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John Upton's Posts


GMO corn crop trials suspended in Mexico

A Mexican cornfield.
Sin maíz transgénico permitido.

Mexico, birthplace of modern maize, will remain (virtually) free of genetically modified varieties for now.

A moratorium on the growing of GMO corn has been in place in Mexico since 1988, but the government has recently made moves to allow the practice. That raised the ire of activists, farmers, and human rights groups -- dozens of whom filed a lawsuit seeking to block field trials by Monsanto and other international companies.

Last week, a Mexican federal judge issued an order that suspends field trials from moving forward, citing risks of imminent environmental harm.

Read more: Food


Australian scientists rescue wildlife by hand from changing climates

Mountain pygmy possum
Australian Alps collection - Parks Australia
Australian scientists may lend a hand to mountain pygmy possums, which are threatened by climate change.

Australia is among the countries that are being hit the hardest by global warming -- and that's taking a toll on wildlife. So Australian scientists are preparing to evacuate animals from their natural habitats in an effort to stave off extinctions.

Under a new decision-making framework developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, species such as the endangered mountain pygmy possum could be trapped and released into more hospitable environments to help assure their survival.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Greens sue EPA over Pacific Northwest’s increasingly acid waters

Oregon coastline
Daniel Powell
The rugged waters off Oregon are turning acidic.

Carbon emissions are turning seawater acidic, and environmentalists say that's a violation of the Clean Water Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the EPA, challenging the agency's assertion that the increasingly acidic ocean off Oregon and Washington meets federal water-quality standards.

Perhaps a quarter of the carbon dioxide that we pump into the air mixes into the sea, where it reacts with water to produce bicarbonate. The byproducts of these reactions are loose hydrogen atoms, which lower the marine pH. The concentration of hydrogen ions in surface ocean waters has risen 26 percent since the Industrial Revolution, reducing pH levels by 0.1 unit.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Power up: California may force utilities to buy big batteries for renewables

Notrees project
Energy Department
The Notrees Wind Storage Demonstration Project in Texas combines wind turbines and advanced lead-acid batteries.

The sun would never set on solar power under an ambitious new proposal in the Golden State.

The California Public Utilities Commission is considering new rules that would require the state's utilities to spend heavily on large batteries. That would allow wind and solar energy produced during sunny and blustery conditions to be saved and sold even on calm nights.

The proposed rules would help utilities meet California's ambitious requirement that 33 percent of their electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. They would also help spur a battery industry that's considered critical for the widespread adoption of renewable energy.

The rules [PDF], which could be approved as soon as today, would require PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to install battery systems capable of holding 1.3 gigawatts of electricity by 2020. Once juiced up, that much battery power could be tapped to provide electricity to about 1 million homes.


Tar-sands waste going to fuel dirty power plants in China

Chicago petcoke pile
Josh Mogerman
Petcoke piled up along the Calumet River in Chicago.

As cheap tar-sands oil flows through America's refineries, the dusty byproduct -- known as petroleum coke, or "petcoke" --  is piling up throughout the country. The stuff is too nasty to burn in U.S. power plants, so oil companies are doing the next best thing -- shipping it to China, where somebody else can burn it.

Petcoke has been heaping up along the Calumet River in Chicago -- and the problem will likely get worse once BP turns its Whiting Refinery into one of the world's biggest tar-sands processors. Over in Michigan, Detroit's mayor and other lawmakers recently fought for months before ridding their riverfront of mounds of petcoke that a Koch Industries subsidiary had stockpiled there.

So where does the petcoke go from there? The U.S. EPA will not issue new petcoke burning licenses. It's just too dirty. Some has been sent back to Canada to be burned in power plants there. And now the Wall Street Journal reports that China's hunger for the dirty fuel is surging:

While countries across Latin America, Europe and even the Middle East are buying a lot of U.S.-produced gasoline and low-sulfur diesel that meets their stringent air-quality control, China is in the market for something dirtier.


Mighty mangroves shield Indian village from cyclone’s wrath

Indian mangrove
Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava / Down to Earth
A Praharajpur fisherman sails past mangroves in the weeks before the cyclone hit.

Sometimes the best way of being protected from nature is by protecting nature itself -- and a small coastal village in India is proof of it.

As Cyclone Phailin rose from the Bay of Bengal over the weekend, bringing gales and floods to India that killed 27, residents of Praharajpur did the sensible thing and got the hell out of dodge. As the villagers returned home, they discovered that a restored mangrove plantation helped shelter their vulnerable village from the storm's wrath.

About 40 of the village's 200 homes were damaged, but residents told Down to Earth that it would have been worse without the mangrove. "In the nearby Sundrikhal and Pentha village, most of the houses have been washed away," villager Ravindra Behera told the Indian environmental magazine. "We are better off because the forest has taken the initial brunt of the storm." From the article:

“Our elders had made an embankment along the coast to prevent soil erosion in 1975. They randomly planted mangrove trees on the embankment. Gradually, this plantation converted into a mangrove forest. However, it was during the 1982 cyclone that we realized that mangrove can also prevent the storm from reaching us,” said Balram Biswal, another resident.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Dramatic charts reveal climate change’s effects on oceans

Dead fish
What's going on out there?

Climate change is scrambling the oceans. It's raising water temperatures, lowering pH levels, reducing oxygen availability, and driving down the size of wildlife populations the oceans can sustain.

A study published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Biology painstakingly chronicles many of the consequences of marine changes that the researchers describe as "unprecedented" during the last 20 million years:

Our results suggest that the entire world's ocean surface will be simultaneously impacted by varying intensities of ocean warming, acidification, oxygen depletion, or shortfalls in productivity. Only a very small fraction of the oceans, mostly in polar regions, will face the opposing effects of increases in oxygen or productivity, and almost nowhere will there be cooling or pH increase. ...

The social ramifications are also likely to be massive and challenging as some 470 to 870 million people – who can least afford dramatic changes to their livelihoods – live in areas where ocean goods and services could be compromised by substantial changes in ocean biogeochemistry.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


North Dakota officials might finally spill details about oil spill

A major oil pipeline spill in North Dakota remained undetected by Tesoro for days
A major oil pipeline spill in North Dakota remained undetected by Tesoro for days.

After discovering that the public, legislature, and governor were all kept in the dark for more than a week about a major oil spill on a North Dakota wheat farm, lawmakers wanted answers on Monday. But the state department that kept news of the 20,600-barrel spill to itself had more spin than answers. (The feds also withheld the information because they were being furloughed.)

David Glatt, head of the environmental section of the North Dakota Health Department, defended his department's secrecy during the Energy Development and Transmission Committee hearing. He said the 11-day delay in notifying the public about the spill was a proper response, adding that the spill happened in the "best place it could've occurred."

But by Tuesday, following a closed-door meeting between the governor's staff and different state departments, some officials were sounding more contrite. From the Bismarck Tribune:

North Dakota’s Oil and Gas Division director Lynn Helms said the department’s stance is that the Tesoro Corp. pipeline was a rural pipeline under federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration jurisdiction. ...

The state doesn’t have any laws requiring public notification of spills.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Romanian villagers block Chevron frackers

Chevron in Romania
The yellow means "drill" to Chevron. Romanians disagree. 

On Monday, a bunch of Romanians told Chevron to go to hell and take their fracking operations with them. (It probably sounded more like "du-te dracului.") Chevron workers were sent to drill the company's first test well in the southeastern European country, but they were turned back by protests.

Romania's government sold Chevron the rights to frack the shale beneath more than a million acres of Romania. Residents worried about the environmental consequences are accusing Prime Minister Victor Ponta of breaking an election promise to block drilling for shale gas.

More from Agence France-Presse on the protests near the village of Pungesti:

The convoy was forced to turn around as protesters, some of whom had come in horse-drawn carts, called on Chevron to "go home". ...


Readers to papers: Stop publishing letters that deny climate reality

Newspapers should be truthful. That goes for every single page.

The L.A. Times recently won national attention and praise for spelling out its policy of refusing to publish the claims of climate deniers.

"Letters that have an untrue basis (for example, ones that say there’s no sign humans have caused climate change) do not get printed," the letters page editor wrote.

Now, readers of other major newspapers are calling on their favored media outlets to adopt the same policy.

Forecast the Facts, a project that aims to improve the quality of coverage of climate change in the press, launched a petition calling on the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal to refuse to print letters that deny basic science.

"The Los Angeles Times has adopted a policy of refusing to publish letters that deny climate change, and you should follow suit," the petition states. "End climate change denial in your newspaper."

On Monday, the group told The Hill that it had already gathered 22,000 signatures in less than a day.

Read more: Climate & Energy