Briefly

Stuff that matters


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.


Where there's smoke

Farmworkers are risking their health to harvest produce near California wildfires.

The out-of-control fires have already burned up an area the size of New York City and Boston combined. Meanwhile, farmworkers are still working 8 to 10 hour days, often without protective gear to guard them against the wildfire smoke.

Health officials are warning residents to stay indoors or wear masks if they need to go outside. California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health advised employers to take precautions to protect their workers, but the law doesn’t require them to provide masks or other protective equipment.

Volunteers with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy handed out thousands of masks to farmworkers in Southern California. “It’s a little bit of playing whack-a-mole as the smoke drifts north,” says Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director at the alliance. “There’s definitely pressure in the industry to get those strawberries harvested before they get damaged by the ash.”

Breathing in smoky air can trigger asthma attacks, chest palpitations, and other respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Wildfire smoke also carries particles known to cause cancer.

Despite the risks, Zucker says many farmworkers have little choice but to stay on the job. “It’s a horrific choice to choose between the income that you need to keep a roof over your family’s head, and taking care of your own health and safety,” he says.


Bad EPA

Trump’s EPA eases off on the whole “environmental protection” thing.

The Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to defend human health and the environment, but a New York Times analysis published Monday suggests that it hasn’t been doing a great job.

EPA enforcement data indicates that the agency has gone easier on polluters and been less strict about penalties under Trump compared to the two previous administrations. For example, under President Obama, the EPA ramped up demands that companies retrofit their factories to cut down on pollution. Those demands have petered out to a mere 12 percent of what was requested by the Obama administration.

Confidential EPA documents obtained by the Times also show that EPA enforcement officers around the country must now receive permission from Washington, D.C., before they can order air and water pollution tests — tests that are kiiiind of essential to keeping polluters in check.

That’s no accident. According to the report, the documents show that “the enforcement slowdown coincides with major policy changes ordered by Mr. Pruitt’s team after pleas from oil and gas industry executives.”

The EPA released a statement on Monday that “there is no reduction in E.P.A.’s commitment to ensure compliance with our nation’s environmental laws.” That’s nice, but the facts state otherwise.


Patagonia Wars

This House committee has clearly picked a side in the national monument debate.

It’s not Patagonia’s.

The public lands dispute heated up on Monday when outdoor clothing brand Patagonia turned its homepage into a call to arms against President Donald Trump’s decision to significantly shrink two national monuments in Utah.

On Friday, the House Natural Resources Committee fired back at Patagonia, accusing the company of “hijacking the public lands debate” in an attempt to sell more products.

It seems highly unusual for a House committee to traffic in conspiracy theories, but, to its credit, Patagonia’s website did see record traffic following the company’s stand against Trump.

Anyways — the Natural Resources committee will hold a hearing on Thursday to consider legislation proposed by Utah Republican Chris Stewart that would turn the remaining parts of Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument into a national park.

That means Grand-Staircase Escalante would no longer be preserved under the Antiquities Act for containing objects of historical, cultural, or scientific interest; instead, it would be protected for its scenic, educational, and recreational value.

Democratic State Senator Jim Dabakis called Stewart’s proposal a “sleight of hand, a trick” to divert attention from the plot to open up public lands for mineral extraction.


ice code

Northern Alaska is warming so fast, it’s faking out computers.

The loss of near-shore sea ice near Utqiaġvik (Barrow) has been so abrupt, it’s transformed the local climate.

Open water in the Arctic causes a compounding warming effect and rapidly elevates temperatures — water is darker than ice and absorbs heat quicker. The effect is particularly strong between October and December, the time of the year that used to have sea ice, but often doesn’t anymore. Octobers in Utqiaġvik are now nearly 8 degrees warmer than Octobers in the 1980s and ’90s.

Apparently, the computers tracking temperatures there have finally had enough. Deke Arndt, chief of NOAA’s Climate Monitoring Branch, explains:

In an ironic exclamation point to swift regional climate change in and near the Arctic, the average temperature observed at the weather station at Utqiaġvik has now changed so rapidly that it triggered an algorithm designed to detect artificial changes in a station’s instrumentation or environment and disqualified itself from the NOAA Alaskan temperature analysis, leaving northern Alaska analyzed a little cooler than it really was.

Basically, the computer thought the weather station had been moved. It hasn’t moved; Utqiaġvik is just a different place now.


partly sunny

A bill in Congress would require more scientific research … into geoengineering.

On the one hand, supporting science is good! On the other hand, geoengineering — the modification of planetary systems to counteract the effects of global warming — is a risky long-shot attempt to address climate change, when much simpler, more direct solutions are already known.

A new bill introduced by a Jerry McNerney, a Democratic representative from California, calls for “a federal commitment to the creation of a geoengineering research agenda and an assessment of the potential risks of geoengineering practices” by the National Academies of Sciences.

The bill comes out of the House Science, Space, and Technology committee, chaired by outgoing climate foe Lamar Smith. Smith has somehow managed to support geoengineering research without acknowledging the changing climate that would render it necessary in the first place.

To be fair, research into geoengineering is a far cry from — as one proposal would have it — actually spraying particles into clouds to make them brighter, reflecting more sunlight and therefore allowing less heat to enter the atmosphere.

Whether that kind of planetary meddling will ever be a viable approach to climate change requires a lot more research, yes. But with the sciences feeling the pinch of a science-allergic administration, lots of important research is already on the chopping block.


role play

Is Ryan Zinke pretending to be Christian Grey?

Not in a sexy way! Maybe kind of in a sexy way.

According to Politico, the interior secretary loves to travel by helicopter: a helicopter to a leisurely horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence; a helicopter ride over the James River in Virginia to review a new power line installation site; a helicopter to the signing-in ceremony of Montana Senator Greg Gianforte (the angry guy).

Here’s video evidence of Christian Grey, the protagonist of the fictional book and film series 50 Shades of Grey, also enjoying a good heli ride:

It’s romantic!!!!!

It’s dangerous!!!!!!

It’s one of several ways to zoom around in a tiny aircraft!!!!!

(The key difference here is that Christian Grey ostensibly paid for his own helicopter, and Ryan Zinke is using many thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to use government helicopters.)