Stuff that matters

oh frack

The EPA found that fracking can impact drinking water quality.

Its long-awaited report corrects the record on the scientific evidence regarding a controversial aspect of hydraulic fracturing. From the report’s executive summary:

When hydraulically fractured oil and gas production wells are located near or within drinking water resources, there is a greater potential for activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle to impact those resources.

An investigation found that earlier this year, the EPA downplayed its findings by saying fracking operations have no “widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water, despite finding plenty of examples of contamination.

The EPA, in the end, didn’t include the controversial text. The Union of Concerned Scientists credits the EPA’s independent panel of scientists on the Science Advisory Board (SAB) for that language being removed. SAB wrote in August: “The SAB finds that the EPA did not support quantitatively its conclusion about lack of evidence for widespread, systemic impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.”

Like any government agency, the EPA is under political pressure from all sides. But the core of the agency’s mission is to heed science. The question is whether the EPA’s political leaders will still heed those recommendations when it’s run by climate change deniers.

solar dreams

A California legislator is pushing the state to get all of its electricity from renewables.

California is already shooting to get half its power from wind, solar, and hydro by 2030. But this new amendment, just drafted by state Senate leader Kevin de León (a Democrat from Los Angeles), would bump that deadline to 2025 and set a new deadline to go all-renewable by 2045. Great news, right?

Among the many obstacles in the way of that target, two stand out. First, the state will need to build a whole lot of solar panels and wind turbines. One group estimated that, to go 100-percent renewable, California would have to fill an area about the size of Connecticut with power plants. And of course we’ve seen in the past that many locals oppose big energy projects in their backyards, even when they are renewable.

The second big challenge is getting the electricity produced during daylight hours to the people who need it when the sun drops over the horizon and they turn on their lights. California will need to invest a lot of money in energy storage and develop new batteries to do that.

But maybe the simplest way to start tackling these obstacles is to add a few words to existing law, as de León is trying to do, that tells the Golden State to get ’er done.

The calm before the storm

Scott Pruitt is making nice with EPA employees, but big changes are to come.

On Tuesday, he stood in front of a room full of those employees and made his first address as administrator of the agency. Pruitt accepted welcome gifts (an EPA lapel pin and baseball hat), expressed appreciation for the staff, and insisted he would have his ears open to them. “You can’t lead unless you listen,” he said.

In his brief address, he made no mention of the toxic pollution threatening Americans’ health, but did decry the “toxic environment” polluting modern politics. He talked of working across the aisle and called for civility and “being problem solvers.”

Pruitt also lobbed subtle barbs at the agency’s past leadership, saying EPA needs to avoid abuses. “Regulations ought to make things regular. Regulators exist to give certainty to those we regulate,” he said. (Last week, he was even more critical of the Obama-era EPA, telling the Wall Street Journal that it had “disregarded the law.”)

But Pruitt made no mention of what’s likely to be big news this week: Trump is planning to sign executive orders that would start the process of rolling back two major EPA regulations: the Clean Power Plan, one of Obama’s signature climate programs, and the Waters of the U.S. rule, which regulates pollution in smaller bodies of water.

reading the signs

On Sunday, hundreds of scientists took a break from doing science to rally in support of it.

The protesters gathered in Boston’s Copley Square with some impressively nerdy signs, including “Scientists are wicked smaht” and “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.”

The rally coincided with the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held a few blocks away, but was not sponsored by the scientific organization. In fact, scientists have often been wary of participating in political demonstrations, citing the need for science to be objective and nonpartisan.

“We’re not protesting a party,” one scientist told the Boston Globe. “As scientists, we want to support truth.”

Truth, however, has increasingly become a political issue, with an administration that has denied climate change, attacked the value of the EPA, and put forward a non-evidence-based travel ban that would adversely affect many scientists and researchers in the United States. As one sign at the rally put it, “Alternative facts are the square root of negative one.” That is, imaginary.

Sunday’s rally was a warm-up act for the March for Science, which is expected to bring many thousands of scientists to Washington, D.C., on April 22, Earth Day.

flint lives matter

Racism was a big factor in the Flint water crisis, a new report explains.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission — a governor-appointed board established in 1963 to investigate and prevent discrimination — released a 138-page report on the Flint situation on Friday, and it’s damning.

Based on a year-long study, the report details how government failed Flint’s black residents for decades. Implicit bias and systemic racism ingrained in housing, education, infrastructure, and emergency management all perpetuated discrimination and eventually led to toxic lead levels in Flint’s water. The commission writes, “fixing the problems that originated in Flint’s latest chapter will address the tumor but not the cancer.”

Central to the report are recommendations for preventing Flint-style disasters in the future. They range from the simple — listen to residents more and relocate meetings to affected communities — to the challenging — adopt a new statewide environmental justice plan and restructure Michigan’s emergency manager law.

Though the report documents racism, it says those seeking to file claims over civil rights violations “will face an uphill climb” because racism and discrimination often harm people of color obliquely, within the law.

Its conclusion is pointed. “That the problem is systemic doesn’t mean there is nobody to blame,” the commission writes. “We are all to blame.”

fowl play

The Great Backyard Bird Count is losing feathers due to climate change.

The National Audubon Society’s annual count, which runs Feb. 17–20 this year, encourages people to identify and report the birds they see in their neighborhoods. They’re likely to spot fewer winter migrants and more warmer-weather birds that have no business up north. And so a treasured American pastime has opened a climatic can of worms.

In 2014, an Audubon report revealed that 314 of 588 bird species studied in North America would lose over half their climatic range (where birds are usually found) by 2080. And 126 of those species are classified as “climate endangered.”

Citizen-scientists who participate in bird counts witness those climate threats firsthand. They see precipitous drops in the populations of birds such as wood thrushes, finches, and waterfowl. On the other hand, semi-hardy species like robins and white-throated sparrows have expanded their usually southern ranges.

Thanks to a mild winter and climate-driven storms, binoculared birders have recently spotted species where they’ve never been spotted before. Apparently some Texan Great Kiskadees have wandered up to South Dakota, and midwestern Orchard Orioles wound up in New England.

So if you see a toucan in New Jersey, you’re not crazy — it’s just the climate.

Pipe dream

Elon Musk has started digging a tunnel under Los Angeles.

In December, when Musk got stuck in traffic, instead of leaning on the horn or flipping off the other drivers, he decided to build a new transportation system. An hour later, Max Chafkin writes in Bloomberg Businessweek, “the project had a name and a marketing platform. ‘It shall be called The Boring Company,’” Musk wrote.

Musk told employees to grab some heavy machinery and they began digging a hole in the SpaceX parking lot. He bought one of those machines that bores out tunnels and lays down concrete walls as it goes. It’s named Nannie.

Musk is the grown-up version of the kid who decides to dig to China: He doesn’t pause to plan or ask what’s possible, he just grabs a stick and starts shoveling. Maybe that’s the approach we need. As Chafkin points out, “Tunnel technology is older than rockets, and boring speeds are pretty much what they were 50 years ago.” And Bent Flyvbjerg, an academic who studies why big projects cost so much, says that the tunneling industry is ripe for someone with new ideas to shake things up.

Musk is a technical genius. But the things that make tunnels expensive tend to be political — they have to do with endless hearings before local government councils and concessions to satisfy concerned neighbors and politicians. For that stultifying process, at least, Musk’s new company is aptly named. If Musk figures out how disrupt local land-use politics, it would mean he’s smarter than anyone thinks.