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Updated: 3 days 16 hours ago

The surprising player in the rail strike fight: Fossil fuel companies

Wed, 12/07/2022 - 03:30

As the country barrelled towards a potential rail workers strike last week, battle lines were drawn over the issue of paid sick leave. On the one side were unions — the signalmen, track workers, boilermakers, and conductors — who had rejected a contract brokered in September that didn’t include paid time off for illnesses or medical visits. On the other were big rail companies, which have spent years cutting staff, extending worker hours, and enacting stricter attendance policies, all while making record-breaking profits.  

Behind the scenes, however, another big industry also had stakes in the standoff: Big Oil. Coal companies, chemical companies, and oil and gas backed rail majors in lobbying Congress to block the workers’ strike.

In early November, the American Chemistry Council, which counts BP, ExxonMobil, and Chevron among its members, put out a report warning that a rail strike could “pull $160 billion out of the economy” and lead to 700,000 job losses. Then last week, 400 business groups sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to use their authority from a 1926 law to impose the controversial, rejected contract in the absence of a voluntary agreement. In addition to retailers, agriculturists, and car manufacturers, signatories included the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group for drillers, the National Mining Association, and the Renewable Fuels Association, representing ethanol. All of these industries rely on freight rail to make and ship their products.

“A rail strike would threaten to push an alarming situation over the edge,” Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, said in a press statement, invoking the already-low coal stockpiles moving into the winter. “The nation needs reliable and efficient rail service and it’s imperative that Congress and the Biden administration act to ensure a strike doesn’t jeopardize it.”

In the end, rail companies and fossil fuel interests were joined by President Joe Biden, who urged Congress to avert the strike over fears of economic breakdown. On Thursday, the Senate did just that, forcing workers to accept the contract with paid sick leave still missing. 

“The fact that there are not 60 senators willing to stand up to big business and fight for basic rights for U.S. rail workers is horrific,” tweeted Teamster General President Sean O’Brien.  

At first glance, rail would seem like a relatively climate-friendly industry. Transportation is the highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States, where passenger cars, trucks, and buses make up over 70 percent of the sector’s emissions. Rail contributes just 2 percent, even while it moves a third of all U.S. exports and about 40 percent of long-distance freight. 

But what is often missing in these calculations is what these trains are carrying. Freight trains transport nearly 70 percent of the nation’s coal. When you account for that, they were actually responsible for 16.5 percent of all U.S. carbon pollution in 2019, according to Stanford geoscience professor Rob Jackson, as reported by the Atlantic.

Workers repair the tracks at the Metra/BNSF railroad yard in Chicago, Illinois. The track workers union voted against a contract with the rail companies that did not include paid sick leave. Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Coal was our number one revenue source until about the 1990s,” Jim Blaze, a railroad economist who worked for 21 years at Conrail, told Grist. (Conrail, once the primary railroad system in the Northeast, was acquired by CSX and Norfolk Southern in 1997.) Coal shipments have been declining in recent years, as natural gas takes its place in the energy mix and cargo containers and chemical shipments become more important revenue drivers for the rail industry. Still, coal makes up close to 27 percent of freight rail volume in the U.S., and 11 percent of freight’s revenue. As a result, the rail industry continues to be closely allied with coal. 

Research from 2019 showed how, over the past 30 years, BNSF Railway, Norfork Southern, Union Pacific, and CSX, the four largest rail companies in the U.S., joined other coal-dependent companies such as electric utilities in pouring tens of millions of dollars into denying climate science and opposing climate policy. 

“It shows that the rail companies were actually funding more climate denialism organizations than even the oil industry,” said Justin Mikulka, a research fellow at the energy transition think tank New Consensus who formerly covered the rail industry as a journalist. “Coal has been such a huge part of rail – it was in their interest to deny that coal was part of the problem.” 

According to The New Republic, it was only in late 2020 that the four big rail companies began to abandon their membership in the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, also called America’s Power, which lobbies against climate action and has promoted the “social benefits” of carbon.

And coal isn’t alone. While most oil and gas is sent by pipeline, the oil and gas industry does still rely on rail. Marianne Kah, an oil and gas economist, told The Hill that freight rail moves between 300,000 and 700,000 barrels of crude oil, and 200,000 to 300,000 barrels of propane per day, which, though small quantities compared to coal, do impact availability and price. Oil and gas companies also rely heavily on chemicals transported by trains to create their products. Refiners receive isobutane and ethanol by rail to use in gasoline; in fact, over 70 percent of all ethanol produced in the U.S. travels by rail, and ethanol plants for their part rely on rail to bring in a quarter of their grain. Rail also carries away the sulfur byproducts from the refining process. 

Beyond writing letters to block the most recent strike, oil and gas companies have a history of collaborating with the rail industry to avoid freight regulation. In 2013, after a series of high-profile oil train explosions, regulatory agencies spent years trying to implement oil-by-train safety policies, including speed limits for trains, improved braking systems, and requirements to condition oil to make it safer to put in tank cars. “At every meeting by one of the regulatory agencies, the person at the head of the table was someone from the American Petroleum Institute [or API],” said Mikulka, who wrote a book about how freight and oil companies blocked regulations in the years after a runaway train filled with crude oil derailed in Quebec, exploding and killing 47 people. “Even though we’re talking about rail regulations, oftentimes it appeared that the API was driving what was happening.”

Protestors stood with rail unions outside the U.S. Capitol last week as Congress voted on legislation to avert a strike. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

It’s hard to predict what type of long-term impact shutting down coal and ethanol shipments via a strike would have had on the markets and the move to clean energy, said Blaze. But as Kate Aronoff writes in The New Republic, the strike showed how central fossil fuels still are to the U.S. economy, and how corporate polluters continue their fight to keep it that way.

Ironically, many of the same industries that lobbied against the strike on Capitol Hill have railed against the freight companies at agency hearings for delays and service disruptions. “Shippers and railroad customers were upset this summer about the services they were getting,” said Clark Ballew, a former rail worker and current communications director for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, which represents track workers. “Their concerns stem from the fact that railroads don’t have enough people to keep trains moving. The way that we can improve this is… better treatment of employees, that’s the root cause of their problems.” 

Strikes are uncommon in rail history, in part because of Congress’ power to intervene, which it historically does on behalf of industry. Rail workers hoped that a more favorable agreement could have been worked out at the bargaining table, or enforced through Congress, by passing a health care addendum to the contract.

“At this juncture it’s clear they’re not going to allow the strike to occur,” said Ballew, just two hours before the Senate voted to impose the contract. “We just want the sick leave added. Can Scrooge be nice to us? It’s Christmastime.” 

He says the issue of paid leave will come up again in two years when the contracts are up for renewal. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The surprising player in the rail strike fight: Fossil fuel companies on Dec 7, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

That empty space next to highways? Put solar panels on it.

Wed, 12/07/2022 - 03:15

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with Grist and WABE, Atlanta’s NPR station.

On a stretch of West Georgia highway, in the triangle of land where an exit ramp meets the road, 2,600 solar panels soak up the bright southern sun. The 5-acre site used to be barren and eroding, but now it provides enough power for more than 100 homes. That’s exactly what the team at the Ray C. Anderson Foundation’s sustainable highway project, known as The Ray, was hoping for. 

“What it is today is a field of clean, green energy,” said Allie Kelly, the Ray’s executive director. The solar panels stand higher than most, so wildflowers also grow on what was once “wasted public land.”

Someday, she hopes to see solar fields like this lining highways across the country.

The Ray and mapping company ESRI, which specializes in using location data to solve local problems, have developed a free digital tool to help transportation departments realize solar projects. It finds the parcels of land where solar would work best, and planners can make a virtual mock-up to make sure the installation doesn’t block a view or sit too close to the road. 

All told, the Ray estimates there are more than 52,000 acres of empty roadside land in the continental United States that could be generating solar power: in the medians, beside the shoulders, in the centers of on- and off-ramps. Placing solar panels at all these sites could generate up to 36 tera-watt hours of energy, or enough to power 12 million passenger electric vehicles, according to the organization.

Solar panels are installed in the previously-unused land at an exit on Interstate 85 in Georgia. The installation generates one megawatt of electricity, enough to power more than 100 homes. Courtesy of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation

As transportation departments work to reduce their emissions, many are considering solar on their unused land. Kelly said the Ray is working with more than two dozen states to help them find solar sites.

“It’s a great way for a state DOT to use underutilized land,” said Zechariah Heck, the sustainability program manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Oregon installed the country’s first highway solar project in 2008, a public-private partnership that Heck said has reduced the agency’s electric bill and emissions.

But taking highway solar from an idea to reality can be daunting. Transportation departments own vast amounts of land, and not all of it can host solar panels. The land might be rocky, or filled with trees, or just facing the wrong direction. That’s where the Ray and ESRI’s digital tool comes in.

Eddie Lukemire of the Maryland Department of Transportation’s office of environment said his state has some 3,000 parcels of land along its highways.

“So when you look at 3,000 rows in an Excel spreadsheet, and then you uncross your eyes, those are just numbers,” he said. “I don’t have a column that says, are there trees on that parcel, because we don’t want to cut any trees down to put solar there.”

MDOT hasn’t formally adopted the tool, but Lukemire said it would be useful to explain and demonstrate solar projects.

“It’s really cool to be able to put that jumble of numbers into a program and have an output that is understandable by me, you, anyone,” he said.

Read Next Why doesn’t every big box store have rooftop solar?

The tool can also translate a proposed solar project into whatever terms make most sense to appeal to decision-makers, whether that’s homes powered, economic value, or carbon offsets. And it does all this work quickly. 

“Delay is death for projects,” Kelly said. “We are talking about tools that carry project concepts over the valley of death, to procurement and to planning.”

Emissions reduction goals are driving some transportation departments, including those in Maryland and Oregon, to pursue solar energy.

Maryland has set a target of net-zero emissions by 2045. Highway solar stalled in Oregon after its 2008 and 2012 projects, but an executive order from the state’s governor calling for 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 reignited the program. Now, the Oregon DOT is developing new solar projects, using the Ray’s tool.

Georgia, where the Ray is based, doesn’t have climate requirements like those. And there aren’t currently plans for more roadside solar beyond the installation on the Ray. 

John Hibbard of GDOT explained that most of the agency’s unused land parcels are around five to seven acres, the same size as the existing one-megawatt solar installation.

“One megawatt, which sounds like a lot, really isn’t that much,” he said. “It’s good, it’s better than zero. But it doesn’t compare with hundreds or thousands of megawatts.”

Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility, has prioritized bigger solar projects – huge fields of solar panels that can generate upwards of 100 megawatts.

But Ray founder Harriet Anderson Langford said the small solar array is part of her organization’s broader project: to showcase ways to make a road full of cars more sustainable.

“We hope what we do is inspiring to some other places,” Langford said. “That’s our goal.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline That empty space next to highways? Put solar panels on it. on Dec 7, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

EU agrees to ban products linked to deforestation

Wed, 12/07/2022 - 03:00

The European Union has agreed to ban the import of products linked to deforestation in an effort to protect biodiversity and curb greenhouse gas emissions. Items that will be strictly regulated include palm oil, coffee, lumber, cattle, cocoa, rubber, and soy, as well as products derived from these goods, including chocolate, furniture, and beef. 

“It’s the coffee we have for breakfast, the chocolate we eat, the coal in our barbecues, the paper in our books,” Pascal Canfin, the chairman of the European Parliament’s environment committee, told the BBC. “This is radical.”

The provisional agreement reached by the European Parliament and European Council on Tuesday will require companies to do strict checks on their supply chains, tracking the origins of products and avoiding items sourced from farmland deforested since 2020, whether that land was cleared legally or illegally. Companies will also need to ensure that any products imported did not hurt or violate local communities or rights (though Indigenous groups argue the reliance on national human rights guidelines rather than international law is problematic). Businesses that fail to comply with the new standards face fines up to 4 percent of their annual European revenue.

The World Wildlife Fund, or WWF, called the announcement “groundbreaking” and “historic.” Greenpeace said it was a “major breakthrough.”

“This regulation is the first in the world to tackle global deforestation and will significantly reduce the EU’s footprint on nature,” the WWF said in a statement.

Scientists, lawmakers, and environmentalists have been pushing for stricter import regulations for years in an effort to curb deforestation, particularly in tropical rainforests like the Amazon,  which serve as biodiversity hotspots and critical carbon sinks. The European Commission first proposed the import ban last year.

A worker unloads oil palm at a plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. Giles Clarke/Getty Images

The announcement comes on the eve of the Conference on Biodiversity, or COP15, in Canada, where countries will gather to track progress on conservation and climate goals and set new priorities for environmental protection. 

“I hope that this innovative regulation will give impetus to the protection of forests around the globe, and that it will inspire other countries at the COP15,” European Parliament’s lead negotiator, Christophe Hansen, told Reuters

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that between 1990 and 2020, deforestation led to the loss of over 1 billion acres of forest — an area larger than the European Union itself. As trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into carbon stored in its branches, leaves, trunks, roots, and surrounding soil. As forests are cleared and burnt, their stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. It is estimated that over 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide are released annually due to deforestation — accounting for 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The new rule will separate exporting countries into high- and low-risk categories, based on their environmental enforcement, forest loss trends, and agricultural expansion. Countries in the high-risk category will be subject to 9 percent of their goods being randomly checked, Agence France-Presse reported

Once the law is formally accepted, likely next year, larger operators and traders will have 18 months to comply with the new rules, whereas smaller businesses will have 24 months. European policymakers and experts said they did not expect the regulation to impact the prices of consumer goods. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline EU agrees to ban products linked to deforestation on Dec 7, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The world agreed to a global plastics treaty. Now comes the hard part.

Tue, 12/06/2022 - 03:45

Last March, environmental advocates celebrated a landmark victory when United Nations negotiators agreed to write a binding global treaty on plastic pollution. As the meeting concluded, diplomats emotionally declared that multilateralism is “still alive,” and called the intergovernmental environmental deal the most significant since the 2015 Paris Agreement. The treaty couldn’t be more urgent, as the production of plastic — made primarily from fossil fuels — is expected to soar over the coming decades, adding millions of tons of waste to the oceans and greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. 

Now comes the hard part: hammering out the details of the treaty. Representatives from 135 countries spent last week in Punta del Este, Uruguay, at the first of five sessions of an “intergovernmental negotiating committee,” or INC, that is expected to produce a final treaty by the end of 2024. 

If last week’s negotiations are any indication, reaching that end goal will be an arduous, divisive process, with some countries pursuing a comprehensive agreement to phase down plastic production while others seek to water down the treaty’s ambition. Observers noted with frustration that negotiators failed to agree on virtually any of the conference’s main agenda items, including the election of a body to organize future sessions and the resolution of questions related to the treaty’s scope and objectives.

“It’s really obvious when you look at it that the oil and gas exporting states are trying to slow things down with procedural hurdles,” said Neil Tangri, science and policy director for the nonprofit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. He said more than two days of the talks were spent in unproductive discussions over a forum for trade groups and non-governmental organizations, which he said could have taken place outside the limited hours for negotiation.

If anything, Tangri and other experts watching the negotiations said they helped crystallize the battle lines that will shape the rest of the talks. On one side are countries including the United States, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia — all major oil and gas producers — that are pushing for a treaty focused on recycling and waste management. They are opposed by a diverse “high ambition coalition” of countries including Norway, Rwanda, Canada, and the U.K., which want a treaty that addresses every stage of plastics’ life cycle. Some of these countries want to restrict the extraction of fossil fuels that are slated to become plastics’ main feedstock.

Environmental advocates say the so-called “low ambition coalition” of countries is attempting to bend the plastics negotiations to its will by trying to replicate key features of the Paris Agreement, such as consensus-based decision-making. Graham Forbes, plastics global project leader for Greenpeace USA, said this would be a big mistake: A consensus requirement would lead to a “lowest-common-denominator approach,” he said, privileging noncontroversial policy proposals and giving obstructionist countries veto power over more ambitious ones. It could slow progress on the plastics treaty — much as it has done at the U.N.’s annual climate talks.

Plastic bottles litter a beach. Salvatore Laporta / KONTROLAB / LightRocket via Getty Images

In a memo released ahead of the plastics talks, the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law noted that consensus-based decision-making is “the poison pill that has undercut the climate convention for three decades.”

The U.S., Japan, Egypt, and others also pushed for a Paris Agreement-style “bottom-up” approach in which individual countries set their own nonbinding plastic pollution targets and report back on their progress to a global body. The Center for International Environmental Law said this approach would compromise the treaty’s effectiveness and risk turning it into a “trade show and public relations platform” rather than a mechanism for action and accountability.

Neither issue was resolved last week. Tangri said they will resurface at future sessions of the INC, along with other pressing questions that will shape the treaty’s long-term success, such as the voting rights of geopolitical blocs like the European Union and the definition of key phrases like “plastic pollution” and “life cycle.” He said it’s possible some progress will be made in between sessions as countries, nonprofits, and industry representatives continue to meet online.

Meanwhile, other observers noted promising steps at the conference to recognize the need to eliminate toxic chemicals used in plastic production and to address the plastic crisis’ human rights implications. Early in  the week, delegates from around the world celebrated the historic creation of a platform for U.N. member states to represent waste pickers’ interests in the negotiations, giving a voice to the millions of people worldwide who collect trash for little to no compensation as part of the informal recycling sector. Members of the group are pushing for a just transition for these workers, including alternative job support when it comes time to close large dump sites.

Many countries and green groups continue to push for more equitable representation, including by limiting the plastic industry’s presence at future discussions. Environmental advocates criticized the U.N. Environment Programme’s decision to fund a $400,000 multistakeholder forum — a kind of talk shop for civil society and trade groups that was held just days before formal negotiations began — and said the U.N. should instead provide funding to bring more representatives from organizations based in the Global South, Indigenous groups, and frontline communities to the actual negotiations.

“We need a lot more grassroots communities who are directly affected by the problem to have their voices heard in this space,” said Christina Dixon, ocean campaign leader for the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency. Echoing many others — including delegates from Cameroon, South Africa, and Sri Lanka — she also called on the U.N. to provide enough funding to ensure at least two delegates from each country can attend the next INC sessions. Doing so would allow low-income countries to participate in multiple discussions at once, getting them closer to equal footing with their wealthier counterparts.

Moving forward, many countries recommended the creation of two groups to continue the negotiations both during and in between sessions, with one group focusing on the substance of the treaty and the other on procedural and logistical issues. But not even this logistical detail was resolved by the end of the week. Negotiators hope to find a solution by the start of the INC’s second session, expected to be held in Paris at the end of May.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The world agreed to a global plastics treaty. Now comes the hard part. on Dec 6, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Democrats make last-ditch effort to pass Joe Manchin’s energy permitting bill

Tue, 12/06/2022 - 03:15

When he voted to pass historic climate legislation this summer, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin demanded something in return: a subsequent bill that would reform and expedite the federal permitting process for big energy projects. Manchin’s view is that federal red tape constrains fossil fuels and renewables alike, preventing the U.S. from producing cheap domestic energy.

Now, after one failed attempt to pass the followup bill, leading Democrats in Congress are maneuvering to pass Manchin’s energy permitting legislation in the coming weeks by attaching it to a critical annual defense spending bill, sources told E&E News and the Washington Post.

The maneuver represents a last-ditch effort by Democratic leaders to force through the West Virginia senator’s controversial energy legislation before they lose unified control of Congress next month. If this effort fails, any future permitting bill will have to clear a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Such a bill would likely look a lot different than what Manchin and his fellow Democrats intended, focusing more on supporting fossil fuels less on hastening the transition to clean energy.

Manchin’s bill in its current form would speed up federal environmental reviews for many large infrastructure projects, making it easier to ramp up production of fossil fuels as well as green energy. The permitting process for these projects often takes years to complete, leaving projects stuck in regulatory limbo. 

The bill would also streamline the process for approving new electrical transmission wires, which are essential for moving renewable wind and solar energy from the rural areas where they’re often produced to population centers that need power. New transmission lines, however, are often derailed by disputes between states. The legislation also contains a provision that would order the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that runs through Manchin’s state and has long been one of the senator’s top priorities.

The legislation has been divisive among climate advocates. Many policy experts and renewable-energy boosters have praised the language around transmission lines, arguing that more transmission infrastructure is necessary to decarbonize the power sector. One estimate from the research firm Rhodium Group found that failing to build new transmission lines could jeopardize up to a quarter of the emissions reductions promised by the landmark Inflation Reduction Act that passed in August. Representative Sean Casten, a Democrat representing Illinois, told Grist last month that “the good outweighs the bad.” (Prior to running for office, Casten occasionally wrote blog posts for Grist between 2007 and 2014.)

But progressives and environmental justice advocates have said the attempt to hasten environmental reviews will harm ecosystems and vulnerable communities who must contend with major projects near their homes. John Beard, an activist in Port Arthur, Texas, called it a “climate catastrophe.” 

Earlier efforts to pass Manchin’s permitting reform stalled out earlier this year. After Manchin and Senate Majority Chuck Schumer struggled to consolidate support for the bill, they attached it to a stopgap government funding package in September, only to remove it again after dozens of progressives in the House and Senate opposed that maneuver.

Now the party has one more chance to move the bill forward, again by stitching it to a must-pass funding package. The National Defense Authorization Act is an annual spending bill that allocates funding to the military, and it typically reaches the president’s desk with bipartisan support. If this year’s version doesn’t pass by December 16, the federal government will be forced to shut down many of its normal operations. 

Democrats are betting that Republicans who oppose Manchin’s permitting reform effort will vote for the legislation because they don’t want to vote against defense spending. Indeed, since many progressives will likely oppose the defense bill, Manchin and the other Democratic leaders will need to pick up Republicans in the House and the Senate in order to get it to President Biden’s desk.

Manchin has spent the month since the midterm elections holding a series of sideline talks with his Republican colleagues in an attempt to reach a bipartisan permitting reform deal, but the talks have yet to bear any fruit. His fellow senator from West Virginia, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, called it a “heavy lift” last week.

If the Democrats can’t pass permitting before a new Congress takes office next month, they will have to work with Republicans to craft a bipartisan version of the legislation. Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican who will likely serve as the next Speaker of the House, has said that boosting what he calls “energy independence” will be one of the top agenda items for his new majority.

But McCarthy’s ideas about how to boost energy production are different from Manchin’s. A competitor permitting bill drafted by Capito and her Republican colleagues omitted the renewable-friendly transmission text and included other provisions that would weaken safeguards for federal lands and waters. The official Republican energy platform, meanwhile, proposes to auction off more federal land for oil drilling, speed up mining for critical minerals, and restore the Keystone XL Pipeline, which Biden canceled shortly after taking office last year.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Democrats make last-ditch effort to pass Joe Manchin’s energy permitting bill on Dec 6, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

A tiny Wisconsin town tried to stop pollution from factory farms. Then it got sued.

Mon, 12/05/2022 - 03:45

The small community of Laketown, Wisconsin, home to just over 1,000 people and 18 lakes, is again at the center of a battle over how communities can regulate large, industrial farming operations in their backyards.

The town, which is half an hour from the Minnesota border, is the target of a lawsuit supported by the state’s largest business lobbying group, which claims the town board overstepped its role when it passed a local ordinance to prevent pollution from confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Filed in Polk County Circuit Court in October, the lawsuit pits local farmers against the municipality, where decisions are made by a single town chair and two supervisors. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, or WMC, a lobbying group that defines itself as the state’s “largest and most influential business association” is representing the residents suing the town through its litigation center.

Early this year, WMC sent a letter to the town board that they would see legal action if the ordinance was not repealed. The notice of claim, sent in April, argues the town passed an ordinance with various illegal provisions under state law. The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Litigation Center, who have previously filed lawsuits to rollback state protections against water pollution, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“They see this ordinance, if not challenged, as something that may become more the norm around the state,” Adam Voskuil, staff attorney for the nonprofit law office Midwest Environmental Advocates, told Grist. This law office has issued its support for Laketown’s ordinance in the past but is not representing the municipality in this ongoing litigation.

As the agricultural industry increasingly forces farmers to “get big or get out,” CAFOs have become plentiful across Wisconsin and the country at large, with more and more animals living on CAFO operations in recent years. The size of these farms varies within a state but generally are seen as operations with 2,000 or more pigs, 700 or more dairy cattle, or over 1,000 beef cattle. 

The growth of these operations has been linked to public health problems like various cancers as well as infant death and miscarriages, caused by water contaminated with waste runoff from farms. On the other side of Wisconsin, residents in Kewaunee County have seen manure coming out of their faucets from one the largest CAFOs in the state, who sued the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource last year when they were denied a request to nearly double their size.

As more confined animal feeding operations, like the hog farm pictured, pop up across the country, towns and counties have attempted to regulate their growth. chayakorn lotongkum / Getty Images

When communities try to respond with local-level enforcement, both industry interests and a lack of power at the local level cause townships to get creative with their responses. 

Every state has some form of a “right to farm” law, which stops farms from being targeted for nuisances related to the daily operations of the industry, such as odor, noise, and effects on the environment. From there, each state has some form of a regulatory process that outlines how large farms are allowed to operate.

In Iowa, which leads the country in CAFOs, the state government sets all regulatory requirements and local towns and counties are out of luck when it comes to enforcement, according to John Robbins, Planning and Zoning Administrator for Cerro Gordo County, Iowa. He said the county once had a restrictive ordinance for CAFO zoning on the books, but after a state law took control, counties now have “very limited authority.” 

Last year, when a Missouri hog farm spilled 300,000 gallons of waste into nearby waterways, two counties attempted to regulate CAFOs differently than the state government. Those counties had to sue to challenge state-level laws and are now awaiting trials in the state Supreme Court. 

Further West, Gooding County, Idaho has seen the whole gambit of what Wisconsin towns could be facing. In 2007, the central Idaho county named after a famed state sheep rancher passed an ordinance regulating CAFOs in the county limits. A month later, industry groups Idaho Dairymen’s Association and Idaho Cattle Association started a court battle with the county that ended two years later, with the state supreme court ruling in the county’s favor. Gooding County’s legal representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Wisconsin’s Livestock Facility Siting Law generally restricts how local municipalities can stop or slow new CAFOs or expansions to current facilities. This law is at the crux of arguments in opposition to Laketown and other surrounding communities’ proposed or passed ordinances. 

Other Wisconsin communities have enacted local level ordinances to regulate these large farms. In 2016, northern Bayfield County enacted a CAFO ordinance that imposed a one-time fee and required operators to have increased manure storage options. After a large hog farm estimated to produce over 9 million gallons of manure a year was proposed in Polk County a few years ago, the county attempted a moratorium on CAFOs, but the measure did not pass.

Since then, at least five neighboring towns of Laketown have passed similar ordinances.

“This is one of the first times I’ve seen a town refuse to back down to some of these letters”

Adam Voskuil, Midwest Environmental Advocates staff attorney

The Laketown ordinance that sparked the lawsuit is an operations ordinance, unlike Bayfield’s ordinance which focused on zoning. Laketown CAFO operators are asked to file a one-time fee equal to a dollar for every animal unit as well as give detailed plans of how they will prevent ground and air pollution stemming from their facilities. Passed in 2021, the ordinance states it is based upon Laketown’s obligation to “protect the health, safety and general welfare of the public.” 

All along the way, industry groups Venture Dairy Cooperative and the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, its website features the slogan “Fighting for CAFOs Every Day,” have sent threatening letters to towns that passed ordinances or moratoriums, with the help of WMC.

“This is standard operating procedure for the Big Ag boys,” said Lisa Doerr, a Laketown resident of over 20 years who raises horses and commercially farms hay and alfalfa with her husband.

Doerr has been involved at the local level in opposition to CAFO since Polk County learned of a proposed 26,000-hog farm. Doerr, who worked with the Large Livestock Town Partnership, a multi-town committee that examines the environmental impact of CAFOs, said she worried that the landscape of the town and county would change if local action wasn’t taken.

“The name of our town is Laketown because we’ve got lakes everywhere,” she said. “We still have a middle class farming community. We haven’t had corporate ag take over everything.”

In its recently filed response letter, Laketown’s attorney said WMC’s argument falls flat as it is based solely on the state-level zoning law, while the town’s ordinance regulates the operations and conduct of a facility. They also noted that since the ordinance passed, no facilities have applied for a permit, which means the town has not yet enforced any actions WMC says are unlawful. Laketown board chair Daniel King declined to comment, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

Midwest Environmental Advocates attorney Voskuil said he was heartened to see that Laketown has been holding its ground. “This is one of the first times I’ve seen a town refuse to back down to some of these letters,” he said.

Farther south in Wisconsin, another county is reeling from letters threatening legal action. Crawford County, which borders Iowa, enacted a CAFO moratorium in 2019 but did not renew the moratorium after studying the issue for a year. Forest Jahnke, a coordinator with the Crawford Stewardship Project, said the decision to not renew the moratorium was highly influenced by the deluge of similar threats of litigation and backlash, which had a “chilling effect” on efforts to move forward. 

“The fear of litigation is a very strong and deep one in our local municipalities and county governments,” Jahnke, who was a member of the committee studying the CAFO moratorium in Crawford County, said. 

Since the moratorium rolled back, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources greenlit a Crawford County hog farm, home to 8,000 pigs and expected to generate 9.4 million gallons of manure each year. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A tiny Wisconsin town tried to stop pollution from factory farms. Then it got sued. on Dec 5, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Congressional Democrats have a new plan to combat plastic pollution

Mon, 12/05/2022 - 03:30

As international negotiators began hammering out the details of a global plastics treaty last week, legislators in the United States were busy unveiling a domestic policy to address the plastic pollution crisis.

A new bill introduced by four congressional Democrats on Thursday takes aim at plastic manufacturers in an attempt to reduce the country’s reliance on single-use plastics. If passed, the Protecting Communities from Plastics Act would set national targets for reducing plastic production, strengthen protections for communities most affected by plastic-related pollution, and place restrictions on a controversial process known as “chemical recycling.”

“With plastic particles ending up on the snowcaps of the Arctic and inside our own blood streams, it’s clear we need strong legislation to get this plastics crisis under control,” Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said in a statement.

While much public attention has focused on cleaning up plastic pollution that’s already built up in the environment, the bill seeks to address human health and environmental damages from plastics across their life cycle, including soaring greenhouse gas emissions from the production stage. One study published last year estimated that the plastics industry, which uses fossil fuels as its primary feedstock, will cause more climate pollution than U.S. coal plants by 2030.

The problem is set to compound in the coming years as fossil fuel and petrochemical companies churn out more and more plastic. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, plastic waste is on track to nearly triple by 2060, while the International Energy Agency predicts that petrochemicals will become the single largest driver of oil and fracked gas demand by mid-century.

“The science is clear as can be: We are quite simply making too many plastics,” said Anja Brandon, U.S. plastics policy analyst for the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, which helped write the legislation.

By 2027, the new bill says federal regulators should set a nationwide target to reduce the amount of single-use plastic packaging and foodware that can be made and sold in the U.S. This target would aim for at least a 25 percent reduction below 2024 values by 2032. A separate target would require 30 percent of the country’s single-use plastic packaging and foodware to be replaced with reusable alternatives, also by 2032. To make these options more cost effective, the bill proposes a new grant program to pay for things like water stations, new dishwashing facilities, and consumer education initiatives.

Senator Jeff Merkley, a co-sponsor of the new bill, speaks at a news conference for the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images

Authors of the bill stressed that it would also address environmental inequities from petrochemical facilities, which tend to be sited near low-income communities and communities of color. One predominantly Black region of Louisiana has become so saturated with petrochemical plants and their toxic pollution that it’s been dubbed “Cancer Alley.” Building on a previously introduced bill called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, the new legislation would implement a temporary “pause” on new plastic production facilities pending a comprehensive assessment of the industry’s environmental justice impacts. After that, the new bill would restrict new or expanded facilities from going up within five miles of people’s homes, schools, health care facilities, and a number of other community spaces.

The bill would additionally require tighter pollution standards at certain petrochemical facilities and instruct federal regulators to restrict the use of more plastic materials and chemical additives under an existing law called the Toxic Substances Control Act. One section specifically calls for stronger regulations for styrene and vinyl chloride — both linked to cancer — no later than two years after the bill would go into effect.

The legislation also seeks to exclude so-called “chemical recycling” — a process that most often involves melting discarded plastic into fuel and incinerating it — from the Environmental Protection Agency’s national recycling strategy. Environmental advocates say chemical recycling is an “industry shell game” meant to keep single-use plastics in production.

Trade groups for the plastics industry were quick to condemn the legislation as a “one-two punch against American workers and the environment,” arguing that alternatives to plastic would increase greenhouse gas emissions — in part because they are heavier and therefore take more fuel to transport. Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, said in a statement that plastic products are “essential to a lower carbon and more sustainable future” because they are used in wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, and other products.

Brandon, however, applauded the legislation for its broad scope and ambition. “We’re really excited that there’s a federal bill out there that’s addressing these three issues — plastic pollution, the climate crisis, and environmental justice — in tandem,” she told Grist. “It takes aim at all those issues head on, doing what we know we need to do, which is to make less plastics in the first place.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Congressional Democrats have a new plan to combat plastic pollution on Dec 5, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Salton Sea public health disaster gets a $250 million ‘shot in the arm’

Mon, 12/05/2022 - 03:15

Last week, the federal government announced it will spend a quarter of a billion dollars over four years to clean up what remains of the Salton Sea, a lake in southern California that has been shrinking due to climate change-driven drought. 

For decades, communities living near the sea have been afflicted by health problems caused by algae blooms and dust storms spurred by wind kicking up drying sediment from the sea’s ever-widening shores. The government’s new plan aims to help remediate some of those health impacts while simultaneously encouraging farms in the region to reduce their reliance on water from the Colorado River.

The $250 million will come from $4 billion earmarked for drought funding in the Inflation Reduction Act, the climate and energy security bill passed by Democrats and signed by President Joe Biden in August. The new money is meant to complement more than half a billion dollars the state of California has already committed to restoration and dust-suppression projects in the area. 

The Salton Sea, a body of water that formed by accident more than a hundred years ago when the Colorado River overtopped an irrigation channel and flooded an empty lake bed, has become a controversial flashpoint in California’s ongoing efforts to conserve its increasingly limited water supply from the Colorado River basin. 

For around half a century, the brimming Salton Sea attracted tourists, anglers, and celebrities like the Marx Brothers and the Beach Boys to its shores. But the sea was only directly fed by the Colorado River for a period of two years starting in 1905. Since then, it has been sustained indirectly by agricultural runoff from farms in the Imperial Valley that use water from the Colorado River to irrigate their crops. As water evaporates from the sea’s surface into the atmosphere, the body of water has become more concentrated with pesticides and other farming byproducts, and algae have proliferated in its tepid, shallow waters. The approximately 650,000 people living nearby suffer from headaches, nosebleeds, asthma, and other health issues.  

The Department of the Interior, the government agency that is managing the restoration agreement, has made it clear that there are strings attached to the federal funding. The department’s Bureau of Reclamation will provide California with $22 million in new funding between now and the end of next summer to spend on restoration projects around the sea, conduct research on current and future cleanup projects, and hire two representatives from the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe to help implement those projects. 

The remaining $228 million is contingent on the state following through on its commitment to conserve 400,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water every year starting in 2023. Specifically, the Imperial Irrigation District, or IID, the public utility that supplies the Imperial Valley and its 500,000 acres of farmland with Colorado River water, will need to take on additional conservation measures in order to help California meet that target. A day after the Interior Department announced its $250 million plan, the IID board voted 3-2 to approve it, signaling that the district agrees, at least for now, to conserve 250,000 acre-feet of river water per year as part of the state’s wider goal. 

“This landmark agreement demonstrates much-needed federal commitment to the Salton Sea and IID’s commitment to improving Basin resilience,” Michael Cohen, senior associate at the Pacific Institute, a water conservation think tank, said in a statement. 

Conserving all that water comes with tradeoffs for the Salton Sea. An IID projection shows that by 2027, the measures will expose an additional 8,100 acres of dusty shoreline. That’s where the funding for restoration and cleanup from the federal government comes in.

Jenny Binstock, a senior campaign representative at the Sierra Club, told Grist that she considers the new funding a “shot in the arm” for the efforts to fix the sea’s problems, though she said more can be done. Binstock wants federal and state agencies to thoroughly consult surrounding communities before approving new projects and, looking further ahead, figure out a way to pump new water into the sea. “Moving forward it will be essential that federal partners continue to work with the state, water agencies, and local communities to ensure that the Salton Sea remains a major priority as part of the complex water challenges facing the Western U.S.,” she said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Salton Sea public health disaster gets a $250 million ‘shot in the arm’ on Dec 5, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Pawpaws, America’s latest fruit craze, are being threatened by climate change

Fri, 12/02/2022 - 03:45

Every September for the last 25 years, thousands of people have descended on a field in southeast Ohio to celebrate North America’s largest edible native tree fruit: the pawpaw. With custard-yellow flesh that tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana, pawpaws are eaten raw, worked into sauces and chutneys, or brewed into beer at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, a celebration of both the fruit’s flavor and its history in Appalachia. 

This year, more people than ever before came to learn about the plant, crowding around a cooking demonstration to watch local chefs craft a pawpaw salsa and even buying seedlings to plant in their backyards. A few dozen gathered under a white tent to hear Brian Koscho, an Ohio-based artist and creator of an Appalachian history podcast, talk about the Indigenous roots of the plant. Pawpaws, he said, have an “impact both here in this area, but also far, far beyond.”  

When the COVID-19 pandemic jammed up agricultural supply chains, interest in local foods skyrocketed and the pawpaw quickly emerged as a tasty symbol of a more resilient food system. Known in some circles as the “hipster banana,” the green, fist-sized fruit made its way to rooftop gardens in Brooklyn, cocktail lists in bars and national magazines, and amateur fruit growers in California, well outside its native range. The industry expanded from foragers and a handful of independent producers selling their fruit at farmers markets to a growing number of small farms in states from West Virginia to Massachusetts.  

The annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival attracts thousands of people every year. Diana Kruzman / Grist

But just as this fruit finds its place in the growing local-foods movement, it is being threatened by a changing climate and more extreme weather patterns. Plant biologists at the University of Georgia recently found that while rising global temperatures will open up new suitable areas for pawpaws to grow, these changes will likely take place too quickly for the wild plants to adapt. 

“It’s not just more warming — it’s more temperature extremes too,” said Sheri Crabtree, a pawpaw researcher at Kentucky State University, reflecting on the various challenges to the plant’s future. Pawpaws are flowering about two weeks earlier in the spring than they did several decades ago, but temperature fluctuations can lead to hard freezes after they flower, causing crop loss. 

Pawpaws currently grow across more than two dozen states, stretching from the eastern U.S. to parts of Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas. But their heartland is Appalachia, where they’ve been mentioned in songs and incorporated into regional recipes for generations; at least six states have named towns after the fruit. Before British colonization, Indigenous people in this region harvested pawpaw fruits and used the tree’s bark for building materials; tribes such as the Shawnee that were forced to move westward during the nineteenth century as Americans sought to settle on their lands have since planted pawpaws on reservations in Oklahoma, maintaining a connection to ancestral foodways. 

Plants have a wide range of strategies for adapting to climate change, from developing drought resistance to migrating to new areas, thanks to pollinators and animals that disperse their seeds. But these adaptations take time — and establishing new populations is especially difficult for the pawpaw, whose pollinators, like flies, beetles, opossums, foxes, and raccoons, don’t typically travel long distances. 

The University of Georgia researchers also found that because of low genetic diversity, it’s not clear whether the pawpaws that do manage to establish themselves elsewhere will have the same kind and quality of edible fruits as the ones we know today. A 2015 report from the U.S. Forest Service came to a similar conclusion. 

Pawpaws need a period of cold for their seeds to germinate in the spring; toward the southern end of their range, they likely won’t get that as temperatures rise. In most places, though, growers expect the plants to thaw, blossom, and ripen earlier in the year, requiring them to plan out their harvest times accordingly. Ron Powell, the former president of the North American Pawpaw Growers’ Association, or NAPGA, said he’s already noticed changes: His grove of about 500 trees are ripening weeks earlier than usual some years. And a drought that hit his area of southwestern Ohio in late July reduced his crop to about a third of its normal size. 

Pawpaws sit out on display at the 2021 Ohio Pawpaw Festival. Diana Kruzman / Grist

Foragers, who still make up a sizable chunk of harvesters, might be particularly vulnerable as shifting weather patterns affect where pawpaws are found in the wild, said Chris Chmiel, the founder of the Ohio Pawpaw Festival and a grower of the fruit. The plants prefer low elevations and the nutrient-rich, moist soils along creeks or rivers, a habitat that’s already been diminished by urbanization and large-scale agriculture in much of the Midwest and Appalachia. And climate change is expected to bring both more extreme droughts and heavy rains to the region — neither of which is good for pawpaws, Chmiel said. 

Harvests can of course vary from year to year, Chmiel said, but he’s also noticed changes recently, with a third of his trees dying. He says he’s not sure why it’s happened, but noted that heavy rains could have been a factor. He’s working with scientists at Ohio State University to figure it out. 

“We’ve had a lot of rain events [where] instead of getting two inches, we’re getting four or six inches,” Chmiel said. “And a couple of years ago, we had a spring where it rained nonstop for six weeks. And I look at that, and I think these pawpaw trees were really stressed out.” 

Still, growers like Powell aren’t too worried, at least in the short term. The core of the pawpaws’ range in Appalachia will most likely remain suitable for the next century, while strategies like irrigation can help stave off the impact of more frequent droughts. 

Researchers are also working on breeding new varieties of the plants that can better adapt to changing conditions, Crabtree said. Her lab at Kentucky State University is developing varieties that flower later, to avoid damage from late-spring frosts, and ripen earlier, to accommodate a shorter growing season in more northern climates. Both of these could help growers deal with the impacts of climate change on their crops. 

“I think they’re going to survive,” Powell said. “They’ll probably adapt better than we will to climate change.” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Pawpaws, America’s latest fruit craze, are being threatened by climate change on Dec 2, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The world’s insurance bill from natural disasters this year: $115 billion

Fri, 12/02/2022 - 03:30

Extreme weather events have caused an estimated $115 billion in insured financial losses around the world this year according to Swiss Re, the Zurich-based reinsurance giant. That’s 42 percent higher than the 10-year average of $81 billion.

The firm estimates that $50 billion to $65 billion of the total losses are a result of Hurricane Ian, the category 4 storm that pummeled parts of Florida’s west coast in late September with torrential rain, a 10-foot storm storm surge, and winds topping 140 miles per hour. Swiss Re ranks Ian as the second costliest natural disaster ever, in terms of insurance losses, after Hurricane Katrina struck south Louisiana in 2005. 

It’s not just severe storms causing the damage. In February and March, torrential downpour inundated vast swaths of northeastern Australia and racked up an estimated 4 billion in financial damages, more than any other natural disaster in the country’s history. In June, a series of fierce thunderstorms in France sent large hailstones tearing through roofs and destroyed miles of vineyards. The total insured losses were estimated to be around $5 billion. All of them combined to pushed losses above $100 billion for the second year in a row.

Swiss Re conducts this analysis as part of providing reinsurance, a type of financial protection for insurance companies hoping to shield themselves from absorbing all the risk in their portfolios. Climate change has begun to pose major challenges to the industry, as increasingly frequent and severe storms generate unprecedented financial losses. 

In a press release announcing the findings, Martin Bertogg, head of catastrophe perils at Swiss Re, noted the steady increase in extreme weather events over the past several decades, and underscored the importance of using updated models so the industry can more accurately predict damages in a given year. 

“When Hurricane Andrew struck 30 years ago, a USD 20 billion loss event had never occurred before,” Bertogg said. “Now there have been seven such hurricanes in just the past six years.”

Approximately 33 million homes on the U.S. Gulf Coast and the eastern seaboard are at risk of hurricane damage, according to the property intelligence firm CoreLogic, with a total estimated replacement cost of $10.5 trillion. The country’s coastal communities tend to be underinsured, and chronically outdated federal flood maps fail to capture the risk to many flood-prone homes. Though uninsured homeowners can apply for federal funding after natural disasters, they are typically only able to recover a small fraction of their total losses. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that climate change will cause the size of areas with a high flood risk to increase by 55 percent along U.S. coastlines and up to 45 percent along major river systems by the end of the century.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The world’s insurance bill from natural disasters this year: $115 billion on Dec 2, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

An infusion of cash from Congress could keep the lights on in Puerto Rico

Fri, 12/02/2022 - 03:15

Puerto Rico could get $3 billion dollars for rooftop solar energy and battery storage if Congress approves a Biden administration request made earlier this week. The help is sorely needed. 

The archipelago has been repeatedly hit by blackouts after a series of devastating hurricanes that crippled the electricity grid. In 2017, Hurricane Irma, which narrowly missed the main island but caused widespread blackouts, was followed by another — Maria — which killed over 4,000 people. Maria’s damage to Puerto Rico’s grid was so great that it took 11 months for power to be fully restored to the main island.      

Both Puerto Rican activists and United States officials believe that investing in solar energy systems will help residents keep power on in their homes during what are certain to be more frequent and destructive storms in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico’s energy grid has been criticized for years for its unreliability under normal circumstances, even without the storm damage to power lines and generators.

While a growing number of Puerto Rican households are taking the initiative to install solar panels on their rooftops, the majority of households continue to rely on electricity through the mainstream power grid, or run diesel-powered generators. Generators, however, are expensive and pollute the air. 

But high costs and environmental considerations are only part of the picture. Electricity blackouts on Puerto Rico in the wake of tropical storms have exacerbated the already devastating public health and safety crises that followed. Researchers have estimated that in the three months after Hurricane Maria there was a 62 percent increase in mortality

Many deaths following the hurricane occurred in isolated and mountainous regions where residents were unable to access outside water or medical facilities. But the lack of electricity at home may have been the biggest factor in the high mortality, as residents were unable to boil water, refrigerate food and certain medicines, or run air-conditioning in their houses.

While a growing number of Puerto Ricans are installing solar panels on their rooftops, it remains too expensive for many. Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo via AP Images

After Hurricane Fiona hit in September, residents who had installed solar panels on their homes were able to maintain their power even as the energy grid failed yet again. In spite of this, most households in Puerto Rico simply cannot afford to switch to solar without financial assistance offered by the federal government. The majority of census tracts in Puerto Rico are defined as disadvantaged, frequently due to high local energy costs coupled with low household incomes. Puerto Ricans as a whole pay some of the highest energy bills in the United States.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, the average cost to install solar panels for a household is nearly $12,000. While that’s less than what the average household on the U.S. mainland would have to pay for home solar, the cost is too much for most Puerto Ricans; the territory’s median household income is around  $21,000. 

Before Hurricane Maria in 2017, household adoption of solar energy on Puerto Rico appeared to be more motivated by reducing electricity bills. Now, simply being able to turn the lights on has become just as strong a motivation. The archipelago is also considered a favorable location for widespread solar power adoption.

A preliminary study in 2021 from the National Lab of Renewable Energy concluded that transitioning to rooftop solar energy could produce up to four times the current energy needs of Puerto Rico. This potential is largely due to its high amount of exposure to sunlight throughout the year. 

While some Puerto Ricans may acknowledge the value of allocating financial resources to rooftop solar energy, others are not convinced that relying on federal funds will lead to any fundamental changes on the ground. 

“Since Maria, the U.S. government has made many allocations of funds that never arrive or their impacts are not seen in Puerto Rico,” said Arturo Massol Deyá, the executive director of Casa Pueblo, a Puerto Rican organization that supports community self-management projects.

Instead, Massol Deyá said, Casa Pueblo and other organizations are working to develop an independent electricity grid centered on solar energy projects that are run for and by local communities in Puerto Rico.  

“We’re working to break the dependency model,” he said. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline An infusion of cash from Congress could keep the lights on in Puerto Rico on Dec 2, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Beyond solar: Here’s what the clean energy future might look like

Thu, 12/01/2022 - 03:45

Images of a clean-energy future tend to feature wind turbines and solar panels, iconic symbols of the struggle to halt global warming. But the United States is pursuing a much wider range of solutions to drive down greenhouse gas emissions. Soon, a direct air capture facility, or a carbon capture and storage project, or a clean hydrogen hub could be proposed in a town near you. Maybe one already has. Two recent laws — last year’s bipartisan infrastructure legislation and this year’s Inflation Reduction Act — offer developers billions of dollars to build these kinds of projects. 

Experts say these technologies are needed to tackle climate change. They can help cut carbon from hard-to-decarbonize parts of the economy that cannot simply switch over to renewable electricity. But there are very few large-scale examples operating today. To help people visualize what all this new infrastructure could look like, Third Way, a center-left D.C. think tank, commissioned the design studio Gensler to illustrate hypothetical projects, showing how they could be integrated into communities and local economies.

“Many communities in the U.S., particularly those historically impacted by environmental injustice and unequal distribution of economic benefits, have valid concerns” about these technologies, said Rudra Kapila, a senior policy advisor at Third Way who led the project. In creating these images, she said she hoped to “facilitate constructive conversations on how communities can safely live and work in a changing energy landscape.”

Of course, a series of images can only go so far in answering the questions and concerns that people may have about living near these projects. But the scenes may help sharpen those questions by giving shape to the scale of the infrastructure, its purpose, where it might go, and its potential risks and benefits. 

The first three images depict direct air capture projects of different sizes and in different settings. Direct air capture, or DAC, facilities filter carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Their purpose is twofold: By removing carbon from the air, they can balance out emissions from activities like farming and flying that might be hard to eliminate at the source. DAC could also eventually help reverse global warming if we build enough machines to pull more carbon out of the atmosphere than we’re putting in. 

Small, modular, direct air capture plant Third Way

“I think the specific challenges of a direct air capture plant is that they don’t really exist, outside of a couple demonstrations in Europe,” said Shuchi Talati, a senior visiting scholar at the nonprofit Carbon180, which advocates for policies to support DAC and other carbon removal methods but was not involved in creating the images. “And so the biggest challenge is helping people visualize and understand something that they’ve never seen before and have never really thought about.”

In this first image, small, modular DAC plants — similar to a model currently operating in Switzerland — are installed on the roofs of factories in an industrial part of a suburban town. Kapila warned that the fans on the equipment are loud and should not be sited on or near a school, for example. Here, the machines are powered by electricity from rooftop solar farms and a wind farm in the background. 

This first image also raises a key question for anyone appraising a DAC project: What will happen to the captured CO2? In Kapila’s narrative of this scene, the “DACME” construction company in the background uses the CO2 as a key ingredient in the concrete it sells. This isn’t far-fetched — there are already a few companies working on embedding CO2 in concrete. The trucks in the foreground suggest a more controversial idea — selling the CO2 to soda companies for carbonation. Kapila said she included the concept because of a reported shortage of CO2 in the beverage industry. But CO2 used for beverage carbonation quickly gets emitted again, meaning a lot of energy would be spent to capture CO2 for no climate benefit.

Mid-size direct air capture plant Third Way

The second image features a project that’s very similar to another existing DAC plant in Iceland, the largest currently operating in the world. Like that facility, the one shown here runs on geothermal energy, a renewable resource that draws on heat beneath the earth’s surface, from a power plant across the river. The scene also shows the carbon dioxide being delivered directly to underground sequestration sites for permanent storage — those geodesic domes are modeled off real CO2 sequestration facilities in Iceland. (You may notice there’s more going on in this scene — Kapila incorporated many ideas about how these technologies could be integrated into local economies into each image, which are mapped out in a series of additional renderings on the project website.)

Mega-direct air capture hub Third Way

The clusters of mega-DAC projects depicted in this third image, all powered by a nuclear plant, would pull hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 out of the air each year. A pipeline on the right side, which Kapila said is meant to be a repurposed oil pipeline, carries the CO2 to underground storage sites. “There have been provisions, both in the Inflation Reduction Act and in the infrastructure bill, specifically for making use of existing infrastructure,” she said.

Kapila said this hub of DAC plants could be sited in the desert of Texas or New Mexico, currently a major oil-producing region. While no facility of this size exists today, the oil and gas company Occidental is currently building one in West Texas. But unlike the plant depicted here, that facility is planned to run at least in part on natural gas power. And unlike in Kapila’s illustration, some of the CO2 the Occidental plant collects is expected to be piped out to low-producing oil wells, where it will be injected underground in order to dislodge the last drops of oil. 

Many climate and environmental justice advocates have campaigned against the use of direct air capture, in part because of its potential to prop up the use of fossil fuels. Kapila said she sought to show people that we can design these systems to be independent of fossil fuels, or in a way that greatly diminishes their role in the economy. 

Talati, who previously worked at the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, said it’s essential to start to build a common understanding of what “good” DAC projects look like. “We need to build a lot more knowledge, whether that’s in communities where DAC might be built, across civil society, and across policy makers,” she said. 

At the same time, Talati warned that the goal of these conversations should not be to drive public acceptance of these projects. “I think that can be a dangerous way to talk about it, because that means that you are trying to convince people of something without taking the time to build knowledge and understanding,” she said. “When we think about public engagement, I think we want to make sure that we don’t have a preordained outcome in mind.”

The last two scenes that Third Way created venture into different territory, looking at how to lower emissions at existing heavy industrial sites. 

The first reimagines a Gulf Coast port as a hub for the production of clean hydrogen. Hydrogen is a fuel that has the potential to sub in for fossil fuels in a number of applications, and it doesn’t release any greenhouse gases when it’s burned. 

Clean hydrogen hub Third Way

In this scene, an offshore oil platform has been repurposed for hydrogen production, which can then be used to fuel the ships in the port. Today, the vast majority of hydrogen is produced from natural gas in a process that emits carbon dioxide. But here, offshore wind powers the process, using electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Experts often call this method “green hydrogen,” and while it’s only done at a few small facilities today, it’s set to grow rapidly. The bipartisan infrastructure law gave the Department of Energy $8 billion to spend on clean hydrogen hubs, and a new tax credit created by the Inflation Reduction Act will pay producers up to $3 for each kilogram of clean hydrogen they make.

Onshore in this scene you’ll find more DAC machines capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. There is also a blending facility, where the hydrogen could be blended with the captured CO2 to create what’s called a synthetic fuel. Blending hydrogen makes it easier to store, transport, and use with existing technologies. But using captured CO2 to make fuels will ultimately release it back into the atmosphere.

The final image in the series portrays a steel plant, modeled on an existing plant in Pennsylvania, outfitted with a technology called point source carbon capture.

Steel plant with point source carbon capture Third Way

Instead of sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, as DAC machines do, similar equipment is installed on the flue of the steel plant, capturing carbon before it enters the atmosphere. A defunct coal mine is also visible in the background, symbolizing the potential to store captured CO2 in unmined coal seams.

The U.S. iron and steel industry sent about 66.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2021, or about as much as 14 million gas-powered cars emit over a year. Steel is a notorious climate challenge, because its use in buildings, vehicles, and appliances make it so integral to modern life, but we don’t yet have many options for making it cleaner. Steelmaking requires massive amounts of energy to produce heat, and it also uses coal in the chemical reaction that turns iron into steel. While some companies are making progress with alternative chemistries, carbon capture is considered one of the best bets for slashing emissions from the sector in the near term.

Kapil acknowledged the challenges of drumming up public interest in carbon capture technology. “Point source carbon capture, it’s as glamorous as urban plumbing,” she quipped. “But the thing is, we need these systems. To say that we can function without steel would be, you know, we can’t.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Beyond solar: Here’s what the clean energy future might look like on Dec 1, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The cost of wildfires is rising. But by how much?

Thu, 12/01/2022 - 03:30

With wildfires growing more intense and frequent, the United States is burning through funds in an attempt to manage the costly blazes. In the last decade, the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service — the two federal agencies most often involved in wildfire preparedness, suppression, and recovery — have nearly doubled their combined spending, according to data collected by The Pew Charitable Trusts. 

But wildfire management is not just a federal funding issue. States, localities, tribes, and in some cases, nonprofits and private property owners all share the burden, depending on the task at hand and the circumstances surrounding an actual fire. And according to a new report from Pew, there is not enough data readily available about how much fires are costing states. 

“As fires have grown, so has public spending on wildfire management,” said Pew, a non-partisan research group. 

States lack a uniform tracking system for wildfire management spending, including comprehensive costs incurred before, during and after fires. Without this intel, they must make less-than-informed decisions about how best to budget for fire risk. They may be unable to determine return on investment for long-term wildfire mitigation efforts or fail to allocate enough money to fire suppression. 

As costs associated with wildfire management increase, many states have had to pull from their general funds — those collected from state taxes and fees and intended for general operations — in order to deal with blazes. 

In Washington state, for example, annual average spending on wildfire suppression has nearly tripled in the course of a decade. The average tally reached up to $83 million for the period between 2015 and 2019, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Over a third of Washington’s spending on wildfire suppression came from the state’s general operations fund.

“That is inherently detracting from other priorities that the state could put that funding towards,” said Colin Foard, an author of the report and manager of the fiscal federalism initiative at Pew.

The entity responsible for paying for a fire largely depends on who owns the land where the fire starts; if a fire begins on federal land, the federal government is responsible for suppressing the ensuing flames. But because fires do not stop burning neatly along property lines, a single blaze can incur costs for nearly every level of government. More often than not, states are the ones to front the necessary funds.

There are hundreds of cooperative agreements between local, state and federal governments around wildfire cost sharing and federal grant money and emergency funds also play a role in determining the final balance sheet. As a result, getting to the bottom of who owes what can take months to years.

Tracking and reporting these costs is critical, Foard said, but it is also impossible to know states’ full wildfire costs at any given moment. For example, a state could be incurring costs from a fire burning in the present, while also waiting on federal reimbursements associated with a fire from the previous year. At the same time, that state could also be in the process of paying the federal government back for costs associated with a different wildfire. 

“You have so many different activities happening concurrently,” Foard said. Without insight into the total wildfire management costs (and changes in those costs), states are flying blind when making budget decisions for the following year. 

Four of the six states Pew studied use previous years’ wildfire suppression costs as their baseline for making future wildfire management appropriations. But fire suppression is only one part of wildfire management and does not reflect the price tags associated with preparation, mitigation and recovery activities. 

“Almost every state Pew studied experienced fire seasons in recent years where appropriations proved insufficient,” the report’s authors wrote.They found that in 2019, Washington state needed $80.5 million in additional funds for wildfire management beyond the state’s historical average spending; earlier this year, the Florida legislature approved over $90 million in additional funds for wildfire management. 

Part of the problem, the Pew authors argue, is that states are using a reactive approach to budgeting and are not taking into account the increasing risk of wildfires. If officials were able to to understand changes in spending over time, they might be better able to plan for increases still to come. 

“The demand for this type of information is growing,” Foard said, particularly among policymakers facing increasing wildfire costs. “[They are] seeing the communities that they represent being affected by fires and wanting to think about solutions to start to address those rising risks.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The cost of wildfires is rising. But by how much? on Dec 1, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Lessons from the World Cup: How a changing climate is changing sports

Wed, 11/30/2022 - 03:45

Shortly before the English national team took the field in Qatar for its 2022 World Cup debut, its official Twitter account posted a video of players flocking to the sidelines of a training session, dripping in sweat and taking turns cooling down in front of a mist machine. “It was hard,” English defender Conor Coady told press after the practice. “It was something we needed as a team, to get used to [the heat], to feel it, to understand it.”

World Cups are usually held in early summer, but this year’s competition was delayed because of the Middle East’s searing heat. Even still, outdoor temperatures hovered in the low 90s as hopeful teams arrived in Qatar in early November.

FIFA’s decision to hold the event in Qatar has been controversial, from the host country’s treatment of migrant workers, thousands of which died of heat stroke building hotels and stadiums for the event, to its position on LGBTQ+ rights. The health risks associated with its extreme heat added to these other concerns. 

But it is not the only major sporting event grappling with extreme conditions: This fall, the women’s Alpine Ski World Cup was delayed for over a month and moved to another venue after unseasonable rain made the course unsafe to ski. Earlier this summer, a historic heat wave required organizers of the Tour du France to spray water to keep the roads from melting. 

From soccer to skiing, climate change is disrupting how and where sports can be played — from the most elite levels to neighborhood youth leagues. “If we do not change the nature of sport and these events to adapt,” said Walker Ross, a lecturer in sports management at the University of Edinburgh, “nature itself will move on without sport.”

A member of the Italian Paralympic snowboarding team rides a chairlift in Cervinia, Italy in 2020. COVID-19, a lack of snow, and high temperatures have made it hard for ski resorts to stay open and athletes to train. Mauro Ujetto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Rapidly changing conditions are already forcing teams to rethink how they prepare for competition. At a recent workshop at the Columbia Climate School, United States women’s national soccer player Samantha Mewis described the intensive preparations the team took to handle the heat in Tokyo prior to the 2020 summer Olympics (the event was held in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). 

“We weighed ourselves pre- and post-training, to track our water loss,” she explained, including testing their urine for hydration levels. Immediately before traveling to Japan, the team also conditioned themselves for the heat, which she said included repetitively riding a bike in a really hot room, practice for keeping their core body temperature elevated for extended periods of time. “It was exhausting.”

“Generally, exercising in heat puts much greater demand on your body,” said Rebecca Stearns, chief operating officer of the Korey Stringer Institute, a research and advocacy organization founded to honor the legacy of the Minnesota Vikings lineman, who died from exertional heat stroke. To cool off, blood flow has to be diverted from muscles to places that help the body regulate heat, like the skin. But some conditions can make that process more difficult. 

“The body’s main mechanism to dissipate heat is sweating,” Stearns explained. In humid environments, sweat is slower to evaporate. Athletes get dehydrated, because they’re still sweating, losing electrolytes, but they aren’t effectively cooling off. “That’s when you hit the danger zone.” 

Soccer is one of many sports now paying close attention to something called the wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT), which combines heat, humidity, and other variables like wind speed. When the wet bulb temperature breaks 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit, FIFA now requires cooling breaks in both halves, and officials are allowed to suspend or cancel the match. The rules were first instituted before the 2014 Brazil World Cup, when cooling breaks were used for the first time during the Netherland v. Mexico game, as well as more recently during the Euro2020 competition. “Heat stroke is one of the top causes of death in sport,” Stearns said.  

But extreme heat and humidity also pose similar — if not worse — risks for amateur athletes. “At a youth level,” where the coach might be a parent or teacher, said Andrew Grundstein, a geographer and climatologist at the University of Georgia, whose research focuses on heat and human health. “You’re also unlikely to have medical staff like an athletic trainer available.” The consequences can be deadly: Between 1980 and 2009, 58 football players died from heat-related illnesses — the majority of them high school students. 

Grist / Clayton Aldern

Grundstein explains athletes need to acclimatize to heat over time, meaning ramping up practices, rather than jumping right in with daily doubles in hot weather. “Coaches should adjust practices based on weather conditions,” he said, modifying things like length and intensity. And if something does happen, it’s critical to have an emergency management plan. Exertional heat stroke is largely survivable if the person can be rapidly cooled. (Grundstein recommends having a tub that can be filled with ice or cold water.) Georgia once had some of the worst heat-related death rates among student athletes in the country. But in 2012, the Georgia High School Association implemented rules and safety measures to help protect student athletes; there have been no heat-related deaths in football players there since. 

The Korey Stringer Institute recently developed an assessment of states’ policies for high school athletes. These standards will become more important, Grundstein says, as regions that weren’t historically hot start to see more heat waves. “A lot of times, they’re really unprepared, because they’re not used to it,” he said. Coaches don’t know what warning signs to look for, and athletes are less used to exercising in extreme heat. 

While state sport associations can dictate safety measures for high school teams, those for younger athletes are often made on an ad-hoc basis. “It’s like the Wild West,” Stearns said. “There are just not a lot of protections in place.” Still, many youth leagues are voluntarily adapting to changing conditions: The Seattle Youth Soccer Association, for example, now has both a heat cancellation policy and a “bad air guidance,” developed because of the West’s worsening wildfire smoke. 

A trainer applies a cold towel to a student-athlete during a morning football practice at Father Ryan High School in Nashville, Tennessee in 2011. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Real-world conditions are often a combination of factors, making it even harder to develop rigorous protections for athletes. During heat waves for instance, naturally occurring air pollution called ozone can be concentrated — something not as immediately noticeable as visible wildfire smoke, but capable of triggering asthma, another cause of sudden death. 

“If youth sport is the next generation of professional sport, then we are potentially not safeguarding that future,” Ross, of the University of Edinburgh, said. 

Looking ahead, some of the world’s largest sporting competitions are facing an uncertain fate. Qatar spent over $200 billion to prepare for the World Cup, including investing in technologies like air diffusers under seats that brought A.C. to the open-air fields and stadiums. Athletic venues are increasingly discussing these kinds of climate adaptations — but there’s only so much technology can do. Ross recently published a study finding that if greenhouse gas emissions continue as usual, by 2050, there will only be 10 locations capable of reliably hosting the winter Olympics. It offers a poignant example of what is at stake for the future of sport. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Lessons from the World Cup: How a changing climate is changing sports on Nov 30, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Water thieves abound in dry California. Why are they so hard to catch?

Wed, 11/30/2022 - 03:30

It’s not easy enforcing water regulations in the West. Just ask the officials in California who have been trying for almost a decade to penalize a man who took water from the river system that feeds San Francisco and bottled it for sale to stores like Starbucks. 

It sounds like a tall tale, but it’s illustrative of just how hard it is to stop scofflaws from using water the rest of the state needs during a water crisis.

In 2015, at the height of a severe drought, California’s state water agency received a series of complaints about water theft on a small tributary of the Tuolumne River, the source of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir that supplies most of San Francisco’s water. 

G. Scott Fahey, the owner of a water bottling company called Sugar Pine Spring Water, was siphoning water from the spring and loading it on trucks, the complainants said. Fahey’s company had been tapping the spring for more than a decade—he supplied water to a company named on Starbucks’s list of water bottle suppliers at the time—but the state had imposed drought restrictions on the Tuolumne that year, which barred Fahey from using it.

The state issued a cease-and-desist order to Fahey within weeks, and a few months later investigators began gathering information to prosecute him. It looked like a slam-dunk case. In the end, though, it would take the state more than six years to complete the prosecution—long enough for the 2015 drought to end and another drought to begin. During that time Fahey would appeal the state’s initial decision and sue the state for wrongful prosecution, dragging the case out for years in an effort to avoid paying $215,000 in damages.

In the fall of last year, just as the state was nearing the end of the prosecution, officials received another complaint about Fahey—according to the complainant, he was stealing water from the same river again, undeterred by the full force of California’s prosecution.

Across the West, major water users are subject to strict regulations that govern how and when they can draw water from rivers and streams. These rights vary from state to state, but the general principle is always the same: older water users have stronger rights than newer users, and the state has the authority to curtail water usage during drought periods. (Thanks to the colonial foundations of water law, tribal water rights date from the creation of tribal reservations, not from when a tribe started using a water source. In theory these rights are senior to those of private water users, but in practice many tribes face steep barriers to realizing these rights.)

But enforcing those rules is easier said than done. Over the past decade, as more states have clamped down on water usage, water managers across the west have found themselves struggling to monitor all potential violations, and to implement water rights law that they’ve never had to use before. Even a large and well-funded state like California can’t keep track of all illegal water diversions, and attorneys often have trouble prosecuting even those violations they do identify. Even when the state has an airtight case, its enforcement powers are limited, and the punishments it can mete out often aren’t severe enough to deter potential violators. 

That means that many water users who violate drought restrictions may get off with just a slap on the wrist, if the state notices them at all. This makes it difficult or impossible to protect vulnerable waterways from being overtapped.

“Their capacity is minuscule compared to what they’re expected to do, and I think the water rights unit has been systematically underfunded from day one,” said Felicia Marcus, the former chair of California’s State Water Resources Control Board, also known as the “Water Board,” which regulates water in the state.

The first challenge the state faces is measuring water withdrawals in the first place. An investigation from the Sacramento Bee found that the state has just a thousand working water gauges to monitor almost 200,000 miles of river, and furthermore found that just 11 percent of water users comply with a 2015 law that requires them to report their water usage. Without an accurate sense of who’s using what, it’s hard to know where to look.

But the bigger problem for the Water Board is that its enforcement staff is too small to enforce even the portion of water violations that it does end up detecting. The Water Board’s enforcement division has only 50 permanent staff members, and just three are dedicated to enforcing water rights violations. The division receives hundreds of complaints a year, but it can only investigate a few of them, and only 10 percent of received complaints lead to any enforcement action. 

Representatives for the Water Board argue this is in part because the department receives a high volume of repeat complaints, but also acknowledge that the state can’t investigate everything.

“Just like the IRS doesn’t audit every single taxpayer, we do not conduct a detailed enforcement investigation into tens of thousands of water rights,” said Ailene Voisin, a spokesperson for the Water Board. “We use our limited resources and our enforcement discretion to conduct investigations where circumstances warrant it.”

During drought periods, investigators focus on monitoring streams where the state has issued restrictions, but even then it’s difficult for them to check on more than a fraction of all the water users under restriction.

Still, some divisions have more resources than others. Of the fourteen cease-and-desist orders the state has issued since the last drought, seven were issued to cannabis growers. That’s because the cannabis enforcement unit has a bulkier budget, as well as five dedicated employees, compared to three for all other rights violations. When California voters approved a recreational marijuana referendum in 2016, the state government plowed extra funds into regulating the newly legal pot market. In fact, many of the water enforcement actions against producers result from unrelated drug busts against illegal grow operations.

Even when the state knows who’s breaking the rules, bringing offenders to heel can be difficult. That’s in large part because the state’s water rights system is large and multifaceted, and officials have never comprehensively quantified and sorted all the different kinds of rights in the state. This has made it difficult to enforce the letter of the law during drought periods.

The Fahey case was a textbook example. Investigators found Fahey had diverted about 25 acre-feet of water illegally—as much as 25 to 50 households use in a year, but not an enormous amount in the grand scheme of things. State officials managed to schedule a hearing date for Fahey within a few months of getting the first complaints. But thanks to the complexities of the water rights system, and the historical quirks of Fahey’s specific water rights, it took another three years for the administrative board to reach a decision ordering Fahey to pay the state back for his theft in the form of either water or cash. The facts of Fahey’s diversion were clear, but the complex nature of the water rights system made it difficult to arrive at a swift decision, and even after the decision came down, Fahey appealed for a reconsideration of his case. It took until March of this year for the board to refuse his request, again because of the legal complexities involved. Now Fahey is suing the state water board over its decision, which will lead to yet another trial, this one in civil court.

This process took so long that it may have allowed Fahey to violate the law again. In October of last year, the state received another complaint that Fahey was diverting it illegally. Records obtained by Grist show that a complainant said they “witnessed water trucks going and coming from [the] Sugar Pine facility.”

“Have been following his case through the water board,” the anonymous complainant wrote, “and last [I]looked, he had been ordered to cease and desist.”

In theory, state officials should have investigated the complaint, but Fahey was in the middle of petitioning for reconsideration, and the state couldn’t enforce its cease-and-desist order while his case was in legal limbo. State officials told Grist they decided not to investigate the new complaint against Fahey so as to avoid derailing the ongoing prosecution from the last drought. The state’s powers were so limited, and the enforcement process was so time-consuming, that the state couldn’t stop Fahey from violating drought restrictions, even after it had caught and prosecuted him for doing so. (Starbucks stopped sourcing spring water from California a few months after the case began. Fahey could not be reached for comment.)

“California, which prides itself on being ahead of other states on a lot of issues of climate change and water quality, is way behind when it comes to the water rights system,” said Marcus. “Having tried to implement it during that last drought, it’s very difficult to do. They don’t have enough staff to be able to manage a wieldy system, let alone an unwieldy system.”

The limitations of the state’s enforcement power were on display again this year during a conflict between ranchers and indigenous tribes over a vulnerable river in the northern part of the state.

This past summer, the Water Board imposed drought restrictions on the Shasta River, a winding mountain waterway near the Oregon border. The state has conflicting responsibilities on the Shasta: it must release some water from the river every summer to irrigate farms and ranches in nearby valleys, but it also has to hold back enough water in the mountains to protect vulnerable salmon populations. In drought times, the salmon are supposed to take priority.

This summer, the ranchers upset that balance. After the state imposed the curtailment on the Shasta, the irrigated fields in nearby valleys started to dry up, jeopardizing the health of crops and cattle. A group of ranchers decided to violate the order on purpose, and wrote a letter to the state announcing their intentions to start diverting water in violation of the curtailment. They turned on their spigots and drained water from the river, filling up the ponds and fields on their property. Within hours, the water level at the river’s main gauge had dropped precipitously, and it continued to drop over the coming days, throwing the survival of the salmon into jeopardy. 

Leaders from the state-recognized Karuk tribe of Indigenous people, who are the stewards of the mountain salmon, pleaded with the state to intervene and stop the ranchers’ violation of water law. As with Fahey, the state issued a cease-and-desist order almost at once, but the order was toothless. For the first twenty days after an order is issued, the state can only impose fines of around $500 a day, which the ranchers were more than capable of paying. A few days after they turned on the water, the ranchers turned it off, claiming victory. 

The case was emblematic of the shortcomings Marcus identifies. Even when there was clear evidence of wrongdoing, the state didn’t have a big enough “stick” to enforce the letter of the law. The Shasta case set a disturbing precedent for future drought years: if there’s no real punishment for violating water rights, why shouldn’t everyone just take what they want?

The ranchers seemed to understand this too.

“At $500 a day, it would probably be worth it, I’ll be quite honest,” one of the ranching association leaders told CalMatters in August when asked about potential fines from the violation. “It’d probably be more than affordable.”

A few months later, in November, the state hit the ranchers with a fine of $4000, or about $50 per rancher. It was the maximum allowable fine.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Water thieves abound in dry California. Why are they so hard to catch? on Nov 30, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Biden administration proposes new rule targeting methane emissions on tribal lands

Wed, 11/30/2022 - 03:15

The Bureau of Land Management proposed a new rule Monday that aims to reduce wasted natural gas on federal and Tribal lands which will help tamp down methane releases. By preventing billions of cubic feet of natural gas emissions that come from unintentional equipment leaks or deliberate venting and flaring, the federal government hopes to curb the potent greenhouse gas which is responsible for 30 percent of global warming.

The proposed rule, said Secretary Deb Haaland in a press release, “will bring our regulations in line with technological advances that industry has made in the decades since the BLM’s rules were first put in place, while providing a fair return to taxpayers.”

The rules would require operators to submit a waste minimization plan with any permit application to drill oil wells. If a plan doesn’t adequately show how the operator will avoid wasting gas, the BLM can delay approval until the concerns are addressed to the agency’s satisfaction. 

There would also be monthly limits on flaring, mandatory technology upgrades, and enforced leak and detection programs. The proposed rule would apply solely to oil and gas facilities that the BLM oversees on federal and Tribal land. 

Roughly 8 percent of the United State’s natural gas supply and 9 percent of its oil supply come from federal and Tribal lands. Between 2010 and 2020, oil and gas producers on federal and Tribal lands lost approximately 44.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas each year due to venting and flaring – burning natural gas at the well or releasing it directly into the atmosphere, respectively. Through the 1990s, 11 billion cubic feet of natural gas was lost each year. 

“No one likes to waste natural resources from our public lands,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning in a press release. “This draft rule is a common-sense, environmentally responsible solution as we address the damage that wasted natural gas causes.”

The proposal builds on goals the Biden administration announced at 27th United Nations climate change conference, or COP27, as well as in November 2021 after COP26 where the U.S. became one of more than 100 countries to sign the Global Methane Pledge – a non-binding agreement to collectively reduce global methane emissions at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030. According to a recent Global Carbon Project study, half of methane emissions are caused by humans – and fossil fuels represent nearly 18 percent of that total budget. Of that, roughly 63 percent is derived from oil and gas production and pipelines.  

But federal proposals to curb methane emissions have been met with limited success. Environmentalists celebrated ambitious regulations the EPA introduced last year, but in 2016, a BLM attempt to reduce natural gas waste – an earlier version of this proposal – was quashed by industry and state groups, arguing that the EPA overstepped its authority. 

All together, the federal government estimates that implementing the new rule would cost companies roughly $122 million per year to meet requirements but would benefit from $55 million worth of recovered gas per year. The BLM claims individuals living in the U.S. would benefit $427 million per year from avoiding climate damages with reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

In an email, BLM press secretary Brian Hires said “the proposed rule would ensure that, when federal or Tribal gas is wasted through excessive venting or flaring, the public and Tribal mineral owners are compensated through royalty payments.” 

The National Congress of American Indians did not respond to a request for comment on the proposal.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Biden administration proposes new rule targeting methane emissions on tribal lands on Nov 30, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The fossil fuel origins of ‘gaslighting’

Tue, 11/29/2022 - 12:29

Merriam-Webster declared “gaslighting” the word of the year this week, if you can believe it. The term, which describes a type of lie that leaves the target doubting their perception of reality, saw a 1,740 percent increase in searches on the dictionary’s site in 2022, with steady interest over the course of the year.

“In recent years, with the vast increase in channels and technologies used to mislead, gaslighting has become the favored word for the perception of deception,” Merriam-Webster’s editors wrote in an explanation for their selection.  

Even if you remember what a “gaslight” is, it doesn’t illuminate the word’s meaning. The mind-manipulating connotation came from a 1938 play called Gas Light, later turned into a movie. The plot: A husband tries to trick his wife into thinking she’s losing her mind — and thereby getting sent to an asylum — so he can steal the priceless jewels she’s inherited. His strategy involves sneaking around the house and making the gaslights flicker and dim, while insisting that the lights look totally normal to him.

The meaning of “gaslighting” in the social-media age is broader, referring to any situation where you wildly mislead someone for personal advantage. Climate advocates have increasingly been applying the term to the actions of the oil industry, which mastered the art of misdirection long before “gaslighting” became part of the vernacular. In the 1970s, Exxon’s own scientists warned executives that carbon emissions could lead to catastrophic warming — and then the oil giant proceeded to act as if climate change wasn’t real, sowing doubt about the science and working to block legislation to address rising emissions. 

Since then, studies have found that Big Oil’s actions (drilling for more oil) don’t match its public turnaround on climate change, indicating that companies are advertising an unrealistically green image. Oil companies portray themselves as problem solvers — BP’s motto is “reimagining energy” — while continuing to make the problem worse. At the same time, the fossil fuel industry has tried to shift the focus to individuals. In a recently unveiled email, sent after Shell posted a widely criticized Twitter poll in 2020 asking people how they planned to address climate change, one of the company’s communications executives said that accusations of Shell “gaslighting” the public were “not totally without merit.”

An advertisement for the 1944 film “Gaslight.” LMPC via Getty Images

Gaslighting doesn’t just describe the oil industry’s communications, though — the literal “gas lights” that the word refers to began as a fossil-fueled phenomenon. Over the 18th and 19th centuries, a fuel called “coal gas” swept through Europe and the United States, lighting up city streets as well as homes, factories, and theaters through vast networks of pipes. It left behind an important but largely forgotten legacy in our energy system, our polluted soil, and, of course, our language.

Before gaslights, people lit dark rooms with flickering candles and lanterns that burned fishy-smelling whale oil. What replaced them didn’t smell much better at first. The new technology was the result of chemists messing around with burning coal, wood, peat, animal bladders, and other substances, to see what gases they’d produce. At first, they put the fruits of their labor to use setting off fireworks and flying balloons, but soon found a more practical purpose for “manufactured” gas, sometimes called “town gas” or “artificial gas.” (The name “natural gas” later arose to help differentiate methane.)

Starting around 1800, the first gas lamps appeared in Paris, London, and Glasgow. They became coveted by factory owners who could now keep their employees toiling after dark, and by city planners looking to make their streets safer from crime. The technology had spread all over Britain by the end of the 1850s, when more than 1,000 gasworks plants had popped up to meet demand. 

Half a century later, streets all over Europe and America were gaslit. Unlike the candles and oil lamps that preceded them, networks of gas connected homes to a larger energy system — setting the stage for the next advancement in lighting.

In the late 1880s, the inventor Thomas Edison created the first lightbulb, much to the disappointment of those who had invested in stock of gas companies. His plan to electrify cities with underground cables was sold as clean, healthy, and modern. “Edison’s marketing played up an image of ancient ‘evil’ gaslight in contrast to a new, ‘good’ electric light, coming in as the knight in oh-so-gleaming amour to lift Manhattan from the dark ages,” Alice Bell writes in the book Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis. 

Gas lighting was known for making a mess. Factory owners found it hard to know what to do with coal tar, the sticky, toxic byproduct of coal gas production. They tried dumping the byproduct into rivers, but it ended up killing the fish. 

People play at Gas Works Park in Seattle, Washington, after a snowstorm, February 9, 2019. David Ryder / Getty Images

The technology gradually fell out of use in the 20th century, but gasworks plants left a legacy in the landscape. In Seattle, for instance, the iconic Gas Works Park along Lake Union was home to a major coal gasification plant that opened in 1906, filling the area with smelly, bubbling char for 50 years until it closed. In the 1960s, the landscape architect Richard Haag saw some strange beauty in the abandoned gasworks and worked to convince the city to turn it into a park, keeping some of the towering industrial structures standing. The first soil remediation process took about six years, and cleanup remains ongoing today, with arsenic and other contaminants still present in the lake.

Much like the industrial structures of Gas Works Park, the term “gaslighting” is a relic of its time— and a reminder of a dirty technology that’s best left in the past.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The fossil fuel origins of ‘gaslighting’ on Nov 29, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

This California city needs housing. But is a new development destined to burn?

Tue, 11/29/2022 - 03:45

Chico, California, needs housing. The booming city of just over 100,000 issues just a few hundred building permits every year, and it’s rare to see more than a few dozen homes on the market at any given time. Housing costs have risen by double digits since 2018, and homelessness has spiked.

A new development on the outskirts of town, however, promises almost 3,000 new homes:  single-family buildings, multifamily apartments, and “residential cottages,” plus a dense and walkable commercial district. Containing hundreds of acres of open meadows, oak forests, streams, and trails, it was designed with the belief that “places for people to live and work can exist in harmony with nature” — the very reason many people moved to Northern California in the first place.

There’s just one problem: Four years ago, a wildfire ignited in the Sierra Nevada foothills that shadow the meadow where the development will lie. The Camp Fire incinerated thousands of buildings, killed 85 people, and roared down the hills toward Chico. It stopped right in the middle of the meadow. Another wildfire almost reached the meadow ten years earlier, and another one a few years before that.

For two years, Chico’s leaders have been debating whether or not to let the housing development, which is called Valley’s Edge, move forward. On one side are the developer and a number of civic organizations, who claim the development will help grow the city’s economy and alleviate a dire housing crisis. On the other are a group of conservationists and anti-development advocates who say the risk of wildfire in the area is too great, and that new housing should be built elsewhere. It will be up to the Chico city council to decide between the two sides.

The wildfires that have raged across the U.S. West over the past decade have exposed new dangers in the area known as the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, the vulnerable territory that sits between developed residential areas and dense, flammable forests. These areas have long been considered some of the most desirable places to build, since they offer natural beauty and distance from urban congestion, plus land that is cheap relative to cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. But they are also the most vulnerable to wildfire.

City governments across the region are wrestling with questions about whether and how to shift new housing development away from these areas. At the same time, opponents of development are using fire risk as a justification to cancel even projects that are designed to be resilient to fire.

Bill Brouhard, the real estate developer behind Valley’s Edge, has been working on the project for more than 15 years, even before wildfires became a major political issue in Northern California. But even during the Camp Fire, as he watched flames race to the site, he didn’t waver in his resolve to get it done.

“I was out there standing at the edge with residents as the area was burning,” he told Grist. When Brouhard imagined the wildfire racing toward his finished subdivision, he envisioned a series of firebreaks stopping the blaze in its tracks before it reached any homes. “The condition that was happening would be a mile away from the homes, and they wouldn’t be threatened,” he said.

Brouhard added that the development itself would act as a natural firebreak for the rest of the city, thanks to ample parks and trails outfitted with fire-resistant vegetation and pavement. By building Valley’s Edge, he said, “we’re reducing the risk of wildfire to the existing residents of Chico, not increasing it.”

To be sure, Valley’s Edge is far from a cookie-cutter planned community. The east side of the development features rambling open space, and the highest-density housing will be farthest away from the fire-prone hills. The development will be built in compliance with the latest California fire construction regulations and will be an accredited member of the Firewise program, a nationwide initiative designed to promote fire-safe building practices. There will be wide roads to accommodate evacuating cars, plus reservoirs to provide fire trucks with water and trails to serve as firebreaks; Brouhard also plans to clear all the flammable pines from the area and leave only the hardy oaks.

In a notable concession to fire risk, Valley’s Edge scrapped an original plan for a residential neighborhood at the far eastern end of the project, which would have sat right next to the only road out of Paradise, the town destroyed by the 2018 Camp Fire. There were concerns that the added congestion might lead to backups on the road during evacuation events, with deadly results.

Conservation advocates and anti-development activists in the Chico area say that’s nowhere near enough to make the development safe.

“Any structures that are built there, they would serve as fuel for the fire to burn the existing developments to the west,” said Grace Marvin, an activist who organizes with the area’s Sierra Club chapter and a local group called Smart Growth Advocates that is advocating against Valley’s Edge. “In terms of the fire, I don’t know how much they can do about it.”

Indeed, the Valley’s Edge site occupies land that Cal Fire, the state fire agency, classifies as facing “moderate” fire risk, and it is surrounded by areas that the state deems part of the wildland-urban interface. Officials have periodically conducted prescribed burns in the area to clear away flammable vegetation. Other developments in the area have had close shaves with fire before: When the Camp Fire blew into the valley in 2018, it burned the very last house in a development just north of the Valley’s Edge site, then stopped short of spreading further.

Kevin Ciotta looks over the burned out community center at the Butte Creek Mobile Home Park in Chico, California, after the 2018 Camp Fire. Mason Trinca / Washington Post via Getty Images

Molly Mowery, an urban planner who has consulted with cities on how to design for fire resilience, told Grist that it’s possible to build safe developments in a city like Chico, but everything depends on the details.

“It’s not to say we can’t live in these places, because so much of the West is wildfire-prone,” she said. “We can’t move out of the WUI — the WUI will be there. It’s just: How do we live in the WUI?” Mowery cited the need to clear flammable vegetation from around dense housing areas, bury power lines so they can’t spark up, and ensure that houses are built with fire-resistant walls and windows — all things that Brouhard plans to do in Valley’s Edge.

Brouhard and his opponents may disagree about the vulnerability of the development to wildfires, but they also disagree about a more fundamental question over what kind of housing Chico should build. Marvin thinks the city should prioritize dense, affordable construction on land in the city center, rather than large suburban-style projects such as Valley’s Edge.

“What we’d like to see is affordable infill development in the downtown area, as well as frequent public transportation,” said Marvin. “You’d need to have a certain amount of means in order to afford [Valley’s Edge], so I don’t see how it’s going to meet Chico’s housing needs. It would bring more people here, more congestion, more fire danger, and more traffic.”

“Honestly I think that what the city wants is for wealthy people from the Bay Area who can afford that housing to come here and pay more in taxes,” said Marvin. “They would really like that, and it would add to the bottom line of Chico, but I don’t think there’s many people in Chico who can afford it.” Brouhard said that the development will include hundreds of affordable units, but it isn’t yet clear what the entry-level price point for the development will be.

Brouhard told Grist that he supports center-city infill development as well, but he contends that Chico doesn’t have enough open space downtown to pursue the “grow up, not out” program that people like Marvin advocate. Decades ago, the city imposed a moratorium on all development in the expanse of farmland that borders it to the west, and many of the fire-prone hills to the east are on protected lands, which means there are few other directions where the city can expand. Much of Chico is zoned exclusively for single-family homes, and most buildings downtown are only a few stories tall. To build the number of housing units proposed for Valley’s Edge in the city center would require significant zoning changes that have long been controversial in California.

“You’d run out of infill very quick, even if you could develop it all — and the reality is, you can’t develop it all,” Brouhard said. “I don’t think it’s a serious plan to accommodate a community in a very sustainable manner. If you implemented that plan, what you would find is you can’t provide enough housing.” 

The city has been failing to provide enough housing for some time: The homeowner vacancy rate in Chico was already hovering between 1 and 2 percent even before the Camp Fire, on par with New York City. A report later found that the city added only 15 low-income housing units between 2014 and 2019, and 2,000 for wealthier income tiers. Home sale prices and rental rates increased by as much as 20 percent in the first few months after the fire — and never came all the way back down. New development since then has been minimal.

Chico is not the only city where developers are trying to build in the WUI: A recent study from the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that more than 6 million homes have been built in vulnerable areas nationwide over the past two decades, with much of the growth in eastern California. This pro-development mentality doesn’t seem to change in the aftermath of major fires, either: A U.S. Forest Service survey of California wildfires from 1970 through 2009 found that more than half of all buildings destroyed in wildfires were rebuilt within six years, and that there were “minimal trends toward lower risk areas” in where cities chose to place new buildings. The riskiness of new construction “either did not change significantly over time or increased.”

This casts doubt on the idea that traumatic events like the Camp Fire might jolt cities to diminish their zeal for WUI development. On the other hand, the California attorney general’s office released new guidelines last month that discourage local governments from approving developments on fire-prone slopes and other vulnerable places. 

It remains to be seen whether Chico will follow the trend of pushing forward with housing development even after big fires. Brouhard presented the Chico city council with a final environmental impact report for the project last month, but it will be a new crop of city council members elected earlier this month who will determine the development’s fate: The attorney general’s new guidelines aren’t black-and-white, and it will be up to the council to determine whether Valley’s Edge meets them. In the district that contains the Valley’s Edge site, two candidates staked out opposite sides of the issue — one called it a “terrific project,” while the other “strongly opposes [it] as it is not what Chico needs.” The pro-Valley’s Edge candidate won.

A evacuee encampment at a Walmart parking lot in Chico, California. The encampment emerged after the 2018 Camp Fire. Josh Edelson / The Washington Post

If the council does approve the development, Marvin said that she and her fellow activists plan to sue under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, a 1970s-era law that is often used to challenge housing developments. CEQA is the reason why Brouhard’s environmental impact report for the project stretches to almost 700 pages, but the development’s opponents will likely try to poke holes in the review and allege that Brouhard hasn’t considered all the negative impacts of the development. Suing to stop development over concerns about fire risk has become more common in recent years: The California attorney general’s office has joined environmental organizations to file lawsuits against proposed developments in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Lake County, north of the Bay Area. All three challenges were successful.

Even if the CEQA lawsuit fails, Brouhard admits that it will take years to finish permitting for the development, which will also require him to secure approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to build on federal wetlands. It will be at least a decade beyond that before the whole project is completed.

It’s difficult to imagine now what Chico will look like in another 15 years, but fire danger is only going to keep rising. If Brouhard’s opponents are right, the developer’s pet project could someday become another Paradise. If the project isn’t built, however, the housing crisis in Chico may only get more painful.

“It’s very easy for a lot of people to say: Let’s just not build in these places,” said Mowery, the urban planner. “But is that really a long-term solution to all of the other realities that the West is going through with housing affordability? There are different ways that [risk] can be mitigated, and I think there is a lot of room to say: If it can be mitigated, then it can be built.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline This California city needs housing. But is a new development destined to burn? on Nov 29, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Houston is just the latest Texas city to boil water for safety

Tue, 11/29/2022 - 03:30

With 2 million Houston residents now having to boil water to cook and clean after a power outage at a water treatment plant, Texas continues its history of power grid failures and poor water quality.

On Sunday, a water treatment plant lost power and caused water pressure to drop below the required minimum standards needed to maintain clean water. Power has been restored to the plant, but testing for water contamination has begun and results are still being gathered. By late Sunday night, residents started to receive notice to boil their water before use. 

“We still have no indication that the system was compromised at any point,” Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock told the Texas Tribune. 

Officials in Houston have attempted to quell concerns about the outage. Haddock said the loss of power, caused by a failure of a transformer and its backup, hasn’t shown any catastrophic potential that any larger blight to the city’s water supply has occurred. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said his office believes the city’s water is safe, but they are still required to issue notices because of the pressure drop. But, criticism from residents about a lack of prompt, clear communication has rolled in. Mayor Turner backed the decision to warn residents hours after the initial outage occurred. 

Residents are encouraged to boil water to a rolling boil for at least two minutes before using it for cooking, bathing, or drinking. Those who can’t boil water are asked to use bottled water, but area grocery stores are already selling out of bottled water. The notice could expire as early as this morning. 

Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, provides water to an estimated 2.2 million people. On Monday, Houston schools, restaurants, and businesses were closed due to the boil notice. Cities that get their water wholesale from Houston also issued warnings to residents.

Boil notices are not new to Texas, a state that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, has the most water quality violations in the country. Two years ago, freezing temperatures in Texas wrecked the state’s power grid and left millions of residents without safe water, even causing hospitals to lose access to water. Winter power grid failures in Texas have left minority neighborhoods in the dark before, at disproportionate rates, while affluent residents had access to power and water. Past studies of the state’s power grid show that it is woefully underprepared for extreme weather conditions. 

Water quality experts in Texas cite the state’s aging infrastructure as a source of continued problems and concern for access to clean drinking water, especially in rural areas and communities of color. Before Houston’s recent water boil notice, the rural east Texas town of Zalla had been wrestling with an almost two-week-long boil notice this month, caused by failing infrastructure in the town of 700. In 2020, Houston experienced another water boil advisory after a main water pipe broke

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Houston is just the latest Texas city to boil water for safety on Nov 29, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Despite Biden’s promises, logging still threatens old forests and U.S. climate goals

Mon, 11/28/2022 - 08:13

On Earth Day 2022, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to protect important but overlooked partners in the fight against climate change: mature and old-growth forests that sequester carbon, without charging a dime. 

It came as a major relief to advocates, after four years of conservation rollbacks and climate science manipulation under President Donald Trump, which encouraged aggressive logging. Mature and old-growth trees provide essential ecosystems for the many organisms living within and beneath them, and protect the water quality of nearby communities, lakes, and streams by preventing erosion. They also fix nitrogen, which improves soil quality and ensures the health of the whole forest. 

Due to centuries of logging, most of these older trees are now only found on federal lands. Executive Order 14072 directed the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture to define and inventory mature and old-growth forests on federal lands — those having taken generations to develop — and then to craft new policies to protect them.

But in spite of Biden’s recent commitment, federal agencies continue to move dozens of logging projects forward in federal forests across the United States, putting over 300,000 acres at risk, according to a recent report by non-profit group, Climate Forests. Lauren Anderson, climate forest program manager for the conservation group Oregon Wild, said that’s in part due to a glaring omission in the Biden administration’s executive order. “It did not highlight logging as a threat,” Anderson said.

Before (left) and after (right) photos from a Bureau of Land Management timber sale at Nails Creek near Cheshire, Oregon. Doug Heiken

As a result, chopping and hauling out mature and old-growth trees in critical ecosystems across the U.S. continues while the federal government works on counting what’s growing where. Swaths of bigleaf maples and Douglas firs in Oregon’s Rogue-Umpqua Divide, are among those recently axed, or marked to be logged any day now. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Poor Windy Project in southwest Oregon contains 4,573 acres of mature and old-growth stands held in public trust—that are now being sold to timber companies. They’re some of the most carbon rich forests in the world, home to black bears and northern spotted owls.

Joseph Vaile, climate program director at Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, says protecting these remaining elders couldn’t be more urgent. “In a lot of places, they’re [already] gone,” Vaile says.

BLM’s support for logging in these kinds of forests dates back to the 1930’s. The Oregon and California Revested Lands Sustained Yield Management Act placed over two million acres under the agency’s control, with the aim of ensuring the perpetual flow of timber for wood products.

But Vaile says the law’s objective, and the agency culture it codified, is outdated. “Since then, our economy and our social structures have completely transitioned away from an old-growth logging economy to a more diversified economy,” he says. “Instead of going after old-growth trees, what we should be doing is protecting people from fire, adapting these forests to climate change, and protecting water sources.”

It’s a nationwide problem. Timber sales are also underway in a 12,000 acre patch of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest known as the Fourmile Vegetation Project, in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Here, lichen-draped upland hardwoods mingle with red pines and aspens, creating a rich habitat for moose and endangered gray wolves. Though much of the landscape is still recovering from continuous logging, over half of the trees are 80 years and older; and a third are centenarians.

These mature and old-growth trees store more carbon than younger trees, so it’s imperative that we protect them, says Carolyn Ramírez, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We can’t just cut them down and replant them and expect to have a net-zero carbon impact. It will take decades for that carbon to be restored in these forests, as well as all the myriad ecological benefits that leaving the trees provides,” Ramírez says. One mature tree can remove over 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the course of a year. The majority of that carbon-sequestering capacity occurs in the second half of a tree’s life, researchers have learned.

Ramírez visited Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in October, where further timber sales are currently underway. The difference in ecological diversity and surface temperature between areas where mature trees still grew, and others where the Forest Service had recently logged was “jarring,” Ramírez said. In addition to other ecosystem services, forests provide cooler microclimates for those nearby, which is significant in and of itself in a rapidly-warming world.

In response to a 2021 request by environmental groups to suspend and review operations at the Fourmile Vegetation Project on the grounds that continued logging there was at odds with national objectives on the climate crisis, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore wrote that the project would: “maintain or enhance existing forest research studies; contribute toward fulfilling demand for wood products; provide a safe and effective road system; increase public safety related to wildfire potential; and maintain or enhance recreation experiences.”

But Andy Olsen, a senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said those arguments don’t add up. For instance, the old trees harvested from the area are currently slated to be sold as pulpwood, for things like paper and plywood. In other words, mature and old-growth trees logged as part of this project will be ground down into a low-value timber product that could just as easily be produced by younger trees, grown on plantations that store less carbon and don’t serve as keystones to their ecosystems—which the Forest Service has plenty of, Olsen says. “They’re choosing to rush forward with these sales of very important lands. Why these forests, why now?” he said.

Other elements of the Forest Service’s justification are problematic as well. For example, older trees are actually more resistant to wildfires than younger ones. The ongoing timber sales are also at odds with the Biden administration’s global climate commitments, Olsen added, such as seeking to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

Federal agencies have until Earth Day 2023 to define mature and old-growth forests, and to complete their inventory. As of this writing, over 130,000 people have submitted public comments urging the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture to set this definition at “80 years and older;” and a coalition of environmental groups is pushing for those agencies to propose what some advocates refer to as a “golden rule” for logging—one that would explicitly prohibit the logging of trees defined as mature and old-growth, given their unique carbon-capturing and biodiversity-protecting powers.

In the meantime, in an attempt to protect thousands of acres of majestic trees, groups including the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) are also urging the Biden administration to pause logging in areas of concern—many of which are on tribal lands—until the inventory is complete. As Michael J. Isham, executive administrator for the GLIFWC wrote to the Forest Service in August 2022, doing so would help “to ensure that future generations of Ojibwe people can continue their Treaty protected relationship with all natural beings.”

Earlier this year, academic researchers published the first study to comprehensively map mature and old-growth forests in the U.S. Advocates say these maps, in support of the government’s inventory could usher in a new approach to forestry—one where trees are treated as venerable colleagues in the fight against the climate crisis.

Anderson, of Oregon Wild, added that currently, there’s no technology capable of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere at the scale that mature and old-growth trees can. “Getting forest managers to really think about old-growth trees the same way that other states think about [renewable technologies like] solar panels and wind turbines is the culture shift that needs to happen,” she said.

The Climate Forests Coalition works to protect mature and old-growth trees and forests from logging across America’s public lands as a cornerstone of U.S. climate policy.


This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Despite Biden’s promises, logging still threatens old forests and U.S. climate goals on Nov 28, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News


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