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Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

NOTE: Please stay safe and take precautions to protect yourself and your family from Hurricane Harvey. Resources are available at https://www.fema.gov/hurricane-harvey.

Harvey is the first hurricane since Ike in 2008 to threaten the Texas Gulf Coast. Warnings have been issued from “Brownsville to Beaumont” and Governor Gregg Abbott has issued a preemptive disaster declaration for 30 Texas counties. As Texas braces for the storm, Harvey is a stark reminder that the Gulf Coast is vulnerable to severe storms and the impacts of climate change.

The specter of climate change looms over any severe storm forecast today. We can’t ascribe a particular storm to the effects of global climate change, but we do know that climate change may be responsible for an increase in Hurricanes in the Atlantic. Harvey is a reminder that the Texas Gulf Coast,  must prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Some of the doubt about the real risks of global climate change has been sown by leaders of industry. The accusation that “Exxon knew” about climate change decades before it admitted the risk to the public was recently bolstered by research published in Environmental Research Letters. The research supports the conclusion that ExxonMobil willfully hid research conclusions about climate change from the public for many decades.

Whether or not ExxonMobil publicly admits the risk of climate change, the company would do well to prepare for its effects. ExxonMobil operates the second largest oil refinery in the nation, the Baytown Refinery and Complex, with a daily capacity of 560,500 barrels.

Harris County places portions of the ExxonMobil Baytown complex within the 100-year floodplain, shown below in light blue:

Comparing this map to the Google Earth map of the region, you can see a tank farm within the 100-year floodplain:

Zooming in on the outlined area above, we see perhaps three dozen tanks and two petcoke storage pits in the threatened area:

Research organizations in Houston have been modeling the potential impacts of severe storms on the Houston Ship Channel. At Rice University, the center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters has a model of the potential impacts of Tropical storm Harvey. The SSPEED Center predicts sea level rise of several feet in places (for now, no storm surge is predicted in Houston):

We don’t know if this storm, or the next one, will finally tests Houston’s resiliency. What we do know is that our nation’s largest petrochemical complex is vulnerable to severe storms. We also know that climate change will make these storms more frequent, and more dangerous. If we do not prepare ourselves for their impact, we can only hope to recover from their consequences.

Again, please take all necessary steps to protect yourself and your family. Stay safe and visit https://www.fema.gov/hurricane-harvey.

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If you felt like 2015 was exceptionally warmer than usual, you weren’t alone. Last month, scientists declared 2015 the hottest year on record. Some of this heat can be attributed to the El Niño weather pattern releasing heat from the Pacific Ocean into the atmosphere, but most of the record-breaking heat is from climate changes caused by human-related greenhouse gas emissions.

NASA, the National Aeronautics Space Administration, and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both collected data that showed that 2015 was between 0.23-0.29 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than 2014. This number may seem small and insignificant, but in terms of global temperature, it’s a big deal.  Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information emphasized that point:

This record, we literally smashed. It was over a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit, and that’s a lot for the global temperature.

In comparison to average temperatures in the 20th century, and not just 2014, 2015 was 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit higher.

2015 Hottest Year

Heat StrokeThe severe heat last year was felt around the world. There were record-high temperatures in the triple digits across Europe in June and July in Spain, Portugal, France, the U.K., Germany, and Poland. In May, India experienced 120 degree days that melted the asphalt, killing 2,500 people. In June, 1,200 people died in Pakistan after temperatures reached 113 degrees. When the atmosphere is warmer, it can hold more water vapor, which can cause an increase in heavy rains. The recent catastrophic floods in the eastern U.S. are evidence of this. El Niño is also disturbing atmosphere circulation which is causing some worldwide weather extremes like the drought in southern Africa.

So how will Texas be affected by this global climate change? With its location and vast size, Texas has a wide range of vulnerabilities to the effects of climate change. A study done by the Risky Business Project found that Texas will be one of the states that is most negatively affected by climate change.

Texas by 2050:

  • Decrease in worker productivity and crop yields.
  • Sea level rise of 2 feet in Galveston.
  • The number of extremely hot days per year (temperatures exceeding 95 degrees) will more than double from 43 to 106 days per year.
  • About 4,500 additional heat-related deaths per year.
  • A $650 million per year increase in storm-related losses along the coast, bringing the state’s annual damages to more than $3.9 billion.

Texas Climate

The Risky Business Project’s mission is to convince business leaders in Texas that climate change is a true risk. This will not be easy since Texas lawmakers routinely dismiss climate change. Regarding the news that 2015 was the hottest year, NASA head Charles Bolden said, “This announcement is a key data point that should make policymakers stand up and take notice – now is the time to act.” That it is, Bolden.

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Porter Ranch - photo by Maya Sugarman KPCC

Porter Ranch – photo by Maya Sugarman KPCC

The massive natural gas leak in Porter Ranch, CA, just outside of Los Angeles, has been temporarily capped. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the leak isn’t yet permanently stopped and that it has already done incredible damage over the 111 days it spewed methane and toxic chemicals into the air.

The state of emergency called by Governor Jerry Brown is still in effect for what is being named the largest environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. Over 94,700 metric tons of methane has escaped since October 23, which is one of the largest leaks ever recorded. This incident has taken California two steps back in its progress towards greenhouse gas emissions reductions especially since methane is 87 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. For perspective, the amount of methane released so far from the natural gas leak will have the same impact on climate over the next twenty years as emissions from seven coal power plants. Despite these environmental crimes, not one person has been arrested, although this past week, the citizens of Los Angeles County have begun taking legal action.

Southern California Gas Co (SoCal Gas), a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, is the responsible company for the Aliso Canyon Methane Leak, and is finally facing charges for this disaster. District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced the criminal charges filed against SoCal Gas for failing to immediately report the gas leak at its Aliso Canyon facility to the proper state authorities. The site leaked for three days before SoCal Gas officials contacted the city’s fire department.

Major public health concerns are also leading to lawsuits. Residents across the county are reporting health issues such as nose bleeds, female health problems (excessive bleeding), rashes, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness, and have packed town hall meetings voicing their concerns. One Porter Rach resident, Christine Katz, stated, “Even though you can’t see the gas, it’s there. And that’s the saddest part — people don’t understand it. Because it’s not a mudslide, it’s not an earthquake. You just don’t see the devastation, but it’s there.”

SoCal Gas has yet to release a full listing of the chemicals being emitted from the leak, furthering distrust and anxiety from the community. Local law firms have organized a website (www.porterranchlawsuit.com) for citizens to reach out if they have been impacted. More than 25 lawsuits have been filed pursuing damages from the SoCal Gas and Sempra Energy. For example, a family of an elderly woman has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the gas company, claiming that the leaking chemicals led to the worsening of her health and untimely death this past January.

Legal actions will certainly hurt these gas companies financially, but is this an effective way of enforcing the law? History says no. Time and time again, environmental crimes are punished with fines, and these disasters continue to happen putting the public at risk. New regulations, transparency, and stricter criminal enforcement on the individuals responsible very well could bring justice in these incidents.

Crimes committed under a corporate veil are still crimes and should be treated as such. No amount of money will ever reverse the harsh health and environmental effects the Aliso Canyon Methane Leak is having on the region. But we can put into place policies that make corporations take the environmental risks of their operations much more seriously. A proactive justice process would be exponentially more effective means of dealing with environmental crimes than merely reacting after the fact.

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Protecting our Workers from Climate Change by Christina Hausle

Protecting our Workers from Climate Change by Christina Hausle

The world is getting hotter. And for those who work outdoors, climate change could mean very dangerous working conditions. As the heat index increases, stricter regulations and safety practices need to be implemented to ensure the health of our workers. Not doing so could be the difference between life and death.

People working jobs that require time outside, especially those working strenuous jobs outside must protect themselves from heat illness. The body is vulnerable to heat illness when our natural cooling mechanisms are not enough, allowing out body temperatures to rise to dangerous levels if precautions are not taken such as drinking water and resting in shade or air condition. Heat illness can take many forms, such as heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke which requires immediate medical attention, and can result in death. Extreme heat increases the chances of deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease as the raised levels of ozone and other pollutants  in the air from climate change exacerbate these diseases along with increased pollen and other aeroallergen levels.

Most employers understand the risk of heat illness and prepare by establishing a heat illness prevention programs that provide workers with water, rest, shade and modified schedules for those who need to acclimatize to the hot conditions such as new workers or those who have not been working for a week or more. The danger increases when workers have to wear bulky protective clothing or take part in intensive work tasks; similarly, working in full sunlight can increase the heat index values by 10 degrees Celsius.

Though both employers and employees should understand these risks, there are still cases where heat illness caused death. Between 2008 and 2014, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) had 109 reports of workers’ deaths due to heat illness with 15 of those recorded in Texas. Though employers do not have to legally comply with the OSHA standards for heat illness prevention, they must have some version of such a program to protect their workers.

With recent increases in the global temperature due to climate change, conditions only become more and more dangerous for workers. In the last 100 years, the world has warmed by .75 degrees Celsius with the last 3 decades successively warmer since 1850. These increased temperatures are expected to cause about 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria and heat stress between 2030-2050. With increased average temperatures, more frequent and more intense heat waves are expected to occur. Throughout the U.S. the number of days with high temperatures above 90F is predicted to increase, especially in the Southeast and Southwest.

If the frequency of heat waves and extreme heat days follows this prediction, then all workers will be at risk for heat illness and even greater measures must be taken in order to protect their health. But more importantly, measures must be taken to prevent the increase of climate change in the first place—this problem that has the power to negatively affect every single aspect of our lives.

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The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) released a report yesterday titled “ERCOT Analysis of the Impacts of the Clean Power Plan” regarding the costs, benefits, and concerns of Texas’ compliance with Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan, put forth by the EPA on June 2, 2014, would set new national carbon pollution standards, in an effort to combat the effects of climate change and air pollution. ERCOT, which operates the electric grid of Texas and manages the deregulated market for 75 percent of the state, concluded that there are reliability concerns and high costs associated with the changes necessary for the electric grid infrastructure and the shift to alternative low-carbon energy sources.

Environmental advocacy organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, and Public Citizen have begun commenting on this report, which they claim overstates the costs of compliance while understating the benefits of solar and energy efficiency. Not only does ERCOT’s report fail to take into account the affordability of solar energy and energy efficiency, it also neglects the steps that electric utility companies have already taken towards clean energy. Various electric utilities in Texas have been retiring inefficient coal plants and gas units in favor of adopting solar and wind energy projects. ERCOT’s own monthly interconnection report shows that more than 30,000 MW of solar and wind projects are in development stages. Texas’ energy storage and demand response capacities are also missing in the report. These two resources provide real-time reactive power when there is turbulence in wind and solar inputs, which would maintain a reliable power grid as Texas transitions to renewable energies.

The Clean Power Plan is a crucial step in reducing climate pollution and our dependency on dirty coal and other fossil fuels. The benefits of clean and affordable energy in Texas cannot be overstated. ERCOT should take the time to reevaluate the role of renewable energies in Texas’ future.

Download our presentation on our view of the plan here update New ERCOT Cost Estimates 

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China Heat Wave- US China Daily Australia experienced record-breaking temperatures and many other countries are experiencing uncharacteristically intense heat waves. Whether or not these events are related to climate change has been questioned in the past, but has recently come to light as something that is very probable.

Recently, researchers and scientists come up with the phrase “extreme event attribution” which acts as a unit of measure for the extent to which these weather events are human-caused. For instance, according to extreme event attribution, the heat wave in Korea was 10 times more likely due to human caused climate change. Scientists want extreme event attribution to be in real-time by the end of 2015.

The American Meteorological Society recently released a bulletin based off of 22 case studies. It concluded saying that high temperatures made heat waves more intense and more likely and that the emission of greenhouse gases is causing these extreme weather events. Recent heatwaves in Australia, Korea, Japan, China, and Western Europe are all judged to be due to climate change. The National Climate Assessment also made a connection between climate change and the drought in Australia.

The impact of climate change seems clear, with China experiencing its biggest heat wave in 140 years August of 2013, during which at least 40 people died. Health effects of heat waves range from heat strokes to aggravated chronic diseases. The heat also increases ground-level ozone levels, causing lung injury and increasing the severity of respiratory diseases.
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2050 Weather Forecast

The World Meteorological Organization, the United Nation’s weather agency, challenged international weather media to come up with a futuristic weather report for September 28, 2050 as part of their call for government and business leaders to agree to ambitious action on climate change at the U.N. Climate Summit on Sept. 23 in New York.

The Weather Channel took up that challenge and Sam Champion walks us through what that might look like.

Click here to watch their futuristic weather report.

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City sets ambitious solar goal, path to zero carbon pollution from Austin Energy by 2030

Some of the Affordable Energy Resolution community supporters celebrate with Councilman Chris Riley, who was the lead sponsor of the resolution.  Photo by Al Braden.

Some of the Affordable Energy Resolution community supporters celebrate with Councilman Chris Riley, who was the lead sponsor of the resolution. Photo by Al Braden.

A diverse coalition of groups representing workers, people of faith, low-income residents, clean energy supporters and environmental advocates united in their of goal of expanding affordable clean energy and protections to public health cheered the Austin City Council for adopting the Affordable Energy Resolution late Thursday evening.

The resolution comes after years of community-led work to study Austin Energy’s portfolio and generation plan, identify opportunities to strengthen the municipal utility’s clean energy and climate commitments while meeting the needs of low-income communities and after community members demonstrated strong demand for more affordable clean energy and less pollution on a reasonable but aggressive timeline.

The Affordable Energy Plan calls for Austin Energy to generate more than 60 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025 and eliminate carbon pollution from its generator fleet by 2030. It directs the utility phase out the Decker gas-fired power plant by investing in 600 megawatts of solar power, enough to power more than 100,000 homes.

“Solar is now cheaper than building a new natural gas plant. Our analysis shows that 600 megawatts of solar will save Austin Energy between $12 and $33 million per year,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group. “We’re grateful for the strong leadership shown by Council Members Chris Riley, Mike Martinez, Kathie Tovo, Laura Morrison and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole.”

The landmark resolution also takes significant steps to expand local solar power.  It doubles Austin’s local solar goal to 200 megawatts, with half of that goal reserved for distributed residential and commercial solar projects. And the resolution expands access to rooftop solar projects by including solar leasing as an option for residents and businesses and by refining Austin Energy’s innovative value of solar tariff.

“Local solar creates local jobs.  The Austin solar industry already employs more than 800 people and many of those jobs are in solar installation and can’t be outsourced,” said Kaiba White of Solar Austin.  “Money spent on local solar goes back into our local economy.  Allowing people from all walks of life to benefit from solar is a win-win for Austin.”

A separate resolution was also passed to establish a task force to make recommendations on expanding the utility’s energy savings goal and ensuring that energy efficiency services are provided to people of all income levels. Energy efficiency is the most easily deployed, lowest-cost option for meeting energy needs and will be a critical component of meeting climate goals for the utility.

The City of Austin has long been a leader in Texas and nationally. The City announced its plans to power all city buildings and operations with Texas wind power in 2012, and earlier in 2014 Austin Energy announced a new solar power project at the lowest cost in U.S. history. In June 2014, the Austin City Council became first elected body in the nation to endorse the goals of the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed plan to curb carbon pollution that drives climate disruption.

“The impacts of a rapidly changing climate are clear in Central Texas and as a progressive community we have a moral obligation to lead in reducing our carbon footprint while providing clean, affordable electricity to our people, businesses and churches,” said Reverend John Elford with the University United Methodist Church of Austin. “This resolution sets us on a path to meet both those needs.”

The Decker natural gas-fired power plant is a major contributor to smog pollution in Travis County. Replacing the plant with clean solar power will cut smog and improve air quality for the more than one million residents in the county, protecting children, seniors and people suffering from asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

“In its opposition to this resolution, Austin Energy continued the tradition of marginalizing the communities near Decker by citing money as a primary concern at the expense public health. By passing this resolution, City Council members have finally recognized that every Austinite should have the right to clean air. That this is an issue of justice and that it is an issue of equality,” said Mayte Salazar-Ordonez, a volunteer leader with Austin Beyond Coal.

As Austin Energy develops its plan to meet the goals of the Affordable Energy Resolution, building new gas- or coal-fired power plants will not be an option, representing an opportunity to move beyond traditional power plants and further tap Texas’s renewable energy potential.

The coalition will now look to secure timely retirement of the Fayette coal-fired power plant to meet the city’s carbon pollution elimination goal as well as to cut the soot, smog and mercury pollution coming from the plant that impacts local communities, farms and waterways. Nationwide, 178 coal-fired power plants have been announced for retirement as clean energy solutions like wind, solar and energy efficiency have cut air pollution, lowered costs for consumers and created jobs.

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“Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems.” IPCC WGII AR5

IPCC

The opening session of IPCC meeting in Yokohama.
Photo by Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP, Getty Images

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released Part 2 of its Assessment Report showing that work to limit the effects of climate change must begin now.  Part  1 came out in September 2013 and showed indisputable evidence that climate change is real, it is happening today, and human influence is the root cause. The report is the fifth such report that has come from the UN.

This week, government officials and top climate scientists are meeting in Berlin to review a 29-page draft from working group 3 of the UN’s IPCC. This third document is expected to be released later this month.

The scope of the second report takes a broad look at how climate change is impacting the Earth’s oceans, coasts, atmosphere, animals, humans and human societies. The report then examines how we must adapt to manage risks associated with climate change.

This is a stern warning coming from the world’s scientific community, and there is little doubt from the experts about the solution: cut pollution from fossil fuels and prepare for the risks associated with a warming world.

The document warns of side effects from a warming world over the next century. There is a high level of consensus from the scientific community that there will be a rise in sea level from melting glaciers, which threatens coastal cities and low-lying nations. There will also be an increase of drier areas, resulting in increased wildfires and drought.

Part of the problem with climate change is that scientists don’t have a crystal ball to predict how the environment will respond to a rise in temperatures. They are trying to predict effects of climate change over the course of decades. Scientists are anticipating that forests ecosystems could collapse and wetland ecosystems could disintegrate. They are expecting that water systems worldwide will be effected from more flooding in many places and drought in drier regions. Of course, the effects won’t be uniform everywhere.

Scientists are also noting that there could be some localized positive effects from climate change. They say that there will be fewer deaths from severe cold, but scientists are also anticipating more deaths due to heat. Some parts of the planet may become better suited for agriculture, especially in higher altitudes, but lower crop yields in other areas will outweigh those benefits. Also, scientist predict that fish and aquatic life will move around as ocean temperatures rise. However, there could be effects, both good and bad, that scientists are not expecting.

The experts are warning the world’s leaders that in order to prevent the worst consequences of climate change we need to reduce pollution, and inaction today will reduce the world’s options for managing the worst effects of climate change.

The level of carbon dioxide is up 41 percent since the Industrial Revolution nearly 200 years ago, and it could double in a matter of decades if the present trend continues.

Unfortunately, here in the US, climate deniers have hijacked the Republican Party and have stalled any meaningful debate about what we are going to do to combat climate change.

“There are those who say we can’t afford to act,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “But waiting is truly unaffordable. The costs of inaction are catastrophic.”

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2014-03-10 Climate change means less guacamole - WikimediaWhen we think of the effects of climate change, we typically think of rising sea level, heat waves, drought and volatile weather. What we don’t often think about is guacamole. Or to be more specific, foods that are in danger because of climate change.

In its 2014 annual report, the popular Mexican food chain Chipotle warned investors that, “Increasing weather volatility or other long-term changes in global weather patterns, including any changes associated with global climate change, could have a significant impact on the price or availability of some of our ingredients”. The report went on to add “in the event of cost increases with respect to one or more of our raw ingredients, we may choose to temporarily suspend serving menu items, such as guacamole or one or more of our salsas, rather than paying the increased cost for the ingredients”.

While Chipotle would be largely affected by a drop in avocado production, which is expected to drop by 40% over the next three decades, other crops are in danger too, such as almonds, walnuts, oranges and grapes. A common thread between all of these crops is that they are grown in California, which has been through a particularly brutal drought this year. While California has always been susceptible to droughts, climate change is making them worse and more frequent and can be expected to do so to an even greater extent in the future.

In November of this past year, news outlets reported on a leaked draft of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report noted that food production could drop as much as 2% per decade in the coming century compared to production estimates before climate change. All the while, the population on the planet is expected to reach between 8 and 11 billion people by 2100.

The bottom line is that climate change has effects beyond the most salient weather changes – climate change can negatively affect our ability to produce food. This is particularly dangerous as the diets of the world’s citizens become more similar – scientists note that this makes our food supply even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.  A decreased ability to produce food can cause increased food prices, limited access to fresh food, global food shortages, and in turn, political turmoil.

Can we really afford to not address climate change?

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Senator Brian Schatz will lead the Talkathon  Photo by Audrey McAvoy, AP

Senator Brian Schatz (D – Hawaii) will lead the Talkathon
Photo by Audrey McAvoy, AP

Tonight, 28 US Senators will stay up discussing climate change all night to get Congress to ‘wake up’ to the realities of the issue.

The so-called talkathon is scheduled to begin after Senate’s last votes today and continue until 9 AM tomorrow morning. During the night the Senators, comprised of 26 Democrats and 2 Independents, will be tweeting from the talkathon using the hashtag #Up4Climate, hoping to get the attention of Congress and the American people.

The talkathon is organized by the Climate Action Task Force, a group launched in January whose goal is to take an aggressive stance on climate in Congress, and led by Brian Schatz (D – Hawaii).

You can follow the Senate’s Climate Change Talkathon on Twitter with the hashtag #Up4Climate and sign the Climate Action Task Force’s petition here.

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Blog post by Vanessa Ramos and Max Anderson

2014-03-07 No KXL Austin March

KXL protesters march to the Austin Club
Photo by Kaiba White

The heat has been turning up on the State Department and President Obama this past week from KXL Dissent. Nearly 400 youth were arrested while protesting against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in front of the White House this past weekend, which was the largest youth act of non-violent civil disobedience at the White House in more than a generation. On Monday, nine people were arrested at the State Department building in San Francisco during a youth led protest of the Keystone XL pipeline. The momentum to stop this climate-killing pipeline has been building all across the country, and yesterday people in Austin made their stand against toxic tar sands.

People gathered at the south gates of the Texas Capitol and marched to Austin Club to have a welcoming demonstration for Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer, who was in town to give a speech promoting the Keystone XL pipeline, among other things.  Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Austin Climate Action Network, and Environment Texas organized the event, but opposition to the pipeline extends well beyond environmental groups and includes many conservative landowners.

Banner pointing to the Austin Club Photo by Kaiba White

Banner pointing to the Austin Club
Photo by Kaiba White

Banners hung from the parking garage next door to the Austin Club greeted the protesters.  People carried signs and marched to the sounds of djembe, pots and pans, cornet and chanting.

Attendees for Ambassador Doer’s luncheon had to walk through the crowd of about 30 chanting protesters who formed a picket line in front of the entrance.

2014-03-07 No KXL Austin ProtestYesterday marked the end of the public comment period with the State Department for the Keystone XL pipeline. This was the last chance for citizens to officially weigh in on the issue. President Obama still has 60 more days to hear from the different government departments as to whether they think the pipeline will be in our national interest. President Obama is expected to make a final decision on whether or not to approve the pipeline by the middle of summer.

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While we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing the words “natural”, “healthy” and “environmentally-friendly” thrown around in advertisements for a variety of consumer goods, it’s important to remember that household items are not the only things capable of being greenwashed – case in point, natural gas.

The word “natural” has been used to connote things such as ‘green’, ‘healthy’, ‘non-toxic’. Many people’s cursory understanding of natural gas is that if it’s “natural”, it must be good, right? Unfortunately the truth about natural gas is more complicated. While it is true that natural gas emits far less CO2 than coal upon combustion, there are a host of other ‘fine-print’ problems that come along with the switch, most notably, fugitive emissions.

Leaky pipes and valves allow methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to escape into the atmosphere.  Photo by Kevin Moloney, NYT

Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, escapes from wells and leaky pipes and valves into the atmosphere.
Photo by Kevin Moloney, NYT.

Fugitive emissions are the emissions not intended to take place and that usually result from pressurized equipment leaks. While these leaks are relatively tiny, when expanded to a large enough scale the amount of methane being leaked into the atmosphere can have a large impact on climate. While the EPA originally reported that average leakage rate in natural gas production was somewhere around 1.5%, a collaborative study by scientist from several universities and government agencies released this past October revealed that the figure should be much closer to 3%. Even worse, there have been reports of methane leakage upwards of 12% at some production sites.

Many climate change mitigation plans focus on reducing CO2 emissions, but methane and its effects should not be overlooked. The IPCC has reported that over a 100-year period, methane is 35 times more potent of a heat-trapping gas than CO2. When looking at the effects of methane over 20 years, this figure jumps to 87. Suddenly, that comparatively small amount of methane being leaked out of wells, pipes and valves is incredibly important. In other words, 1 ton of methane being released into the atmosphere has the same heat-trapping effect over a 20 year period as releasing 87 tons of CO2.

20 Year Climate Impact of Natural Gas vs CoalWhile the CO2 emissions from burning natural gas are about half what is produced by burning coal plant to produce the same amount of power, after accounting for fugitive emissions and converting leaked methane into CO2 equivalent (using the IPCC 87x factor referenced earlier), natural gas climate change impact is almost as bad as coal.

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After years in the making, this past Tuesday the Senate voted 68-32 in favor of the new Farm Bill, which is expected to be signed into law by President Obama in the next few days. While the nearly trillion dollar bill has received a lot of media attention on its relation to its cut of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which composes 80% of the bill’s budget, it’s crucial to look at the other 20% of the bill and its environmental implications.

Senate Votes On 2014 Farm Bill

Senate votes on 2014 Farm Bill
Photo by Alex Wong, Getty Images

The bill, for the most part, has drawn a lot of praise in regards to its environmental provisions . So-called ‘highlights’ of the bill include :

• Provisions for farmers to meet certain standards of environmental protection if they wish to be eligible to receive federal crop insurance
• Funding for farmers to create wildlife habitats on their land
• Funding for on-farm renewable energy
• Removal of so-called ‘anti-environmental’ riders

However, it is possible that one of the non-environmental provisions of the bill will have an unintended consequence – stripping soils of their nutrients and increasing runoff . Perhaps the most popular provision of the bill is the fact that it cuts ‘direct payments’ to farmers, or what many people have called “welfare for farmers” . These payments are subsidies for farmers based on how many acres of land they have, regardless of whether or not that land is farmed.

To cease what many see as handouts, the government as slashed this program and expanded its crop insurance program, one where the government pays the difference to farmers when slips in revenue and/or crop yield occur. While this is particularly useful in ensuring that there is ‘stable’ agricultural production, it also continues to incentivize producers (including many mega ‘agribusiness’ conglomerates) to produce as much as possible. Such large scale agricultural production can and has led to increased fertilizer runoff (causing aquatic ‘dead zones’ and contaminated drinking water ), nutrient-depleted soil and increased greenhouse gas emissions , due to insufficient environmental protection requirements.

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During Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to have it both ways on climate change and energy – taking action on climate change while touting an “all of the above” energy strategy.

Obama SOTU - credit Larry Downing,AP

President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014.
Larry Downing/AP

On the one hand, President Obama renewed his commitment to reducing carbon emissions and battling climate change. But on the other hand, he pushed for the expansion of domestic fossil fuel extraction and pledged his support for natural gas as part of his “all of the above” energy plan. He said, “The ‘all the above’ energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working, and today America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades.”

The president threw his weight behind natural gas, saying, “If extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” He promised to “cut red tape” to spur the construction of natural gas fired factories and fueling stations for cars and trucks.

Even though natural gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal when combusted, the primary component, methane, is also released into the atmosphere during production. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and traps significantly more heat in the short term than carbon dioxide. New reports are concluding that fugitive methane emissions from extraction, processing and transportation could be much worse than previously thought. An article from OilPrice.com says, “If the latest figures are accurate, it could mean that the greenhouse gas advantage that natural gas has over coal could be a mirage.”

The president also gave a shout-out to solar energy, saying, “It’s not just oil and natural gas production that’s booming; we’re becoming a global leader in solar, too.” “The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way,” said Obama. “But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

Although the president has made tremendous strides to address climate change, his administration is still encouraging the extraction of coal, oil and natural gas from our public lands and water. (Click here to see a report from the EIA: Sales of fossil fuels from Federal and Indian Lands) Fossil fuel industries are also looking to expand coal and liquid natural gas (LNG) export terminals. All of this on top of recent proposals to end a 40 year ban on crude exports extracted in America.

Sometime this year the proposed Keystone XL pipeline will come across the president’s desk. If approved, the Keystone XL pipeline will provide tar sands producers in Canada a supply line to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast and an export strategy. Although the president made no mention of the pipeline in his speech, he will have to make a decision on the project later this year. He has said his decision will be based on whether or not the Keystone XL pipeline “significantly exacerbates” carbon pollution and is in the national interest. On Friday, the State Department released its environmental assessment that says the Keystone XL pipeline would cause minimal climate impact because the tar sands would get to market some other way without the Keystone XL pipeline – a strikingly fatalist position.

Both sides of the president showed up on Tuesday to address the nation. His “all of the above” energy side showed up to cheerlead the fossil fuel industry, while at the same time tossing a bone to environmentalists, pulling from his Georgetown Speech he made last summer. President Obama’s climate legacy still has yet to be shaped, and if wants be viewed by future generations as the president that made a firm commitment to fighting climate change, then he needs to quit talking out of both sides of his mouth.
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