Category — Climate
I haven’t written much here about fracking for natural gas because others have been covering it longer and better than I, but this story in yesterday’s Pittsburg Tribune-Review, by Richard Gazarik, raised my hackles. I’ll paraphrase:
Gas companies in southwestern Pennsylvania are leasing portions of streams from Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission to build a 16.5-mile pipeline to move locally drilled gas to larger markets. Why is an agency that promotes sport fishing making it easier for gas companies to operate in and around waterways used for fishing? Because it’s $36 million short on cash to repair dams in danger of collapse (the dams are classified as high risk because they’re incapable of holding 50 percent of the maximum precipitation that a region could receive). The Fish Commission also plans to sell water to the gas companies for use in drilling operations. (Wait: aren’t surface waters in the public trust—owned by the people? Maybe they’re selling groundwater – the story is unclear.) So far, about one-third of the commission’s waterways—some 14,000 acres–are potential drilling sites.
Environmentalists, including a group already engaged in cleaning up streams polluted by abandoned coalmines, are “concerned.” The pipeline will cross wetlands 71 times and streams 41 times. Kelly Swan, a spokesperson for Williams Production Appalachia, which is pursing a permit to drill under Donegal Lake, a popular trout-fishing spot in Donegal Township, among other sites, minimizes the potential for environmental damage: “Company inspectors will be stationed along the pipeline daily to ensure that construction adheres to state DEP requirements.” Very reassuring: the company guards itself, under requirements set by a notoriously drill-friendly agency. (We’ve seen how well this worked with BP in the Gulf, ExxonMobil in Yellowstone, and so on.)
Drill-site construction fragments forests and disrupts wildlife, including fish and the invertebrates they feed on (yes, the Fish Commission stocks Donegal Lake; it also limits boating to craft powered by electric motors and human power. In other words: no gasoline engines.) Wells can impact water quality and quantity. Fracked wells require many millions of gallons of fresh water that, after being contaminated with a variety of potentially toxic chemicals, is hauled away to be treated before it’s discharged (rules vary by state: in some places, fracking water is spread on roads to control dust; in other states, it’s discharged untreated into creeks or held in containment lagoons until it evaporates). But wastewater treatment plants, which make money off this deal, often don’t know the exact makeup of the water they’re treating, nor do they have the capacity to remove all contaminants. Some plant operators are concerned with fracking water’s high levels of salts, including bromide, which can interact with chlorine (used to deactivate bacteria in drinking water as well as wastewater) to form disinfection byproducts, which the EPA regulates because they’re harmful to humans (if consumed over a long period of time). Surely, they harm aquatic creatures at far lower levels.
This plan—to abet gas drilling around wetlands and fish habitat that provides recreation and a funding source for an agency charged with protecting a natural resource; in an area with dams unable to hold back current floods, let alone the 100-year floods we seem to keep getting (engineers believe it was flooding and scouring that exposed and then ruptured the pipeline under the Yellowstone River earlier this month) — seems so egregiously wrong-headed to me–an ever-tightening spiral of adverse consequences–that I can’t imagine it going forward. And then I remember that all fracking operations take place in similarly vulnerable contexts: in or near forests, near wetlands, streams, scenic areas, plant habitat, animal habitat, farmland, ranchland, watersheds, people habitat—in short, on any economically feasible and geologically propitious piece of our one and only planet Earth.
July 11, 2011 No Comments
I recently watched two documentaries about humans’ uneasy relationship to the earth. Home, a tour-de-force of aerial cinematography by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, depicts both planetary splendor and the extent to which we’ve altered nature (not for the better). The Economics of Happiness, by Helena Norberg-Hodge, Steven Gorelick and John Page, links environmental and social crises (such as unemployment and civil unrest) in the developing world. What both films have in common, besides the keening world music that’s become de rigueur in socially conscious films set in faraway places, is an exaltation of the rural over the urban, the local over the global, and a romanticizing of farming. Home offers little in the way of solutions for planetary peril (though it cites a few good-news examples at its conclusions, to show that change is possible), while The Economics of Happiness finds salvation in re-localization, the transition movement, and the rejection of hyper-consumerism.
I see a lot of documentaries lamenting the industrialization of food and water, the sorry state of our soils and forests, the darker side of consumption (waste, pollution, greenhouse gases, etc.). I daresay the audience for these films arrives hip to their messages, but still I’m happy such movies are making the rounds if they can inspire more individuals to make more changes for the better, and also—and more importantly–to make changes collectively: to organize get-out-the-vote drives, for example, or boycotts of corporations that don’t share one’s values; to defect from multinational banks to local institutions; to join and support campaigns that focus on companies that pollute or use toxic ingredients.
Still, there’s a cynic in me that says, as the credits roll, “Tried that – didn’t work” or “It’s taking too long: we need a sustainable energy policy now!” And then there’s the tiny nihilist in me that said, when Cyclone Yasi ripped through Queensland, “Good! Maybe now the politicians will listen,” because $5 billion worth of destruction speaks louder than words. Global warming is wreaking havoc: the planet is experiencing more devastating floods and droughts; food prices are rising; insurance rates too.
There’s one thing that bothered me about Home, which is a truly beautiful film and will surely spur viewers fifty years hence, when so much of the splendor it depicts is gone, to ask what the hell took us so long to act. The documentary, which is showing for free at Manhattan’s Village East Cinema from February 4 – 10th, is sponsored by the multinational holding company PPR, which includes such luxury purveyors as Gucci, Balenciaga, YSL, and Bottega Veneta, and had sales in 2009 of $21.7 trillion. The net income of the LVMH group of luxury brands, which includes Moet & Chandon and Louis Vuitton (and had nothing to do with this film) rose 73 percent in 2010; sales in 2010 were $28 billion. According to the New York Times, the spike in luxury sales is driven by the newly affluent, mostly in Asia.
Even those with environmental consciences only half-raised understand that less consumption means fewer greenhouse gas emissions (from mining raw materials, converting them into consumer goods, transporting them around the world and, ultimately, disposing of them). Is the Home sponsorship, which exalts the most conspicuous consumption, a form a greenwash? Are Gucci et al trying to tell us we can stay atmospherically comfortable and still have this season’s lambskin box bags? Maybe we can: after all, cheap prices (and goods that quickly fall apart) propel consumption. If prices reflected social and environmental costs, and goods were made to last, not break (do YSL dresses stand up to repeated washing? I wouldn’t know), I might get behind this movement. Yes, it would raise the cost of everything for consumers, but it might also, on the back end, save taxpayers money on environmental remediation and social services (were toxics to be eliminated from production of those goods, for example). But this scheme demands that the Gucci’s and the Vuitton’s (and the Wal-marts and the Targets) quit producing and promoting new styles as the seasons change, and I doubt that’s going to happen.
And so the growing middle classes of the developing world follow in our western footsteps, joining the work-spend treadmill that’s trashing the planet and making so many of us miserable. There’s plenty to like in Norberg-Hodge’s and Arthus-Bertrand’s films, and much to spur debate. See them if you can. (Home is on YouTube, but it’s more powerful on a big screen.)
February 8, 2011 No Comments
How do you get people to pay serious attention to lowering greenhouse gas emissions? Some say we need to make reduction our national, or global, moon shot, or remake climate-change activism as a patriotic calling on par with past wartime efforts.
Time magazine’s Ecocentric blog has a piece about a (theoretical, at this point) energy rationing scheme in Britain, in which citizens would be allotted energy credits, or “tradable energy quotas” (TEQs). Spend them on fuel or energy, and if you run out you can buy or trade them with others who’ve got extras because they’ve purchased sustainable low-emissions energy, which subtracts fewer TEQs from one’s account than high-emissions energy, or they generally live lower on the hog, or perhaps even hogless. (Read a report on the proposal by the Lean Economy Connection on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil here.)
The last time Britain implemented a rationing program was, of course, during World War II. The piece asks, “Does the British public believe that climate change or fuel scarcity are threats akin to Nazism?” And if they did, would that be enough to get them to make sacrifices for the good of the planet? (This short piece doesn’t address the impact on the poor, but the foundation report deals with it briefly here.) The piece ends with this: “Brits and Americans and everyone else in the rich nations may end up deciding that they would simply prefer the good life now, even if it means continuing on this absurd and relentless march into a furnace of their own creation.” Is it just me, or is this metaphor a little tasteless?
January 20, 2011 No Comments
I just learned about a new nonprofit, called ShaleTest, that helps low-income families test their water, soil and air for pollutants linked to shale-gas (natural gas) drilling. According to a story in the Denton Record Chronicle, “The organization has gathered state-of-the-art equipment, trained volunteers and made arrangements with laboratories to analyze results. It will follow a specific set of guidelines drafted by Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist who received a 1999 MacArthur Fellows ‘genius grant’ for her environmental work.”
The organization has already received offers of help from scientists in Colorado and Pennsylvania; requests for help from residents in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Texas; and has already trained volunteers in Texas, Pennsylvania and Arkansas.
Environmental testing is terribly expensive for individuals,and state governments, already cutting back on environmental spending, can offer little help. (New York’s Governor Paterson recently fired Pete Grannis, commissioner of N.Y.’s Department of Environmental Conservation, after Grannis resisted an order to lay off 209 staff members; this is not good news in a state poised for a hydrofracking boom.)
ShaleTest sounds like a great idea: I like the volunteerism, the pooling of resources and knowledge. (I just hope the group has the resources to conduct tests and collect data before drilling operations commence — it’s difficult to link contamination to a particular project if you can’t show the absence of contamination before it began.) To learn more about the group and about shale-gas drilling, or to donate money to the cause, visit ShaleTest.
October 26, 2010 1 Comment
The Wall Street Journal has a piece today on motivating individuals to conserve energy and water. I posted on the power of peer pressure recently (here), so perhaps this is just piling on, but the Journal adds more data about how such tactics work in countries other than the U.S. , a little bit about how long positive behavioral changes stick, what types of businesses have successfully used this psychology, and how competitions to reduce energy or water use might backfire. No one addresses whether it’s okay to lie to folks about their neighbors’ or peer group’s behavior (since much of this behavior is private).
October 18, 2010 1 Comment
There’s been some impassioned debate about this climate-change video, which has been removed from the web. I think it’s a bit tasteless (and that’s saying something), but I also understand that peer pressure is one of the most powerful forces in the world.The video shows groups of people signing up to cut their carbon emissions by 10 percent. Surveys show that most hotel guests decide to hang onto their towels, rather than changing them daily, when told that a majority of hotel guests do the same thing (compared with hotel guests who are only given facts about water and energy saved when they opt to keep their towels another day). Of course, hotels don’t blow up guests who ask for fresh towels daily….
Here’s the clip: what do you think?
October 7, 2010 2 Comments
Fisher Price has a new play set, called Toy Story 3: Tri-County Landfill, based on the popular (and pretty darned good, imho) movie Toy Story 3. Children can pretend their favorite Toy Story figures (Bullseye!) are about to be incinerated (yes, incinerated at a landfill, in a bit of scrambled movie logic), and then rescue them, or not, with a giant claw. Toys R Us named it one of the “hottest toys” for the holiday season. Note to pyromaniacs: the toy won’t actually burn anything.
This was a pretty good movie, solid-waste reality notwithstanding, but I hate to see it merchandised so heavily, especially with toys that are bound to break, and can’t be repaired or recycled. But think of the BTUs – and possibly the dioxin – the toy will generate inside your neighborhood incinerator!
September 23, 2010 No Comments
Your water footprint isn’t simply the sum of gallons that flow from your taps and spigots; it includes water used to make energy, to provide services, and to manufacture or grow the goods, including food and beverages, that you consume (only five percent of your total consumption comes into your house through pipes). You can get a sense of your personal water footprint using National Geographic’s online calculator. (Did you know that it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce one cotton shirt? That may not be a problem if the cotton is grown, and the shirt manufactured, in rainy areas, but it can be if the cotton is grown in a desert.)
Today the Guardian has an interesting story, based on a study conducted by the charity Progressio, about asparagus exported from an arid region of Peru. Large asparagus farms, which require constant irrigation, are pumping more groundwater than can be replenished; water tables are dropping dramatically. Yes, the big export farms (funded by loans from the World Bank and benefiting from tax exemptions) supply jobs, but residents and small farms find their supplies severely diminished — one family reports it has access to just ten liters of water a day per person (the World Health Organization says a person needs fifty liters a day to maintain health). Think about that the next time you see asparagus (for just $3.99!) in your North American market out of season.
September 15, 2010 No Comments
The Telegraph reports that — surprise! — we humans are consuming our natural capital (food, fuel, and other resources) faster than the earth can either replenish them or absorb our wastes. Last year, we began eating into our capital on September 23; this year’s Overshoot Day will fall on August 21 (according to the New Economic Foundation, humanity first went into global ecological debt on December 19, 1987). For a fuller explanation of this grim metric, read here.
August 18, 2010 1 Comment
Australia sends a lot of ships, laden with iron ore, to Japan. Then the ships head back to Australia, carrying seawater as ballast. Australia is a dry country, in dire need of fresh water. Japan currently discharges almost all of its treated sewage, which started as fresh water, into the sea. Do you see where we’re going here? Read this article in Asahi Shimbun, which describes how and why Japan may soon be selling its treated sewage to Australia, for use in those iron-ore operations (and replacing the use of fresh water expensively derived from sea water).
This is a pilot project, and I’m sure there will be some kinks to work out, but I believe we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this water reuse and recycling in the future. (Transporting water, which is heavy, ain’t cheap: but in this case waste water is replacing sea water on a ship that’s got to get back to Australia anyway.) Fresh water is a precious and finite resource. Yes, it recycles and cleans itself as it moves from one physical state to another, but with more and more people on the planet, polluting water faster than we or Mom Earth can clean it, there’s less of the stuff to go around. Why discharge expensively treated wastewater into the ocean when it can be used yet again in industry or — depending on its level of treatment — for agriculture or human consumption? (For that matter, why use expensively treated drinking water merely to flush away human waste?) To see how Orange County, California, cleans its waste water to a level fit for drinking, check out my article in the New York Times Magazine.)
July 8, 2010 No Comments