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Kate Sheppard, Brett Brownell and Jaeah Lee's Posts


Confirmed: Fracking triggers quakes and seismic chaos

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Click to embiggen.

Major earthquakes thousands of miles away can trigger reflex quakes in areas where fluids have been injected into the ground from fracking and other industrial operations, according to a study published in the journal Science on Thursday.

Previous studies, covered in a recent Mother Jones feature from Michael Behar, have shown that injecting fluids into the ground can increase the seismicity of a region. This latest study shows that earthquakes can tip off smaller quakes in far-away areas where fluid has been pumped underground.

The scientists looked at three big quakes: the Tohuku-oki earthquake in Japan in 2011 (magnitude 9), the Maule in Chile in 2010 (an 8.8 magnitude), and the Sumatra in Indonesia in 2012 (an 8.6). They found that, as much as 20 months later, those major quakes triggered smaller ones in places in the Midwestern U.S. where fluids have been pumped underground for energy extraction.


Here comes the son: Barry Goldwater Jr. fights for solar power in Arizona

Barry Goldwater Jr.
Gage Skidmore

The name Barry Goldwater is practically synonymous with conservatism in America. That's even more true in the late politician's home state of Arizona, which he represented for five terms in the U.S. Senate. Now his son, Barry Goldwater Jr., is putting the family name behind an effort to protect solar energy's growing share of the electricity market -- a struggle that has pitted him against entrenched utility interests and a right-wing dark-money group.

Goldwater, 74, is the chair of Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed (or TUSK, for short), a group launched in March to fight the state's largest electric utility, Arizona Public Service, on solar power. APS has been campaigning to get the state utility commission to change regulations dealing with net metering, a policy that allows homes and businesses with their own solar power systems to send excess energy they generate back to the grid and make money off of it. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have a net-metering policy in place.

Arizona has had net metering since 2009, which has helped make it the second-ranked state in the country in installed solar capacity. But APS has called for an overhaul of the state's net-metering policy and plans to unveil its proposal to the regulators on the Arizona Corporation Commission this Friday.

APS argues that under the current arrangement, the 18,000 Arizonans with rooftop solar aren't paying enough to cover the cost of maintaining the grid. Even if a house has a solar system, it still uses the utility's infrastructure. It pulls energy from the grid when the sun is not shining and feeds energy back into the grid when the solar unit is generating more power than the house needs. The utility wants to lower the rate that it pays for solar power produced by these rooftop solar generators, or otherwise recoup the costs. "Our only point is that anybody who uses the grid should pay their fair share of the grid," said APS spokesperson Jim McDonald.

Opponents, however, say reducing the incentives for rooftop solar will make it a less appealing investment. They argue that APS is going after net metering because it is worried that solar might start to cut into its profit margins, as fewer homeowners are buying from the grid and more are selling to it. McDonald said net metering has "zero impact" on the utility's profit margins right now -- but it could down the line. "Eventually would it become a business issue? It probably would," he said.

Enter Goldwater. TUSK's sole concern is protecting net metering, and it has brought together solar industry and other business groups to push back against APS. If APS is successful, said Goldwater, "they may very well kill rooftop solar in Arizona, and that would be a tragedy."

A politician in his own right, Goldwater represented California in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1969 to 1983. (He still lives in California, though he is active in Arizona-based conservative organizations like the Goldwater Institute, named after his father.) His support for solar, he said, comes from conservative, free-market principles rooted in "creating choices for the American consumer."

"Choice means competition. Competition drives prices down and the quality up," Goldwater told Mother Jones. "The utilities are monopolies. They're not used to competition. That's what rooftop solar represents to them."


Obama: “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society”


President Obama laid out a detailed plan to address the causes and impacts of climate change in a speech at Georgetown University on Tuesday. "I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing," he said.

A thread throughout Obama's plan is the idea that addressing climate change is a "moral obligation" to our children. The two-page outline of the plan [PDF] sent to reporters Monday evening came with the subhead "Taking Action for Our Kids," and mentioned "kids" or "future generations" a total of four times. The theme carried throughout his speech on Tuesday. "Your children's children will have to live with the consequences of our decisions," he said.

Here are the key components of the plan aimed at reducing U.S. emissions:

  • Directs the EPA to issue draft emission rules for existing power plants by June 2014, to be finalized by June 2015.
  • Asks the EPA to "work expeditiously" on finalizing rules for new power plants that the agency issued in March 2012 (though does not appear to include a due date for that).
  • Pledges that the federal government will draw 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.
  • Sets a goal of permitting an additional 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020.
  • Sets a goal of putting 100 megawatts of renewable energy on federally subsidized housing by 2020.
  • Creates a new, $8 billion loan guarantee program for advanced fossil fuel projects at the Department of Energy (think clean coal, etc.).
  • Directs the EPA and the Department of Transportation to work on fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, buses, and vans for after 2018 (following up on the 2014-18 rules they rolled out in 2011).
  • Sets a goal of cutting at least 3 billion tons of carbon pollution by 2030 through improvements in energy efficiency standards.
  • Calls for an end to U.S. funding for fossil fuel energy projects overseas unless they include carbon capture technology.

The rules for existing power plants could be huge news, as old, dirty plants account for 40 percent of all emissions in the U.S. But there are scant details on what exactly those rules will entail.


FEMA report: Climate change could increase areas at risk of flood by 45 percent

Damaged homes along New Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy.
Greg Thompson / USFWS
Damaged homes along New Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy.

Rising seas and increasingly severe weather are expected to increase the areas of the United States at risk of floods by up to 45 percent by 2100, according to a first-of-its-kind report released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday [PDF]. These changes could double the number of flood-prone properties covered by the National Flood Insurance Program and drastically increase the costs of floods, the report finds.

The report concludes that climate change is likely to expand vastly the size and costs of the 45-year-old government flood insurance program. Like previous government reports, it anticipates that sea levels will rise an average of four feet [PDF] by the end of the century. But this is what's new: The portion of the U.S. at risk for flooding, including coastal regions and areas along rivers, will grow between 40 and 45 percent by the end of the century. That shift will hammer the flood insurance program. Premiums paid into the program totaled $3.2 billion in 2009, but that figure could grow to $5.4 billion by 2040 and up to $11.2 billion by the year 2100, the report found. The 257-page study has been in the works for nearly five years and was finally released by FEMA after multiple inquiries from Climate Desk and Mother Jones.

The report attributes only 30 percent of the increased risk of flooding to population growth; 70 percent is due to climate change. FEMA designates what are known as special flood hazard areas, where there is a 1 percent risk in any given year of a major flood occurring. (They're also known as 100-year floodplains.) If you have a federally backed mortgage on your home and it's in a special flood hazard area, you are required by law to carry flood insurance. As of 2013, the NFIP insures 5.6 million properties. But that number could double by 2100, to as many as 11.2 million, the report found.

Read more: Climate & Energy


On natural gas, green groups can’t make up their minds

Photo by Shutterstock.

Gas is the new coal. At least that's what the Obama administration seems to think. In accepting his nomination to run for a second term, President Obama pledged to "continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet," and to create 600,000 new jobs in the natural gas industry.

The two goals are directly related in the administration's policies; in March 2012, the Obama EPA announced new emissions rules for power plants that meant no new coal plants will be built in the U.S. All those coal plants will likely be replaced with gas-fired plants -- a trend that was already in the works thanks to declining gas prices and increasing supply.

But Obama's enthusiasm for gas puts the big, national environmental groups in a bit of a tough spot. While many recognize that burning gas to generate electricity emits 47 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than coal, concerns about environmental problems stemming from hydraulic fracturing have led many green groups to moderate their stance.

Take, for example, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). In late August, EDF announced a $6 million donation from Bloomberg Philanthropies, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's foundation, to work on fracking rules in 14 states. Multi-billionaire Bloomberg is a gas booster, but wants to ensure that it's "done through strong, responsible regulation." EDF agrees: "'No drilling no place' is not a strategy, that's a bumper sticker," Jim Marston, vice president of the energy program, told me a few days after the Bloomberg grant was announced.

In short, fracking is going to happen, so EDF might as well make it as safe as possible, Marston argues.

Read more: Climate & Energy


For Pennsylvania’s doctors, a gag order on fracking chemicals

Under a new law, doctors in Pennsylvania can access information about chemicals used in natural gas extraction—but they won't be able to share it with their patients. A provision buried in a law passed last month is drawing scrutiny from the public health and environmental community, who argue that it will "gag" doctors who want to raise concerns related to oil and gas extraction with the people they treat and the general public.

Pennsylvania is at the forefront in the debate over "fracking," the process by which a high-pressure mixture of chemicals, sand, and water are blasted into rock to tap into the gas. Recent discoveries of great reserves in the Marcellus Shale region of the state prompted a rush to development, as have advancements in fracking technologies. But with those changes have come a number of concerns from citizens about potential environmental and health impacts from natural gas drilling.

Read more: Natural Gas


This is what global warming looks like

Alun Hubbard, a researcher at Aberystwyth University's Center for Glaciology in Wales, recently returned from Greenland's Petermann Glacier. Polar scientists last photographed the glacier, located in the northwest corner of the country, in the summer of 2009. They went back this summer to see how much ice it has lost in just the last two years, and the results were dramatic. "Although I knew what to expect in terms of ice loss from satellite imagery, I was still completely unprepared for the gob-smacking scale of the breakup, which rendered me speechless," Hubbard said in response to the images. Below, you …


Did ExxonMobil break its promise to stop funding climate deniers?

Photo: taberandrewBack in 2008, ExxonMobil pledged to quit funding climate change deniers. But according to new documents released through a Greenpeace Freedom of Information Act request, the oil giant was still forking over cash to climate skeptics as recently as last year, to the tune of $76,000 for one scientist skeptical of humankind's role in global warming. This -- and much more -- came to light in a new report about the funding [PDF] of Wei Hock "Willie" Soon, an astrophysicist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon has been a favorite among climate skeptics for years, since coauthoring a …


BP’s still making bank

Looks like the past year hasn't been so bad after all for BP, which today reported a 16 percent increase in profits over the first quarter of 2010. The company reported $7.2 billion in net earnings -- compared to $6.2 billion for the first three months of last year. The company sold off a bunch of assets in order to pay for the Gulf oil disaster, which is how they managed to keep the profits up. BP also hasn't been drilling in the deepwater since that whole giant oil catastrophe it unleashed last year. But to still report an increase …


‘BP hasn’t made people whole’

The Gulf oil disaster largely disappeared from the headlines last August, after the well was finally capped and the federal government declared that most of the oil was "gone." For Gulf coast residents, though, the nightmare was just beginning. A year later, business hasn't come back for many in fishing and tourism, and the compensation check from BP still hasn't arrived. In the areas closest to the shores, people are reporting health problems consistent with exposure to chemicals. Dead turtles, dolphins, and fish are still washing ashore. So are tar balls. So while most of the country has moved on, …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Oil