Whale poop may help fight climate change

Shutterstock

Shutterstock

 

By John Metcalfe, Cross-posted from CityLab, Source: Grist

 

It’s not a good time to be living in the ocean. Aside from oil spills and the scourge of plastics pollution, the seas are becoming ever more acidic due to humanity’s CO2 flooding the atmosphere. The altered PH of the water makes for a bevy of problems, from making fish act in really weird ways to dissolving the shells of creatures critical to the marine food chain.

But a group of scientists from the University of Vermont and elsewhere think the ocean’s future health has one thing going for it: the restoration of whale populations. They believe that having more whales in the water creates a more stable marine environment, partly through something called a “whale pump” — a polite term for how these majestic animals defecate.

Commercial hunting of great whales, meaning the baleen and sperm variety, led to a decline in their numbers as high as 66 percent to 90 percent, the scientists write in a new study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. This mammalian decimation “likely altered the structure and function of the oceans,” says lead author Joe Roman, “but recovery is possible and in many cases is already under way.”

The researchers — who are whale biologists — present a couple of arguments for how these animals help secure the climate-threatened ocean. The first is their bathroom behavior: After feeding on krill in the briny deep, whales head back to the surface to take massive No. 2s. You can see the “pumping” process in action amid this group of sperm whales off the coast of Sri Lanka:

whale poop
Tony Wu/University of Vermont
 

You have to feel for the person who took that photo. But these “flocculent fecal plumes” happen to be laden with nutrients and are widely consumed by plankton, which in turn takes away carbon from the atmosphere when they photosynthesize, die, and wind up on the ocean floor. A previous study of the Southern Ocean, to cite just one example, indicated that sperm-whale defecation might remove hundreds of thousands of tons of atmospheric carbon each year by enhancing such plankton growth. Thus, these large whales “may help to buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses” like warmer temperatures and acidification, the researchers claim.

The other nice thing whales do for the climate is eat tons of food and then die. In life, they are fantastic predators. But in death, their swollen bodies are huge sarcophagi for carbon. When the Grim Reaper comes calling, whales sink and sequester lots and lots of carbon at the bottom of the sea, like this dearly departed fellow:

whale corpse

 

While there’s no exact measurement of how these “whale falls” impact global carbon sequestration — and some argue it can’t have that big of an effect — Roman thinks it’s worth keeping in mind when thinking about protecting these vulnerable creatures. As he told an Alaskan news station last year, “This may be a way of mitigating climate change, if we can restore whale populations throughout the world.”

This story was produced by The Atlantic’s CityLab as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
 

California’s fracking regulatory bill: Less than zero

Only a full ban on fracking will do. Regulations can neither prevent nor mitigate the disastrous consequences inherent to fracking. We need to keep the carbon in the ground. Photo: Californians Against Fracking

Only a full ban on fracking will do. Regulations can neither prevent nor mitigate the disastrous consequences inherent to fracking. We need to keep the carbon in the ground. Photo: Californians Against Fracking

By Lauren Steiner, Common Dreams

A year after buying his dream home in Los Angeles, Gary Gless started falling down and breaking bones.

Fourteen years and one thousand doctors visits later, his neuromuscular disorder hasn’t been specifically diagnosed. He survives on painkillers and sleep aids.

Gless’s backyard overlooks the Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in the nation. Within the field, gas companies have been secretly fracking in the middle of this community of 300,000 residents for nine years.

Many of Gless’s neighbors also suffer from neurological, auto-immune and respiratory diseases and several types of cancers. Many have died. Homes and swimming pools are cracking.

None of these people will be helped by passage of the only fracking bill still alive in California’s legislature: Senate Bill 4. That’s because the regulations in SB 4 do nothing to actually make fracking safer.

Instead, the flawed bill sets up a process for notification, disclosure, monitoring and permitting and simply calls for future regulations by other agencies and a scientific study.

Telling someone when you’re going to frack, where you’re going to frack and what chemicals you will use, is like a murderer telling you he’s going to shoot you on your front porch at noon tomorrow using an AK-47.

At the end of the day, you’re still dead.

The State of Play

Worse than having no regulations, weak regulations provide political cover to legislators who could otherwise be pressured to vote for a moratorium on the practice.

58% of Californians want a moratorium on fracking. The state Democratic Party, the majority party, passed a resolution calling on legislators to impose a moratorium.

Activists were also able to get two strong moratorium bills introduced in the legislature.  Only one made it to the full Assembly.

Worse than having no regulations, weak regulations provide political cover to legislators who could otherwise be pressured to vote for a moratorium on the practice.

Had 18 Democrats voted “yes” instead of abstaining, the bill would have passed. When asked why they didn’t vote for a moratorium, many said they were planning to vote for SB 4 instead.

Passage of this bill will remove the regulatory uncertainty currently surrounding fracking. It will give the green light to Big Oil to frack the Monterey Shale, the largest oil play in the nation holding nearly 2/3rd of all US reserves.

This bill must be stopped.

A big fat compromise

SB 4 – just like the Illinois fracking regulation bill passed in May – will probably be hailed as the strongest fracking regulatory bill in the country.

But even the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Fran Pavley, calls this bill a compromise.

“We’re trying to put regulations in place that will address public concerns,” Pavley said in an April interview. “This bill does not place a moratorium on the process. It will go on. I consider this a compromise measure.”

Although industry representatives testified against the bill, they tempered their criticisms. It’s an indication this bill is seen as preferable to those placing a moratorium on fracking.

“I’ve told the oil companies that the public is going to go there if it thinks they have something to hide,” she said, suggesting that lack of legislative action could potentially lead to a ballot initiative to ban fracking in California.

Big Oil also loves the “big fat compromise.”

“It is in our best interest that we have disclosure,” said Western States Petroleum Association’s spokesman Paul Deiro. “To calm the fears that are out there is in our interest, because we believe it’s a safe technology.”

Dissecting the Bill

Fran Pavley is known as an environmental hero for authoring the Global Warming Solutions Act and the Clean Car Regulations.

She accepts no money from Big Oil and is considered by many “the best friend environmentalists have in California.” Platitudes aside, this bill does no favor to the environment or to public health.

While proclaiming to provide full public disclosure of fracking chemicals, exceptions are provided for “proprietary trade secrets.”

As Kathryn Phillips, legislative director of Sierra Club California states, this would be “the first overt statutory recognition in the nation that fracking fluids qualify for trade secret protections. This would set us back, not forward, in our efforts to make sure that fracking in this state does not harm public health and the environment.”

For this reason, Sierra Club opposes this bill, as do Food and Water Watch, Physicians for Social Responsibility and most of the other organizations in the coalition Californians Against Fracking.

Furthermore, we already know the chemicals used in fracking.

They were disclosed to the Pennsylvania Department of the Environment and the US House Energy and Commerce Committee. Of the thousand of possible products frackers use, 650 contain chemicals that are known toxins or carcinogens.

In the Inglewood Oil Field, the operator also released the list of 40 chemicals used. They include benzene, toluene, lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, and formaldehyde, all known carcinogens.

As to the notification, giving someone 30 days notice before doing a frack job is not much comfort.  Making matters worse, groundwater monitoring is to be conducted by the oil company, a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house.

A permit would be denied if it presents “an unreasonable risk.”

We already know that fracking fluid includes multiple carcinogens and the re-injection of fracking wastewater causes and exacerbates earthquakes.

Are these considered reasonable risks? If so, what risk would fracking have to pose before this bill would prohibit it?

The bill also directs other agencies to make regulations, failing to specify what those regulations should be.

No regulations can prevent leaks. 6% of wells leak immediately; and 50% leak within 20 years. If the industry could make well casings leak proof, they’d do it. It’s their own valuable product that is lost.

The bill calls for an independent scientific study on the effects of fracking.  Originally the bill said that if the study were not completed by January 1, 2015, there would be a moratorium on all new fracking. But Pavley was pressured to remove this moratorium provision from the bill.

Learning from History

Although an independent study sounds better than one conducted by the industry, many “independent” studies are done by firms so entrenched in the oil industry they can’t risk losing future business.

Such is the case with the last two State Department studies on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Many studies are victims of the political winds of the day. “Gasland Part II,” outlines three EPA studies that proved fracking was contaminating groundwater in Dimock, PAPavillion, WY and Parker County, TX.

As soon as President Obama announced in his State of the Union Address that fracking – utilizing American Petroleum Institute talking points – was to be the centerpiece of his national energy policy, those studies were all scuttled within the next year.

Plenty of independent studies already exist, further calling the rationale for the need for “more studies” into question.

Duke University 20112012, and 2013 studies all linked methane contamination of groundwater in Pennsylvania to fracking. Another study from the University of Texas found elevated levels of lead and other heavy minerals close to natural gas extraction sites in Texas.

A Colorado School of Public Health study found fracking increases cancer risk, contributing to serious neurological and respiratory problems in people living near fracked wells.

Fracking’s brief history in the U.S. shows one thing clearly: it creates havoc wherever it goes.

Regulations: Only as Good as the Regulators

In states where there are regulations on fracking, they aren’t enforced either by design, or because agencies are both underfunded and understaffed by state governments often bought and paid for by Big Oil.

Worse, when fracking violates existing regulations, many states simply change the regulations to the benefit of Big Oil.

In Colorado, the Air Quality Control Board is being directed to increase the allowable air pollution because of the air pollution caused by the fracking boom.

If you say that can’t happen here in California, look what’s already happened.

Democratic Party Gov. Jerry Brown actually fired the head of Department of Conservation and the head of its Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Regulation (DOGGR) for pushing for tougher permitting requirements.

Brown said the firings were because DOGGR was “steadfastly blocking oil production permits,” citing the state’s need for “a healthy and vibrant oil and gas industry.”

The move was hailed by then State Senator Michael Rubio from Shafter, a community being devastated by fracking.

“We have worked diligently with the governor’s administration to reduce the roadblocks for the oil and gas industries to receive permits,” Rubio said at time.

Less than a year and a half later, he resigned to take a position in government affairs with – wait for it – Chevron.

When regulations are enforced, fines are so low, they are written off as a “cost of doing business.”

In Shafter, Vintage Oil, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, flared off gas – a by-product of fracking – for two months. This created constant noise as loud as a jet engine.

Five tons of nitrous oxide and two tons of volatile organic compounds were released into a community with the worst air quality in the state. This clearly violated the Air Board’s regulations.

Vintage’s big penalty? $750.

Don’t expect any stronger regulations or enforcement of existing ones to come from Governor Brown. He has already accepted $27,200,the maximum donation allowed, from Occidental Petroleum for his re-election campaign.

Big Oil’s the biggest spender in California politics. The Western States Petroleum Association has already spent $2,308,790 on lobbying efforts in the first half of this year.

Plus, Brown is salivating over the tax revenues he expects from this oil boom.

“One wonders whether there might be the ingredients of a grand bargain – the oil industry is given the green light to develop Monterey shale with some stringent but not crippling regulation, in return for which the state could impose a severance tax on new production that would benefit state and local governments,” Dan Walters pondered in a recent column in the Sacramento Bee.

Ban It

Even if regulations could magically make fracking safe, it uses too much water in a drought prone state. The hundreds of daily diesel truck trips will also cause extensive damage to local roads and increased incidences of asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Fracking causes the industrialization of bucolic landscapes and noise and light pollution. In other states, fracking’s “man camps” are rife with drugs, alcohol, gambling and prostitution. Fracking would also most likely decimate the food and wine industries, which are far more important economically to the state than oil.

The oil will not always even go toward energy independence – despite the popular refrain– as it will be exported to the highest bidder, predominately Europe and Asia.

Finally, fracking all that oil out of the Monterey Shale will accelerate climate change. According to climate blogger RL Miller, the CO2 released from burning it will be almost as much as that released by the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Coming full circle, this will prevent California from achieving the 20% reduction in CO2 called for in Pavley’s signature bill, the Global Warming Solutions Act.

Regulations can neither prevent nor mitigate the disastrous consequences inherent to fracking. We need to keep the carbon in the ground.

Pavley should withdraw her regulatory bill and fight for a ban instead.

U.S. not waging ‘war on coal’: Energy Secretary Moniz

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz gestures during an interview with Reuters in Vienna June 30, 2013.Photo: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz gestures during an interview with Reuters in Vienna June 30, 2013.
Photo: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

Fredrik Dahl, Reuters

The U.S. government is not waging a “war on coal” but rather expects it to still play a significant role, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said on Sunday, rejecting criticism of President Barack Obama’s climate change plan.

Obama tried last week to revive his stalled climate change agenda, promising new rules to cut carbon emissions from U.S. power plants and other domestic actions including support for renewable energy.

The long-awaited plan drew criticism from the coal industry, which would be hit hard by carbon limits, and Republicans, who accused the Democratic president of advancing policies that harm the economy and kill jobs. Environmentalists largely cheered the proposals, though some said the moves did not go far enough.

Obama “expects fossil fuels, and coal specifically, to remain a significant contributor for some time,” Moniz told Reuters in Vienna, where he was to attend a nuclear security conference.

The way the U.S. administration is “looking at it is: what does it take for us to do to make coal part of a low carbon future,” he said, adding this would include higher efficiency plants and new ways of utilizing coal.

It is “all about having, in fact, coal as part of that future,” Moniz said. “I don’t believe it is a ‘war on coal’.”

Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, the No. 2 U.S. coal mining state after Wyoming, said last week that Obama had “declared a war on coal,” and the industry said the rules threatened its viability.

Moniz acknowledged there could be winners and losers but that economic models belie “the statement that there are huge economic impacts” from controlling greenhouse gases.

“Quite the contrary. We expect that this is going to be positive for the economy,” he said.

Obama said he had directed the Environmental Protection Agency to craft new emissions rules for thousands of power plants, the bulk of which burn coal and which account for roughly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

With Congress unlikely to pass climate legislation, Obama said his administration would set rules using executive powers.

Moniz said he was optimistic that the United States would meet its goal to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. “We’re pretty close to the track right now. We’re halfway there,” he said.

An $8 billion loan guarantee program for projects to develop new technologies that help cut emissions of fossil fuels would include carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) as “one of a number of options,” he said.

“It will also include some advanced technologies for using coal very different from today’s technologies that will enable much less expensive carbon capture in future,” Moniz said.

CCS is a relatively new, expensive and unproven technology that captures carbon dioxide and buries it.

5 takeaways from President Obama’s climate speech

President Obama spoke today about his climate agenda at Georgetown University (Larry Downing/Reuters)

President Obama spoke today about his climate agenda at Georgetown University (Larry Downing/Reuters)

By Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post

What did we learn from President Obama’s climate speech Tuesday? Here are five takeaways.

1. He won’t duck the climate implications of Keystone XL, even though he may still end up approving it. Obama declared, “Our national interest will be served only if this pipeline does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.” That means the administration will be analyzing whether approving the project will generate more greenhouse gas emissions than blocking it would. However in its draft environmental impact assessment, the State Department indicated that even if the president denies a permit to TransCanada to build the project, the oil in Alberta may be shipped to the U.S. by rail, leading to comparable emissions. So Obama’s final decision will largely depend on how his deputies crunch the numbers.

2. Electric utilities will face stricter carbon limits, but we won’t know for a year what they will look like. Obama said when it comes to power plants being able to emit unlimited carbon for free: “That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.” But under the timeline he issued today, the Environmental Protection Agency won’t issue a proposed rule on existing power plants until June 2014, and won’t finalize it for another year after that. As American Electric Power’s president and CEO Nick Akins said in an interview after the speech: “So the devil’s still in the details.”

3. The president is willing to demonize climate skeptics. “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth society,” the president said, a shot across the bow given the fact that most congressional Republicans question the link between human activity and global warming.

4. The Obama administration will apply the climate test broadly, to decisions ranging from flood insurance to federal road projects. One of the least-trumpted and most significant elements of the new initiative is that the White House will now factor in climate impacts to a host of decisions, including how to construct new projects and rebuild after federal disasters.

5. Obama hopes to secure a few international climate agreements by the end of his second term. It’s not unusual for second-term presidents to focus on foreign policy; Obama made it clear in his speech that it was time for the U.S. “to lead” on climate, by striking a handful of accords on greenhouse gas emissions. That could include a global agreement to phase out hydrofluorcarbons, potent greenhouse gases used in refrigerants and air conditioning, as well as a bilateral climate agreement with China.