How the Oil & Gas Industry gets others to fight for its life

Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at a meeting of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association on March 8, 2019, delivered the following message to the members: “The oil and gas industry, I want to promise you,” he said, “has no greater friend than President Donald Trump. And as the President said, in his words, our administration will not only seek American energy independence but will seek American energy dominance.” (whitehouse.gov –  briefings)

Photo of VP Mike Pence speaking to Ohio Oil & Gas Assoc. March 8, 2019
VP Mike Pence speaks at a meeting of the Ohio Oil & Gas Assoc. March 8, 2019. Image credit: Brooke LaValley/Columbus Dispatch

The oil industry is on the defensive for causing global warming, sea level rise, mega storms, the end of life as we know it. People who want it stoped are protesting in the streets, launching lawsuits. Smart energy technologies such as photovoltaics are showing the industry up for what it is: smelly, poisonous, obsolete. Is the industry buckling under the weight of these assaults? Not yet. Since science and the facts are on the side of their tormentors, oil industry executives are fighting back with a weapon that can defeat any amount of truth — money.

The industry is wielding its money weapon in three ways: 1. buying politicians; 2. swamping the market; 3. financing climate science deniers.

Politicians are first on the industry’s purchase list. The following chart from a report by OpenSecrets, shows the top Oil Industry contributors to the 2017-2018 election cycle. As the chart makes clear, oil industry contributions go to Republicans by an overwhelming margin. Oil industry executives know where to get the biggest bang for their bucks. They own the Republicans in Congress.

Chart of top Oil Industry contributors to election campaigns, 2017-2018
Top Oil Industry contributors to election campaigns, 2017-2018. Image credit: OpenSecrets.org

The chart shows only direct political donations— money that’s easy to track. The oil and gas industry spends millions more dollars on lobbying and Political Action Committees (PAC’s), money that’s difficult to track.

Do political contributions work? During his talk to the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, the Vice President made sure to tell his listeners how their contributions do indeed work: “We [the Trump administration] approved the Keystone and Dakota pipelines; withdrew the United States from the job-killing Paris Climate Accord; eliminated the hydraulic fracking rule; rolled back methane; we’re ending the Clean Power Plan; scrapped the Stream Protection Rule; and now, under President Donald Trump, the war on coal is over. American energy is booming.” (Applause)

There are two ways to swamp a market. One way is to increase production so as to undercut the competition (cleaner more efficient energy technologies). The second way is to invest heavily in down-market facilities so as to embed the use of a product more firmly into the economy. The oil and gas industry is lavishing its investors money in both ways. A 2018 study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute (API) titled ‘U.S. Oil and Gas Infrastructure Investment through 2035’, predicts that the industry will spend at least $1 trillion (a million million dollars. see pie charts below) on new facilities such as pipelines, storage tanks, refineries, export terminals. There’s nothing in the 154 page report about renewable energy technologies or anything related to global warming. For the API and its members, the goal is fossil fuel domination, the planet be damned.

Pie charts showing projected investment in oil and gas infrastructure
From a 2018 study commissioned by the American Petroleum Inst. Image credit: ICF Fairfax VA

Providing financial assistance to individuals and groups willing to spread disinformation about climate science is a big part of the industry’s survival strategy. There are dozens of groups that work to discredit climate science and the impacts of global warming. The Trump administration is packed with individuals drawn from oil companies or from the disinformation mills that live off them. Some of the better known groups include: the American Enterprise Institute; the Manhattan Institute; the Heritage Foundation; the Heartland Institute. Not wishing to become objects of mockery themselves, oil industry executives never publicly express agreement with the absurd views generated by such outfits. Instead they buy clowns and crazies to do it for them. It doesn’t matter how outlandish or mad the stories are. The important thing is that they reach the ears of the millions of people prone to believe them.

President Trump — a faithful servant of the oil and gas industry — is an exemplar of the ‘clowns and crazies’ crowd. He has a talent for delivering climate-science falsehoods to large appreciative audiences in the manner of a standup comic. Speaking at a National Republican Congressional Committee fund raising diner, April 2, Trump said: “If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75% in value. And they say the noise causes cancer. You tell me (waves his arms while vocalizing sound of rotating windmill).” See 26 second video clip below.

Trump is simply a windbag who puffs out drivel in support of his masters, the oil industry bosses. Those are the guys the Democrats need to bring under control. Until that happens, advancing the objectives of the Paris Climate Accord will be difficult.

 

 

 

 

The Colorado River — not enough water; too many straws

The U.S. Reclamation Act of 1902 is a federal law that works to fund and manage water projects in the arid regions of the American west. Much of the work is focused on the Colorado River. By the end of the 20th century, the engineers of the Bureau of Reclamation had built the system of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that control the river and distribute its waters to the surrounding seven states. About 4 million acres of agricultural land and 40 million people consume the river’s entire flow. By the time the river reaches its estuary at the north end of the Gulf of California in Mexico, its flow is reduced to a trickle. The following map shows the extent and main water features of the Colorado River Basin.

Map of the Colorado River Basin
The Colorado River Basin. Image: Bureau of Reclamation

Today, the viability of the Colorado River project is threatened by two powerful forces: drought and global warming. The regional drought, now in its nineteenth year, has reduced river flow volumes to the point where the basin states, for the first time ever, are talking about cuts to water consumption.

The Hoover Dam is located about 35 road miles SE of Las Vegas. The effect of drought plus global warming is measured by the level of water in Lake Mead, the reservoir for the Hoover Dam. When full, the elevation of the lake surface above sea level is 1,221 ft. — the  lip of the dam. The lowest possible elevation of the lake surface is 895 ft. — the bottom water outlet in the dam. The lake at its lowest water level is known as ‘dead pool’. That’s when the Colorado River downstream from the Hoover dam would run dry. Before that happens, a drop to 1,025 ft. will trigger an emergency and the Bureau of Reclamation will take control and enforce water consumption cuts on all the basin states.

The current water level in Lake Mead (April 8) is 1,090 ft., which is 131 ft below full pool. The level fluctuates by 10 to 12 ft every year due to the spring release of the annual allotment of water to farmers, mainly in California  (see chart below). Since 1983 — the last time the lake was full — the water level has dropped around 4 feet per year on average. If the drought continues unabated and no drastic cuts are made to water consumption, a rough calculation suggests that panic time will arrive in about 12 years.

Chart showing water level in Lake Mead, AZ
Water level in Lake Mead during 2017, 2018, & 2019 (to 8 April). Image from LakeLevels.info

The Parker Dam is located 160 miles downstream from the Hoover Dam. The water backed up by the Parker Dam Is called Havasu Lake. The lake stores water for pumping into two aqueducts, namely the Colorado River Aqueduct that feeds water to Southern California, and the Central Arizona Project (CAP) that delivers water to Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona (see map above). While the Hoover Dam is the Bureau of Reclamation’s greatest engineering achievement, the CAP project may prove to be the Bureau’s last major construction job — and the Colorado River’s last straw.

To reach the Parker Dam after visiting the Hoover Dam, take US-93 to Kingman, then west on I-40, then south on AZ-95 to the dam, a total of 160 miles of desert driving. The source of the CAP aqueduct, and the pumping station that draws its water from Lake Havasu, is located to the left of the highway a few miles short of the dam. The only way to see it is to park by the side of the highway (there are wide gravel verges) and walk to the bridge overlooking the station.

Photo of CAP pumping station on Lake Havasu
CAP pumping station on Lake Havasu

The water for the aqueduct is pumped at the rate of 3,000 cubic feet per second through a 7 mile long tunnel driven upward through the mountain behind the pumping station. The discharge end of the tunnel is 824 ft higher in elevation than its intake end. The aqueduct itself is basically a concrete-lined canal, open to the elements. The aqueduct snakes across the desert to Phoenix and Tucson for a total length of 336 miles. Over its length, there are 12 tunnels and 4 pumping stations. The total rise in elevation from Lave Havasu to Phoenix is 1,247 ft.

Aerial photo of CAP aqueduct
Central Arizona Project (CAP) aqueduct. Image: USBR.gov

To reach Phoenix from the Parker Dam, drive south on AZ-95, then east on Interstate-10. It requires another 170+ miles of desert driving. The CAP aqueduct took 20 years to construct. Completed in 1993, it cost about $3.5 billion to bring water from the Colorado River to the desert city of Phoenix. Will the CAP aqueduct contain water 20 years from today? My guess is, no, not a drop.

Photo of CAP aqueduct, Phoenix AZ
CAP aqueduct looking west from Black Canyon Hwy., Phoenix

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, is fully aware of the water shortage problems threatening the south-west states. The Governor, however, does not like to talk about global warming or climate change. He prefers the phrase: “transitioning to a dryer future.” Accurate but not accurate enough. If the Governor wants us to face the future squarely, he needs to add the word ‘hotter’ to his phrase. The following graph shows average annual temperature for Phoenix since 1900. It shows that it is indeed getting hotter in that city.

Graph showing average annual temperature in Phoenix AZ since 1900
From U.S. National Weather Service

NJ Transit – Railroading in the age of Sea Level Rise

Satellite image of New York Metro region at night
Satellite view of New York metropolitan region at night

The New York Metropolitan region is cut in half by the Hudson River which runs north-south through the region’s center (see satellite view above). Of the region’s +20 million residents, 1.6 million commute into Manhattan, the region’s core, from surrounding districts. Of those, about 400,000 must cross the Hudson every week day from New Jersey, the west side of the river, by rail, road, or ferry. When Hurricane Sandy blew in from the Atlantic October 2012, the cross-Hudson mass transit pathways were knocked completely out of commission for more than a week. Repairs to flood damaged tunnels continue to this day.

New York’s subway system (MTA), and the PATH rail system that carries about 60% of New Jersey’s Manhattan-bound commuters, were back in business within 2 to 3 weeks. By comparison, the New Jersey transit system struggled for 3 months to get back on its wheels. Why? According to a post-Sandy investigation by WNYC (NY Public Radio), the NJ Transit officials had no plan to deal with the storm surge caused by Sandy because they failed to appreciate the effect global warming is having on storm size. In the days leading up to Sandy, the National Weather Service repeatedly warned of storm tides of up to 15 feet. Yet NJ Transit officials paid no attention.

Believing they knew from past experience how to keep their equipment dry, the NJ Transit officials decided to park much of their rolling stock in two rail yards that forecasters had predicted would flood: the Meadowlands maintenance yard and the Hoboken yard (see map below). The storm surge flooded both yards, seriously damaging about 70 locomotives and 260 rail cars, roughly a third of the corporation’s fleet. Compare that to New York’s MTA which  lost only about 20 of its 8,000 rail cars during the same storm, even though all of its Lower Manhattan subway tunnels south of 34th Street were flooded.

Map showing areas of NYC and NJ flooded by Sandy
Areas flooded by Sandy. NJT train yard locations marked in red. Image: nichiusa.org

The Meadowlands yard is a 78-acre site in Kearny surrounded by wetlands where the Passaic River joins the Hackensack River — a natural flood plain. The yard contains the corporation’s maintenance facilities, indoor equipment storage buildings, training center, and the transit system’s operations center. The storm surge flooded the yard to a depth of 8 feet, damaging everything it touched.

Photo of NJ Transit Meadowlands Rail yard
NJ Transit Meadowlands rail yard looking east. Manhattan skyline in the distance. Image: Google

Asked to explain NJ Transit’s storm preparations at a State Assembly committee hearing some months later, Jim Weinstein, the corporation’s executive director at the time, said: “I can tell you decisions on where to keep our locomotives were sound, based on all the information we had at the time . . . The facts are the weather models we evaluated at the time had an 80 to 90 percent chance the rail yards would stay dry. Our decisions were informed by the fact that neither of those rail yards had ever flooded. It is entirely wrong to characterize them as flood-prone.”

An article published by the Union of Concerned Scientists titled ‘Protecting New Jersey from Sea Level Rise: the future of the Meadowlands’ has this to say: “If emissions continue to rise through the end of the century, sea level is projected to rise more than 6 feet by 2100. In this scenario, the same areas of northern New Jersey and New York City that we’re flooded by Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge would be inundated more than 26 times per year, or every other week on average.” And that statement has nothing to say about what future storms coupled with rising sea level will do in the interim.

Northern New Jersey is a heavily urbanized/industrialized region dependent on a fantastically complex network of roads and railways. The number of elevated sections, bridges, underpasses and overpasses are too many to count. Three of the state’s largest city’s, Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth, as well as Newark International Airport, are all located on or surrounded by low-lying, flood prone real estate. And then there’s the Meadowlands, now only a remnant of its previous size. The Meadowlands, a stretch of wetlands, shows just how low-lying the region really is, and how difficult, perhaps impossible, it’s going to be to protect it from the encroaching sea.

Satellite view of New Jersey metro region
Satellite view of New Jersey Metro region. Image: Google

The following snapshot shows a portion of the Meadowlands as seen from the I-95 Highway which bisects the feature from north to south. The NJ Transit rail line from Hoboken to Lyndhurst is on the right. The tall structure to the left of the transmission tower is part of the draw bridge which allows trains to cross the Hackensack River. The Manhattan skyline can be seen in the distance on the left. The water directly to the right of the rails, and only a few feet lower than the rail bed, is part of the Hackensack River. The storm surge from Hurricane Sandy flooded the Meadowlands including all the rail lines crossing it.

Photo of NJ Meadowlands where I-95 crosses NJ Transit Rail line
View of Meadowlands where I-95 crosses NJ Transit rail line from Hoboken to Lyndhurst

Another view of the New Jersey Meadowlands looking east across marsh water and beyond it, the Hackensack River (center).

Photo of New Jersey Meadowlands seen from
New Jersey Meadowlands looking east from I-95 Highway. Manhattan skyline in distance

 

New York v. ExxonMobile — the climate fraud case

Global warming — the rise in the atmosphere’s average temperature since pre-industrial times — forms the background to the State of New York v. the ExxonMobil Corporation lawsuit.

Chart of ice core data showing CO2 levels from year 1000 to1990’s
Ice core data showing CO2 levels from year 1000 to 1990’s. Image: CSIRO

Before 1800, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere fluctuated around 280 ppm (see chart above). The level of CO2 began its steep rise around 1800 due to the heavy use of coal during the industrial revolution. By the 1990’s, the continued burning of fossil fuels had  raised the CO2 level to 350 ppm. Today the level exceeds 411 ppm (NOAA-ESRL, March 2019).

CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat from the sun, a result of the greenhouse effect. As the level of CO2 increases, so does the atmospheric temperature. The Paris Climate Agreement set a goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels.” As of this date (March 2019), the average increase has already exceeded 1°C.

ExxonMobil does not deny that global warming is occurring. Nor does it deny that burning fossil fuels is the major cause of it. It is also fully aware of the various government actions being taken worldwide to limit the burning of fossil fuels. What the company is supposed to do is incorporate that knowledge into its financial statements so that investors can judge for themselves whether or not to risk their money. This requires that the company anticipate future government actions, such as, for example, the imposition of carbon taxes, and calculate their financial effects. What the lawsuit alleges is that the company lied to its investors about the potential impact of such actions. In other words, it deliberately underestimated the risks.

The New York Attorney General in her filing of October 24, 2018, against the company puts it more strongly. Exxon, the filing says, perpetrated a “longstanding fraudulent scheme … to deceive investors and the investment community … concerning the company’s management of the risks posed to its business by climate change.” Considering that the AG’s office spent three years investigating Exxon before charging it with fraud, you can bet that whatever the company is accused of doing, it won’t be easy to explain or prove in court.

Which of the parties involved in this lawsuit deserves support or sympathy? None of them. Not the investors. Not the Attorney General’s office. Certainly not ExxonMobil. Whether or not Exxon is found guilty of fraud, we know that it is guilty of pushing its product onto the market by any means it can get away with including: heavy lobbying of government; ladling out election financing to friendly politicians; feeding money to pro-industry organizations (propaganda outlets).

The internet provides investors with the same global warming information available to the Exxon Corporation. The risks of investing in the fossil fuel industry are plain to see. Signs of the industry’s slow but inevitable decline are already evident. Just how slow is anybody’s guess. Spreadsheets from corporate accountants will not aid in the guessing. The risk-free option is not to invest in the industry.

According to Bloomberg News (Oct. 24/18), the State of New York holds about $1.5 billion worth of Exxon stock. The investment includes “the state’s common retirement fund, with more than 1 million employees and retirees, and the New York State Teachers Retirement System, with nearly half a million members.” Considering that New York is a member of the U.S. Climate Alliance, and therefore supposedly committed to upholding the objectives of the 2015 Paris Agreement on limiting global warming, it strikes me as odd, hypocritical even, that the state retains its investment in a fossil fuel company, particularly one that’s being sued by its own Attorney General.

Some people say that the Trump administration’s opposition to the Paris Climate Accord, and its total support of the fossil fuel industry, should make it unnecessary for business, or the courts, or investors, to take global warming seriously. Those people are wrong. Dealing with the Trump Administration is like dealing with a monkey in a dining room leaping about spilling drinks, snatching food off plates, shitting on the table cloth. The prudent diner will wait until the monkey is removed before ordering a meal.

Gatehouse entrance to ExxonMobil headquarters, Irving TX
Gatehouse entrance to ExxonMobil headquarters, Irving TX. Image: Google

Death by Plastic

Cuvier’s Beaked Whales (Ziphius cavirostris) are known for their extreme diving abilities. Researchers using satellite-linked tags to measure the diving behavior of the species off the Southern California coast have recorded one dive to 9,816 ft (2992 m) in depth, and another lasting 137.5 minutes, “both new mammalian dive records.” The work, carried out by Gregory Scharr and colleagues of the Cascadia Research Collective, was published March 26, 2014 in the open access journal, PLOS ONE.

Phot of Cuvier’s Beaked Whale
Cuvier’s Beaked Whale. Image: Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit, Banff, Scotland.

Because of the animal’s preference for deep water, typically far from shore, the living habits of this marvellous creature are poorly understood. Most of the collected knowledge about the species comes from the study of dead specimens. A week ago (March 16), marine researchers in the Philippians learned that a young Cuvier’s Beaked Whale could hold 88 lbs (40 kg) of plastic trash in its stomach before dying of “gastric shock”.

According to an article in the National Geographic, the young 15ft long, 1,100 pound whale was still alive when it washed up on the shore of the Davao Gulf. The people who found it said it looked emaciated and was vomiting blood before it died. The magazine quotes Darrell Blatchley, the marine biologist who performed an autopsy on the body: “Plastic was just bursting out its stomach”. Blatchley describes the contents as being like two densely packed basketballs, but hard as a baseball, some of it calcified from being in the stomach for so long. The trash, 8% of the animal’s total weight, included plastic shopping bags of various sizes, rice sacks, banana bags, and tangles of nylon rope. According to the National Geographic piece, the animal’s “stomach acid, unable to break down the plastic waste, had worn holes through its stomach lining instead.”

Writing about how much plastic trash can fit inside the belly of a whale has reminded me of the email I sent last December to James Quincey, CEO of the Coca-Cola Co. concerning his talk on ‘sustainability’ published on YouTube, August 30, 2018 – see below. The Coca-Cola Company reportedly generates — world wide — about 3 million tons of plastic packaging annually, all of it destined to pollute land, sea, or air, in one form or another. What concerned me about Mr. Quincey’s comments on plastic, was that, rather than talk about alternatives, he went on about how improved ‘recycling’ of plastic waste could ultimately fix the problem of plastic waste pollution.

My email to Mr. Quincey’s was intended to remind him that recycling plastic waste is not a ‘sustainable’ solution to the pollution problem. The email listed the following three reasons why it isn’t:

First, the collection of discarded plastic is driven by local demands for the cleanup of unsightly trash, and it depends on the availability of municipal taxes and/or government subsidies to pay for the work. There are many places, including whole countries, that cannot afford decent garbage disposal, let alone the facilities needed to extract plastic from the stuff.
Second, even in places where the collection of trash is good, there is no profit motive to drive plastic recycling. The cheapest way to make plastic is to use fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal – as the raw material. It’s far more expensive to extract used plastic from garbage and then reprocess it.
Third, even if increased levels of plastic recycling could be achieved, the amount of plastic in the environment would continue to rise. That’s because recycled plastics remain in the environment as potential pollutants. For example, lawn chairs made from recycled plastic bottles eventually return to the trash pile. Recycling merely delays the pollution caused by the recycled stream.

Promoting the idea of recycling to reduce plastic pollution is a useful PR position for a corporation like Coca-Cola to adopt— in the short term. But what, I asked Mr. Quincey, is his company’s actual, sustainable, solution for the long term? I’m expecting a positive reply; something like: plastic is an abomination, a scourge, there’s no choice but to phase it out, we must use glass instead, the quicker we act the better.

I haven’t received any reply from Mr. Quincey yet, but I’ll update this post when I do.

While the whale that died from gastric shock will disintegrate and return harmlessly to the earth, the trash removed from its stomach continues to exist. Conceivably the same trash could some day find its way back into the ocean to once again kill more creatures — assuming there are any creatures left to kill. That’s the problem with plastics. Like the fossil fuels from which they are derived, once let loose into the environment, the damage they cause lasts indefinitely and becomes virtually impossible to control. Perhaps next time Mr. Quincey and his fellow Coca-Cola board members meet to discuss corporate business, they’ll consider more carefully the implications of their product-packaging decisions. To use a business jargon term, the company needs to get out ahead of the curve.

Photo of Coca-Cola Co. Board of Directors
Coca-Cola Board of Directors. James Quincey 7th From left. Image from Coca-Cola Co. website

 

Climate Bafflegab: the words Big Business uses to keep us ignorant

Bafflegab: language deliberately used to confuse, obscure, baffle

The Limits to Growth, a report commissioned by The Club of Rome, hit the book stands in 1972. Widely discussed at the time, it’s a study of industrial and population growth in relation to the supply of resources. It concluded that, unless the world changed its ways, limits to growth would become evident by the year 2072. Since its publication, more than 30 million copies of the book have sold, and it continues to generate debate to this day.

Photo of The Limits to Growth, 1st Edition cover

Question: why is the phrase ‘Limits to Growth’ so rarely mentioned in the press or elsewhere? What happened to it? Answer: Big Business, aided by its friends in government, buried it. Business leaders like to talk about growing their businesses, never about stunting them. Outside of academic circles, talk about limiting growth is considered bad taste, like spitting in public. How did Business manage to suppress the phrase so completely? Easy. It promoted an alternative phrase more to its liking. It’s called ‘Sustainable Development’, a masterpiece of bafflegab.

Google’s Ngram Viewer consists of a search engine and a database of about five million books published up to the year 2008. It provides a way to chart the frequency over time of any set of words or phrases appearing in the data set of printed texts. By choosing 1900 as the start date, and entering these three phrases, industrial development, limits to growth, and sustainable development, the Viewer generates the following chart.

Image of Google Ngram chart
Google Ngram Chart. (All) = case insensitive

The People who write books tend to use the words and phrases acceptable to the people they hope will read them. Books reflect what people are talking about at any point in time. When it was published in 1972, the Club of Rome’s book reflected the growing discomfort with industrialization. That’s when talk about ‘industrial development’ started heading downhill (see chart) and talk about ‘limits to growth’ began to gain traction. Big Business had to act fast and it did. By 1990, the new, business-friendly phrase ‘sustainable development’ had eclipsed the phrase ‘limits to growth’, and would soon take over from the phrase ‘industrial development’.

Does that mean Big Business is out of the woods, free to carry on as before? Not quite. There remains the question of global warming and its bafflegab replacement phrase ‘climate change’.  Yes, that’s right, ‘Climate change’ is a phrase chosen and promoted by Big Business in its ongoing attempt to bury the words ‘global warming’. Business hates the phrase ‘global warming’. The words imply that, not only is the world getting hotter, but that there’s no limit to how hot It will get. Business does not want to get blamed for cooking its customers. ‘Climate change’ by comparison, sounds positively benign. As President Trump has remarked, the climate could “change back again”.

Here’s what the Ngram chart shows when the phrases global warming and climate change are added.

Image of Google Ngram Chart
Google Ngram Chart (All) = case insensitive

‘Climate change’ and ‘sustainable development’, the two bafflegab phrases, are up there leading the pack, exactly where Business likes to see them. ‘Global warming’, the truthful phrase, although still in the race, is lagging.  ‘Limits to growth’, also a truthful phrase, remains lying in the dirt — for now.

New York City six years after Sandy. Is it ready for the next one?

More than six years have past since superstorm Sandy swamped New York City on October 22, 2012. If a storm of similar strength hit the city today, the streets that Sandy flooded would once again flood to the same depth. While there’s been lots of talk (and some planning), little actual construction work has been done to protect the city from another serious storm surge. However, parts of the city, lower Manhattan in particular, have been ‘hardened’ in a multitude of  ways that are generally invisible to the casual observer.

The city’s subway system suffered an estimated $4.8 billion worth of damage due to the flooding of tunnels with salt water. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo announced (May 16, 2013) plans to ‘flood-proof’ the subway and protect its critical elements against “similar storms that we expect to arrive in the future.” No easy task. The system is old and wasn’t designed with super storms and sea level rise in mind. Individual openings through which water can enter the system from the surface in flood prone areas are many — more than 3,500 according to an estimate made at the time — all of them requiring closure. The list of subway elements in need of flood proofing, included:

Station entrances, ventilator gratings, vents, elevator shafts and openings, access hatches, emergency exits, manholes, utility entrances, escalators, machine rooms, pump rooms, sewer lines, conduit ducts, utility services, lighting, HVAC systems, building entrances and other right of way equipment.

The smell and feel of fetid subway air puffing up through sidewalk gratings are sensations experienced daily by New Yorker’s. How to stop flood waters pouring down through those same gratings, was just one of the challenges faced by the Transportation Authority. One solution: metal hatches fitted under the gratings and ready to slide across the openings when needed. The following photo from 2017 shows MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, explaining the new system to the press.

Photo of MTA Chaireman and press examining subway grating flood prevention devices
MTA chairman Joe Lhota and members of the press examine subway grating flood prevention devices. Image: MTA

Because the openings are so large, flood proofing subway entrance stairways is critically important. The photo below shows an MTA employee deploying a stairwell Flex-Gate (ILC Dover Co) from its housing.

Photo of MTA employee deploying subway entrance flood prevention device
MTA employee deploying subway entrance flood prevention device. MTA Image

New York’s private sector business’s also suffered heavy damage from superstorm Sandy. Before Sandy, equipment such as electrical gear and emergency generators were typically installed in the basements of the city’s high rise buildings. That equipment was destroyed when basements flooded. Repairs took weeks, in some cases, months. Some older inhabitants of residential towers, unable to navigate dark stairwells, were trapped in their apartments for days. Architects and builders have learned from the reports. The American Copper Building provides a good example (photo below). This copper clad, residential duel-tower, built at 626 First Ave., incorporates several post-Sandy design features:

Photo of American Copper Bldg., New York City
American Copper Building.

(1) The building has no penthouse. Instead, the top floors are given over to emergency equipment designed to provide essential services to the whole building for at least a week in the event a serious storm shuts the City down. According to real estate sources, the owners, JDS Development Group (Architects: SHoP) are happy to provide the feature because, in this new age of climate change, they see it as a sales asset That compensates for the loss of penthouse revenue.
(2) Stone rather than wood is used as decorative material in the building’s lobby areas. The rational for its use is that stone will suffer less damage from being submerged in flood waters, and should therefore take less time to repair.
(3) Installing electrical gear on the second floor of new high-rise buildings rather than in their basements, guarantees that the equipment will remain safe from flood waters. This flood-proofing technique has been incorpoated into the design of the American Copper Building, as the building’s blank second-floor windows indicate (see photo below).

Photo of American Copper Building from E 36th Street
Americans Copper Building from E 36th Street. Google image

The storm that hit New York in 2012, was a category 2 hurricane. Is the city prepared for a category 3 or 4 hurricane? New Yorker’s do not want to find out.

Juliana v. United States: the battle heats up

My earlier post dated January 19th, outlined ‘Juliana v. United States’,  the youth climate lawsuit. The suit claims that the federal government, because of its ongoing failure to limit fossil fuel extraction and use, has violated the young people’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, and failed to protect the country’s public-trust resources. The case is currently held up in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals following an appeal by the government, the latest of many attempts by the Trump administration to derail the action.

Photo: James R. Browning Courthouse, San Francisco CA
James R. Browning Courthouse, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, San Francisco CA. Image: Google

On February 4th., the court agreed to begin hearings on the government’s appeal next June, in Portland, Oregon. Also on February 4th., Donald Trump nominated David Bernhardt to head the U.S. Department of the Interior. Bernhardt had become acting head following the departure of scandal-plagued Ryan Zinke.

Photo of David Bernhardt
David Bernhardt. Photo credit: D. Zalubowski/AP

It’s expected that Mr. Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel industry lobbyist, will continue to work on advancing  the President’s “energy dominance” agenda for the country. According to the New York Times, this has already involved “some of the largest rollbacks of public-land protections in the nation’s history . . .  opening millions of acres of public land and water to oil, gas and coal companies.” The Guardian of Dec. 16, 2018 quotes Natural Resources Defense Council’s Bobby McEnaney: “It’s not so much who [Mr. Bernhardt] has helped, it’s who hasn’t he helped in industry so far. The notion that he could extricate himself from benefiting his former clients is impossible.”

Reduced to its essential meaning, the young people’s lawsuit is accusing the Trump administration of ecocide — the destruction of the natural world, including all the humans in it. Underlying that accusation is the fact that, while the plaintiffs are young, the people causing the destruction are old — like Trump. It follows that while the old people have only a few years left to live, the young people have their whole lives ahead of them, provided the old people can be prevented from killing them prematurely.

Despite the Juliana lawsuit, and perhaps in spiteful reaction to it, President Trump, with the help of Mr. Bernhardt and many others like him, has actively persisted in his objective, which is to open up every square foot of the country’s federal lands to fossil fuel extraction. His current push to open the Atlantic and Pacific Outer Continental Shelves to offshore drilling, has caused even some Republican legislators to become queasy.

Map of USA showing federal lands
U.S. federal lands. Map produced by Bureau of Land Management, Washington DC

On February 7th, reacting to the Trump administration’s nose-thumbing behaviour, the Juliana plaintiffs filed an “urgent motion” in the Ninth Circuit Court, asking it to grant an injunction preventing the government (pending the resolution of its appeal) from: mining coal on federal public lands; engaging in offshore oil and gas exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf; developing new fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines and fossil fuel export facilities.

Accompanying and following the motion were supporting briefs from more than 30 diverse groups and individuals, including one from Zero Hour (zerohour.org) on behalf of 32,340 children who responded to an online petition.

The government filed its opposition to the plaintiffs motion on February 19th.

 

Big Oil rattled by Electric Vehicles; Senator Barrasso tries to help

Worldwide sales of electric vehicles (EVs) have been climbing steadily since 2010. While the proportion of EVs to new car sales is still less than 3% worldwide, the oil industry is disturbed by the trend in total numbers sold (see graph below).

Graph showing sales of EVs in leading markets 2011 to 2017
Sales of EVs in leading markets. Image from Wikipedia.org

Transportation is now the country’s largest source of global warming carbon dioxide. If CO2 emissions are to be reduced, EVs will have to play a major role. For oil refiners, that’s bad news. Electric Vehicles don’t run on gasoline, which means less profit at the pump.

What do giant corporations do when confronted by threats to their market dominance? The simple answer is, they buy political influence. But they also need to be helpful (in a practical way) to the politicians they aim to influence. That is, they need to show them exactly what legislation to adopt and pass into law. That’s where ALEC comes in.

ALEC, short for American Legistative Exchange Council, is a conservative, non-profit, bill-writing organization headquartered in Arlington VA. Its motto is, ‘“Limited Government, Free Markets, Federalism”. Membership includes state legislators and private sector representatives, people who get together to discuss and agree on their political objectives and then convert those objectives into the legislative language of government bills. These ‘model’ bills are then distributed to states that want to adopt them. The bills generated by ALEC reflect the politics of its right wing, conservative, Republican membership. Bills aimed at reducing corporate taxes, cutting environmental regulations, opposing gun control, introducing tough voter ID rules, and weakening labor unions, are typical of the organization’s output.

Several nations, including the U.S., have introduced incentives designed to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles. The U.S. offers a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 to people who buy new EVs., a measure that predates the Trump era. Last November, and again in December, oil industry representatives and state legislators held ALEC meetings to discuss (in private) how to kill the tax credit. According to The Guardian of 4th Dec., the participants secretly approved resolutions “supporting stripping tax benefits from electric vehicles and endorsing Donald Trump’s pro-fossil fuel energy agenda. And they voted down a proposal to limit monopoly control of the power industry, which backers said would give consumers more choice and help grow renewable electricity faster and more cheaply.”

Entities linked to the ALEC meetings included Marathon Petrolium, the nation’s largest refiner, and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers Association (AFPM). Marathon alone has reported spending close to a million dollars lobbying Congress about the EV tax credit and other issues. The fossil fuel industry’s man in Congress is John Barrasso, Republican Senator from Wyoming.

Photo of U.S. Senator John Barrasso
U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY). Image: Facebook

Barrasso heads the Senate Environment & Public Works Committe, and sits on the Energy & Natural Resources Committe. According to OpenSecrets.org Barrasso received $520,650 in campaign financing from the fossil fuel industry over the period 2013 to 2018. Last October, the Senator introduced a bill to Congress to revoke the EV tax credit and to impose a highway use fee on electric vehicles to make up for the fact that their owners  don’t pay a gasoline tax.

On March 6 of this year, Barrasso Spoke from the Senate Floor on the subject of the Democrats “Green New Deal”. He was responding to a challenge from Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), to tell the Senate what the Republicans planned to do about climate change. Here’s part of what Barrasso said (Senate Committee Press release):

It’s a plan: cut carbon through innovation, not regulation. The question is: do we believe the climate is changing? Do humans have an impact? The answer is yes to both. . . . Second, the United States and the world will continue to rely on affordable and abundant fossil fuel, including coal, to power our economies for decades to come. And we need to also rely on innovation. Not new taxes, not punishing global agreements. That’s the ultimate solution.

Interesting plan — Stick to fossil fuels and innovate. Innovate how? I’m guessing ‘green plan’ type innovations such as wind generators, photovoltaics, battery storage systems, and electric vehicles, are not what the Senator has in mind.

Four-door electric sedans currently sell In the U.S. for $30,000 and up. How will the oil industry react when prices fall? The image below shows the EV currently being built in China  by Great Wall Motors. It’s listed at around $9,000, little more than the tax credit Senator Barrasso is so keen on killing. That’s the future the oil industry will have to contend with.

Climate science bugs Trump — He reaches for the bug-off

Aerial photo of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Maine
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, one of several large military bases at risk from Sea Level Rise. Image credit: U.S. Navy

President Trump is vexed. Despite his well publicized positions on global warming — it’s a hoax; it doesn’t exist; etc., — elements within his own administration continue to insist that the phenomenon poses a threat to national security. For example, Daniel Coats, Director of National Intelligence, recently submitted the agency’s Worldwide Threat Assessment to the Senate Intelligence Committee for its review. The report states that “Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”

The problem for Mr. Trump is what to do about these public servants who contradict his position on climate change. His natural impulse is to fire them — learned behaviour from his entertainment days. But taking that approach with the military would likely backfire. He would have to sack  a slew of senior officers. The country’s largest military bases are built on the coast and under increasing threat from sea level rise, storm surge, and hurricanes. The top brass know that and have said so publicly.

The following YouTube video from Democracy Now, shows damage caused by Hurricane Michael to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, on October 10, 2018. It also gets New York Times journalist Dave Philipps’s take on the reaction of the Trump Administration. Hurricane Michael was the first ever on-record category-4 cyclone to hit the Florida panhandle .

If there is one thing Mr. Trump has learned during his time in office, it is that it’s not easy in a democracy to silence dissenters. Silencing them can’t be accomplished simply by decree. To succeed, even partially, directives need to be justified in some way. That’s what Mr. Trump has lacked — justification for gagging, or at least quieting, the climate change chatterers in his administration. Now he’s aiming to rectify that situation.

Photo of professor William Happer, Ph.D.
William Happer, Ph.D. Image: Heartland Inst. website

According to the Feb. 20 Washington Post, the White House is assembling a panel to assess whether climate change poses a threat to  national security. The man slated to head the panel is William Happer. Happer is an emeritus professor of physics at Princeton University. He’s also a climate change sceptic with a bee in his bonnet about carbon dioxide (CO2). While Happer agrees that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, he claims that most of the atmospheric warming that has occurred over the past century is due to natural causes, not to humans actions. He further claims that the release of CO2 from burning fossil fuels, far from being bad for the planet, is actually good for it and for the plants and humans who live on it. Happer believes that CO2 has been unfairly maligned by the scientific community. He now fancies himself as the gas’s defender in chief.

While Professor Happer’s opinions are popular among fossil fuel producers, they are music to the President’s ears. Why? Because such opinions appeal to his support base. According to David Smith reporting for the Guardian, Mr. Trump, during his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington on March 2, 2019, had this to say:

 “I think the  [Democrat’s] new green deal, or whatever the hell they call it. The Green New Deal, right? I encourage it. I think it’s really something that they should promote.” — laughter from the crowd — “No planes. No energy. When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric. ‘Let’s hurry up. Darling, darling, is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling.”   —  cheers and applause from the crowd.

When the President’s climate change panel concludes its work — if it ever does — will its findings add to humanity’s sum of useful knowledge? What do you think?

 

 

 

How to quit using fossil fuels the Hawaiian way

Just three days after President Trump announced his June 3, 2017 decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, Hawaii Governor David Ige signed a bill committing his state to the goals of the international agreement. On signing the document, Governor Ige said:

“We are the testing grounds. As an island state, we are especially aware of the limits of our natural environment. Tides are getting higher, biodiversity is shrinking, coral is bleaching, coastlines are eroding, weather is becoming more extreme. We must acknowledge these realities at home. That is why Hawaii is united in its political leadership on tackling climate change.”

Hawaii Governor David Ige
Hawaii Governor David Ige. Image: Twitter.com – @GovDavidIge

A year later, Governor Ige signed another environmental bill, this time committing his state to achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. According to the new law, by that year, 100% of the state’s electricity must be produced from renewables — photovoltaics, wind, geothermal, biofuels — completely displacing fossil fuels in the process.

The following figure provides a measure of the task ahead. Prior to 2008, less than 4% of the state’s electricity was generated from renewables. By 2017, that had grown to about 26%. Today, the percentage is around 30%.

Figure from Rhodium Group, April 19, 2019 report
Image from Rhodium Group, April 19, 2018 report

Some might think that the environmental actions of a small, isolated state (pop 1.4 mil) is of little account in the grand scheme of things. They’d be wrong. The work involves more than simply replacing old technology with PV panels and wind mills. Hawaii has six power grids, one for each of its larger islands. The current mix of renewable energy sources includes at least 60 utility-scale plants and 150,000+ residential rooftop solar systems, all with outputs that fluctuate depending on time of day, weather conditions, and other factors. How to integrate such diverse systems in a way that maintains grid stability (no overloads, brownouts, shutdowns) — that’s the real challenge. And the project is being watched closely by other states keen on cutting  their dependence on fossil fuels.

The key to success will depend on energy storage — batteries that can store energy when the systems are producing an excess, and return it when they are not producing enough. Judging by the rapid pace of solar development now taking place in Hawaii, that should not be a problem.

A Jan 3, 2019 news release from the utility Hawaiian Electric, says it has submitted contract proposals to the state’s Public Utilities Commission for seven grid-scale, solar-plus-storage projects on three islands. “The projects – three on Oahu, two on Maui and two on Hawaii Island – will add approximately 262 megawatts (MW) of solar energy with 1,048 megawatt-hours (MWh) of storage. The energy storage can provide four hours of electricity that can further reduce fossil fuel use during peak demand in the evening or at other times when the sun isn’t shining.”

Solar array, Poipu, Hawaii
Solar array, Poipu, Hawaii. Photo from Scientific American. Credit: Getty Images

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has been helping the Hawaiian Electric Companies respond to their grid stability issues. Commenting on the work (NREL News, April 24, 2018) Martha Symko-Davies, program manager for NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility said, “We’ve helped Hawaii integrate not just solar, but also storage, electric vehicle infrastructure, and more. If this can be done in Hawaii, it can be replicated anywhere else—the question is not ‘if’ we can do it, it’s ‘how’ we can do it. How do we apply the solutions we’ve helped implement in Hawaii and translate those solutions into ones that can work in other, mainland states?”

Map of Hawaiian Islanda
Hawaiian Islands – Image: Google Maps

Idaho: safe from Sea Level Rise but not from Drought and Fire

Crown fire in mixed conifer forest, southern Idaho, 2016
Crown fire in a mixed conifer forest, southern Idaho, 2016. Photo by Karl Greer, U.S. Forest Service

Idaho, an inland State, most of which lies above 2,000 feet in elevation, is safe from Sea Level Rise, but not from the warming atmosphere that’s causing it. Average summer temperature across the Pacific Northwest are predicted to rise by several degrees in the coming years. That will translate into serious trouble for the regions forests.  The Seattle Times of Sept. 11, 2017, quotes Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington: “We expect to see more fires and bigger fires. People are just beginning to wake up to this, but public lands managers do think about this and the potential risks.”

The 2018 fire season validated that prediction. The  image below shows a satellite snapshot (as an overlay on a map of the U.S.) of dense smoke across the West Coast on the morning of August 20, 2018.  The smoke cover extends north into Canada, south to Texas, and east to the Great Lakes. Idaho is hidden.

Satellite snapshot of wildfire smoke across the U.S. Aug. 20, 2018
Satellite snapshot of wildfire smoke across the U.S. Aug. 20, 2018. Image: NOAA

According to the U.S. Forest Service budget report for 2015, climate change has extended the wildfire season by an average of 78 days per year since 1970. Funding for fire fighting has remained flat for years, and rising costs have repeatedly broken the Service’s annual budget. Last year, Congress passed a ‘fire funding fix’. The bill, which will become effective in 2020, provides $2.25 billion to cover fire fighting costs that exceed regular appropriations. In addition, the bill contained half a billion in emergency fire fighting funds for 2018.

Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho, was the principal backer of the ‘fire funding fix’. Speaking about the new funding regime at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, on May 3, 2018, he had this to say:

“It’s taken us . . . thirty years to get here in terms of what was not the adequate management we needed to be putting into place on the ground. We are not going to solve it all in one fire season. So it’s true, we’re still going to be dealing with some of the things that have been building up over time and are giving us the problems that we have now. That being said, we are now going to start managing properly, and, as Vickie Christiansen, the Acting Chief of the [U.S.] Forest Service said, we are now going to move toward that point — which will take us some years to achieve — but to that point where fire is the servant not the manager of our forests.”

Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho
Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho. Image: McClatchy Videos

Senator Crapo doesn’t believe (or refuses to admit) that Global Warming is real, or that it’s an unfolding catastrophe caused by the burning of fossil fuels. That’s why he doesn’t mention the impact of climate change. As far as Crapo is concerned, the increasing number of wildfire disasters are due to the cumulative effect over thirty years of improper forest management practices, and that the problems will be solved because now, the Forest Service will have enough money to do a better job. You’ll recall how the Service has already received tips from President Trump on ways to improve their forest management practices.

Will increased funding enable the Forest Service to put a stop to the uncontrollable burning up of the western forests? It can help. It can delay. It can mitigate. But It can’t succeed until the root cause of the problem — the increasing temperature of our planet’s atmosphere — is brought under control.

On June 3, 2017, President Trump announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. A month earlier, 22 Republican Senators jointly sent a letter to the President urging him to dump the deal. Mike Crapo and his fellow Idaho Senator, Jim Risch, were among the signatories. According to The Guardian of June I, 2017, the 22 Senators had collectively received $10.7 million in campaign donations from fossil fuel industries, over the previous three election cycles (2012, 2014, 2016). Mike Crapo’s share was $110,250. Jim Risch received $123,850.

America currently remains a party to the Paris Accord. Three years must elapse before its withdrawal becomes official. Is there any possibility that Idaho will support efforts to reverse President Trump’s decision to withdraw? Considering Idaho’s current standing as a solid red State, and the apparent fealty of its Republican politicians to the fossil fuel industry, that seems unlikely. Every stick of Idaho’s forests will burn before some minds are changed.

There is, however, an indication that light has begun to penetrate Idaho’s Republican darkness.  Brad Little, a Republican, was sworn in as Idaho’s 33rd Governor on January 4th. According to High Country News, the Governor, while addressing the Idaho Environmental Forum on January 16th, told the crowd that “Climate Change is real.” His statement reportedly reduced the crowd to stunned silence. Responding to questions later, he said, “Climate is changing, there’s no question about it. We’ve just gotta figure out how to cope with it and we gotta slow it down. Now, reversing it is going to be a big darn job.” (quote from Idaho Press)

Map of the United States showing location of Idaho
The red State of Idaho. Image: Wikipedia

The 1,000-year Tennessee flood of 2010 — what are the odds?

It started raining on Saturday, May 1, 2010. By the time the rain stopped 36 hours later, large areas of middle and western Tennessee were under water. Fiftytwo of the state’s nintyfive counties would later qualify for disaster assistance. The amount of water that bucketed down that weekend was epic. The meteorologists called it ‘a thousand-year flood.’ What’s remarkable about the weather system that caused so much damage is that it showed up unannounced. No named storm was involved.

Map of Tennessee showing rainfall distribution May 1 & 2, 2010

The rains that inundated Houston, Texas, in 2017, were carried in from the Gulf by hurricane Harvey. The rains that dumped on the Carolinas in 2018, were transported from the Atlantic by hurricane Florence. People knew those tropical storms were coming, days in advance. We could watch the approaching cyclones on our TV screens. The deluge that swamped Tennessee in 2010 arrived without any warning at all. Here’s what the Memphis Office of the National Weather Service had to say:

“A significant weather system brought very heavy rain and severe thunderstorms from Saturday, May 1 through Sunday morning, May 2. A stalled frontal boundary coupled with very moist air streaming northward from the Gulf set the stage for repeated rounds of heavy rainfall. Many locations along the I-40 corridor across western and middle Tennessee reported in excess of 10 to 15 inches, with some locations receiving up to 20 inches according to Doppler radar estimates.”

It was an ordinary weather system — except for the “very moist air.” Apparently that’s what made the difference between a typical Tennessee rain storm and a thousand-year flood.  What is a thousand-year flood, anyway? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website (climate.gov) contains an engaging article titled, “How can we call something a thousand-year storm if we don’t have a thousand years of climate observation?”  Here’s my interpretation of the statistics it covers:

Records gathered over the past 100+ years showing the correlation between rainfall amount and flooding are available for most parts of the country. Flood predictions are derived from the statistical analysis of these records. The term ‘thousand-year flood’ means that the chance for a flood of a certain magnitude to occur at a particular place, in any given year, is one in a thousand or 0.1%. For Tennessee, it means that the chance for a 2010-sized flood to re-occure this year (2019) or in any following year, is one in a thousand.

But wait a minute. If the meteorologists are doing their job, they are constantly updating the available records with the most recent data. And if (as news reports from around the world suggest) the existing records are being broken with increasing frequency, statistical predictions will eventually reflect that trend. Floods that were once labeled 1,000-year floods, may now more properly by labeled 500-year or 100-year floods. For Tennessee, it means that the chance for a 2010-sized flood to re-occure this year, could be one in a hundred rather than one in a thousand.

How should politicians, concerned about the safety of the people they represent, respond to an increasingly dangerous climate? Since the problem is global, the response must be global. Hence The Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the international effort to halt the rise in temperature of the world’s atmosphere and thereby limit its destabilizing effect on climate.

The U.S. Climate Alliance is a coalition of 16 (and counting) U.S. States committed to upholding the objectives of the Paris Agreement. What are the chances that the State of Tennessee will join the Climate Alliance? Considering Tennessee’s current political leadership, about one in a million. The following YouTube video, published December 2009, records the position of GOP House Rep. Marsha Blackburn, on the question of Climate Change — she says: it’s cyclical; the science is not settled; humans are not responsible. Blackburn is now a U.S. Senator representing Tennessee.

 

New Bridge across the Tappan Zee

“In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town.”
— From: The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1820)

Image of new Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River
The Tappan Zee/Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. Image produced by American Bridge Co.

The new Tappan Zee Bridge — officially named the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge — crosses the Hudson River at Tarrytown, Westchester Co., New York, about 24 miles north of Midtown, Manhattan. The twin cable-stayed bridge replaces the original Tappan Zee Bridge, which was built during the Korean War. Opened in 1955, the old bridge was designed to carry 100,000 vehicles a day and last fifty years. By the year 2000, it was carrying 140,000 vehicles a day and had started to fall apart. The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in November 2008, injected a sense of urgency into the planning process for a replacement. The replacement project was added to New York’s list of projects eligible for federal funds in 2012 and “fast tracked” for approval by the Obama Administration (a concept foreign to the present Trump administration).

The design/build contract was awarded to a consortium comprised of Fluor Corp., American Bridge Co., Granite Construction, and Traylor Bros Inc. The bridge features a superstructure containing eight general traffic lanes, plus four emergency lanes (four + two, west bound; four + two, east bound). It also features a shared-use path for bikes and pedestrians.

Diagram of new Tappan Zee Bridge showing dimensions
Diagram of new Tappan Zee Bridge with dimensions. Image from American Bridge Co. website

The new bridge was built parallel to the old Tappan Zee bridge. The last of the old bridge’s structure was brought down by explosives on January 15th. The photo below, taken the following day, shows NY Governor Andrew Cuomo surveying the new bridge and the remains of the old bridge. Parts of the old bridge can be seen lying in the river immediately to the left of the new bridge.

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo surveying the new Tappan Zee Bridge from the air
Governor Andrew Cuomo surveying the new and old Tappan Zee Bridges. Photo credit: Melissa DeRosa via Twitter, Jan 16

The new bridge is operated by the NY State Thruway Authority. The Authority plans to introduce electronic (cashless) tolling later this year. This will enable tolling at highway speeds. Overhead surveillance equipment will read license plates and identify types of vehicles as they pass, then automatically send bills to the registered owners. The alternative for drivers who cross the bridge frequently will be to pay in advance by purchasing some sort of electronically readable sticker.

It’s impossible to see a bridge by driving across it. To see the new Tappan Zee Bridge, exit the I-87 via Broadway and head north into Tarrytown. Make your way to Pierson Park on the water front. You’ll find a scenic river walk there. Parking is available off W Main Street, beside the Tarrytown Recreation Community Center and close to Pierson Park (circled in yellow on the satellite image below).

Satellite image of Tappan Zee Bridge , New York
Satellite image of Tappan Zee Bridge. Pierson Park river view path area circled in yellow. Google Maps.

Is the federal government deliberately trampling on your fifth amendment rights? The young plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States say yes

Photo of Kelsey Juliana, plaintiff
Kelsey Juliana, plaintiff in Juliana v. United States. Image from Ourchildrenstrust.org Photo: Robin Loznak

Kelsey Juliana is the named plaintiff in Juliana v. United States, which is currently on hold in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2015, Kelsey and twenty other young people (aged 7 to 18 at the time), sued the Federal Government in U.S. District Court, Oregon, for causing life-damaging Climate Change impacts. Listed in the lawsuit are the specific complaints made by each of the young people.

Here’s a summary of Kelsey’s complaint:

Kelsey was born and raised in Oregon. She depends on the resources of the state for her survival and wellbeing. For sustenance she drinks Oregon’s fresh waters and eats the food it produces, including: seafood from Oregon’s marine and estuarine waters; food grown by farmers in the Willamette Valley; and food grown by her family in their garden. For recreation and vacationing she enjoys outdoor activities such as visiting the beaches and tide pools along Oregon’s coast; snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snow camping in winter; hiking, canoeing, and backpacking in warmer weather.

The suit alleges that the affects of Climate Change — drought, warmer winters, declining snowpack, increasing summer temperatures, algal blooms on lakes, intense wildfires — are already harming Kelsey’s drinking water, her food sources, and all the places she enjoys visiting. The suit also contends that in the coming decades, Kelsey will suffer even greater harm from the impacts of ocean acidification and rising sea levels, all because of the federal government’s actions and inactions.

Kelsey’s complaint goes on to say that the federal government has “caused psychological and emotional harm to Kelsey as a result of her fear of a changing climate, her knowledge of the impacts that will occur in her lifetime, and her knowledge that [the government is] continuing to cause harms that threaten her life and wellbeing. As a result of the acts and omissions of [the federal government], Kelsey believes that she will not be able to continue to do all of the things described in this Complaint for her life, health, and enjoyment, nor will she one day be able to share those experiences with her children.”

Photo of Oregon coastal mountains and beach
Oregon Coast. Image from Unsplash.com Photo by Vasiliki Volkova

People blame the government for all sorts of things. What’s so special about Kelsey’s complaint? Nothing, except for the fact that the lawsuit links it directly to the U.S. Constitution.

The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment bars the federal government from depriving a person of ‘life, liberty, or property’ without ‘due process of law’. Kelsey and her co-plaintiffs are claiming that the federal government is violating their due process rights by knowingly causing the climate to change to such an extent that they are being deprived of their way of life and the things that make it livable. Items I & II of the suit’s statement of facts, spell it out:

I. THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT HAS KNOWN FOR DECADES THAT CARBON DIOXIDE POLLUTION WAS CAUSING CATASTROPHIC CLIMATE CHANGE AND THAT MASSIVE EMISSION REDUCTIONS AND A NATION-WIDE TRANSITION AWAY FROM FOSSIL FUELS WAS NEEDED TO PROTECT PLAINTIFFS’ CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS.
II. IN SPITE OF KNOWING OF THE SEVERE DANGERS POSED BY CARBON POLLUTION, DEFENDANTS CREATED AND ENHANCED THE DANGERS THROUGH FOSSIL FUEL EXTRACTION, PRODUCTION, CONSUMPTION, TRANSPORTATION, AND EXPORTATION.

Photo of the Navajo Generating Station , Arizona
Coal burning power plant, the Navajo Station, Arizona. Image from nbcnews.com

The federal government does not want to see this lawsuit go to trial. Government lawyers have, several times, petitioned the Oregon District Court, the Ninth Circuit Court, and the Supreme Court, trying to put a stop to it. The government hasn’t yet denied the claim that its climate actions have caused harm to the young plaintiffs. Rather, it has attempted to derail the suit by claiming that they have no right to bring their complaints to court in the first place.

The Ninth Circuit Court is expected to rule soon on the hold it placed on the suit last December. If the ruling is in the plaintiffs favor, the Oregon District Court will set a trial date.

Trump mulls funding for new Hudson River Rail Tunnel, but continues to balk

Photo showing scene inside Penn Station, NYC
Inside Pennsylvania Station, New York City

Every weekday, about 450 trains pass through the Hudson River Rail Tunnel carrying New Jersey commuters to and from NYC’s Penn Station, as well as Amtrak passengers traveling the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York, and Washington. The tunnel is over one hundred years old and seriously decayed, and it can’t be renovated until a new tunnel is built. The estimated cost for a new tunnel: $13 billion.

Chuck Schumer, Democratic Senator from New York and Senate Minority Leader, speaking to transportation planners in December 2016 (Bloomberg News report) said: “We don’t build this, and these tunnels fail, the whole economy will collapse. There will be a deep recession in the New York metropolitan area and a recession probably in the whole country.”

A year earlier, in 2015, the federal government reached an agreement with New York and New Jersey to split the cost of a new tunnel three ways, with the feds (who own the tunnel) paying fifty percent. But when Donald Trump assumed the presidency, what had once been considered a done deal, became undone. No federal funding is guaranteed these days. There are no done deals. Deals are fluid things, subject to cancellation on a whim.

The current president is like the ogre featured in fairy tails, the one pictured lurking under a bridge, blocking traffic and the way forward. What does the ogre want? He wants wins, personal wins, and federal funds are a means of getting them. Need federal funds? Give him a win. No win, no funding. And don’t forget, he’s armed with a bag of derogatory names and a veto-tipped cudgel. If you don’t give this ogre what he wants he’ll clobber you.

Last October, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo starred in a video in which he’s seen inside the Hudson Tunnel pulling loose chunks of concrete from its wall (see: Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is falling to bits). The New York Times called it a stunt designed solely to win over an audience of one, the one in the Oval Office. Apparently the stunt worked because a month later, the President invited Governor Cuomo to a meeting in Washington to discuss the need for funding.

At a press briefing November 28, the governor described the meeting as “productive.” Did he a get a funding commitment? No. Will he get one? That depends on what’s in it for the President. Some sort of quid pro quo? Support for his boarder wall in exchange for a funding commitment perhaps? Governor Cuomo says no, not from him. What then? The tunnel project, even if it started today, will not be completed for 8 to 10 years. If there’s a win in that situation for Mr. Trump, I don’t see it. Will he support the project simply because it’s the right thing to do? What do you think?
The following YouTube video shows the Press Briefing held by Governor Cuomo following his meeting with President Trump. It’s worth watching in its entirety.

 

Climate Change in Florida — Seeing is Believing

Photo of Miami skyline
Miami, Florida. Image: Unsplash.com. Photo by Muzammil Soorma

Back in 2014, Rick Scott, then republican governor of Florida, was asked if he had a plan to deal with Climate Change. Here’s a 24-second YouTube video clip in which Scott gives his answer: No Plan. That was his position for the remainder of his term in office.

The threat posed by sea level rise to the future of Miami is known and it is dire. Yet people continue to purchase ocean front properties as if no such threat exists. The question is, why? Noah Smith, in an opinion piece for Bloomberg News dated May 3, 2018, suggested that “Increased probability of coastal flooding makes waterfront real estate a bit like a junk bond.” It’s an analogy that calls for elaboration.

A junk bond is a high-yield, moderate-risk security. For example, a city in danger of going broke, may raise money by selling ten-year junk bonds that pay a higher rate of interest (the yield) to attract buyers. The risk to the buyer is that the city may go bankrupt before the ten-year maturity date is reached, in which case the bonds become worthless. Waterfront property threatened by ocean flooding can be compared to that city. The property will continue to attract investors so long as it continues to offer a higher than normal quality of life (real or imagined). That’s the yield. The risk to the buyer in the short term — 10 to 20 years — is the unlikely chance that the property insurers (private or government) run out of money to cover damage when flooding does occur. In other words, the short-term risk to the buyer is negligible.

What about the long term threat posed by sea level rise (3 to 6 feet higher by the end of the century)? As far as Miami real estate transactions are concerned, it hasn’t yet become an issue. The immediate attraction of a higher quality of life (seaside living) has so far trumped whatever worries buyers may have about sea level rise. Furthermore, the prevailing political position has been to avoid giving the buyers reasons to to worry. State officials have taken a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach to the threat. There are no zoning laws or other disincentives aimed at discouraging further development in the region’s  flood-prone areas. In effect, the politicians are sitting on their hands, apparently waiting for the ocean to force the issue. 

That raises another question: when forced to act by rising waters, what will the city or the state do to protect the people and their way of life? Move them to higher ground? Miami is built on land that lies barely above sea level. The average elevation of Miami-Dade County is about 6 feet. The highest point in the county is about 25 feet. This means that high-tide flooding already affects those parts of the city that sit at little more than a foot and a half above Mean Sea Level (the average level of the sea between high and low tide). And even conservative predictions say that in 15 to 25 years, sea level will be a foot higher than it is today.

There’s a geological feature called the Atlantic Coastal Ridge stretching along the eastern edge of the Florida peninsula. It consists of outcrops of limestone, which In some places provide marginally higher ground. For example, the North Miami communities known as Little Haiti and Liberty City are built on ridge limestone that rises a few feet higher than the surrounding land. Noah Smith, in his opinion piece for Bloomberg News, mentions studies showing that “higher elevation locations have risen in price faster than similar locations at low elevations.” Okay. But it’s a side issue. The population of the Miami metropolitan area is pushing seven million. The place can’t speculate its way out of the problems that lie ahead. It needs a real plan.

Florida now has a new Governor, Ron DeSantis, another republican. Here’s a YouTube video in which he says, “I see the sea rising, I see the flooding in South Florida, so I think you’d be a fool not to consider that as an issue we need to address.” That’s progress. Let’s see what he actually does about it?

 

Amtrak’s Vision for High Speed Rail scuppered by its own report on Climate Change

Photo: Concept Rendering of Amtrak’s NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station
Concept Rendering of NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station, Delaware. Source: AMTRAK

The only civilized and environmentally sound way to travel long distances is by rail. The roads are either clogged or dangerous. The airline operators treat their customers as self-loading freight. Cars and planes are wasteful emitters of global warming CO2. Amtrak wants to provide its customers with an enhanced high-speed service along its busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, which connects Boston, New York, and Washington. It’s a great idea, and the company has been promoting it for the past ten years — so far without success.

The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor – 2012 Update Report, outlines the company’s dream for the high speed rail service. It calls for a 25-30 year investment program to cut travel times by half, using ‘next generation’ trains capable of 220 mph speeds. Estimated capital cost: $150 Billion ( 2011 dollars).

Map of Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment
Proposed Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment. Source: Amtrak

So what’s holding things up? Amtrak is a quasi-public corporation. Although it operates as a for-profit company, it remains dependent on federal subsidies. Getting politicians to commit funds for necessary upgrades, let alone for ‘next generation’ infrastructure, is not easy. There are priorities, like debt-ballooning tax cuts, military hardware, boarder walls, etc.

The project now faces a more serious problem. It concerns a multi-year study undertaken by Amtrak on the likely impact of climate change on the company’s operations along the Northeast Corridor. The study concludes that by mid century, rising seas and flooding associated with climate change will subject rail assets including portions of track to “continual inundation” thus rendering them unusable. Reportedly Amtrak completed the study by April 2017, but kept quiet about it until November 2018 when Bloomberg News obtained a redacted copy following a Freedom of Information request. Why the secrecy? Well, that’s easy to understand. Amtrak had said it could provide a finished product for $150 Billion. How can it now explain the need for many more billions to move its stuff out of harms way? It’s embarrassing.

According to Bloomberg, while the study provides details about the parts of the corridor at risk, it focuses on a ten mile stretch running through Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington is located close to where the Christian River joins the Delaware River (actually a tidal estuary), and much of the city is low lying. It is home to a training center for Amtrak engineers, a maintenance yard for the repair of electric locomotives, and a rail traffic control center, all of them situated in flood-prone parts of the city, as is the track itself.  For example, a three mile stretch of the track northeast of the city, lies within feet of the Delaware River shore line (see map below).

Map of Wilmington DE ans area showing section of Northeast Corridor Rail Line beside the DelawRe River
Map showing section of the Northeast Corridor lying closest to the Delaware River. Source: openstreetmap

You can see the problem for yourself next time you travel between New York and Washington by train. Take a window seat looking east, and watch for the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington. If the tide is in as you pass the three mile section, you may be shocked at how close the water is to the base of the tracks.

Alternatively, watch the following YouTube video (credit: Jersey Mike’s Rail Videos) showing the view from the back of an Amtrak train on route from Wilmington to Philadelphia. If you start the video at the 4.50 mark, you’ll see a substation to your left and the I-495 to your right. The track leaves the shore line at about the 7.15 mark.

Amtrak management knew about the potential for climate change to impact its rail assets when it released its ‘Vision for High Speed Rail’ in 2012, but made no mention of it in the proposal. A report for Amtrak dated September 2014 by Booz/Allen/Hamilton on the vulnerability of the Northeast Corridor to climate change, says (section 3.3.3) “Climate Change will directly and indirectly affect rail service in several different ways.”  Sea level rise causing long-term/permanent track flooding, is one of the ways listed in the report. Amtrak could have updated its ‘Vision’ proposal at that time, but did not do so. Now, more than four years later, the climate cat is out of the bag and as far as High-Speed Rail is concerned, Amtrak has no place to go but back to square one. Pity.

New York takes baby step towards solving its plastic trash problems

NYC litter basket overflowing with plastic bags
NYC trash basket — only for litter? NYTimes image

New York City has a plastic-waste problem. Discarded carryout bags can be found clogging drains, hanging from trees, coating vacant spaces like tide wrack. According to the city’s sanitation department, New Yorkers throw away more than 10 billion — 10,O00,000,000 — single-use plastic bags every year — one thousand bags for each man, woman, and child. That works out to about 20 billion bags discarded every year in New York State as a whole.

Confronted by the scale of the pollution, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill last April which states, “BEGINNING JANUARY FIRST, TWO THOUSAND NINETEEN, THE PROVISION OF PLASTIC CARRYOUT BAGS AT ANY POINT OF SALE TO CUSTOMERS IS PROHIBITED.”
The law is unsatisfactory because of what it leaves out. The ban does not apply to plastic bags to carry uncooked meat, fish, poultry, or food sliced to order. Bags used to contain bulk items such as fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, or candy, are exempt, as are plastic bags sold in bulk, or repackaged for sale such as trash bags or bags used for food storage. Also given a pass are plastic garment bags, bags used to carry newspapers for delivery to customers, and bags provided by restaurants and similar establishments for carryout food. And there may be other exemptions whenever the government thinks of them.

The Law isn’t going to solve the State’s plastic trash problem any time soon. But it should at least improve appearances. It’s a baby step in the right direction. The question now is, will the bill pass? As of today, the bill is held up in the NY State Senate Rules Committee. The image below shows it’s current status and the steps it must follow before it can be signed into law by Governor Cuomo. Looks like that’s not going to happen by the intended date of January 1, 2019.

Image from NY State Senate website showing status of bill S8258
Image from New York State Senate website

When Governor Cuomo introduced the bill last April, the NY State Senate had a republican majority, so there was some doubt the bill would ever get passed. Come January, the democrats will be in control which should assure the bill’s passage. But one never knows. Politicians are not known for speed or reliability. Here’s a photo of the Senate floor showing Senators at work.

Photo of NY State Senate Floor
New York State Senate Floor. nysenate.gov image

While plastic packaging is an out-and-out evil, not everything found in garbage is ugly. In fact, some of it is good-looking and interesting enough to make up the contents of a fascinating New York City musium.

Treasures in the Trash Musium

The Treasures in the Trash Musium was founded by Nelson Melina,  a Sanitation Department employee for many years. The collection consists of about fifty thousand artifacts found in New York City trash by Molina over a period of thirty years. The museum is located in East Harlem, above a NYC Sanitation Dept. Garage at 343 E 99th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues. It’s not open to the public on a regular basis. The department arranges tours from time to time. 

Musical instruments at Treasures in the Trash Musium, NYC
Musical Instruments. Treasures in the Trash Musium, NYC. Image credit : untappedcities.com

For more photos of the musium’s collection, go to Untapped Cities: Behind the Scenes at the NYC Sanitation Dept. Trash Musium on the Upper East Side.

Plastic packaging overwhelms humanity — industry looks to increase the supply

Image of plastic water bottles on production line
A few of the 50 Billion plastic water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. in one year

Since its invention in the early 20th century, plastic has been put to a multitude of valuable uses. Plastic packaging is not one of them. It’s a scourge. The stuff keeps piling up in landfills and garbage tips. It accumulates along beaches and floats in the oceans as micro particles. It slowly degrades in sunlight, releasing methane and ethylene, potent greenhouse gases. When burned with trash in the open air (as happens routinely in poor countries) it releases a range of deadly fumes, including dioxin. When burned in an incinerator as a source of energy (plastic is made from fossil fuels) it releases its carbon content into the atmosphere, thus increasing global warming.

Image of discarded flexible packaging
Discarded flexible packaging. Image: RecycleBC

Plastic trash is a highly visible form of pollution. That’s a problem for the plastics industry.  Stung by public criticism, manufacturers and users of plastic packaging have begun to react. Amcor, a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging, together with some of the big users (including, Coca-Cola, Danone, MARS, Novamont, L’Oréal, Pepsi, Unilever, and Veolia), say they have committed themselves to the New Plastics Economy, an initiative by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is what the organization’s website says it wants to achieve:

In a new plastics economy, plastic never becomes waste or pollution. Three actions are required to achieve this vision and create a circular economy for plastic. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

If those statements sound to you like the kind of New Year resolutions a weak-willed glutton might make, you’re right. Plastic products are cheap, most of the public accepts them, and the industry wants to continue feeding the market with as much of the stuff as it will swallow. According to the industry newsletter Plastics Today, the plastic packaging market is expected to grow in value from about $200 billion in 2017 to $270 billion in 2025, a 35% increase.

Of course the industry wants something to be done about the trash. It’s an embarrassment. Look at the last statement in the committments they made about circulating all the plastic items we use. The question is, who do they think will execute that part of their commitment? Right now, municipalities handle garbage collection and recycling, provided they have a tax base to support it. Municipalities in poor countries don’t have that luxury. Does the plastics industry intend to fund the collection and recycling of plastic trash in all those places in the world where that work falls short of 100% efficiency? Of course not. What the industry is angling for is a commitment, by others — governments, municipalities, you and I — to pay for it.

Suppose, as is likely, no one wants to pay the cost of dealing with plastic pollution on a global scale, what then? In the case of plastic packaging, the obvious solution would be to switch back to non-polluting materials such as paper and glass. People lived without plastic before. We can do so again.
Industry representatives opposed to the idea raise the usual objections: impractical; ill informed; too expensive; jobs would be lost, etc. Or they imply that there is no alternative. For example, Amcor CEO Ron Delia, quoted in his company’s website, says: “Plastic packaging is vital for products used by billions of consumers around the globe. It’s highly effective and easy to adapt, so that those products are safe, nutritious and effective.”  So . . . Plastic packaging is not just useful, it is vital. Foodstuffs that are not packed in plastic are unsafe, ineffective, lack nutrition. Use plastic or billions will suffer. Those are the messages Mr. Delia’s statement implies.

We humans have a tendency to eat until we burst. Our excessive consumption of plastic is just one example.  Fortunately it’s a habit we can easily break. But to succeed, the break will have to be made despite the New Plastic Economy crowd.

The following YouTube video by Ravi Bajoria shows a primative garbage sorting line in operation. Poor countries cannot afford to buy and operate the automated, high-tech systems that are available. If we stop using plastic packaging, they won’t need them.