Thursday, March 29, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #50 - Part 1

Good and bad news on the environment; global warming

I start, as I like to do when I can, with some good news. This is tempered, rather limited good news, but still overall it's on the plus side.

The Obama administration has finally, finally proposed standards to cut carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants.

The new rules would have their primary impact on new coal-fired plants, as such plants typically produce about double the amount of greenhouse gases as more efficient natural gas-fired plants do. Under the proposed rules, new coal plants would have to be as efficient as natural gas ones - which some are suggesting will mean an end to new coal-fired power plants. The power industry of course opposes the rules as it opposes anything that doesn't let it do what it damn well pleases, as do its bought and paid for lackeys among the GOPpers and the Dims, in the latter case especially those from energy-intensive states.

There is a downside to the rules, which is why it's tempered good news: The rules do not effect existing plants or modified or retro-fitted plants. Only new ones are covered. That rather limits the impact. Still, it's better than not doing it at all.

However, there is also a hidden downside, a serious one: Supporters of the new regulations argue, among other reasons, that they are okay because of a current trend toward natural gas over coal. Natural gas is relatively clean as fossil fuels go (and certainly cleaner than coal), relatively cheap as fossil fuels go, and abundant. The snag lies in the cheap and abundant part.

That's because a real reason that part is true is because of the increased use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in drilling operations.

Very simply put, fracking involves forcing fluid down a drill pipe under high pressure to cause fractures in the surrounding rock, allowing gas and oil trapped in that rock to be recovered. Again simply put, the idea is to create a tiny earthquake in the rock around the drill head, freeing any gas and oil that had been trapped and making it available to be pumped out.

The problem is, fracking is - well, the polite term is controversial; the less-polite term is another industry scam to maximize profit without giving a damn about the effect on people's health. Particularly in the past few years, there have been a number of charges of contamination of air, land, and most particularly of water supplies related to fracking. Cases have been seen in Alabama, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wyoming, and Louisiana and perhaps other states as well.

The industry, of course, claims all this has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with them or their drilling; apparently these people have been drinking benzene-laced water all along but just now for who knows what wacky reason decided to make a fuss about it.

As of February 2012, fracking is being done in 31 states, largely unregulated, largely out of sight and mind except for those directly affected. Only four of those 31 states have significant rules regulating drilling; only five have adopted disclosure rules, rules which largely mean nothing because they allow for concealing "proprietary trade secrets." What's more, fracking actually is exempt from at least portions of seven major federal environmental regulations and laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (which pertains to companies dealing with the hazardous waste they produce), and the Superfund law.

In complete fairness, there is one thing the industry says which is true: Fracking is not a new process. It was demonstrated in 1947 and first used commercially in 1948. So it's not a new technology. But an important thing here is that the hydraulic fracturing that has gotten some attention in the last few years is different in many ways from how it was done earlier:

- The pressure used is much higher, in fact 50% to 100% higher, than it was years back.
- The length of operation is longer, up to 3-4 days, which means a lot more rock is fractured and also that the volume of water used is much higher.
- The use of fracking with horizontal drilling, as opposed to the old vertical wells, is relatively recent.
- The complexity of the chemical cocktail used in the process is greater.

On that last point, we often don't know just what those cocktails contain, since the companies do not have to reveal the mixture. But we do know they can include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, all known carcinogens.

This, apparently, is why we can regulate coal-fired power plants, because we have "cheap, abundant" natural gas obtained by fracking to replace coal so we can once again trust both our health and our energy and environmental future to very people who profit the most by protecting them the least.

It just shows that once again, with PHC*, no good deed goes unpunished.

As a sort of footnote to that, dozens of grass-roots environmental groups in New York state have joined together to oppose allowing fracking there. Governor Andrew "Damn straight I'm not my father" Cuomo says a decision is likely in several months. He said this just after blocking a $100,000 appropriation for an independent study of the health effects of fracking, which would appear to make it pretty easy to predict on which side that decision will come down.

But getting back to our only president, he has taken to bragging about how much oil drilling has expanded under his administration. He did that just recently while announcing he had ordered federal agencies to fast-track an oil pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma, to refineries on the Gulf coast of Texas.

Why is this particular pipeline so important that it deserves a special public announcement? Simple: It's the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline intended to carry tar sands from Alberta, Canada to Texas. When TransCanada, the outfit that wants to build the pipeline, couldn't get quick approval - in fact, I mentioned as good news just two weeks ago that the Senate had blocked fast-tracking the project - it split the proposed route in two parts, the southern part of which The Amazing Mr. O is now pushing his administration to approve.

I've talked about this pipeline, I've talked about the tar sands it is to carry, a couple of times before, so here I'll just make a quick mention that tar sands are about the worst, the environmentally-dirtiest, way to get oil there is. In 2010 the EPA determined that on a well-to-tank basis, oil from tar sands produces 82% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude oil does: nearly double.

That in turn brings up something I haven’t talked about in a while, something that, as someone noted recently, has almost disappeared from discussion about the Keystone XL pipeline: global warming or if you prefer, climate change. (They do, after all, mean the same thing.)

But it has to be put back in the discussion. It has to. Evidence that the effects of climate change are not somewhere off in future but are here now grows by the day.

According to a study published in the peer-reviewed science journal Nature Climate Change on Sunday, March 25, extreme weather events have increased over past decade and, quoting the study,
It is very likely that several of the unprecedented extremes of the past decade would not have occurred without anthropogenic global warming.
Quoting again:
There is now strong evidence linking specific events or an increase in their number to the human influence on climate.
The decade just past was probably the warmest globally for at least 1000 years. It has seen record hot summers in Europe and, in 2010, the hottest Russian summer in over 500 years. It has seen a year with a record number of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic. It has seen severe floods in Europe; in Pakistan, it has seen the worst flooding in that nation's history.

In 2011, the US was hit with 14 weather events, each of which caused losses of more than $1 billion. The period of March 13 - 19 of this year saw record-breaking heat recorded in more than 1000 places in North America.

Want to know how bad it is? In the 30-year period 1951-1980, about 0.1-0.2% of the Earth's land area experienced extremely hot summers. Such summers are now found across 10% of the planet's land area.

If that's not bad enough, it may be accelerating: According to a study just published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Geoscience, by 2050, global average temperature could be between 1.4oC and 3oC warmer than it was just a couple of decades ago, when, as the graph shows, the clear warming trend was already well under way. That's as much as 0.75oC warmer than the scenarios presented in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Now, three-quarters of a degree may not sound like much but what it means is that temperatures could be going up 25% faster than previously thought.

The fact is, as climate scientists at an international conference in London on Monday March 26 warned, the world close to reaching tipping points, points beyond which that effect of warming will continue to grow, with all that entails, no matter what we do after that. A point, that is, of no return.

Examples of areas subject to tipping points are the melting of ice sheets and the loss of rainforests. Both of those help reduce the impact of our effect on the climate and so to help contain global warming: ice sheets by reflecting sunlight back away from Earth, rainforests by soaking up carbon.

But as rainforests shrink and dry, they will at some point switch from carbon sinks to carbon producers, from mitigating the effects of global warming to accelerating them. As for the ice sheets, the tipping point has probably already been passed and the loss of ice will continue.

The bottom line here is that scientific estimates do differ but there is a general agreement that the world's temperature could rise by 6oC by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are allowed to rise uncontrollably, that is, under business as usual. Six degrees may not sound like a lot - although it will probably seem like more when expressed in the terms more familiar to use as about 11oF - but let me tell you flat out that this would be catastrophe: It would mean crippling heat waves, coastal inundation, with huge swaths of coastline underwater, it would mean loss of cropland, loss of fresh water supplies, it would mean hunger, thirst, it would mean the spread of disease and the spread of insect pests, it would mean hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, it would very likely mean resource wars as people and nations compete ever more bitterly for ever-shrinking resources.

Despite that urgency, the target date for agreement on a new global climate treaty that would force the world's biggest polluters - particularly the US and China, we're the biggest - to curb our emissions is the year 2015, with that treaty to go into force in 2020. If we're lucky and there is no more of the delay after delay after delay we have already seen.

I have to tell you: As Americans, we face this because we as a people are lazy. We don't want to know about, we don't want to face, the possible inconvenience dealing with this might cause us. So we'd rather listen to the nitwits and nutjobs like Sen. James Inhofe ranting about the "hoax" of global warming - by the way, his middle name really is Mountain, which his parents probably gave him because even then knew he had rocks in his head. And we'd rather trust our health and our future to the very same people who gain the most by lying to us about it.

This is insane. So I'm going to ask you something, something I've asked before but which bears repeating. I want you to think back 10 or 20 years. Hell, if you're as old as I am, think back to the '60s if you want. But just think back 20 years and think about the lifestyle you had then, about the level of technology around you then, about the conveniences you had then, and ask yourself seriously: Was that way of life so bad that you would be willing to sacrifice a world and the future of your children to avoid living that way again?


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