Talking Points: Summer 2022

2022-06-09 06:41:02 By : Mr. Louis Wang

During his 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden declared that, if elected, he would ban any further oil and gas leases on public lands. But as with many campaign promises, the realities of holding office can get in the way. In April, Biden’s Interior Department announced it would resume “significantly reformed” onshore oil and gas lease sales on 144,000 acres of federal lands, ending the White House’s 2021 leasing “pause” to consider drilling’s impact on climate change. Most of the leases, some 135,000 acres, will be in Wyoming.

The agency said it is was to forced resume offering leases following a court order stemming from a suit by several oil-producing states challenging the pause, but asserted that the sales incorporate many of the recommendations in its November 2021 report on the federal leasing program. This includes ensuring tribal consultation and broad community input, mandating reliance on the best available science including analysis of GHG emissions, and instituting a first-ever increase in the royalty rate for new competitive leases to 18.75 percent, a 50 percent hike over the current level.

Additionally, the acreage on offer is about 80 percent smaller than previously planned, down from 733,000 acres. The agency has also prioritized leasing on parcels near existing infrastructure and avoiding important wildlife habitat as well as sensitive cultural areas.

Response to the announcement has been mixed among environmental groups. Some, like the Center for Western Priorities, have called it a step in the right direction because as the group’s Deputy Director Aaron Weiss says, it “suggests that Interior has done its job listening to communities, engaging with Tribal nations, and taking into account the needs of wildlife across the West.” But others have been more critical, pointing out that oil and gas companies already control over 26 million acres of public lands, they never really stopped drilling, and they are sitting on more than 9,000 approved drilling permits.

Additionally, according to a Bloomberg Law report, agency data shows the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has been issuing drilling permits all the while: It approved 997 drilling permits on federal land from October 2021 through February this year.

“While we are relieved that Interior downsized the acreage of public lands to be auctioned and made a long-overdue increase to the royalty rate, the decision to lease nearly 135,000 acres for oil and gas drilling in Wyoming is impossible to reconcile with the administration’s commitments to climate action,” Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen said in a statement calling on the president to stick to his campaign promise.

If you’ve ever glanced at the lengthy ingredient list for your favorite packaged chips or breakfast cereal, you may have wondered about a few of the additives. You may also have assumed they were safe: That’s what the Food and Drug Administration is there for, right? Unfortunately, that may not always be true.

According to a new analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit consumer watchdog organization, nearly 99 percent of all new food chemicals introduced in the United States since 2000 have bypassed the official FDA approval process. Instead, the food and chemical industry used a legal loophole to attest to their safety and move them directly to market.

“This is just a process that is fundamentally broken,” Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney with EWG who conducted the review, told E&E News. “It is shocking to most people that the food industry is by and large deciding what is safe for chemicals we feed to our children every day.”

Of the 766 new food chemicals that have been introduced since 2000, 756 have been approved through what’s known as the “generally recognized as safe” — or GRAS — loophole in the 1958 Food Additives Amendment. The GRAS provision was meant to exempt frequently used ingredients like baking soda, flour, and vinegar, but has been expanded to include hundreds of human-made chemicals that industry has deemed safe. In many cases, public-health experts disagree with the industry safety assessment.

Technically speaking, companies can only use the GRAS loophole if the safety of the additive is generally accepted and has been reviewed by qualified experts. But, as E&E reports, there are no rules regarding whom those experts can be. In fact, a study looking at use of GRAS between 1997 and 2012 found that all of the experts relied on by companies had links to the companies whose products they were reviewing. Often, they were on the company’s payroll.

The drive to divest from oil and gas has been gaining momentum in the global insurance industry. In March, following mounting public pressure, the world’s second biggest reinsurer, Swiss Re, announced it would no longer insure most new oil and gas projects. The company, the first major oil and gas insurer to adopt such a policy, also plans to phase out support for any oil and gas companies without credible net-zero plans by 2030.

Swiss Re’s announcement came close on the heels of two other big insurance industry companies — Hannover Re and Mapfre, which together account for 11 percent of global non-life reinsurance premiums — adopting policies to reduce their support for oil and gas companies. And just prior to that, on March 1, US insurance giant AIG announced major, new, company-wide climate commitments, including no longer underwriting and investing in the construction of new coal-fired power plants, thermal coal mines, or tar sands projects.

And in late April, Allianz, also a top oil and gas insurer, became the tenth major insurance company to adopt oil and gas restrictions by committing to stop insuring and investing in new oil and gas fields and new oil power plants by 2023. The company will also will stop insuring its existing fossil fuel clients when their policies come up for renewal.

While none of these policies are perfect, they are headed in the right direction. Peter Bosshard, global coordinator of the nonprofit Insure Our Future, says the onus is now on rivals like Munich Re, Lloyd’s, and SCOR, which account for 26 percent of the global reinsurance market, to commit to even greater action.

Fracking has a bad reputation when it comes to methane emissions. But as it turns out, natural gas isn’t the worst offender in that regard: Coal mining emits more methane each year than either gas or oil extraction.

According to a new report by the Global Energy Monitor, global coal mining is responsible for 52 million metric tons of methane emissions per year. Over the short term, that means that coal mining has a similar heating impact to the carbon dioxide emissions from all 1,100-plus coal-fired power plants in China. By comparison, the gas industry emits an estimated 45 million tons of methane annually while the oil industry releases 39 million tons.

“We all know that the oil and gas industry emits a lot of methane and that coal plants in China are a major source of CO2 emissions,” Driskell Tate, a research analyst at Global Energy Monitor and author of the report, told Inside Climate News. “The most surprising thing about this report is just realizing that coal mining has a comparable climate impact.”

It’s also surprising how much we have been undercounting coal mining emissions. The Global Energy Monitor’s new figure is 50 percent higher than a 2019 US Environmental Protection Agency estimate, and 20 percent more than a 2022 International Energy Agency estimate.

Tate said their research showed that in many cases these mine emissions were being underestimated by governments as they set net-zero goals.

Global Energy Monitor’s estimate was based on analysis of some 2,300 coal mines around the world. The researchers combined information about the type of coal at these mines, how much coal is extracted, and the depth of the mines with a model used to calculate emissions.

Unfortunately, the researchers say, coal mining emissions could still rise: If all currently planned coal mines become operational, they would release an additional 11.3 million metric tons of methane annually.

Just last fall, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared the ivory-billed woodpecker, also known as the Lord God Bird, extinct. The last confirmed sighting of the distinctive bird was in 1944, though quite a few unconfirmed sightings have been reported since. Now, less than a year after the USFWS decision, a team of scientists is challenging the agency’s conclusion, offering photo and video evidence that the bird is hanging on in the forests of Louisiana.

The scientists, who released their research in April, spent three years searching for the elusive bird in the state’s swampy hardwood forests. They made field observations, took audio recordings, and perhaps most importantly, used trail cameras and drones to record footage. While image quality is poor, the researchers point to a number of compelling sightings made from 2019 through 2021. They also say every member of their ten-member team observed the bird.

“It flew up at an angle and I watched it for about six to eight seconds, which was fairly long for an ivory-billed woodpecker,” Steve Latta, director of conservation at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh and research team leader, told The Guardian. “I was surprised. I was visibly shaking afterwards. You realize you’ve seen something special that very few people had the opportunity to see.”

The researchers believe the birds, whose numbers began to decline in the nineteenth century due to habitat loss and hunting, may also survive in other parts of the South. They point to the need to preserve the region’s bottomland hardwood forests if the birds are to fend off extinction.

Their research has not yet been peer-reviewed.

In arid regions, soil is often covered by a thin biocrust — a protective layer of lichens, mosses, and cyanobacteria. This layer stabilizes soil, retains moisture, absorbs carbon and nitrogen, and boosts soil productivity and wildlife diversity. In other words, it’s pretty important. It also covers about 12 percent of Earth’s surface. But, like so many other things these days, biocrust faces a significant threat from climate change.

According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April, warming temperatures are contributing to a decline in the total amount of lichen, and since lichen are an essential component of biocrust, it’s leading to a concurrent decline in species diversity as well. The lichen decline has been so significant that researchers worry the biocrust has reached a tipping point, one it won’t recover from. The change could lead to more bare soil that can have impacts throughout the ecosystem.

“The clear decline in lichens is both impressive and alarming,” Kristina Young, a dryland ecologist at Utah State University Extension, Grand County, who helped collect data for the study, told Science.

The team’s findings are based on an extensive dataset from Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Since 1996, US Geological Survey researchers have been monitoring the quantity and diversity of lichen, moss, fungi, and microbes at 12 large plots in the park’s grasslands as part of an effort to track the impact of nonnative plants there. The researchers compared their most recent survey results with this historical dataset, as well as with a study completed in the park in the 1960s.

They found that nearly all lichen species have declined since the 1960s. Specifically, while lichens made up 19 percent of the biocrust in both 1967 and 1996, they now comprise just 5 percent. There is no indication they will rebound. This decline correlated with increasing summer temperatures.

According to Rebecca Finger-Higgens, the USGS ecologist who led the study, the best hope for biocrusts is clear: robust action to mitigate the climate crisis.

Conflicts involving water date back millennia, at least to 2500 BCE, the year of the earliest known water conflict. During a dispute over territory in modern-day Iraq, Urlama, the king of Lagash, used water access as a weapon, diverting water to deprive his adversaries in Umma of the resource. His successor Il also cut off water supply to a city in Umma.

Water conflicts have cropped up across the globe pretty much ever since, from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, to the Crusades, to the US Civil War.

In fact, according to the Pacific Institute, which maintains a catalog of such events, there have been 1,300 documented water conflicts over the course of human history. These include events in which access to water triggered a conflict, those in which water resources were used as a weapon, and those where water resources or systems were a casualty of conflict. They range from smaller-scale disputes over access between neighbors, to protests over infrastructure projects that threaten water resources, to the targeting of water resources during war and more.

Conflicts continue to this day. As of March 2022, there had already been six documented water conflicts this year alone, including a coalition airstrike on water tanks in Yemen, a militant attack on an Ethiopian water tanker in Somalia, and Russian troops’ destruction of a Ukrainian dam that was blocking water to Crimea. Here are a few of the countries that have experienced recent conflicts involving water or where water has been weaponized.

Sources: Pacific Institute, The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project

Water defenders in Mexico have been at the center of several recent water-related conflicts in which they were the victims. In 2018 alone, two men involved in protecting the Carmen River in Chihuahua, Mexico were murdered, and two other men fighting to protect the Carmen River basin received death threats. In 2019, Indigenous environmental activist Samir Flores Soberanes, who had opposed a thermoelectric plant and pipeline that threatened local water resources, was murdered in Morelos state. And in 2021 activist Alejandro García Zagal, who led multiple demonstrations demanding drinking water service in Morelos state, was shot dead in his home.

Water has long been a focal point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Pacific Institute lists more than 20 water-related conflicts there in 2021. In most of them, water was a casualty of the conflict. For example, in three different events in June and July 2021, Israeli settlers uprooted Palestinian olive and fruit trees, stole a water pump, and destroyed irrigation pipes and water containers in several West Bank villages. In July, Palestinians destroyed water pipes serving Israeli settlements. And in more than 15 incidents throughout the year, the Israeli military destroyed Palestinian water infrastructure in the West Bank, including irrigation pipes, water tanks, wells, and water distribution systems.

Water shortages in Iran led to a series of conflicts in 2021, most of them between police and citizens demonstrating over water-access issues. To mention just a few: In May, farmers protesting in front of a provincial government building in Central Iran were met with police violence. In September, farmers demonstrating against water shortages and drought in Western Iran were similarly met with police force. And, in November, police used tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons on farmers protesting in Central Iran and made between 60 and 214 arrests.

Last year, a local militia group in Myanmar’s Sagaing region bombed a pipeline carrying water from the Chindwin River to copper mines jointly owned by China and a holding company owned by the Myanmar military. The group released a statement explaining that it targeted the pipeline because China was ignoring “the desires of Myanmar people for democracy and backing the military junta.” No damage was reported.

Over the last several decades, lone actors, terrorist groups, and even cults have repeatedly threatened to — and in some cases, succeeded in — contaminating the water supply of US cities. In 1984, members of a religious cult released Salmonella into a city water supply tank in The Dalles, Oregon, leading to more than 750 salmonellosis cases. In 2020, the FBI arrested several neo-Nazis for planning terrorist acts in the US, including poisoning water supplies. And just last year, a hacker took control of the chemical treatment system at a Florida water treatment facility, leading to contamination with dangerous levels of sodium hydroxide. Luckily, staff noticed the attack before the water was released to the community.

Disputes over water led to numerous clashes in Kenya in 2021, most involving ethnic clan militias as they fought over scarce water resources and pastureland. In the deadliest dispute, which occurred in December, an armed fight between the Degodia and Borana militias resulted in 11 deaths and the displacement of more than 300 families. Similar conflicts were recorded in Sudan, Cameroon, and Somalia. Water-related conflict between pastoralists and farmers leads to hundreds of deaths a year in sub-Saharan Africa.

Here’s an interesting new alternative to ecologically destructive hydroelectric dams — electric trucks, filled with water, running downhill.

In a study published in the journal Energy in March, researchers proposed filling storage containers on electric trucks with water from high altitude streams and driving them down a mountain, all the while using the trucks’ regenerative braking system to convert the potential energy of water into electricity stored in the truck’s battery.

This idea could help generate power from small rivers and streams that can’t support conventional hydropower, Julian Hunt of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, who led the new study, told Anthropocene magazine.

Hunt explained that the water from the tank would be released back into the river at the bottom, and the truck’s battery would be removed to provide electricity to the local grid. Then the truck would return with an empty tank and another battery. “If electric truck hydropower is combined with cargo transportation, it could substantially reduce fuel consumption in regions with high mountains,” he said.

The study showed that the levelized cost of the electricity from truck hydropower is $30 to $100 per megawatt hour, which is cheap when compared to the $50 to $200/MWh cost of conventional hydropower. If such a system were implemented worldwide, an electric-truck hydropower system could generate 1.2 petawatt-hours of energy per year, Hunt and his colleagues estimate. That amounts to about 4 percent of the global energy consumption in 2019.

However, the environmental impact of extracting large volumes of water from small streams and releasing it downstream has not been studied yet.

When it comes to making babies, birds are doing it early. A new study in the Journal of Animal Ecology shows that many species of birds are nesting and laying eggs nearly a month earlier than they did a hundred years ago.

By comparing recent observations with century-old, preserved eggs, scientists were able to determine that about a third of the bird species in the Chicago area have moved their egg-laying up by an average of 25 days. The impetus for the shift appears to be the usual suspect these days — climate change.

The researchers used two big sets of nesting data for their study: the egg collection at the at the Field Museum in Chicago, which includes some 300,000 egg shells collected from roughly 1880 to 1920, and a compilation of nesting data in the region from about 1990 to 2015.

The analyses showed that, among the 72 species for which historical and modern data were available in the Chicago region, about a third have been nesting earlier and earlier.

“The majority of the birds we looked at eat insects, and insects’ seasonal behavior is also affected by climate. The birds have to move their egg-laying dates to adapt,” John Bates, curator of birds at the Field Museum and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

And while birds laying their eggs a bit early might seem like a small matter, Bates notes that it’s part of a larger story.

“The birds in our study area, upwards of 150 species, all have different evolutionary histories and different breeding biology so it’s all about the details,” he says. “There are all kinds of really important nuances that we need to know about in terms of how animals are responding to climate change.”

This is certainly one way to play defense. In a March court filing, bottled water company BlueTriton — which is being sued for deceptive sustainability claims — argued that the case against it should be dismissed. The reason? Its green statements are “puffery,” the company’s lawyers wrote in a brief, meant merely to be aspirational. As such, they argue, they don’t violate the law.

Earth Island Institute filed a suit against BlueTriton (formerly Nestle) last year, saying the company’s marketing claims — that it is a “guardian of sustainable resources,” for example — didn’t jibe with its massive environmental footprint. BlueTriton is estimated to use hundreds of millions of pounds of plastic bottles and packaging each year, nearly all of which ends up in US landfills. Given the environmental impact of plastic use, Earth Island argues, the bottled water giant’s green claims amount to lies, and violate Washington, DC’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act.

“In this brief they filed, they’re admitting that they use these sustainability commitments just as marketing tools,” Sumona Majumdar, general counsel at Earth Island Institute, which publishes the Journal, told The Intercept. “It’s just to get consumers to buy their goods, and not because they actually intend to follow through with their promises.”

The DC Superior Court has yet to rule on BlueTriton’s motion to dismiss.

All may not be lost for Mexico’s imperiled vaquita. In April, Pritam Singh, Sea Shepherd’s chairman of the board, announced that a research team had spotted seven or eight adult vaquitas, and one or two calves, during a five-day expedition in the Gulf of California last fall. With a population estimated at just 10 to 20 animals, the recent sightings offer a glimmer of hope for the critically endangered species.

The expedition was led by Sea Shepherd and the Mexican Navy, which have been working together since 2015 to prevent illegal fishing and remove fishing gear from inside the Vaquita Refuge, a federal protected area in the Gulf of California. The tiny porpoise is endemic to the gulf and entanglement in gillnets poses the greatest threat to the species’ survival.

In more good news, research published in May indicates that the remaining vaquita population has enough genetic diversity to avoid inbreeding depression and stage a recovery — if the threat from gillnet fishing can be removed, that is.

The waters surrounding the Maldives archipelago teem with hundreds of fish species, many of them endemic. Local islanders probably have names for many of them, but bestowing formal, scientific names to these fish has always been the purview of foreign (read Western) scientists. Now for the first time, a colorful species of fish that’s new to science has been given a name derived from the local Dhivehi language by a Maldivian scientist, Ahmed Najeeb.

Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa, or the rose-veiled fairy wrasse, is a distinct member of a family of largely bright colored fishes called wrasses. The species’ name honors its bright pink shade, as well as the pink rose, Maldives’ national flower. “Finifenmaa” means “rose” in Dhivehi.

A study describing the fish was published in March in the journal ZooKeys.

The fish was initially discovered by marine biologists in the 1990s. However, it was not scientifically described because researchers thought it was an adult version of another wrasse species, the red velvet fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis).

In this new study, however, the researchers took a more detailed look at both adults and juveniles of the multicolored marvel, measuring and counting various features such as the color of adult males, the height of each spine supporting the fin on the fish’s back, and the number of scales found on various body regions. This data, along with genetic analyses, were then compared to C. rubrisquamis specimens to confirm that C. finifenmaa is indeed a unique species.

Importantly, this revelation greatly reduces the known range of each wrasse, a crucial consideration when setting conservation priorities.

“It has always been foreign scientists who have described species found in the Maldives without much involvement from local scientists, even those [species] that are endemic to the Maldives,” study coauthor Najeeb, a biologist at the Maldives Marine Research Institute, said in a statement. “This time it is different.”

The Forest and the Trees

Chalk this up as one of those, “Well, obviously!” scientific findings that anyone seeking shade under a thick, leafy canopy on a hot summer day could generally surmise: Researchers have found that the world’s forests play a far greater and more complex role in tackling the climate crisis than previously thought. They discovered that, get this: Trees help cool the planet.

In other words, we now have comprehensive new data that shows that forests’ climate benefits include not only sucking carbon dioxide from the air, but also helping to keep the local and global air cool and moist.

Researchers have found that the world’s forests keep the planet at least half of a degree Celsius cooler because of “biophysical effects,” such their ability to create clouds, humidify the air, and release cooling chemicals. Their findings were published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change in March.

“Despite the mounting evidence that forests deliver myriad climate benefits, trees are still viewed just as sticks of carbon by many policymakers in the climate change arena,” Louis Verchot, principal scientist at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture and co-author of the study, told The Guardian. “Forests are key to mitigation, but also adaptation.”

The researchers found that forests emit chemicals called biogenic volatile organic compounds that create aerosols that reflect incoming energy and form clouds. Meanwhile, deep roots, efficient water use, and tree canopy also enable forests to move heat and moisture away from Earth’s surface. This helps keep areas near forests cool and also influences cloud formation and rainfall in faraway places.

“Without the forest cover we have now, the planet would be hotter and the weather more extreme,” says Michael Coe, the tropics program director at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts and a study coauthor. “Forests provide us defense against the worst-case global warming scenarios.”

Ozone pollution may not seem like an obvious culprit for depression. But according to new research, it may increase the rate of depressive symptoms among teens.

In a study published in Developmental Psychology in March, researchers found that adolescents in neighborhoods with higher ozone levels were significantly more likely to develop depressive symptoms than their peers. Those symptoms could include feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, and thoughts of suicide.

“Our findings really speak to the importance of considering air pollution’s impact on mental health in addition to physical health,” Erika Manczak, lead researcher and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Denver, said in a statement.

The researchers examined data about depressive symptoms among 213 San Francisco Bay Area youth ages 9 through 13. They cross-referenced that data with California Environmental Protection Agency information about air quality at the children’s homes. Controlling for race, age, sex, and income, they found a significant increase in depressive symptoms among teenagers in neighborhoods with higher levels of ozone, which forms when pollutants from sources like car exhaust are exposed to sunlight. Ozone levels in these neighborhoods met national and state standards.

The team did not find a significant link between ozone and depression before the onset of puberty. “Adolescence ... might be a time of greater vulnerability,” Manczak told Environmental Health News.

The study adds to the growing body of research documenting the links between poor air quality and mental health, including major depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. It also contributes to the long list of reasons to tackle air pollution, particularly in frontline communities.

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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