For everyone who was hoping the Obama administration's proposed new rules for natural gas drilling on public lands would make a difference, the just-released new draft amounts to a big "frack you."
Federal rules governing fracking on public lands are being updated, ostensibly to help manage the boom that's polluting America's groundwater and shaking free vast volumes of cheap natural gas. Environmentalists were disappointed a year ago when the Department of Interior released a fracker-friendly draft of the new rules. But they submitted reams of comments and had hoped that the proposed regulations would be tightened up in this draft.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) stopped throwing a temper tantrum and took a deep breath for long enough Thursday to allow the Senate to unanimously confirm Ernest Moniz as secretary of energy.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor and fossil fuel-industry fan was confirmed with a 97-0 vote. The vote had been delayed more than three weeks by Graham in protest over $200 million of planned nuclear energy budget cuts in his state.
Moniz served as an energy undersecretary in the Clinton administration and he is replacing Steven Chu, also a physicist, who is stepping down from the department's top job.
While most of Washington, D.C., is consumed with the faux scandals du jour, in a few corners of Congress, actual work is getting done. A day 329 days late and a dollar $20 billion short, perhaps, the farm bill, an every-five-years legislative train[wreck], lumbers slowly forward.
Both the House and the Senate agriculture committees have just passed their own versions of the massive piece of legislation that controls U.S. agricultural policy as well as the federal nutrition program formerly known as food stamps (now called SNAP). A full House and Senate vote is the next step. Congress tried and failed to pass a farm bill last year. The question now is whether Congress can do it this time.
Actually, the question really is whether Congress will ever pass a farm bill again. For the first time, those close to the legislative process are starting to have their doubts. And that may be a really bad thing.
Bah, humbug, you say! The farm bill is larded with bipartisan subsidies for the largest-scale farmers who grow commodities like corn, soy, and cotton. It’s also the bill that authorizes the federal crop insurance program, which has grown like gangbusters over the last decade. Last year (thanks to the drought) farmers received over $17 billion in insurance payouts -- almost all of which benefited large-scale commodity agriculture. A chicken pox on all their coops!
That not an unreasonable reaction. But also at stake in the farm bill are billions of dollars for conservation programs that help farmers mitigate the environmental effects of their work, and pay them to set aside marginal farmland as wildlife habitat. It also contains millions in federal funds that support organic farmers, help younger and “new” farmers get their start, and prop up local food efforts, organic research, and farmers markets.
In September 2007, a rising star of Alaskan politics dared to take on one of the toughest, most challenging issues for any leader: climate change. That summer, seasonal ice cover had fallen to its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979, leaving much of the Arctic as open water. A few months earlier, Al Gore had won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth.
It seemed as if the timing was right to deal with climate change, and so the politician approached a group of high-level officials to develop a climate change strategy for Alaska.
Their leader was Sarah Palin, the then-governor of Alaska before her entry into national Republican party politics. "Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is also a social, cultural, and economic issue important to all Alaskans," said Palin, announcing two new working groups on climate change.
"As a result of this warming, coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice, record forest fires, and other changes are affecting, and will continue to affect, the lifestyles and livelihoods of Alaskans," she went on.
Remember the scene in the movie Gasland where the guy lights his tapwater on fire? No? Here it is:
That footage helped ignite the grassroots movement against fracking, a controversial technology that shoots a slurry of water mixed with sand and laced with toxic chemicals into underground shale formations to shatter the rock and release natural gas.
The only problem with this by-now-iconic image is that the faucet pyrotechnics may actually have been made possible by a natural phenomenon: The guy’s house is perched thousands of feet above a double seam of coal, according to the Colorado Department of Environmental Protection, and methane from underground coal and gas formations occasionally bubbles up through cracks in the earth and into people’s water wells -- no fracking required. (Kids in Pennsylvania have apparently been torching their water for generations.)
Then again, the flaming tapwater may indeed result from fracking in the Colorado man’s neighborhood. The point is, nobody knows.
There are a lot of things about fracking that we don’t know. And a lot of what we think we know we don’t. Not yet, anyway. This is the unsettling conclusion of a major new study published today in the journal Science.
The 40-year-old farmer from Springfield, Colo., has been scheming for months. "I believe this is really going to revitalize and strengthen farm communities," Loflin told the Denver Post in April. Now he's leased 60 acres of his father's alfalfa farm to plant and tend the hundreds of hemp starters he's already been grooming.
Hemp, for those who aren't familiar, is a variety of cannabis that -- sorry kids! -- won't get you high. Strong, nutritious, and super sustainable to grow, hemp is used for everything from rope to cereal. It requires few herbicides, and has even been called carbon negative by some boosters. And while it's illegal to grow it in the U.S., it's not illegal to sell. Right now imported hemp -- the only legal kind -- accounts for about $500 million in annual U.S. sales, according to the Hemp Industries Association.
"Hello, world? Hey, John Kerry here. Just wanted to apologize for all those decades of America's non-leadership on that crazy global warming thing. But now we've decided to start making some nice sounds about the issue. Hope you can hear me making them over the din of the Arctic ice breaking up behind me."
OK, so the Secretary of State didn't actually say that. But the leader of the department that will rule on the climate-changing Keystone XL pipeline proposal has begun apologizing for the nation's lack of progress in tackling climate change.
“I regret that my own country -- and President Obama knows this and is committed to changing it -- needs to do more and we are committed to doing more,” Kerry said Tuesday, referring to climate change, in a press conference with Sweden's prime minister.
Kerry is in Sweden to attend meetings in the country's northernmost city of Kiruna of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for governments that have a stake in the fate of the fast-melting region. As the Arctic melts, new shipping routes and oil fields are opening up, and the international community is going to need to coordinate and temper the scramble to cash in on these new opportunities.
"We come here to Kiruna with a great understanding of the challenge to the Arctic as the ice melts, as the ecosystem is challenged, the fisheries, and the possibilities of increased commercial traffic as a result of the lack of ice raises a whole set of other issues that we need to face up to," Kerry said during the press conference. "So it’s not just an environmental issue and it’s not just an economic issue. It is a security issue, a fundamental security issue that affects life as we know it on the planet itself, and it demands urgent attention from all of us."
The Obama administration on Friday released the National Strategy for the Arctic Region [PDF]. The strategy pledges to "enable our vessels and aircraft to operate ... through, under, and over the airspace and waters of the Arctic, support lawful commerce ... and intelligently evolve our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities." All done sustainably and in harmony with other nations, of course. But the 11-page document is not so much a detailed strategy document as it is a vague wish-list for the future of the region, and no federal funds have been committed to turn the strategy's goals into reality.
That said, the attention that the U.S. is affording the Arctic Council is politically significant. From the BBC:
Mr. Kerry, who held one of the first US Senate hearings on climate change as early as 1988 with then-Senator Al Gore, is hoping to put the spotlight on the issue of climate change again, after efforts to make concrete progress faltered during President Barack Obama's first term.
Despite a multitude of international crises, Mr. Kerry insisted on attending the meeting of the once-obscure council.
Climate change has countries as far away as India also paying attention to the Arctic -- and seeking observer status in the council.
What the Arctic most needs, of course, is a fast and deep cut in the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Actions leading to that -- like, say, rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline -- will carry more weight than press-conference words.
One of the great features of California's cap-and-trade program is that all the money that the state raises by selling carbon allowances to polluters is supposed to be plowed back into initiatives that help cool the climate. So not only does the program limit and reduce carbon emissions; it also forces polluters to pay to undo some of the harm that they cause.
But with such a big stack of green sitting there, staring the notoriously cash-poor state of California in its desperate face, how can a government resist?
And so it's starting to look as though $500 million raised by selling carbon allowances could be funneled away from green programs and loaned instead to the state's general fund. The L.A. Times reports:
Gov. Jerry Brown sparked controversy Tuesday when he proposed to shift $500 million out of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund and loan it to the state general fund as part of the effort to balance the budget. ...
The Earth revolves around the sun. Also, it's overheating because we're burning fossil fuels.
Can you guess which of those two long-established facts just received an additional jolt of publicized near unanimity among scientists?
It was, of course, the latter. (The oil industry has no economic interest in attempting to debunk the former, and you can no longer be persecuted for claiming it.)
An international team of scientists analyzed the abstracts of 11,944 peer-reviewed papers published between 1991 and 2011 dealing with climate change and global warming. That's right -- we're talking about 20 years of papers, many published long before Superstorm Sandy, last year's epic Greenland melt, or Australia's "angry summer."
About two-thirds of the authors of those studies refrained from stating in their abstracts whether human activity was responsible for climate change. But in those papers where a position on the claim was staked out, 97.1 percent endorsed the consensus position that humans are, indeed, cooking the planet.
It's easy to see the appeal for Lisa and Jeff Charles of being at the forefront of the Alaskan village of Newtok's move to a new location.
The couple, who have six young children, were allotted one of the first houses in Mertarvik -- as the villagers call the chosen relocation site -- nine miles south of Newtok on Nelson Island.
The house allotted to the Charles family was hardly palatial: 1,350 square feet on a single level with an open-plan kitchen and living area, four bedrooms, and one bathroom.
But it's twice as big as the place Jeff built when he was 21, adding on two rooms after he married Lisa and their household grew to six children under the age of 12, a chihuahua, and a couple of puppies. There is no running water so the family use a big plastic barrel in the kitchen to store water.
The new house, fitted with wood panelling and new appliances, sits on a high ridge of volcanic rock and is flooded with light. It is supposed to have flush toilets when it is complete, unlike their current home. "This place feels maybe like a mansion compared to our other house," said Lisa. "We can't wait to move across."