profitability threatened by climate effects, they often come around to support climate change mitigation efforts. She noted that Monsanto, an agricultural products company whose customer base is largely in the red states, is concerned about volatility in weather patterns. Droughts, tornadoes, and wildfires threaten the farmers who make up the company’s customer base.

Cloudy future

Conflicting political, public, and industrial priorities create an uncertain future.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Exxon Mobil, the petroleum producer, has acknowledged the role of carbon emissions in climate change. This company, which is a major donor to Republican campaigns, has developed a proposal for a carbon tax. Davenport noted that this change of heart occurred when Exxon Mobil bought natural gas producer XTO Energy in 2009, adding that their embrace of climate science is now good for their bottom line.

Despite support from major corporations (and campaign donors), conservative lawmakers are still fighting regulations that address climate change, Davenport said. Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, noted that support from business could give moderate legislators the political cover they need to support legislation without being branded anti-business. “Business is out ahead of the lawmakers on this,” he said.

Davenport noted that significant legislative changes will come when red-state Republicans have the constituent backing and political will to support these changes. This, in turn, will happen when local effects — depleted or contaminated water supplies, or increases in insurance rates because of floods or wildfires — drive citizens to push for change. In some ways, she said, the push for action from the left impedes change because it hardens the opposition and politicizes the issues. This makes it harder for moderates to speak up without paying a price politically.

This is the last in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous posts: Global Issues, Local Actions, Coal: Politics and Power Supplies, and Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues.

Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

protester arrested

The Keystone Pipeline mobilized public protests in 2013. Shown here: A man is arrested near the White House during a protest rally (not related to Keystone).
Photo by Nancy McGuire

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the third in a four-part series on this briefing.

Opposition to Canada’s Keystone Pipeline, a story that generated significant heat inside the Beltway last year, may be producing some unintended effects. “Canada is committed to developing its oil sands, Keystone or not,” said Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news. If the Keystone construction project is prevented or delayed, the industry could resort to railroads and ships to bring crude oil to market. As of today, though, Canada doesn’t have the shipping routes to be able to do this, countered Suzanne Goldenberg, U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian. “Every day that the oil stays in the ground … is a small victory for the environmental movement,” she said, adding that this delay gives natural gas a chance to further dominate the U.S. market.

Politically, the Keystone protests were effective in mobilizing citizen groups on both sides of the issue and stirring up awareness and interest in issues surrounding petroleum extraction and transport. In an imperfect way, Keystone was used as a proxy in the debate surrounding climate change response versus job creation. However, the Keystone issue has not mobilized people enough to effect real change, said Goldenberg. Real changes have come about in the last three or four years through “little movements” centered around oil, gas, and fracking issues. It’s hard to quantify, she said, but the big groups are starting to listen.

Pearl noted that “people need to be stimulated somehow” to take action on issues such as the Keystone Pipeline. Often, people are focused on issues of more immediate concern, including unemployment and food prices. Oil pipelines in Canada seem remote, and the effects are slow to develop.

Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”, mentioned the divestment movements on many college campuses, where student activists have pushed their administrators to stop investing in businesses that pursue practices that are harmful to the environment. The dollar amounts are small, he said, but the influence on university investment strategies and the awareness-raising effects are significant.

Cheryl Hogue, senior correspondent for Chemical and Engineering News, noted that “moms who blog and tweet” are another group whose influence greatly exceeds its economic clout. Companies are willing to go to great lengths to avoid the kind of damage that a social media campaign gone viral can cause. Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, cited the example of the “no GMOs” advertising campaign that Cheerios launched this year, but she noted that oats don’t contain GMOs anyhow. The threat of fallout from an anti-GMO campaign, however, was enough to motivate General Mills to emphasize this fact. (This writer notes that Cheerios also contain corn starch and corn syrup. Presumably, these ingredients will no longer contain GMO corn, if they ever did.)

Revkin noted that the U.S. must move wisely in developing a policy around Keystone. “Obama needs good relations with Canada,” he said. Davenport concurred: The world is looking to see what Obama does on environmental regulations and the Keystone Pipeline to see whether he is negotiating in good faith, she said. Dennis Dimick, executive editor of environment at National Geographic, added that commitments to infrastructure building projects set the energy path for decades because of the large scale and expense of these projects. A choice in one direction closes off other choices for years, he said.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Clouds over water

Sky-darkening geo-engineering projects would not alleviate ocean acidification.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

What stories about the ocean are likely to dominate the news in 2014? asked one audience member. “One word: plastics,” quipped Hogue.

Acidification is another strong candidate, according to Davenport. It’s a concrete problem with immediate economic effects, she added. This type of story creates more of a spur to action than some of the more abstract issues or those that develop over longer periods of time.

Dimick warned that many of the geo-engineering schemes being proposed would mitigate atmospheric warming by injecting light-scattering or light-shielding particles into the atmosphere, but these efforts would have no effect on the amount of carbon entering the ocean from the atmosphere. This carbon is a major cause of ocean acidification.

Honolulu penguin

Arctic thawing opens migration paths. A penguin in a Honolulu zoo (he didn’t migrate there).
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Pearl and Revkin discussed the effects of new open-ocean corridors opening up as a result of the shrinking Arctic ice cap. Some species of marine animals are currently migrating to new areas, along paths that were previously blocked by ice. Revkin noted that invasive species of all kinds consume a major part of the time and resources for managers of fisheries, wildlife, and national parks.

Dimmick added that the shrinking Arctic ice cap affects migration of the jet stream, and he cited the “polar vortex” cold weather system that has plagued much of the eastern U.S. and Canada this month.

This is the third in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous posts: Global Issues, Local Actions and Coal: Politics and Power Supplies. Upcoming topic: A World of Slow Drips.

Coal: Politics and Power Supplies

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

downtown Lisbon

Coal generates the electricity that runs the world’s cities. A busy street in Lisbon, home to the Electricity Museum.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the second in a four-part series on this briefing.

Coal in U.S. Politics
This year’s U.S. midterm elections will increasingly influence the debate on the use, regulation, and export of coal, said Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian. Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, concurred. The Republican Party accuses the Obama administration of waging a “war on coal”, Davenport said. “I think that’s accurate. He is waging a war on coal, but we don’t know what the public reaction will be. They could be OK with the new stricter regulations.”

Noting that some Republican strategists were planning to use missteps on implementing the Affordable Health Care Act and the supposed job-destroying effects of over-regulating the coal industry as a one-two punch in the upcoming campaign season, she cited past examples that this strategy had failed to produce the anticipated public outrage.

Davenport described a “very different dynamic” in the Obama administration from his first term. There is a good chance that draft rules for new coal regulations will pass in time to meet the June 2014 deadline. The administration is pushing the EPA — “nagging them,” said Davenport — to complete the draft rules quickly. She cited public support for the rules as the reason for the administration’s new-found assertiveness in the face of Republican opposition.

This writer notes that this is a shift in direction from the 2012 election season, when all three leading presidential candidates sang the praises of “clean coal” as a potentially important contributor to the U.S. energy supply. Dennis Dimick, executive editor of environment at National Geographic, plugged an upcoming article, “Will Clean Coal Ever Be Clean?” (an article this writer wishes had been published two years ago). Carbon capture, another sound bite from the 2012 election season, is currently being performed on a very small scale compared to carbon output, stated Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”.

cloudy sky

Cloudy future for coal-fired power plants: The “war on coal” is not an all-out attack.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, noted that the administration’s war on coal was not an all-out attack, since President Obama supports U.S. coal exports.

One audience member asked whether environmental activists were correct to complain about a lack of action by the President on environmental issues. Panel members agreed that pushing the administration for more action was “business as usual” for environmental organizations, but what had changed was the administration’s response.

Goldenberg cited one recent example where John Podesta (senior advisor to President Obama) sharply rebuked a group of U.S. environmental leaders for criticizing the President’s perceived lack of commitment to addressing climate change. Podesta, who until recently headed the Center for American Progress, is known for strongly pushing pro-environmental issues, but even he seemed to have reached his limit. (See this article in The Washington Post.)

Coal Around the World
Coal is both a global commodity and a locally produced and consumed resource, Revkin said. He cited the example of Australia, which does not count the coal it exports to China in its own consumption figures. He also noted that stopping exports to China would have very little impact on the interior of the country, where coal is mined and consumed locally. Although the natural gas boom in the U.S. is driving domestic demand away from coal, the global increase in the demand for coal is outstripping the demand for other energy sources, Dimick said.

One audience member asked whether U.S. port cities could slow coal exports by adopting strict new regulations. Davenport cited the example of a November 2013 county council election in Whatcom County, in northwest Washington State, that was widely viewed as a referendum on a proposed coal export terminal. Pro-environmental groups outspent coal-industry groups in campaign contributions, although spending on both sides was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Bellingham Herald, October 24, 2013) In the end, the progressive candidates won. (Bellingham Herald, November 5, 2013) Almost six months after regulatory agencies made their decision on the scope of environmental study for a proposed Whatcom County coal export terminal at Cherry Point, the study process itself has not yet begun. (Bellingham Herald, January 19, 2014)

Northwest Washington

Northwest Washington State says no to coal export terminal, for now. Sunset on Orcas Island, WA, across the sound from Cherry Point.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Could other nations, including China, start their own fracking programs, driving an international move away from coal and toward natural gas? Revkin stated that China was more interested in importing liquefied natural gas from the U.S. than in producing their own. Pearl said that China was interested in moving away from coal and toward using more natural gas. Factors impeding other nations’ willingness to begin fracking include concerns about potential damage to their water supplies and uncertainties about long-term waste disposal. “Fracking is forever,” said Goldenberg.

China’s 2015 cap on coal production and consumption might not have a significant effect on U.S. exports to that country, said Revkin, in response to a question from the audience. A lot of their coal is produced locally, he said. Dimick noted that although China imports only 5% of its coal, in absolute tonnage amounts, this is more than the rest of the world combined.

China wants to grow, said Douglas Fischer, editor of The Daily Climate and moderator of Friday’s panel. They are looking at the standard of living in the U.S. and wondering why they can’t have the same. Also, much of the coal they are importing is used to fuel the industries that manufacture products for export to the U.S., so indirectly, the U.S. is fueling their demand for coal, he said.

This is the second in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous post: Global Issues, Local actions. Upcoming topics: Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues, and A World of Slow Drips.

Energy and the Environment: Global Issues, Local Actions

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

U.S. Capitol

Regulation and litigation, but little legislation.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

A newly assertive federal executive branch, push-back from the legislature and judicial system, unintended effects of social activism, unanticipated effects of leaking storage tanks and Arctic thaws, who’s using coal, reasons to “go green” that don’t involve tree-hugging — 2014 will have no shortage of news stories on energy and the environment, according to a panel of seven journalistic prognosticators.

 

On January 24, the panel gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of interested policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end.

 

Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, gave a fly-over review of some of the governmental issues coming to a head this year. Several EPA rule proposals, final rules, and standards revisions address the interstate transport of air pollutants generated by power plants and other sources, carbon and mercury emissions limits, renewable fuel additive standards, and water infrastructure projects. One proposed rule under the Clean Water Act modifies the definition of “waters of the United States” to give the EPA broader authority to enforce regulations farther from shore. EPA final rulings on coal ash management and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) definitions of “solid waste” are also due this year.

 

Land use regulations

EPA rules address airborne emissions.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Other agencies have important items on the agenda as well. The Bureau of Land Management is due to issue final rules updates on oil and gas exploration on federal lands, to address the issues posed by fracking operations. President Obama has been active in designating land as wilderness areas and national monuments in the western U.S., said Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, in response to a question from the audience. Obama will probably do more of this during the rest of his term, she added. This has angered the Republican party, because these lands have been placed off-limits for commercial production.

 

The panel agreed that most of the changes this year will be driven by regulation and litigation, not legislation. Several upcoming court cases will clarify and delineate the boundaries of the EPA’s authority, said Pearl, including the agency’s jurisdiction for regulating fracking. Congress might act on some specific issues, but by and large, change is being driven by public demand, private industry response to this demand, and pressure on and by local and regional legislatures, rather than from Capitol Hill. Pearl noted that the jury is still out on whether Congress will pass tax incentives for energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources.

 

Court cases

Court cases will clarify the EPA’s authority
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Major decisions on crude oil exports from the U.S. will probably be made through the Commerce Department, said Davenport. Gasoline prices inflame public debates on this issue, but “just the fact that this is even open for debate is new,” she said. Concrete action on this could take years, she said. Tax reform is unlikely to drive energy policy because “we’re so far from true tax reform,” she added.

 

“Where is the leadership from journalists in raising public awareness?” asked one audience member. The panel members agreed that many editors see environmental issues and legislation as “wonky”. Feature articles on these topics don’t get a lot of response from the readers. “There’s always a fight to get some space on [these stories]”, noted Cheryl Hogue, senior correspondent for Chemical and Engineering News. Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian, explained that big-picture approaches don’t work as well as talking about things that people can do in their homes.

 

For instance, the Department of Energy is expected to issue new standards on efficiency for appliances and consumer products this year. Douglas Fischer, editor of the Daily Climate and moderator of Friday’s panel, suggested that “smart appliances” might be a good story hook to pique readers’ interest. “More IPCC reports aren’t going to do it,” said Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”, referring to the International Panel on Climate Change.

 

Get That Chemical Out of My Product!

One environmental issue that hit home in an immediate way was the recent West Virginia incident, in which coal processing chemicals leaked into municipal water supplies (See this January 21 article in The Charleston Gazette). News reports of this incident may add momentum to reforming TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, said Pearl. On the other hand, the incident could divert energy away from TSCA reform and toward rules on storage tanks, said Hogue. TSCA reform efforts are driven by industry’s desire to reconcile conflicting state regulations, and this may help to keep the focus on the reform effort.

 

Local governments are out ahead of the federal government in many cases. Hogue referred to New York City’s recent ban on polystyrene foam food containers. (See this recent article in USA Today.)

 

Public sentiment is driving a push to “get that chemical out of my product,” said Hogue. Manufacturers are striving to do this, but the reasons these chemicals are in consumer products in the first place is to provide some benefit — structural stability, extended shelf life, and the like. Manufacturers must find suitable substitutes for the chemicals they remove from their products.

 

Often, these efforts are led by the companies themselves, and they use “new and improved” claims to market their products. Hogue described an effort by large chain stores, including WalMart and Whole Foods, to drive these efforts forward, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “retail regulation”.

 

This is the first in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Upcoming topics: Coal: Politics and Power Supplies, Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues, and A World of Slow Drips.