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John Upton's Posts


Gas company: No need to frack outside London; regular old drilling will do

Blacombe protest

The results of exploratory gas drilling near London are in, and they would seem to be wonderful news. It appears that Mother Nature broke up the rock before the frackers could get their chemical-tainted hands on it. But locals fear it's just a ruse.

The exploratory well, drilled by energy company Cuadrilla in the village of Balcombe, 35 miles south of London, is one of Europe's first forays into fracking. That's where residents clashed with police during protests over the summer.

"Based on our analysis of the samples we obtained from the exploration well, we can confirm that the target rock underneath Lower Stumble is naturally fractured," Cuadrilla told village residents in a recent letter. "The presence of these natural fractures and the nature of the rock means that we do not intend to hydraulically fracture the exploration well at Lower Stumble now or in the future."

Read more: Climate & Energy


Judge rules climatologist can sue skeptics who compared him to Jerry Sandusky

Michael Mann
Greg Rico / Penn State
Michael Mann

In 2012, the National Review and the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute compared climate scientist Michael Mann to convicted child molester and football Jerry Sandusky (in addition to calling Mann a scientific fraud). The article managed to trivialize both pedophilia and the climate crisis on the slim grounds that both Mann and football coach Sandusky were products of a corrupt Penn State. 

Understandably, Mann (who helped coin the term "hockey stick" to describe the sudden rise of temperatures) did not appreciate the connection, and he sued for libel. He argues that doing so would help protect the environmental movement from similar such nonsense. And last week, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that the lawsuit can move forward, denying a motion to dismiss. Here's Al Jazeera with the details:

Mann sued the parties for defamation in 2012, after CEI published, and the National Review republished, statements accusing Mann of academic fraud and comparing him to convicted child molester and former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky except that "instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science that could have dire economic consequences for the nation and planet."

Judge Frederick H. Weisberg found that while "opinions and rhetorical hyperbole" are protected speech under the First Amendment, statements that call into question a scientist’s work could be understood as factual assertions that go to the “heart of scientific integrity.”

“To state as a fact that a scientist dishonestly molests or tortures data to serve a political agenda would have a strong likelihood of damaging his reputation within his profession, which is the very essence of defamation,” he said.


Critics call Mayor Rahm’s plans to light up Chicago at night a dim idea

Chicago at night
Not bright enough for the mayor.

Chicago has some of the most famous architecture in the world. But the intricacies of its imposing towers shine best when the sun is shining. So Mayor Rahm Emanuel has an idea: lights. Lots and lots of lights. Chicago will launch a worldwide hunt for a firm to design a lighting regime to illuminate the city at night -- part of an effort to boost tourism.

But is that wise? Environmentally, it's a tough case to make.

Birds smash into building facades in the dead of night all the time -- and lights are thought to be to blame. Through the Lights Out program, which asks building owners to dim or extinguish as many lights as possible, Chicago has been a trailblazer in dimming nocturnal streetscapes to help protect migratory birds.

And then there's that whole global warming thing. Drew Carhart of the Illinois Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Lighting, which battles against light pollution, points out that Paris, which Chicago is seeking to emulate, is actually catching up with the times and moving away from its City of Light moniker. The Chicago Sun-Times reports:


U.N. warns us to eat less meat and lay off biofuels, or we’re in for it

Corn farmer

We're overconsuming ourselves into environmental oblivion.

Farming will eliminate forests, plains, and other wild areas nearly the size of Brazil by 2050 around the world if we can't mend our agricultural, dietary, and biofuel-burning ways. This unsustainable drive for more growing land will result in rising hunger and more frequent riots as food prices increase.

That's the salty prognosis in a new report by scientists working for the U.N.'s International Resource Panel.

The amount of farmland has increased 11 percent since the 1960s, as growers struggle to meet growing populations' ballooning demands for food and biofuel, according to the report. About 1.5 billion hectares, or 3.7 billion acres, is now being used globally to produce crops, and that figure continues to grow. Making matters worse, about a quarter of the world's soils are degraded, which reduces the amount of crops that can be grown in them.

"Growing demand for food and non-food biomass will lead to an expansion of global cropland; yield growth will not be able to compensate for the expected surge in global demand," the report states. "Cropland expansion at the cost of tropical forests and savannahs induces severe changes in the living environment with uncertain repercussions."

What may be hardest for some of the world's poorest and hungriest residents to stomach is the vast amount of farmland that's being dedicated to growing crops for biofuels and for animal feed.


Freedom Industries kept West Virginia spill details secret

Water testing in West Virginia
National Guard

If you had been among Freedom Industries' dozens of employees, you would have known more than your neighbors about the contents of a toxic spill that left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians without safe tap water recently.

After state officials discovered on Jan. 9 that chemicals had gushed out of a storage drum and into Elk River, the company told them that the drum contained something called 4-Methylcyclohexane methanol. The poison is used by the state's coal miners. Little is known about the precise hazards that it poses, but it has sickened hundreds of people.

What the company didn't tell the government until last week was that the drum also contained something that they call stripped PPH. The company did, however, tell its own workers about that second chemical in an email immediately after the spill. So, lucky them.

Stripped PPH was mixed in with the other chemicals in the drum at a concentration of about 6 percent. A material safety data sheet (MSDS) provided to state officials says stripped PPH contains a complex mixture of polyglycol ethers. "The specific chemical identity is being withheld as 'trade secret,'" the company wrote in the safety document, which was dated Oct. 15, 2013.


Seashore solar comes to Japan

Japan solar project

Japan has been thinking creatively about electricity since the Fukushima meltdown nearly three years ago.

Dozens of nuclear power plants remain in the "off" mode while leaders and citizens tussle over whether nuclear power can ever be safe. That has left the gas-and-oil-poor country heavily dependent on expensive fossil fuel imports. So it has been turning to cleaner alternatives, using subsidies to help get tens of thousands of renewable energy projects off the ground. We told you recently that offshore wind turbines are being built near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, part of an effort to turn the contaminated region into a hub for clean energy.

And now, for another Japanese endeavor into safe, low-carbon energy, look again to the sea. Smithsonian Magazine reports:


Illinois petcoke rules coming, but not as fast as governor wants

Chicago petcoke pile
Josh Mogerman

Last month, Chicago proposed rules that would crack down on big, filthy, uncovered piles of petroleum coke , or "petcoke." Now the state of Illinois is following suit, though its process isn't moving along as quickly as Gov. Pat Quinn (D) had been hoping.

Residents of Chicago’s Southeast Side have been complaining for months about looming deposits of petcoke, a byproduct that piles up as refineries process growing amounts of Canadian tar-sands oil. The petcoke blows up from piles along the Calamut River and contaminates nearby homes and neighborhoods, spurring worries about health problems.

As the Associated Press reports, "Quinn proposed rules last week to require terminals that store the petcoke to immediately install dust-suppression systems and prevent storm water runoff. He also wanted operators of petcoke and coal terminals throughout Illinois to fully enclose piles within two years." And he told the Illinois Pollution Control Board that he wanted these requirements pushed through as emergency rules.

Unsurprisingly, the companies that would like to continue lazily adding to their uncovered petcoke piles cried foul.


Canadian tar-sands oil could start flooding into Europe

petrol pump

Hey, European drivers, how would you like your gasoline to be even more filthy and climate-changing than it already is?

When the European Commission proposed new climate and energy rules for the European Union this week, it recommended opening a door for companies that want to import Canadian tar-sands oil into the continent. Responding to Climate Change explains:


U.S. and Canadian safety officials are freaked out about exploding trains


This is what federal transportation safety officials from both the U.S. and Canada sounded like on Thursday: "Aaahhhh holy crap trains are exploding all over the place!"

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada issued simultaneous pleas to regulators on Thursday, calling for urgent reforms amid the spiraling spate of fiery accidents involving oil-hauling trains. Such trains have been exploding in flames and spilling their loads following derailments on the continent's aging train tracks. Just this week, a train pulling six cars of oil derailed on a Philadelphia bridge, though fortunately there was no fire or oil spill.  

The New York Times explains the reforms that the safety officials are calling for:


Key enviro law suspended in California under drought emergency

Christopher "cricket" Hynes

When California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared a drought emergency last week, his administration slipped a bit of legalese into the declaration that has some environmentalists worried.

It states that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) will not apply to efforts by state agencies to "make water immediately available."

CEQA, a landmark 1970s environmental statute, requires environmental analyses for major projects, which leads to delays as the studies are conducted and fought over, and as proposals for reducing environmental harm are debated. Brown, who hates the law, once remarked, "I've never seen a CEQA exemption that I don't like."

The drought declaration says the limited suspension of CEQA will help "streamline water transfers and exchanges between water users" and help the state change limits on how much water can be diverted from reservoirs and from the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.