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How suburban sprawl makes wildfires more deadly

The aftermath of the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire outside Boulder, Colo.
Jeff Ruane
Mailboxes destroyed in the 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire outside Boulder, Colo.

Last year’s wildfire season was one of the worst on record, and whether or not this year's tops it (a likely outcome), it’s already off to a horrifically tragic start: 19 elite firefighters perished in a blaze outside Prescott, Ariz., on Sunday -- the most to die fighting a single wildfire in 80 years. Even before the deadly Yarnell Hill blaze began, the usual suspects were asking: What does climate change have to do with wildfires? James West of Climate Desk addressed this maddening question a couple of weeks ago and The New York Times addresses it today (and David Roberts addressed it last year).

But there’s another human-caused problem making wildfires worse: the exurbs. Or, to use the technical term, the “wildland-urban interface” or WUI, where development meets and mingles with fire-prone wildlands. The New York Times describes such areas, which include Yarnell, Ariz.:

Those expanding communities, with rural views but more urban economies, have been the focus of concern among federal and state officials for a decade or more. While such regions are more plentiful in the East, it is in the areas west of the 100th longitude, reaching from West Texas and the Dakotas to the Pacific Ocean, where the natural aridity, increasingly exacerbated by climate change, makes fires a common threat.

In the West in the 1990s, more than 2.2 million housing units were added in these fire-prone areas, according to testimony by Roger B. Hammer [PDF], a demographer at Oregon State University and a leading authority on the issue. Speaking to a House subcommittee in 2008, he called this a “wicked problem,” and predicted an additional 12.3 million homes would be built in such areas in Western states — more than double the current numbers.

According to a U.S. Forest Service Study [PDF], one-third of all U.S. housing units now sit in the WUI, and the total area classified as WUI increased by 18 percent between 1990 and 2000. These neighborhoods, bucolic in theory with their combination of suburban amenities and easy access to wilderness, have become ubiquitous in the West, the study reports:

In the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest, virtually every urban area has a large ring of WUI, as a result of persistent population growth in the region that has generated medium and low-density housing in low-elevation forested areas.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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What’s up with Gina McCarthy’s nomination to head the EPA?

Gina McCarthy
Reuters/Jason Roberts

Many of Obama’s nominees have not been popular with Republicans in the Senate, but Gina McCarthy has faced a particularly tough fight. GOP senators boycotted a committee vote on her nomination two months ago, mostly because of their knee-jerk hatred of all things related to the EPA (or, as some prefer to call it, the job-killing organization of America).

McCarthy has a reputation as a tough and experienced policymaker committed to fighting climate change, whose work as Massachusetts’ top environmental advisor contributed to the Supreme Court’s landmark 2007 ruling giving EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. She's worked for Republicans as well as Democrats and collaborated constructively with industry, but that background hasn't calmed GOP worries about what the EPA might do on climate change.

Over recent months, McCarthy repeatedly assured senators that the EPA was not working on carbon regulations for existing power plants. But then last week, Obama announced in his big climate speech that he planned to order EPA to develop just such regulations. Politico reported last week that this could further endanger McCarthy's nomination because GOP lawmakers might accuse her of misleading them or argue that she was out of touch and incompetent (although the only people Politico quoted to support that theory were an oil-industry lobbyist and a GOP energy strategist).

But now, a week later, Politico reports that, on the contrary, a McCarthy confirmation is looking increasingly likely.

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House responds to Obama’s climate plan with an offshore drilling plan

offshore drilling rigRepublicans in the House want to see a lot more of this.

Not pleased with the modest climate and energy reforms Obama unveiled Tuesday, the House sought to drown out the president's call to "invest, divest" with a reprise of its favorite "drill, baby, drill" chorus.

In a 235-to-186 vote Friday, House lawmakers passed the Offshore Energy and Jobs Act, which Climate Progress said "reads like Big Oil's Christmas list":

It would open virtually all of the U.S. Atlantic coast, the Pacific coast off Southern California, and much of Alaska’s offshore space to new drilling; require the Obama administration to create a new Five-Year Plan for offshore operations; and generally perpetuate an energy agenda driven by climate deniers.

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Anthony Foxx, transit booster, confirmed as transportation secretary

Anthony Foxx.
U.S. Department of Labor
Anthony Foxx.

Anthony Foxx, the transit-friendly mayor of Charlotte, N.C., has been confirmed as Obama’s transportation secretary in a rare unanimous Senate vote. (GOP lawmakers must be focusing all their energy on obstructing Gina McCarthy’s nomination for EPA chief.) He’ll be the youngest member of Obama’s cabinet.

From the Associated Press:

Foxx, 42, is considered a charismatic rising figure in the Democratic party and was a staunch and active campaigner for President Barack Obama in North Carolina, including playing host to the Democratic National Convention. …

Foxx is expected to continue in the vein of [former Transportation Secretary Ray] LaHood. He told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that safety would be his top priority at a nomination hearing a month ago.

His short tenure as mayor, and his professional background, suggest he will also carry on LaHood's fondness for rail and transit.

Foxx worked to expand Charlotte’s light-rail system, break ground on an electric streetcar project in the city, and build electric vehicle-charging infrastructure. During his three and a half years as mayor, Charlotte’s unemployment rate dropped more than 3 percent, in part thanks to Foxx’s efforts to bolster the city’s reputation as an energy-industry hub.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Study says tar-sands oil not more likely to leak; activists fault study

leak-oil-pipeline-featured
Shutterstock

Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline cheered Tuesday’s release of a study that deemed diluted bitumen -- the heavy crude mined in Alberta’s tar sands that Keystone would carry to Texas -- just as safe to transport via pipeline as other forms of crude oil. They see the results as further clearing the way for approval of the pipeline.

But environmental groups criticized the methodology and limited scope of the study, which was conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. From Inside Climate News:

[T]he conclusions were based not on new research but primarily on self-reported industry data, scientific research that was funded or conducted by the oil industry, and government databases that even federal regulators admit are incomplete and sometimes inaccurate.

Critics also faulted the study for comparing diluted bitumen (or dilbit) to other heavy Canadian crudes, instead of to the conventional light oils for which most U.S. pipelines were built. Environmentalists have argued that tar-sands and other heavy oils, which must be diluted with chemicals in order to be moved through pipelines, could be more corrosive to those pipelines. And the study only addressed the likelihood of a spill, not the negative impacts -- to the economy, the environment, and human health -- were a spill to occur.

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Ed Markey, climate hawk, headed for the Senate

Ed Markey
Markey campaign
He'll soon be the newest member of the U.S. Senate.

Rep. Ed Markey, who pushed climate action and clean energy during 37 years in the U.S. House, is now on his way to the U.S. Senate. As expected, he handily beat Republican businessman Gabriel Gomez in the Massachusetts special election to replace now-Secretary of State John Kerry. With more than 90 percent of the vote counted on Tuesday night, Markey was up 54 to 46 percent.

Backers of Gomez had been hoping for a repeat of Scott Brown’s 2010 special-election upset, but conditions were different then -- the Tea Party was on the rise, Obamacare hung in the balance, and the left-wing establishment took it for granted that Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat would stay blue.

This time, even with Markey consistently polling as much as 10 points ahead of Gomez over the course of the two-month campaign, Democrats didn’t assume an easy win. President Obama, Vice President Biden, Michelle Obama, and Bill Clinton all campaigned with Markey in recent weeks, and Markey’s campaign released a flood of ads close to the election, spending $2.6 million total on advertising compared to Gomez’s $1.4 million.

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Blame Canada: Greedy for oil money, the country is turning into a rogue petrostate

fe-tar-sands-usatoday-ad-cropped
Forest Ethics

When I recently interviewed Canadian artist Franke James, whose outspoken appeals to her government for climate action landed her on Ottawa’s shit list, I was taken aback to hear her casually refer to her country as a “petrostate.” I knew Canada’s been spending gobs of federal money to promote its tar-sands agenda, but I didn’t realize our mild-mannered northern neighbor was approaching the ranks of Saudi Arabia and Nigeria in its single-minded embrace of oil as the nation’s lifeblood.

An unforgiving article in the latest Foreign Policy magazine lays out how conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been aggressively pursuing development of the Alberta oil sands and remaking the country in the political image of the George W. Bush-era United States:

Over the last decade, as oil prices increased fivefold, oil companies invested approximately $160 billion to develop bitumen in Alberta, and it has finally turned profitable. Canada is now cranking out 1.7 million barrels a day of the stuff, and scheduled production stands to fill provincial and federal government coffers with about $120 billion in rent and royalties by 2020. More than 40 percent of that haul goes directly to the federal government largely in the form of corporate taxes. And the government wants even more; it's pushing for production to hit 5 million barrels a day by 2030. …

Unsurprisingly, Ottawa has become a master at the cynical art of greenwashing. When Harper's ministers aren't attacking former NASA scientist and climate change canary James Hansen in the pages of the New York Times or lobbying against Europe's Fuel Quality Directive (which regards bitumen as much dirtier than conventional oil), his government has spent $100 million since 2009 on ads to convince Canadians that exporting this oil is "responsible resource development." Meanwhile, Canada has bent over backward to entice Beijing. Three state-owned Chinese oil companies (all with dismal records of corporate transparency and environmental sensitivity) have already spent more than $20 billion purchasing rights to oil sands in Alberta.

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Massive Montana mine has tribes fighting over coal exports

A huge new coal-mining project just approved by the federal government pits a Montana tribe against native communities in the Pacific Northwest.

sign: "Crow country: Keep it beautiful, don't litter"
Lance Fisher
They may soon have a lot more than litter to worry about.

The Crow Nation in southern Montana overlaps the coal-rich Powder River Basin. The tribe is sitting on a deposit of up to 1.4 billion tons of coal -- more than the United States produces in a year -- and on Thursday, the federal government approved the lease of that coal to mining company Cloud Peak Energy. The company has begun preliminary work on a mine that could eventually produce up to 10 million tons of coal every year, much of which it hopes to move through three proposed export terminals in Washington and Oregon to sell to Asian markets.

As demand for coal in the U.S. fizzles thanks to the natural-gas boom, the coal industry is banking on a growing Asian appetite for cheap power to keep it afloat. And the Crow Nation is banking on the deal with Cloud Peak to turn its fortunes around. The Associated Press details what's in it for the tribe:

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Maine guv freaks out after local media report on his corrupt environment chief

Foreground: Maine Governor Paul R. LePage
Maine Department of Education
Foreground: Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage.

It's almost surprising that Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has never run for national office. In the realm of GOP presidential aspirants, he could give Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann a run for their money when it comes to political ineptitude and pure crazy. He’s told the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” and he recently used a violent sodomy analogy to describe a state lawmaker at a public rally.

But alas, we could be hearing less from LePage in the future: His spokesperson announced on Tuesday that the governor’s office will no longer communicate with three leading Maine newspapers, because their parent company, MaineToday Media, “made it clear that it opposed this administration.”

Evidence of this alleged opposition came in the form of a seven-month investigation of Patricia Aho, commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and a former corporate lobbyist, the results of which were published in the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, and the Morning Sentinel. The papers reported that Aho “has scuttled programs and fought against laws that were opposed by many of her former clients in the chemical, drug, oil, and real estate development industries.” The commissioner stalled a 2008 law to keep dangerous chemicals out of children’s products, weakened enforcement of real-estate and development laws, rolled back recycling programs, and oversaw a purge of information from the DEP’s website and a restriction of its employees’ ability to communicate with lawmakers, the public, and each other.

Aho’s performance lines up with LePage’s well-established allegiance to corporations before citizens.

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Coming soon: An Obama climate strategy

Barack Obama
The White House
His big, new climate plan is coming any day now.

Rumors have been swirling that President Obama soon plans to unveil major new efforts to combat climate change. And today, White House officials confirmed that the announcement is coming soon -- probably next month, but maybe as early as next week.

At a Washington, D.C., forum sponsored by The New Republic, Heather Zichal, White House coordinator for energy and climate change, said the president planned to unveil new policy initiatives and is “serious about making [climate change] a second-term priority.” She declined to give details, but according to The New York Times ...

Ms. Zichal suggested in her remarks that a central part of the administration’s approach to dealing with climate change would be to use the authority given to the Environmental Protection Agency to address climate-altering pollutants from power plants under the Clean Air Act. …