Briefly

Stuff that matters


Spilling Secrets

An oil well off Australia leaked for weeks last year. We just found out about it.

The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority mentioned the leak in an annual report on offshore exploration but revealed no details about who operated the well.

That information came to light on Friday, when Woodside Petroleum — Australia’s largest oil and gas producer, owned by Royal Dutch Shell — admitted to owning the well on the North West Shelf of the country. The leak began in April 2016 and lasted about two months. All told, it spilled nearly 2,800 gallons of oil into the ocean.

Woodside gave a statement to the Australian Broadcasting Company claiming the spill caused no damage: “Due to the composition of the fluid, small quantity released, water depth at release site, and distance from environmentally sensitive areas, there was no lasting impact to the environment.”

Offshore oil safety expert Andrew Hopkins told the Guardian that the Australian regulator’s failure to identify who was responsible for the spill is concerning, as it spares reckless firms from justice via “naming and shaming.”

“Companies that know they will be named in the case of an incident like this,” Hopkins said, “are going to be less likely to do it.”

A message from The Wilderness Society:

Senate is voting on a bill this week that would allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Help stop it!


Oh, Ophelia

Ophelia is the strongest storm to hit Ireland in at least 50 years.

With winds approaching 100 mph, storm surge has breached coastal defenses, pushing the Atlantic Ocean inland. The Irish Defense Force is on standby to assist with rescue and recovery.

Hundreds of thousands of people are without electricity, a situation the Irish power network is calling “unprecedented territory.” Officials say it will take weeks to repair the damage.

Meanwhile, Ophelia’s strong winds, as well as lingering dry conditions from a record hot summer heatwave nicknamed “Lucifer,” have worsened hundreds of wildfires that are raging mostly out of control in parts of Portugal and Spain. Dozens of people have died, and thousands of firefighters are working to quash the flames, which have encroached on several urban areas.

Late last week, Ophelia became the first hurricane ever seen of Category 3 strength or greater in the eastern Atlantic. While its wind speed weakened as it approached, it made landfall in Ireland as a superstorm that had grown substantially in size. Recent studies argue that storms like Ophelia will affect Europe much more often as the Atlantic continues to warm and the belt of tropical winds expands. By 2100, the region could see a four-fold increase in frequency of storms of Category 3 or higher.


Sponsored

Congress might allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on a 2018 budget resolution this week. The outcome could open the pristine landscape of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration and drilling.

At nearly 19.6 million acres, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska is the largest wildlife refuge in the United States. More than 7 million acres of its landscape is federally protected wilderness — but not the “1002 area,” a 1.5-million-acre stretch of coastal plain that sits above an estimated 4 to 12 billion barrels of oil, less than a year’s worth of oil in U.S. markets.

The 2018 budget resolution would require the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to draft legislation to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1 billion over the next decade, a figure that includes projected revenues for Arctic Refuge drilling. If passed, this would provide the first step for greenlighting opening the refuge for drilling.

Environmentalists and opponents say that the risks of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic are too great considering the potential for habitat destruction, pollution, and oil spills. Construction and noise pollution emitted from drilling could also disrupt the migration of birds, the calving of porcupine caribou, and the denning patterns of polar bears, environmentalists say. For thousands of years, native communities like the Gwich’in have depended on the ecological harmony of the region.

Advocates are making sure Congress hears about it.


Sunnyside up

The sun keeps turning an apocalyptic shade of red. Here’s why.

In parts of the United Kingdom Monday morning, people woke up to a blood-red sun — a phenomenon seen around the globe this year.

The color was caused by smoke that blew in from wildfires across Portugal and Spain. Hurricane Ophelia deepened the reddish hue by dragging up dust from the Sahara.

Red skies have haunted the western U.S. recently as wildfires burned in Montana and ash rained down in Seattle. This month in Northern California, 20,000 people evacuated from massive wildfires under a red-orange sky.

Anadolu Agency / Contributor / Getty Images

On the other side of the world, wildfires burned in Siberia all summer long, covering the sun with enormous clouds of smoke and ash.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

To understand why this happens, you need to know a bit of optics. Sun rays contain light from the whole visible spectrum. As the sun’s white light beams into the atmosphere, it collides with molecules that diffuse some of the wavelengths. On a normal day, short wavelength colors, like purple and blue, are filtered out, making the sun look yellow.

But high concentrations of light-scattering molecules in the air (like smoke particles from a wildfire) crowd out more of those short-wavelength colors, leaving behind that hellish red color.

Since climate change makes wildfires worse, we’ll be seeing a lot more of it.


pick of the litter

Trump’s new environmental nominee says carbon dioxide isn’t a pollutant.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump nominated Kathleen Hartnett White to run the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the office in charge of promoting the improvement of the environment.

Like many Trump picks who came before her, Hartnett White is an outspoken climate skeptic. In an interview with the Washington Post last fall, she said, “Carbon dioxide has none of the characteristics of a pollutant that could harm human health.”

That’s not the only bonkers thing Trump’s nominee has said about climate change. Previously chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Hartnett White was a candidate for head of the EPA before the position went to another climate skeptic, Scott Pruitt.

In a column published in Townhall in 2015, Hartnett White wrote that “industrialized nations that utterly depend on the consumption of fossil fuels have not amplified environmental degradation of the natural world.”

And in an op-ed last year, she suggested that CO2 “may not be the cause of warming but instead a symptom of it.”

As for what does impact our climate, Hartnett White has a theory: “What role does our sun play? The sun is the source of over 99 percent of the energy in the earth’s climate.”

Good point?


whoops

Federal officials accidentally emailed a reporter their plans to spin Puerto Rico.

In late September, the Pentagon included Bloomberg News climate reporter Christopher Flavelle on a series of emails meant for Pentagon employees.

The emails detail talking points for convincing the public that the White House’s response to Puerto Rico was going well. Just one minor problem: It so wasn’t. Many Puerto Ricans have gone without power, clean water, and adequate food ever since Hurricane Maria hit last month.

Flavelle pointed out some highlights from the messages, which he received between Sept. 28 and Oct. 2.

When San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz criticized the White House’s self-congratulatory statements about its Puerto Rico relief — which Cruz called a “people-are-dying story” — officials from the Defense Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were instructed to ignore Cruz and say that “the federal government’s full attention is on Hurricane Maria response.”

In response to news of these emails, Mayor Cruz wrote on Twitter:

So much for the White House’s attempts to turn the corner on their PR problem. As Department of Defense staff admitted in a later email, the public perception of the government’s response “continues to be negative.” Sometimes, perception is reality.


suck it up

The first ‘negative emissions’ carbon-capture plant is up and running.

On Wednesday, Iceland flipped the switch on the first project that will remove more CO2 than it produces. The plant is operated by Climeworks, which also opened the first commercial carbon-capture plant in Switzerland earlier this year.

Here’s how direct-air carbon capture works: Giant turbines pull in huge quantities of air, hoovering up molecules of carbon dioxide so we can store it somewhere that’s NOT the atmosphere.

The Icelandic pilot program can remove an estimated 50 metric tons of CO2 from the air in a year. It pumps the collected gas deep into the island’s volcanic bedrock, where it reacts with basalt and essentially turns into limestone. Voilà! No massive reservoirs to manage for millennia — just a lot of rock.

If all this sounds too good to be true, there’s a reason. Ambitious “clean coal” plants have been engaged in a very public struggle with the economic reality of carbon capture in recent years, and direct-air capture is an even tougher sell.

But it’s getting more affordable. Today, companies estimate it would cost between $50 and $100 to capture a single metric ton of carbon. Iceland’s plant has already achieved $30 per metric ton. It will never work as a substitute for action to reduce emissions, but carbon capture could be a crucial part of keeping global temperatures in check this century.