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Death toll from East Harlem gas explosion rose to seven overnight

Aftermath of East Harlem gas leak explosion
MTA

The leak-prone system that delivers natural gas to homes and power plants has claimed at least seven lives, with emergency workers continuing to search rubble in East Harlem for survivors of a building-leveling gas explosion.

More than 60 people were hurt and more were still missing Thursday morning after an apparent gas leak exploded and leveled two apartment buildings at Park Avenue and 116th Street in New York City.

The buildings erupted in a nightmarish urban conflagration at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, 15 minutes after Con Edison received a call about a suspected gas leak. Its inspectors arrived after the buildings had been enveloped in flames.

"It was very dark," survivor Elhadj Sylla told USA Today. "There was smoke, dust. ... I thought it was the end of the world. I thought my life was ending."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Low-lying islands are going to drown, so should we even bother trying to save their ecosystems?

a low-lying island in the Indian Ocean
Shutterstock

Islands are hot spots of biodiversity, often home to rich and unique ecosystems. Despite covering just 5 percent of the Earth's land, the planet's 180,000-odd islands contain a fifth of its plant and animal species. Around half of recorded extinctions have occurred on islands.

Unfortunately, many islands have been infested in recent centuries with ecosystem-wrecking rats and other invasive species. So scientists the world over have clamored to remove the destructive pests and protect the original inhabitants. More than 900 islands have been cleansed of rats and other animal invaders so far, often through the controversial use of poisoned baits.

But a new paper published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution asks an unsettling question: When it comes to low-lying islands that will eventually be swallowed by sea-level rise, why bother?

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Most big countries have climate laws

earth
Shutterstock

It's easy to get depressed about the lack of global progress in fighting climate change. But most large nations are at least taking some action.

GLOBE International, a London-based legislators' group, surveyed climate- and energy-related laws and policies in 66 big countries, which together produce 88 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. It found that that 62 of the countries have a flagship climate law or regulation, 61 have laws promoting clean energy, and 54 have energy-efficiency laws. In all, there are 487 climate change–related laws or policies in the 66 countries -- a sharp increase from decades past:

Click to embiggen.
GLOBE International
Click to embiggen.

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Millions of dolphins could be hurt as oil industry blasts along East Coast

Atlantic spotted dolphin
Simon du Vintage

The Obama administration tentatively gave its environmental blessing to oil industry plans to look for new deposits in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast. Recommendations outlined Thursday in a long-awaited environmental report by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management came as music to the ears of drilling companies.

But the air guns that the industry plans to use in its hunt for underwater oil fields won't sound so sweet to the staggering numbers of dolphins and whales that could end up being maimed.

The oil industry wants to drill along the East Coast, but the last surveys of oil deposits in coastal Atlantic areas were conducted in the 1970s and 1980s using technology that's now obsolete. So now industry wants to survey with more modern techniques, which McClatchy news service describes this way: "The seismic tests involve vessels towing an array of air guns that blast compressed air underwater, sending intense sound waves to the bottom of the ocean. The booms are repeated every 10 seconds or so for days or weeks."

Thirty-four marine mammal species, which use sound to navigate, could be harmed by the seismic testing, and some of the animals could be killed. "By failing to consider relevant science, the Obama administration’s decision could be a death sentence for many marine mammals, needlessly turning the Atlantic Ocean into a blast zone," said Jacqueline Savitz with the nonprofit Oceana. "In its rush to finalize this proposal, the Obama administration is failing to consider the cumulative impacts that these repeated dynamite-like blasts will have on vital behaviors like mating, feeding, breathing, communicating and navigating."

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America’s first carbon-trading program can boast some impressive numbers

RGGI
Shutterstock

How do you turn $1 billion into $2 billion, all the while helping to slow down global warming? By capping carbon dioxide pollution and charging for emissions permits, then plowing the revenues into clean energy and energy-efficiency programs.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon-trading program that covers nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, charged power plants about $1 billion for the right to pollute the climate from 2009 to 2012. Of that, $707 million has so far been invested into green programs, and $93 million has been transferred into states' general funds, according to a new RGGI report.

Two-thirds of the investments have been used to help utility customers cut back on the amount of power that they use. Those efficiency improvements are eventually expected to save 800,000 households and 12,000 businesses more than $1.8 billion in energy bills.

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You might see fewer oil trains on the tracks, thanks to a new emergency order

Oil-hauling train
U.S. Department of Transportation

The rash of exploding railcars across North America was treated with a dash of regulatory tonic this week.

Citing an "imminent hazard" of explosion and fire posed by trains hauling crude, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring more thorough testing of oil before it's shipped. The department is especially concerned about oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana, as it's been found to be particularly explosive. The order also bars shipping oil in weak railcars designed for less hazardous materials.

The move could slow train shipments of oil from the Bakken shale and from Canada's tar sands. Bloomberg reports:

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Feds will help honeybees find food

A bee on pastureland
Judi

The U.S. government estimates that honeybees provide $15 billion worth of pollination services to America's farms every year. So it's throwing $3 million at them in the Midwest, announcing a new effort to help farmers and ranchers grow plants that furnish bees with healthier diets.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it will use the funds "to promote conservation practices that will provide honey bees with nutritious pollen and nectar while providing benefits to the environment." The pollen and nectar will come from such sources as cover crops and high-quality pastures.

It's another little step by the government to boost hives' chances of survival. Forcing bees to subsist on the pollen and nectar of crops alone can leave them sickly.

"It's a win for the livestock guys, and it's a win for the managed honeybee population," USDA official Jason Weller told Al Jazeera. "And it's a win then for orchardists and other specialty crop producers across the nation because then you're going to have a healthier, more robust bee population that then goes out and helps pollinate important crops."

Read more: Food, Politics

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L.A. and California lawmakers move to impose fracking moratoriums

Hollywood sign
Matt' Johnson

Leaders in Los Angeles seem to have been paying attention to Hollywood. A little more than a year after the release of Promised Land, a movie about the dangers of fracking starring Matt Damon, members of L.A. City Council are trying to ban hydraulic fracturing.

"Fracking and other unconventional drilling is happening here in Los Angeles, and without the oversight and review to keep our neighborhoods safe," Councilman Mike Bonin said during a committee hearing on Tuesday. Here's more from the L.A. Times:

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Carbon dioxide pollution just killed 10 million scallops

scallops with chili
anna_t

Scallops go well with loads of chili and an after-dinner dose of antacid. It's just too bad we can't share our post-gluttony medicine with the oceans that produce our mollusk feasts.

A scallops producer on Vancouver Island in British Columbia just lost three years' worth of product to high acidity levels. The disaster, which cost the company $10 million and could lead to its closure, is the latest vicious reminder of the submarine impacts of our fossil fuel–heavy energy appetites. As carbon dioxide is soaked up by the oceans, it reacts with water to produce bicarbonate and carbonic acid, increasing ocean acidity. 

The Parksville Qualicum Beach News has the latest shellfish-shriveling scoop:

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Frack-happy Colorado clamps down on methane pollution

Smoggy Denver
Rick Kimpel
Cutting back on methane leaks could help reduce Denver's infamous smog.

Frackers and other companies that handle natural gas will have to start being at least a little bit neighborly in Colorado, where new rules will force them to clamp down on methane leaks from wells, tanks, and pipelines.

When methane (natural gas is pretty much just methane) escapes during drilling and transportation, it fuels ozone pollution and global warming. Methane concentrations in the atmosphere are rising, and methane leaks are a major problem in the U.S. By one recent estimate, the U.S. EPA has understated the problem by a half.

To start trying to tackle the problem, Colorado's air quality commission voted 8-1 on Sunday to adopt the nation's first state regulations dealing with methane leaks -- regulations that the Natural Resources Defense Council had previously described as "common-sense measures to reduce harmful pollution." Volatile organic compounds will also be regulated under the new rules. Reuters explains: