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 stopped 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-stream 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 dinner, 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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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?

 

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.

 

Climate Change threatens America; the U.S. Military responds; Trump feints

Cartoon. Trump with his finger in the climate dike
THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF STICKS HIS FINGER IN THE CLIMATE DIKE

The 2018 Federal Assessment for the U.S., was released on November 23rd. The report highlights likely impacts and risks from the changing climate.
An introductory statement says: “A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.” The report concludes that Climate Change threatens the “natural, built and social systems we rely on.” Disruptions expected to accompany Climate Change include: rising temperatures; extreme heat; drought; wildfire on rangelands; heavy downpours; transformed coastal regions; higher costs and lower property values from sea level rise; extreme weather events; changes to air quality; changes to the availability of food and water; and the spread of new diseases.

Here is President Trump’s initial response to the report:

During an interview with the Washington Post on November 27, the President was asked to explain his negative response to the climate report.
This is his verbatim response:

“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say where does this come from. And it takes many people to start off with.”

“Number two, if you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion. There is movement in the atmosphere. There’s no question. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it — not nearly like it is.”

Despite Trump’s attempts to bury climate change, and his all-out support for fossil fuels, the U.S. Military is marching to a different tune. According to the Center for Climate & Security, since Trump assumed office in January 2017, eighteen senior officials at the U.S. Defense Department have recommended actions to address the security implications of climate change. These officials include: Secretary of Defense, James Mattis; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul J. Selva; and Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spenser.

James Mattis, a former United States Marine Corps general, has a history of supporting efforts to reduce troop dependence on petroleum. In 2003, he urged the military to develop ways to “Unleash us from the tether of fuel.” At his confirmation hearings in 2017, he said, “Climate Change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.” He also said, “I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation.”

Military War Room
Military War Room

The world is facing an existential threat. It appears the U.S. Military is ready and willing to engage the enemy. But to be truly effective, it needs a Commander-in-Chief willing or able to acknowledge the threat. The sooner it gets one, the better for all of us.

When will North Carolina’s loathsome CAFOs be shut down?

Much of North Carolina’s eastern half lies within the continent’s coastal plain. Rivers flowing from the Appalachian foothills onto the plain, slow down and become sluggish. That makes them prone to flooding, particularly during and after the storms and hurricanes that blow in from the Atlantic carrying heavy loads of rain. The widespread flooding caused by last September’s Hurricane Florence is a good example.

D452B5AD-E438-4BF5-BF42-114631012A3F

This soggy, low-lying land is home to about 2,200 industrial pig farms. Known in the trade as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the waste (pig shit) from these factory farms is not treated in any way, rather it is flushed into open pits (called lagoons) and eventually sprayed onto surrounding land, or, in the event of flooding, distributed far from its source by way of creeks and rivers. Each year, about 18 million tons of liquid pig shit (laced with pharmaceutical residues) are released into the environment from the state’s more than nine million pigs.

Pig farm sheds and lagoons
Pig farm (CAFO) sheds and lagoons. Image: Sierra Club

Most of North Carolina’s pig farms are located in the southeastern part of the state, with the heaviest concentration centred in and around Duplin and Samson Counties. This has created a life-threatening pollution problem for the people living in the area.

Map of North Carolina showing distribution of hog farms on coastal plain
North Carolina showing distribution of CAFOs. Coastal plain lies east of the blue line. Map by Steve Wing, UNC-Chapel Hill

A recent study by J. Kravchenco and others, published in the North Carolina Medical Journal, October 2018 (vol.79 no 5 287-288), concerning health risks to humans living near pig farms, has this to say:

“North Carolina communities located near hog CAFOs had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/ED visits of LBW infants. . . . Among North Carolina communities, including both high-income and low-income communities, the lowest life expectancy was observed in southeastern North Carolina. . . . The residents living in close proximity to hog CAFOs . . . are chronically exposed to contaminants from land-applied wastes and their overland flows, leaking lagoons, and pit-buried carcasses, as well as airborne emissions, resulting in higher risks of certain diseases. In fact, previous survey-based studies of residential communities reported significant health risks for residents, including higher risks of bacterial infections, higher frequencies of symptoms of respiratory and neurological disorders, and depression.”

To say that CAFOs stink is an under statement. Here’s Elsie Herring, who lives in Wallace, Duplin Co., speaking about what it’s like when spraying starts at the pig farm near her home:

“You stand outside and it feels like it’s raining but then you realise it isn’t rain. It’s animal waste. It takes your breath away. You start gagging, coughing, your pulse increases. All you can do is run for cover.” — quote from The Guardian, May 2018

Why do the human inhabitants of the region put up with being rained on by animal faecal matter to the point of dying prematurely? No need to look further than North Carolina’s 2018 Farm Bill recently passed into law by the Republican controlled legislature. While the bill allows pollution from pig farms to continue unabated, it, in effect, prohibits citizens from challenging the polluters in court. The focus is on protecting the $2.9 billion industry and its owners from interference by the citizens. The citizens need for protection from the industry’s filthy practices is not even considered. Yuck! Living downwind from certain politicians can really stink. North Carolina’s hog industry is run by Murphy Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, which was purchased by China’s WH Group in 2013.

Sufferers from pig farm pollution are not the only people that have it in for the industry. Animal rights groups are also out to get them. If the farm operators were discovered treating dogs the way they treat pigs, they’d be in court facing animal cruelty charges. It’s my guess, however, that the environment will prove to be the industry’s most powerful enemy. As our warming world generates larger, more violent hurricanes, industrial pig farming on a waterlogged coastal plain will become untenable. Will the industry be allowed to move its CAFOs to higher ground, where the politicians live? What do you think?

Map of the USA showing location of North Carolina
North Carolina in red