The Canadian Prime Minister labels his Canadian critics American. Victims of an Indian disaster caused by a US firm may finally have a clean place to call home 28 years later. North Carolina lawmakers choose to legislate sea level changes with their heads in the sand. All that, and South Texas Spaceports, in this weeks’ Environmental Roundup for Texas, the Nation, and Beyond!
A week after an unmanned capsule, launched by SpaceX, became the first privately owned spacecraft to reach the International Space Station, a Texas environmental group, Environment Texas launched a campaign to prevent SpaceX from building a launch pad on coastal land surrounded by wildlife refuges near Brownsville. According to Environment Texas Director, Luke Metzger, “launching big, loud, polluting rockets from the middle of a wildlife refuge will scare the heck out of every creature within miles and spray noxious chemicals all over the place. It's a terrible idea and SpaceX needs to find another place for their spaceport.” The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department noted that the proposed site has “potential for significant contamination of very senstive resources in the event of a catastrophic event (i.e., hurricane),” is “extremely susceptible to wildfires,” and that the spaceport could cause the “loss of the function and value of all wetlands” in the area. You can sign Environment Texas’ petition here.
Private water wells are becoming the new status symbol for Austin’s elite residents. According to data from the Texas Water Development Board, Austinites have drilled 150 wells into the Edward’s Aquifer since 2006 and 46 last year alone. The wells cost $18,000 - $36,000 each and are generally used for unlimited lawn irrigation, not for consumption. They are not subject to city permits, since most of Travis County does not lie within a groundwater conservation district. Dick Aaron, General Manager of the Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District which manages groundwater under Bell County, told the Austin American Statesman “The trend concerns me. This is the most precious resource we have, so drilling for the sole purpose of landscape (watering) is philosophically a challenge for a lot of us.” Private well owners, such as Attorney General Greg Abbott enjoy the lower water bills these wells provide, but Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber calls them “a bit of a black hole in our water management in Texas. We don’t have any way to have any idea … how much water’s being pumped out of aquifers in Travis County.”
In other bad news for the Edward’s Aquifer, extremely high levels of tetrachloroethene, a solvent used in dry cleaning, were detected in wells in north San Antonio. It is not known where the pollution came from, but the only method of cleaning it is to wait for it to dilute within the aquifer. San Antonio and the Edwards Aquifer Authority have one of the largest aquifer protection programs in the US with 120,000 acres protected from development, and an additional 90,00 acres the city hopes to protect in three to four years.
Scientists from Texas AgriLife Research have embarked on a three-year study to measure the effects of a large scale transition from intensive cotton farming in Texas to switchgrass and sorghum which would be used to power biomass power plants. According to the researchers, “the thought is that the second-generation biofuel feedstock systems will reduce the negative environmental effects associated with the conventional, intensively managed cropping systems currently in the region.” The largest biomass plant in the US is in Nacodoches, and sells its energy to Austin.
While the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (a state agency), and federal authorities predict that sea levels will rise by 1 meter by 2100, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would mandate that all development and emergency planning be based on “historic sea level” changes which show a 1.7mm rise per year since 1900 and a 3.17mm rise since 1993. According to these calculations, the sea should only rise about 8-15 inches by 2100. What is at stake, of course, is millions of dollars in potential revenue from lands that could be developed if the state accepts the low water mark, or would be condemned as a flood zone in the higher estimate. Ignoring rising seas could hinder transportation and emergency planning, and could cause insurance rates to rise. The N.C. Coastal Federation said that relying on historical trends is like “being told to make investment decisions strictly on past performance, and not being able to consider market trends and research.”
More than 400 organizations blacked out their websites Monday in response to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s efforts to silence critics of the Keystone XL pipeline, of which he is a major backer. Harper’s Conservative government has written a new bill, set to pass later this month, that would strip the non-profit status of many environmental groups which oppose the pipeline. “Our government’s ... trying to push through pipelines at all costs. That new attitude is propelled by their surprise at Keystone’s failure,” said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, among the organizers of the “BlackoutSpeakout” action. The Harper administration counters that it is trying to prevent “foreign interference” in Canadian politics. I suppose the numerous Canadian groups opposing the pipeline including British Columbians, Indigenous Canadians, and major opposition parties are considered “un-Canadian” by Mr. Harper.
On May 29th, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the Indian government to clean up toxic waste left over from the 1984 Union Carbide plant disaster in Bhopal. In December 1984, a large amount of deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the plant and killed up to 20,000 people, severely wounded up to 500,000 more. It is, by far, the worst industrial accident in history. The Court’s statement said the government had “not taken any steps for the disposal of toxic waste because the victims of Bhopal gas tragedy are poor. There is a lack of seriousness in handling this problem.” The home affairs minister, P Chidambaram rejected the court’s assertion, noting that a German company has been contracted to dispose the waste, but a final incineration site has not been found.
If you missed it, the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun occurred yesterday. It is the last time this phenomenon will happen until 2117. Here are some fantastic photos of the, literally, once in a lifetime event.
Settlements and handcuffs are passed out in the wake of the BP Spill. Crazy SoCal water dispute has two sides and more than one story. FOX News wants to invade Russia. My tree is smarter than your honors student, or so it seems. All that, plus zombie Keystone XL Pipeline, and more in this week’s Environmental Roundup for Texas and beyond!
The Deepwater Horizon Disaster (Getty Images)
The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was in the news twice this week. First, BP announced it has reached a settlement with thousands of individuals and businesses affected by the disaster. The company will pay about $7.8 billion in damages, including $2.3 billion to Gulf Coast fisherman whose livelihood remains at risk due to the massive plume of hydrocarbons released during the spill.
Also, Federal prosecutors charged former BP engineer, Kurt Mix, with destroying evidence (consisting of more than 300 text messages) relating to the Deepwater Horizon spill. David Uhlmann, of the University of Michigan Law School, believes this is “just the first of what will be multiple criminal charges” handed out to BP employees who might have been covering up the size and complexity of the spill.
The Keystone pipeline we never wanted just won’t leave us alone, as Transcanda submitted a new route to regulators for the 1,700 mile long pipeline from Alberta, Canada to Port Arthur, Texas. The updated path for the controversial pipeline would avoid Nebraska’s Sand Hills region, which was the focus of much of the earlier opposition to the project within Nebraska. The Oklahoma to Texas portion of the project (which will cross several environmentally sensitive regions including the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer recharge zone) has been fast-tracked by the Obama administration.
The great drought of 2011 has officially ended in Bastrop County. Bastrop, of course, experienced the worst fire in Texas history this past summer as flames fed by a fierce north wind and bone dry conditions destroyed almost 1,700 homes and 35,000 acres of forest. A hydrologist, Barney Austin, warns Texas that it must plan for future water crises like last summer’s drought, because they may become more common.
Researchers at Texas State University in San Marcos won a EPA P3 Sustainability Award for a neat process that converts rice husks (a generally useless agricultural waste product) into lignocellulose, a material which can be used for producing fabrics and biofuels.
San Diego accused the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (a consortium of municipalities that provides water to 19 million Californians) of “conspiracies, illegal secret meetings and double-dealing.” The accusations stem from two 5% annual water rate increases that San Diego is challenging in court. A PR campaign accompanying the lawsuit includes an inflammatory website which implies the MWD is increasing rates to make up lost revenue due to San Diego’s increased water efficiency. San Diego is at the end of a very long system of pipelines, and may be suffering from “end-of-pipeline paranoia,” according to Lester Snow of the California Water Foundation.
If you weren’t already aware, the Obama administration enacted very real and beneficial environmental policies during the last three years. Along with funding for green technology and efficiency, Obama instituted landmark emissions standards which limit greenhouse gasses, mercury and other forms of toxic air pollution. These standards will protect countless children from chronic asthma and other respiratory diseases. His challenger, Mittens Romney, has pledged to “aggressively” roll back these critical protections, he would cut funding to new technologies which currently support 37,000 jobs, and believes in increasing subsidies to oil companies including ExxonMobil, the most profitable company in the world. Think Progress has a handy guide to the two candidates’ positions on environmental issues. Of course, Romney will likely change his position on each of these issues in the coming weeks.
Everyone’s favorite “news” outlet, FOX, ran a bizarre story which seems to imply that Obama’s hatred of drilling in Alaska (for what its worth, drilling has increased substantially there during his term in office) is forcing ExxonMobil to enter into a secret pact with Russia (the vast majority of Exxon’s business is overseas) to explore for oil in the arctic (its in their arctic, not ours) which will somehow raise the price of oil in the US (it won’t), and is cause for alarm (it isn’t). They “report,” you decide.
The Royal Society, a British think tank, released a profoundly depressing report on the future of the planet titled People and the planet. It predicts that if humanity remains on the current course, “a downward spiral of economic and environmental ills” will follow. Its recommendations for dealing with these problems, however, are quite reasonable:
The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty.
The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilize and then reduce material consumption levels.
Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programs urgently require political leadership and financial commitment.
Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues.
Here is a really cool reusable water bottle that actually keeps track of how many plastic water bottles you have saved by using it. 51 billion plastic water bottles were purchased in the US last year, and only 25% of them were recycled.
Plants are much “smarter” than we usually give them credit for, according to this piece from io9. They can hear, create communication networks, have memories, and can recognize their relatives among other nifty tricks.
The Keystone XL Pipeline just won’t go away. Texas and the UK are dealing with water crises while Saudi Arabia, of all places, is wasting it. Wind energy is soaring. Solar is getting slimmed down. And Cuba is leading an agricultural revolution. All that and more, in this weeks environmental roundup
Though the Canada to Oklahoma portion of the Keystone pipeline was rejected by his administration, President Obama vowed, last week, to fast track the southern portion of the pipeline, which would bring bring tar sands, diluted bitumen oil from Cushing, Oklahoma to refineries on the Texas coast. The White House reiterated the “administration's commitment to expediting the construction of a pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico, relieving a bottleneck of oil and bringing domestic resources to market.” Problem: that oil is not a domestic resource (last time I checked, Alberta is in Canada).
David Daniel, an East Texas landowner, whose property would be cut in half by the southern portion of the pipeline wrote this editorial in response to the President’s statement. He asked, “Does the president stand with American families and their right for clean water, air, and land or does he stand with Big Oil in its never-ending quest to wring private profits from the tar sands?”
A collaboration between the Travis County District Attorney’s office, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the EPA resulted in the conviction of Bencor LLC, and its owner, Christine Giese, for abandoning large drums of hazardous waste in a storage unit in Austin. The company was ordered to pay a $50,000 fine, and the owner was fined and placed on deferred adjudication. While this offense occurred in Austin, Rosemary Lehmberg, the Travis Co DA, has jurisdiction over statewide environmental crimes and has aggressively prosecuted polluters. “This prosecution reflects our commitment to defending the environment,” said Lehmberg.
Here are two great reads that sum up the looming water crisis Texas faces despite recent rains. The first, from Community Impact gives a great overview of the drought and the lack of unified water planning. The second, from the Texas Tribune details a recent Texas House committee hearing on the drought wherein the legislators discussed mandatory watering restrictions and desalination plants. Both are insightful reads. “[Texas is] projected to double our population in the next 50 years, and we currently do not have the water to support that future growth," Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber said. "Water policymaking in Texas is fragmented, and as a result, no one takes responsibility for actually solving bigger problems. We must figure out how to change this and change it soon.”
Wind power is, by far, the fastest growing component of the energy sector in the US, with output growing by 36.5% between 2007-2011. Texas leads the nation with 10,400 megawatts of wind production. T. Boones Pickens, the mercurial Texas billionaire, announced plans to build a new 377 MW wind farm in the panhandle. Three years ago he scrapped plans to build a 4,000 MW farm near Pampa due to a lack of adequate transmission lines.
Apparently, radioactive waste dumps are the new growth industry in West Texas. Well, at least if Harold Simmons, a major Republican donor, gets his way. After years of lobbying the Obama administration to get the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to change rules which limit the types of nuclear waste that can be dumped in landfills, Simmons has shifted tactics towards electing Republicans. Thus far, he has donated $15.9 million to various R candidates and Superpacs. So, just to reiterate, electing Republicans will lead to more hazardous radioactive waste being dumped in Texas.
Ian Carey debunks the notion that what is good for the environment is bad for the economy. “A healthy environment is a prerequisite for a healthy economy.”
A new report shows that New Jersey dumps 8.5 million pounds of toxins into its waterways every year. The bulk of the pollution comes from one plant, the DuPont Chambers Works in Salem county which releases 5.4 million pounds of hazardous waste into the Delaware River each year.
Facing rising gasoline prices, FedEx CEO Fred Smith announced an ambitious plan to sharply limit his companies use of fossil fuels. The plan includes replacing its light truck and van fleet with electric vehicles, which “will operate at a 75 percent less per-mile cost than an internal combustion engine variant,” he said. He expects his company’s heavy trucks to run on natural gas, and its planes to run on biofuels in the near future.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and the group Environment Illinois issued a report Wednesday urging immediate action to address climate change. The report highlighted the large number of extreme weather events in Illinois in recent years. 97% of Illinois residents live in counties affected by weather related disasters since 2006. Here is an example of extreme and bizarre weather closer to home:
Illegal logging is now a $10-$15 billion per year enterprise according to a report issued by the World Bank. “Most illegal logging operations are run by organized crime, and much of the profit goes to corrupt officials.”
Cuba’s agricultural transition from a Soviet Bloc factory for cigars, sugar, and rum that had to import the majority of its foodstuffs into a land of small tenant farmers who have great freedom with their land and are able to feed the rest of the country makes for an interesting read and could make a model for other desperately poor countries in Latin America and Africa.
The Keystone XL pipeline is probably here to stay; the fracking industry bubble looks like it might burst; Texas’s water problems worsen; a meth-head burns down one of the oldest living things on earth; and more!
Jeff Goodell, of Rolling Stone, wrote an incredibly important piece on the fracking industry. In addition to fracking’s nasty side effects, Goodell exposed the shady business practices of some of the biggest firms involved in fracking.
According to Arthur Berman, a respected energy consultant in Texas who has spent years studying the industry, Chesapeake and its lesser competitors resemble a Ponzi scheme, overhyping the promise of shale gas in an effort to recoup their huge investments in leases and drilling. When the wells don’t pay off, the firms wind up scrambling to mask their financial troubles with convoluted off-book accounting methods. “This is an industry that is caught in the grip of magical thinking,” Berman says. “In fact, when you look at the level of debt some of these companies are carrying, and the questionable value of their gas reserves, there is a lot in common with the subprime mortgage market just before it melted down.”
Water experts Laura Huffman (of the Nature Conservancy), Andrew Sansom (of Texas State University), and Tom Mason (former head of the LCRA) spoke in Austin Wednesday at the monthly meeting of the Central Texas Democratic Forum about the current water crisis facing Texas. They all agreed that the state needs to get serious about planning for the future. Sansom said, “even without the drought we would be facing the gravest natural resource shortage in history,” adding, “we have already given permission for more water to be withdrawn from our rivers than is actually in them.” Huffman focused on opportunities for massive increases in water conservation, but urged “we must make sure public funding targets the smartest programs first. We will not solve the state’s water problems with lo-flow toilets.” According to Huffman, agriculture accounts for 60% of water use in Texas, 30% of which is wasted. Programs which encourage Texas growers to reclaim, re-use, or just not waste that water could have a huge impact. Mason offered some thoughts on the recent Day Case, “it means groundwater districts will be much less inclined to regulate resources. It is a broad brush opinion that establishes no guidelines. It will derail water management for a long time.”
As if to underscore their talk, the LCRA was forced to cut off water to rice farmers along the gulf coast today as lake levels in Lakes Travis and Buchanan were too low to allow the release of 147,000 acre-feet of water. The water would have accounted for about a third of all the water farmers in Colorado, Wharton, and Matagorda counties would use in 2012
With natural gas prices falling sharply as a result of the fracking “boom,” it’s no surprise that Texas drillers are switching back to good old oil. Oil well drilling is skyrocketing with 765 wells completed this January compared to 368 last year.
President Obama campaigned today in New Hampshire, pledging to end tax payer funded subsidies to the oil and gas industry he called “outrageous and inexcusable.”
Coal fired energy is not hot these days. Chicago is the latest major city to announce the closure of its coal-fired plants. In Texas, coal fired energy production plummeted 30% from last year. Visit BeyondCoal for more information.
The Texas Observer has a fascinating interview with peak oil expert Tad Patzek. He discusses the dearth of conventional petroleum, the problems with unconventional sources of oil and bio-fuels, and the need to start realistic planning for the future. Here’s a nice tid bit:
I'm just trying to be realistic, you see, the thing again - since we have a very loose relationship to the truth and reality [in this country], we are unwilling to face reality, instead we are telling lies to one another, right? We call it optimistic and positive attitude, when somebody's trying to tell you the truth you call them pessimistic and a dark picture. Well how about something else: we live within our means, we spend what we have and then if we have an excess of it we devote it to something else. Now how is that for a novel way of living?
Sadly, it appears as if the portion of Keystone XL pipeline which runs from Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas will be built after all, though there will be some significant challenges to the proposed route. Landowners, environmentalists, and city governments along the future pipeline are gearing up to fight Transcanada in court over the massive abuse of eminent domain seizures that will result from the construction. Here’s some background on the pipeline debate.
Finally, in astoundingly stupid and depressing news, a 26 year old Floridian was arrested for burning down The Senator, a 3,500 year old Pond Cypress, while smoking meth. It was the fifth oldest tree on earth, and the tallest tree east of the Mississippi River.
This is the first in what will be a weekly rundown of environmental news affecting Texas, the United States, and the world. In brief, the drought in Texas continues despite recent rains in East Texas, news leaked out of an ongoing oil spill in the Gulf that began in 2004, the Keystone XL pipeline debate made its way onto Comedy Central, nuclear power is making a comeback in the US, and President Obama released his 2013 budget.
The Drought In Texas
The water supply system in Texas was built in response to the 1950’s drought. Laura Huffman of the Nature Conservancy argues that Texas needs major investments to meet the needs of today’s population and economy. The drought cost Texas over $5.2 billion in crop and cattle losses last year. If water supplies do not improve, losses could reach $116 billion a year by 2060.
The drought killed 5.6 million trees in urban areas and up to 500 million trees statewide, or about 10% of the state’s forest cover, according to a report from the Texas Forest Service. Houston saw some of the worst drought damage, with thousands of trees lost in Memorial Park alone. Central and North Texas parks tend to feature hardier, drought resistant species, so losses were less in those areas.
Republicans in the Senate are attempting to attach an amendment to a highway bill that would force approval of the pipeline. President Obama has threatened to veto a similar bill in the House.
Anti-Keystone activist, Bill McKibben, appeared on the Colbert Report to discuss the widespread public outrage over the Senate Republicans’ plans. His group, 350.org collected over 800,000 signatures urging senators to vote against the pipeline.
As we all know, our Governor, and national disgrace, Rick Perry loves polluters, and hates anyone (such as the EPA, children with asthma, and even religious organizations) that get in the way of his huge crush on those who poison our Texas environment. The Texas Tribune has a neat interactive guide to Perry’s pursuit of dirty water and unbreathable air for all.
President Obama released his 2013 Budget that would increase funding for clean energy and energy efficiency by 30%.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) released the agenda for its last meeting, on Feb. 8 showing fines totaling $636,000 were handed down for violations including 11 air quality, 3 municipal solid waste, 7 municipal waste discharge, 3 petroleum storage, 2 public water system, and 2 water quality violations. One particularly macabre violation was handed out to an Illinois medical waste disposal company, Stericycle, which was improperly dumping human remains in landfills in Austin and McCallen. Stericycle was fined $42,000. The entire agenda text can be read here. TCEQ will meet next Feb. 22.
Nuclear power is back in the news after the announcement that 2 new reactors will be built in Georgia. They are the first reactors approved in the US since 1978. Nuclear power requires very little fuel, produces a huge amount of energy, and creates almost no waste… Unless something goes wrong. The biggest obstacle to new nukes is, of course, the fear of another Fukushima like tragedy, but the cost of new plants is prohibitive as well. The Georgia plants are expected to cost $14 billion! Gizmag has a fascinating piece on Small Modular Reactors which are significantly smaller, safer, and, potentially, orders of magnitude cheaper than the current massive plants. Its definitely worth a read.