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Greg Abbott Got Himself A Pretty New Water Well: Your Environmental News Roundup

by: Adam Schwitters

Wed Jun 06, 2012 at 08:00 AM CDT

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.

The Nation

  • 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.
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Weekly Environmental News Roundup For Texas and Beyond

by: Adam Schwitters

Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 03:10 PM CST

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.

  • Arcane water rights laws force East Texas landowners to forgo water from the Sabine River because a hunting and fishing club needs more water, revealing a patchwork of water rights dating back to the 18th century.  More than 1200 water rights permits were suspended in 2011, and with the drought expected to continue through 2012, expect more lawsuits in the future.

The Seven Year Old Oil Spill You Haven’t Heard Of

Keystone XL Pipeline News

  • 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.

Other News

  • 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.

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Joe Nocera Wades Into A Tar Sands Debate He Doesn't Understand

by: Adam Schwitters

Tue Feb 07, 2012 at 02:53 PM CST

While the US Senate is debating a bill that would revive the moribund Keystone XL pipeline while limiting legal challenges to the route, Joe Nocera of the New York Times published an ill considered OpEd today that shows he understands neither the risks nor the economics of tar sands oil.

Nocera makes at least four completely false assertions in his piece.

  • The first, which makes  up the bulk of the essay, is that the Obama administration’s rejection of Keystone is driving the Canadian government into the arms of the Chinese and thereby endangering US energy security.  Keystone was always aimed at the Chinese market.  As a result of increased efficiency and the global downturn, US oil consumption has steadily dropped since 2005 (from about 20.5 million barrels per day to 19 million bbd in 2010).  China’s demand, on the other hand, rose from about 6.5 million bbd to over 9 million bbd during the same period.  Source: CIA Factbook.  Over this same period, Port Arthur, Texas (the proposed endpoint of Keystone XL) undertook “the largest US refinery expansion to occur in 30 years” with major additions to Motiva and Valero refineries.  That expanded refining capacity and easy access to the Panama Canal made Port Arthur the easiest and cheapest route for tar sands oil to reach the Chinese market.  Tar sands oil has been in the US market for years it just never had an easy path to overseas markets.  A recent Cornell University study on Keystone’s economic impact predicted that were the pipeline built, midwest gasoline prices would likely rise 10-20 cents per gallon.  Also, though Joe asserts that Canada has a “newfound willingness to to business with China,” the Canadian logging industry has never had an issue with selling lumber to China.

  • The second, is that tar sands oil would allow the US “to become, if not energy self-sufficient, at least energy secure, no longer beholden to OPEC.”  Not only is all that Canadian oil not bound for US markets, it will not endanger price points set by, in Joe’s words, “countries that don’t like us.” Countries like Saudi Arabia which possesses the world’s largest oil reserves and which recently indicated that it would keep global oil prices “around $100 per barrel” regardless of new supplies (tar sands) or supply instability (Iran).  $100 per barrel is, conveniently, about the lowest price for tar sands oil to be economically viable, as the cost in extracting and transporting the sticky, nearly solid substance is substantially higher than traditional crude oil.

  • Nocera’s third false premise is that tar sands oil is just ” a little dirtier than the crude that pours forth from the Saudi Arabian desert, but is hardly the environmental disaster many suppose.”  Tar sands oil is a lot dirtier than Saudi crude.  It contains 10 times more sulfur and is 3 times more acidic than traditional crudes.  When piped, it is subject to 3 times more pressure than crude oil, and contains a 3 times greater flow of abrasive quartz and silica than a commercial grade sandblaster.  There already has been a major tar sands oil spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the increased size and flow of the Keystone XL pipe would raise the risks of another, bigger, spill considerably.  Also, just last week, Canadian officials announced a plan to start poisoning wolves in northern Alberta in an attempt to stave off the collapse of caribou herds which have been affected by massive habitat loss due to tar sands mining that destroys huge tracts of forest to get at the sticky substance underneath. If the massive deployment of strychnine is not an admission of an environmental catastrophe, what is?  See it for yourself.  This is what a tar sands strip mine looks like from space.  This is a whole lot different from the “crude that pours forth from the Saudi Arabian desert.”

  • Nocera’s final wrong assumption is that if Keystone XL isn’t built, Canada will, with a sweep of its imperial hand, find its own “diverse buyers so it won’t be held hostage by American politics.”  To do this, Canada would need an oil exporting terminal along with a pipeline bringing oil to it from Alberta.  This has not proved easy for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration.  Enbridge, a major player in Albertan oil, has proposed the Northern Gateway pipeline which would terminate in Kitimat along the pristine northwest coast of British Columbia.  British Columbians, blessed as they are with natural beauty and clean waters, are not pleased with this plan and have been staging large protests ever since Northern Gateway was first proposed.

Joe Nocera should stick to issues he understands, apologia for Canadian oil profiteering is beneath him.

Contact your senators here to let them know that a revived Keystone pipeline is unacceptable.  We have enough oil in this country, and it is dirty enough as it is thank you very much.

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Obama Says He Will VETO Payroll Tax Legislation if Keystone XL Attached

by: chris wilson

Wed Dec 07, 2011 at 04:09 PM CST

President Obama said he will VETO Payroll Tax Legislation if Republicans insist on attaching the Keystone XL to this vital legislation.  Republicans have no problem trying to push TransCanada's BOGUS job claims yet they sure have a problem supporting President Obama's Jobs Bills that benefit Americans irregardless of their political affiliation.  

From today's joint press conference with President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Harper:  "If the payroll tax cut is attached to a whole bunch of extraneous issues, then it's not something that I'm going to accept."


Thank you President Obama!  

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