Four Western power plants that emit more carbon dioxide than the 20 fossil-fuel-fired plants in Massachusetts thought they would be getting a break under the Obama administration’s new carbon regulations––until the final rule ended up treating them just like all the other plants in the country.
The plants are located on Native American reservations, and under an earlier proposal, they were required to reduce emissions by less than 5 percent. But the final version of the rule, released earlier this month, has set a reduction target of about 20 percent.
A majority of the reductions are to come from two mammoth coal plants on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico—the Navajo Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant. They provide power to half a million homes and have been pinpointed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a major source of pollution––and a cause for reduced visibility in the Grand Canyon.
These two plants alone emit more than 28 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, triple the emissions from facilities in Washington state, fueling a vicious cycle of drought and worsening climate change. The two other power plants are on the Fort Mojave Reservation in Arizona and the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in Utah.
Environmental groups have charged that the Navajo plants are responsible for premature deaths, hundreds of asthma attacks and hundreds of millions of dollars of annual health costs. The plants, which are owned by public utilities and the federal government, export a majority of the power out of the reservation to serve homes and businesses as far away as Las Vegas and help deliver Arizona’s share of the Colorado River water to Tucson and Phoenix. Meanwhile, a third of Navajo Nation residents remain without electricity in their homes.
Tribal leaders contend that power plants on Indian land deserve special consideration.
“The Navajo Nation is a uniquely disadvantaged people and their unique situation justified some accommodation,” Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, wrote in a letter to the EPA. He contends that the region’s underdeveloped economy, high unemployment rates and reliance on coal are the result of policies enacted by the federal government over several decades. If the coal plants decrease power production to meet emissions targets, Navajos will lose jobs and its government will receive less revenue, he said.
Many local groups, however, disagree.
“I don’t think we need special treatment,” said Colleen Cooley of the grassroots nonprofit Diné CARE. “We should be held to the same standards as the rest of the country.” (Diné means “the people” in Navajo, and CARE is an abbreviation for Citizens Against Ruining our Environment.)
Cooley’s Diné CARE and other grassroots groups say the Navajo leaders are not serving the best interest of the community. The Navajo lands have been mined for coal and uranium for decades, Cooley said, resulting in contamination of water sources and air pollution. She said it’s time to shift to new, less damaging power sources such as wind and solar.
The Obama administration’s carbon regulations for power plants aim to reduce emissions nationwide 32 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. In its final version of the rule, the EPA set uniform standards for all fossil-fueled power plants in the country. A coal plant on tribal land is now expected to achieve the same emissions reductions as a coal plant in Kentucky or New York, a move that the EPA sees as more equitable. The result is that coal plants on tribal lands—and in coal heavy states such as Kentucky and West Virginia—are facing much more stringent targets than they expected.
The EPA has taken special efforts to ensure that the power plant rules don’t disproportionately affect minorities, including indigenous people. Because dirty power plants often exist in low-income communities, the EPA has laid out tools to assess how changes to the operation of the plants will affect emission levels in neighborhoods nearby. The EPA will also be assessing compliance plans to ensure the regulations do not increase air pollution in those communities.
The tribes do not have an ownership stake in any of the facilities, but they are allowed to coordinate a plan to reduce emissions while minimizing the impact on their economies. Tribes that want to submit a compliance plan must first apply for treatment as a state. If the EPA doesn’t approve, or the tribes decide not to submit a plan, the EPA will impose one.
Scallops go well with loads of chili and an after-dinner dose of antacid. It’s just too bad we can’t share our post-gluttony medicine with the oceans that produce our mollusk feasts.
A scallops producer on Vancouver Island in British Columbia just lost three years’ worth of product to high acidity levels. The disaster, which cost the company $10 million and could lead to its closure, is the latest vicious reminder of the submarine impacts of our fossil fuel–heavy energy appetites. As carbon dioxide is soaked up by the oceans, it reacts with water to produce bicarbonate and carbonic acid, increasing ocean acidity.
“I’m not sure we are going to stay alive and I’m not sure the oyster industry is going to stay alive,” [Island Scallops CEO Rob] Saunders told The NEWS. “It’s that dramatic.”
Saunders said the carbon dioxide levels have increased dramatically in the waters of the Georgia Strait, forcing the PH levels to 7.3 from their norm of 8.1 or 8.2. … Saunders said the company has lost all the scallops put in the ocean in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
“(The high acidity level means the scallops) can’t make their shells and they are less robust and they are suseptible to infection,” said Saunders, who also said this level of PH in the water is not something he’s seen in his 35 years of shellfish farming.
Global emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels are set to rise again in 2013, reaching a record high of 36 billion tonnes – according to new figures from the Global Carbon Project, co-led by researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia (UEA).
The 2.1 per cent rise projected for 2013 means global emissions from burning fossil fuel are 61 per cent above 1990 levels, the baseline year for the Kyoto Protocol.
Prof Corinne Le Quéré of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia led the Global Carbon Budget report. She said: “Governments meeting in Warsaw this week need to agree on how to reverse this trend. Emissions must fall substantially and rapidly if we are to limit global climate change to below two degrees. Additional emissions every year cause further warming and climate change.”
Alongside the latest Carbon Budget is the launch of the Carbon Atlas – a new online platform showing the world’s biggest carbon emitters more clearly than ever before. The Carbon Atlas reveals the biggest carbon emitters of 2012, what is driving the growth in China’s emissions, and where the UK is outsourcing its emissions. Users can also compare EU emissions and see which countries are providing the largest environmental services to the rest of the world by removing carbon from the atmosphere.
“We are communicating new science,” said Prof Le Quéré. “Everyone can explore their own emissions, and compare them with their neighbouring countries – past, present, and future.”
The Global Carbon Budget reveals that the biggest contributors to fossil fuel emissions in 2012 were China (27 per cent), the United States (14 per cent), the European Union (10 per cent), and India (6 per cent). The projected rise for 2013 comes after a similar rise of 2.2 per cent in 2012.
The rise in fossil fuel emissions in 2012 and 2013 was slower compared to the average 2.7 per cent of the past 10 years. Growth rates in CO2 for major emitting countries in 2012 were China (5.9 per cent) and India (7.7 per cent). Meanwhile the United States’ emissions declined by 3.7 per cent and Europe declined by 1.8 per cent.
Emissions per person in China matched figures in the EU at 7 tonnes in 2012. The United States is still among the highest emitter per person at 16 tonnes. By comparison people in India produce a carbon footprint of only 1.8 tonnes.
Most emissions are from coal (43 per cent), then oil (33 per cent), gas (18 per cent), cement (5.3 per cent) and gas flaring (0.6 per cent). The growth in coal in 2012 accounted for 54 per cent of the growth in fossil fuel emissions.
CO2 emissions from deforestation and other land-use change added 8 per cent to the emissions from burning fossil fuels. Cumulative emissions of CO2 since 1870 are set to reach 2015 billion tonnes in 2013 – with 70 per cent caused by burning fossil fuels and 30 per cent from deforestation and other land-use changes.
Prof Pierre Friedlingstein from the University of Exeter said: “We have exhausted about 70 per cent of the cumulative emissions that keep global climate change likely below two degrees. In terms of CO2 emissions, we are following the highest climate change scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in September.”
The United Nations has analyzed all the data, and in a new report states unequivocally that humans are the primary cause of climate change worldwide.
Compiling four potential scenarios based on varying amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric concentrations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced its results and released a draft of its five-year report on the state of the global climate.
“It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which conducted the analysis, in a statement announcing the release of its report, Climate Change 2013: the Physical Science Basis. “The evidence for this has grown, thanks to more and better observations, an improved understanding of the climate system response and improved climate models.”
Among the most alarming findings are that the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years, the panel said, with carbon dioxide concentrations up by 40 percent since pre-industrial times—mainly from fossil fuel emissions, as well as from emissions due to changes in net land use. About 30 percent of the carbon dioxide has been absorbed by the oceans, where it contributes to ocean acidification, the panel said.
“Observations of changes in the climate system are based on multiple lines of independent evidence,” said Qin Dahe, Co-Chair of the panel’s main working group. “Our assessment of the science finds that the atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, the global mean sea level has risen and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”
Out of four potential scenarios, the panel calculated that by the end of the 21st century, global surface temperatures may very well increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius beyond what they were from 1850 to 1900, said Thomas Stocker, the working group’s other co-chair.
“Heat waves are very likely to occur more frequently and last longer,” Stocker said in the statement. “As the Earth warms, we expect to see currently wet regions receiving more rainfall, and dry regions receiving less, although there will be exceptions.”
Changes in the climate system since 1950 “are unprecedented over decades to millennia,” the statement said, emphasizing that “warming in the climate system is unequivocal” and that “each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.”
Not only are these changes taking place, but they are also accelerating, the scientists cautioned.
“As the ocean warms, and glaciers and ice sheets reduce, global mean sea level will continue to rise, but at a faster rate than we have experienced over the past 40 years,” said Co-Chair Qin Dahe.
This is not news to the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island and beyond, of course. Already numerous indigenous communities face the effects of rising sea levels, melting permafrost and other environmental effects.
A Washington family opens a hatchery in Hawaii to escape lethal waters.
Story by Craig Welch, Photographs by Steve Ringman, Source: Seattle Times
HILO, Hawaii — It appears at the end of a palm tree-lined drive, not far from piles of hardened black lava: the newest addition to the Northwest’s famed oyster industry.
Half an ocean from Seattle, on a green patch of island below a tropical volcano, a Washington state oyster family built a 20,000-square-foot shellfish hatchery.
Ocean acidification left the Nisbet family no choice.
Carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel emissions had turned seawater in Willapa Bay along Washington’s coast so lethal that slippery young Pacific oysters stopped growing. The same corrosive ocean water got sucked into an Oregon hatchery and routinely killed larvae the family bought as oyster seed.
So the Nisbets became the closest thing the world has seen to ocean-acidification refugees. They took out loans and spent $1 million and moved half their production 3,000 miles away.
“I was afraid for everything we’d built,” Goose Point Oyster Co. founder Dave Nisbet said of the hatchery, which opened last year. “We had to do something. We had to figure this thing out, or we’d be out of business.”
Oysters started dying by the billions along the Northwest coast in 2005, and have been struggling ever since. When scientists cautiously linked the deaths to plummeting ocean pH in 2008 and 2009, few outside the West Coast’s $110 million industry believed it.
Oysters from the Nisbets’ Hawaii hatchery are almost ready to be shipped to Willapa Bay and planted. When corrosive water off Washington rises to the surface, many oysters die before reaching this age.
Ed Jones, manager at the Taylor Shellfish Hatchery in Hood Canal’s Dabob Bay, pries open an oyster. Ocean acidification is believed to have killed billions of oysters in Northwest waters since 2005.
By the time scientists confirmed it early last year, the region’s several hundred oyster growers had become a global harbinger — the first tangible sign anywhere in the world that ocean acidification already was walloping marine life and hurting people.
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Worried oystermen testified before Congress. A few hit the road to speak at science conferences. Journalists visited the tidelands from Australia, Europe and Korea. Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire established a task force of ocean acidification experts, who sought ways to fight this global problem locally.
But the eight years of turmoil the Nisbet family endured trying to outrun their corroding tides offered them a unique perch from which to view debate over CO2 emissions.
And the world’s earliest victims of shifting ocean chemistry fear humanity still doesn’t get it.
“I don’t care if you think it’s the fault of humans or not,” Nisbet said. “If you want to keep your head in the sand, that’s up to you. But the rest of us need to get it together because we’re not out of the woods yet on this thing.”
Shellfish ‘pretty much all we have’
To understand why the Nisbets landed in Hawaii, you first have to understand Willapa Bay.
At low tide on a crisp dawn, Dave Nisbet’s daughter, 27-year-old Kathleen Nisbet, bundled in fleece and Gore-Tex, steps from a skiff onto the glittering tide flats. Even at eight months pregnant, she is agile as a cat after decades of sloshing through mud in hip boots.
All around, employees scoop fresh shellfish from the surf and pile it in bins. Nisbet watches the harvest for a while, jokes with workers in Spanish, then clambers back into the boat.
“I’m always happy to get out here,” she whispers. “I never tire of it.”
The Nisbets were relative newcomers to shellfish.
Native Americans along the coast relied on shellfish for thousands of years. After settlers overfished local oysters, shipping them by schooner to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, farmers started raising bivalves here like crops. Now the industry in this shallow estuary and Puget Sound employs about 3,200 people and produces one-quarter of the nation’s oysters.
U.S. human sources of carbon dioxide
Source: U.S. EPA, Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times
Kathleen’s parents bought 10 acres of tidelands near Bay Center in 1975 and started growing their own, which Dave sold from the back of his truck. Sometimes Kathleen came along.
She sipped a baby bottle and ate cookies while riding the dredge with her father. She packed boxes and labeled jars with her mother, Maureene Nisbet, and piloted a skiff by herself at age 10 through lonely channels. She keeps a cluster of shells on her desk at the family processing plant to store business cards and office supplies.
“Willapa is about oyster and clam farming,” she said. “It’s pretty much all we have.”
Her parents built their business over decades, one market at a time. They eventually pieced together 500 acres of tidelands and hired 70 people.
For a long time, business was good — until, overnight, it suddenly wasn’t.
It’s hard to imagine now how far CO2 was from anyone’s mind when the oysters crashed.
A handful of healthy oyster seed from Goose Point Oyster Co.’s Hawaiian hatchery takes root on an adult oyster shell. When young oysters reach this age, they are strong enough to withstand the Northwest’s increasingly corrosive waters — at least for now.
In 2005, when no young oysters survived in Willapa Bay at all, farmers blamed the vagaries of nature. After two more years with essentially no reproduction, panic set in. Then things got worse.
By 2008, oysters were dying at Oregon’s Whiskey Creek Hatchery, which draws water directly from the Pacific Ocean. The next year, it struck a Taylor Shellfish hatchery outside Quilcene, which gets its water from Hood Canal. Owners initially suspected bacteria, Vibrio tubiashii. But shellfish died even when it wasn’t present.
Willapa farming is centered on the nonnative Pacific oyster, which was introduced from Japan in the 1920s. Some farms raise them in the wild, but that’s so complex most buy oyster seed from hatcheries to get things started.
The hatcheries spawn adult oysters, producing eggs and then larvae that grow tiny shells. When the creatures settle on a hard surface — usually an old oyster shell — these young mollusks get plopped into the bay and moved around for years until they fatten up.
Only a handful of hatcheries supply West Coast farmers, including Whiskey Creek and Taylor Shellfish, which sells seed only after meeting its own needs. So each spring, Kathleen’s parents put an order in with Whiskey Creek until the mid-2000s, when that option vanished.
“I do not think people understand the seriousness of the problem. Ocean acidification … has the potential to be a real catastrophe.”
“The hatchery had a long waiting list of customers and no seed, and we had a small window of time to get it into the bay,” Dave Nisbet recalled. “They had nothing.”
Whiskey Creek hatchery closed for weeks at a stretch. Production at Taylor Shellfish was off more than 60 percent. And more than just regular customers needed help.
With wild oysters not growing at all, suddenly hundreds of growers needed shellfish larvae. The entire industry was on the brink. Oyster growers from Olympia to Grays Harbor worried that in a few years’ time they would not be able to bring shellfish to market.
Nisbet made frantic calls, but could not find another source. He worked closely with Whiskey Creek, but owners there were stumped. Nisbet knew his business was in trouble.
“It’s like any other farm,” Dave Nisbet said. “If you don’t plant seed, sooner or later you don’t have crops. And there wasn’t enough seed to go around.”
In 2008, Kathleen Nisbet fretted about the prospect of laying off people her family had employed since she’d been in diapers. She feared that years of bad or no production could become the new normal.
Second-generation oyster farmer Kathleen Nisbet gets shuttled at sunrise from the Goose Point Oyster Co. processing plant in Bay Center, Pacific County, to the oyster flats of Willapa Bay. View photo gallery →
“It was really tough, as a second generation, to come in knowing the struggles we were going to have,” she said. “It’s really hard on a business when you’ve built something for the past 30 years and you have to take your business and basically cut it in half.”
But unless the family found a solution, they soon would have nothing to sell.
And no one, anywhere, could tell them what was wrong.
“I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” Dave said.
Then the oyster growers met the oceanographers.
Corrosive waters rise to surface
Dick Feely, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had measured ocean chemistry for more than 30 years and by the early 2000s was noting a dramatic change off the West Coast.
Low pH water naturally occurred hundreds of feet down, where colder water held more CO2. But that corrosive water was rising swiftly, getting ever closer to the surface where most of the marine life humans care about lived.
So in 2007, Feely organized a crew of scientists. They measured and tracked that water from Canada to Mexico.
“What surprised us was we actually saw these very corrosive waters for the very first time get to the surface in Northern California,” he said.
That hadn’t been expected for 50 to 100 years. And that wasn’t the worst of it.
Because of the way the ocean circulates, the corrosive water that surfaces off Washington, California and Oregon is the result of CO2 that entered the sea decades earlier. Even if emissions get halted immediately, West Coast sea chemistry — unlike the oceans at large — would worsen for several decades before plateauing.
It would take 30 to 50 years before the worst of it reached the surface. Oregon State University scientist Burke Hales once compared that phenomenon to the Unabomber mailing a package to the future. The dynamite had a delayed fuse.
Feely published his findings in 2008. Shellfish growers took note. Some recalled earlier studies that predicted juvenile oysters would someday prove particularly sensitive to acidification. The oyster farmers invited Feely to their annual conference.
Feely explained that when north winds blew, deep ocean water was drawn right to the beach, which meant this newly corrosive water probably got sucked into the hatchery. That same water also flowed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and made its way to Hood Canal.
The oyster industry pleaded with Congress, which supplied money for new equipment. Over several years, the hatcheries tested their water using high-tech pH sensors. When the pH was low, it was very low and baby oysters died within two days. By drawing water only when the pH was normal, shellfish production got back on track.
“They told us it was like turning on headlights on a car — it was so clear what was going on,” Feely said.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Feely and a team from Oregon State University finally showed with certainty that acidification had caused the problem. Early this summer OSU professor George Waldbusser demonstrated precisely how.
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Reporter Craig Welch, along with NOAA oceanographers Jeremy Mathis and Richard Feely, answer reader questions.
The oysters were not dissolving. They were dying because the corrosive water forced the young animals to use too much energy. Acidification had robbed the water of important minerals, so the oysters worked far harder to extract what they needed to build their shells.
Waldbusser still is not entirely sure why acidification has not yet hit other oyster species. It could be because other species, such as the native Olympic, have evolved to be more adaptable to high CO2, or because they rear larvae differently, or because they spawn at a time of year when corrosive water is less common. It could also be that acidification is just not quite bad enough yet to do them harm.
Either way, by then, the Nisbets had moved on. They had experimented with growing oysters in Hawaii and now had their own hatchery outside Hilo.
Manager David Stick outside Hawaiian Shellfish, the hatchery started near Hilo by Goose Point Oyster Co. It draws water from an underground saltwater aquifer rather than directly from the ocean.
Small fixes, big worries
David Stick opened a spigot from a tub that resembled an aboveground pool. He let water wash over a fine mesh screen. It was a muggy Hawaii morning and the Nisbets’ hatchery manager was straining oyster larvae.
When the tiny bivalves are big enough to produce shells, Stick mails them back to Washington. There, Kathleen’s crew plants them in the bay.
Instead of relying on the increasingly corrosive Northwest coast, the family built a hatchery that drew on something else — a warm, underground, saltwater aquifer. That water source is not likely to be affected by ocean chemistry changes for many decades, if at all.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing more to fear.
For now, no one else has taken as dramatic a step as the Nisbets. The Northwest industry is getting around the problem. Hatcheries have changed the timing of when they draw in water. Scientists installed ocean monitors that give hatchery owners a few days notice that conditions will be poor for rearing larvae.
Growers are crushing up shells and adding chemicals to the water to make it less corrosive. Shellfish geneticists are working to breed new strains of oysters that are more resistant to low pH water.
But no one thinks any of that will work forever.
Hatchery worker Brian Koval transfers algae from a beaker to a larger vessel in the Nisbets’ oyster hatchery in Hawaii. View photo gallery →
“I do not think people understand the seriousness of the problem,” Stick said. “Ocean acidification is going to be a game-changer. It has the potential to be a real catastrophe.”
At the moment, the problem only strikes oysters at the very early stages of their development, within the first week or so of life. Once they have built shell and are placed back on the tide flats, they tend to deal better with sea chemistry changes.
But how long will that be the case? How would they respond to changes in the food web?
“The algae is changing,” Stick said. “The food source that everything depends on is changing. Will things adapt? We don’t know. We’ve never had to face anything like this before.”
An urgency to educate
With one young son, and a baby on the way, it’s been impossible for Kathleen not to think about her own next generation.
“Thank God my dad took a proactive measure to protect me,” she said. “If he wouldn’t have done that, I would suffer and my son would suffer.”
She thinks a lot about the need for school curricula and other efforts to get kids and adults thinking and learning about changing sea chemistry.
“I don’t think that our government is recognizing that ocean acidification exists,” she said. “I don’t think society understands the impacts it has. They think ocean acidification … no big deal, it’s a huge ocean.”
But the reality is, over the next decade, the world will have to make progress tackling this issue.
“We’re living proof,” Nisbet said. “If you ignore it, it’s only going to get worse. Plain and simple: It will get worse.”