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[1THING] Blog: Archive for February, 2013

[ U.S. Monthly Crude Oil Production Hits 20-Year High ]

Crude oil production in the United States surpassed 7 million barrels per day (bpd) in November last year, the first time since December 1992 that output reached that level. According to numbers released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration today, the U.S. produced 7.013 million bpd in November and 7.030 million bpd in December.

Driven largely by increased production of “unconventional” or “tight” oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and Montana, and Eagle Ford in Texas, U.S. crude oil production has been on a steady climb annually since 2008. (See related: “Photos: Bakken Shale Oil Boom Transforms North Dakota” and “Oil Train Revival: North Dakota Relies on Rail to Deliver Its Crude“) Overall output for 2012, at 6.474 million bpd, was the highest since 1995. (Annual U.S. production reached its peak in 1970: 9.63 million bpd.)

How long can this crude oil boom last? That is a matter of debate, as Great Energy Challenge blogger and Duke University scientist Bill Chameides notes, pointing out that some observers think the longevity of this boom has been overstated. Most recently, geoscientist J.David Hughes, writing in the journal Nature, questioned certain EIA projections on shale gas and oil output, concluding, “Declaring U.S. energy independence and laying plans to export the shale bounty is unwise.”

But at least in the short term, the boom is expected to continue. The EIA forecasts that crude oil production will continue its upward trend for the next two years, hitting more than 7.8 million bpd in 2014.

(See related post: “The Big Energy Question: How Has Fracking Changed Our Energy Future?“)

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[ Shell Suspends Arctic Drilling Plan for 2013 ]

Shell's rig, the Kulluk, floats aside the yellow tug, the Alert, in Kiliuda Bay, Alaska, where it was towed after its New Year's Eve grounding. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

Shell’s rig, the Kulluk, floats aside the yellow tug, the Alert, in Kiliuda Bay, Alaska, where it was towed after its New Year’s Eve grounding. (Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg)

The troubles that roiled Shell’s rig, the Kulluk, off the coast of Alaska this past winter will reverberate through the summer; the oil company announced today it would not seek to drill in U.S. Arctic waters in 2013. (Related: “In Kulluk’s Wake, Deeper Debate Roils on Arctic Drilling“)

“We’ve made progress in Alaska, but this is a long-term programme that we are pursuing in a safe and measured way,” said  Marvin Odum, director of Shell’s Upstream Americas division.  “Our decision to pause in 2013 will give us time to ensure the readiness of all our equipment and people following the drilling season in 2012.”

Shell never drilled into oil-bearing formations in the Arctic last year, but completed top-hole drilling on two wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, marking the industry’s return to offshore drilling in the Alaskan Arctic after more than a decade. (Related: “Ice-Breaking: U.S. Oil Drilling Starts as Nations Mull Changed Arctic“) Shell noted the drilling was completed safely, with no serious injuries or environmental impact.

But other troubles beset its two specially equipped rigs. Its drill rig, the Noble Discoverer, slipped its anchor in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor last summer before heading north, and after it returned in the fall, a small fire broke out aboard ship. But it was a mishap with Shell’s other rig, the Kulluk, that mobilized an extraordinary rescue and recovery drama. A violent storm caused it to lose its mooring to tow ships and run aground on New Year’s Eve. (Related: “Pictures: Errant Shell Oil Rig Runs Aground Off Alaska”)The U.S. Coast Guard-led response, including a rescue of the crew by helicopter, eventually involved more than 700 people.

The incident ended with no spill of the diesel fuel or oil products that the Kulluk carried. But Shell said that both the Kulluk and the Discoverer will be towed to Asia for maintenance and repairs.

Because Shell’s permits for drilling in the Arctic were predicated on use of the two rigs, the decision to forgo drilling this season is not unexpected.  But how long a “pause” in Shell’s plans will depend not only on the company’s own timetable, but on U.S. regulators. After the Kulluk incident, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a 60-day review of last year’s Arctic drilling program, the results of which are expected by the end of next week.

Although none of Shell’s mishaps involved drilling, some environmentalists are urging a revamp of the exploration plan to include more stringent safeguards, while many others are working to halt drilling altogether.

“It appears Shell is realizing they need to take a more careful approach to ensure they don’t put the Arctic’s  people and marine life at risk,” said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. Arctic Program, in an email. “The causes of last year’s mishaps must be remedied so they do not occur in the future. It’s time that all parties, from the administration and local communities to conservation groups and industry sit down and develop world class industry standards and ecological and cultural protections to safeguard the Arctic.”

David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society, however, maintains spills will happen no matter how careful the oil companies are.  ”Shell has seen the ice. Or the light,” he said in a prepared statement. “Drilling amid ice floes in the neighborhood of nurseries for threatened wildlife isn’t either smart or safe. Shell seems to have come to its senses for now – but how many accidents did it take?”

But Shell, which has invested more than $4.5 billion in leases and equipment for exploration in the Alaskan Arctic, said it is committed to drilling there in the future. “Alaska remains an area with high potential for Shell over the long term,” the company said, adding that resources there would take years to develop.

A 2008 report by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the area north of the Arctic Circle holds 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas. (Related: “Pictures: Four New Offshore Drilling Frontiers”)

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[ Shale Gas and Tight Oil: Boom? Bust? Or Just a Petering Out? ]

The oil and gas industry promises “a few days of fracking” for “decades of … production.” But is it true?

Believe it or not, some people don’t buy the fracking boom story. Some predict bust. Others, more of a petering out. What gives? Let’s begin with a story about a lunch.

Lunch with a Skeptic

In the spring of 2008, I was anticipating a lunch meeting with Matthew Simmons. In the oil and gas industry Simmons was considered something of a legend or a pariah, depending on one’s point of view. Either way, he was an iconoclast.

Having served as an energy advisor to President George W. Bush, Simmons had become increasingly concerned about Saudi Arabia’s ability to keep its oil spigot flowing indefinitely. In his book “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy” (Wiley, 2005) Simmons predicted that, with Saudi Arabian oil past peak production, hard times would fall on a world disproportionately dependent on Saudi oil to power its cars and stabilize prices.

Was he right? A good deal of debate surrounds the answer; some have said he was off his rocker, others have called him prescient (see here and here).

And while his predictions of $200 per barrel of oil by 2010 never came to fruition (prices peaked at about $145 per barrel in 2008 — click on chart below for history of prices), the financial crisis of 2008 might have had something to do with that.

weekly oil and gas prices

The left axis/red line represents the weekly West Texas Intermediate spot price per barrel, the main benchmark for North American crude. The right axis/blue bars indicate the U.S. weekly average per-gallon retail price for all grades. (Data sources: Weekly Cushing, Oklahoma WTI Spot Price and Weekly U.S. All Grades All Formulations Retail Gasoline Prices)

 

Talk of Bluster on a Blustery Day

Anyway, back to the lunch. I remember the day as sunny and blustery. Through the windows the trees swayed to and fro and the flowers on the azaleas held on for dear life. Inside, things were popping too; Simmons was full of energy, warm, forthcoming and absolutely sure of himself.

Eventually the conversation turned to shale gas, a topic whose buzz about the coming shale gas revolution had just begun to reach a fevered pitch. A couple of years later many experts (and some non-experts, such as yours truly in posts like this and this) would hail shale gas as a “game changer.”

But Simmons distanced himself from those “experts.” “It’s all hype,” he told me over lunch that blustery day, a sentiment he later conveyed to energy consultant Steve Andrews (co-founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas USA): “I’ve never seen the industry hype something crazier.”

When I asked him about such characterization, Simmons explained it had to do with the long-term productivity of fracked wells. The industry was claiming (and still is, by the way) that a single fracked well “can be in production for 20 to 40 years.” If it’s true, it’s quite a deal — frack a well, then stand back and pump out energy and profits for decades.

But the unconvinced Simmons argued that he’d seen the data from existing fracked wells and they simply did not support a decades-long production curve. He was convinced that the productivity of fracked wells rapidly declined with time — by 70 percent in the first year and another 20 percent in the second year, leaving only 10 percent for all those supposed decades of production.

That lunch-time discussion was memorable and I was saddened to learn a couple of years later that Simmons had died.

Was He Wrong About Fracking?

Was Simmons just plain wrong about fracking and tight oil and shale gas? One could argue he was. Because of shale gas, natural gas prices are as low as they’ve been in more than a decade, coal usage in the United States is down, and tight oil production in the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations is on the rise. Because of tight oil and shale gas, America’s energy prospects have never been brighter. A recent report by the International Energy Agency predicts that the United Sates will become the world’s largest oil producer by 2020 and a net oil exporter by 2030.

Maybe Not

And yet, while the fracking business is booming, there are some naysayers out there who have argued that this particular king has no clothes. (See here, here, here and here.)

Now add J. David Hughes of the Post Carbon Institute to the naysayer list. Seeming to channel Simmons in the Comment section of last week’s edition of the journal Nature, Hughes claims that “the production of shale gas and oil is overhyped.” As Simmons did, he points to the rapid decline in production rates of fracked wells. Having studied the data from 65,000 U.S. shale wells from 30 shale-gas and 21 tight-oil fields, Hughes concludes that

“Wells decline rapidly within a few years. Those in the top five US plays typically pro­duced 80–95% less gas after three years. In my view, the industry practice of … inferring lifetimes of 40 years or more, is too optimistic.”*

Hughes argues that to keep total production up in the face of declining production from existing wells, the industry will need to continue to drill more and more wells in less productive areas — making the whole enterprise less profitable. Either production will halt or energy prices will head upwards.

Hughes closes out his comment with the following not-so-optimistic assessment of the promise of shale oil and gas:

“Governments and industry must recognize that shale gas and oil are not cheap or inex­haustible: 70% of US shale gas comes from fields that are either flat or in decline. And the sustainability of tight-oil production over the longer term is questionable. … Declaring US energy independence and laying plans to export the shale bounty is unwise.”

Could be that despite fracking and its current bounty, we’re not going to be able to drill our way to energy security after all.

__________________________

End Note

New data [pdf] by the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows a similar steep drop-off in well productivity.

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[ Every Last Drop ]

Every-Last-Drop-150x150Our digital coordinator Steve sent a link to a site from  the UK about conserving water usage. The info is presented in a very cool way! Click the photo to check it out!

Did you know:

There are over 1,000,000 people that DO NOT have access to clean water.
-1/3 of our water actual gets wasted by leaky pipes before it ever reaches out homes.

Click here to find out how you can conserve/save water.  These tips will help save money on your bills and Mother Earth at the same time in and around Pennsylvania!

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[ DEP Awards 106 Grants to Protect, Improve Watersheds in 40 Counties ]

untitledThe Department of Environmental Protection announced it will invest more than $18.7 million in watershed protection projects intended to improve watersheds, stormwater runoff, acid mine drainage and educational programs, among other environmental efforts.

This year, the Growing Greener program, which is funded by the Environmental Stewardship Fund, will award $13,225,594 for 78 projects around the state. Five additional projects, funded by the Surface Mining Conservation and Reclamation Grant, will receive $1,185,588. Two additional grants, totaling $252,400, are funded by the Acid Mine Drainage Set-aside program.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program, which was created through the federal Clean Water Act to help reduce water pollution from nonpoint sources, is funding 21 additional projects, which total $4,062,368.

These projects will reduce nonpoint source pollution in watersheds where streams are impaired by implementing agricultural and stormwater best-management practices; developing, repairing or installing passive systems to treat abandoned mine drainage; and supporting the establishment of riparian buffers, among other objectives.

One of the Growing Greener program’s goals to invest in projects that protect watersheds from impairment due to nonpoint source pollution or those that will restore damaged waterways. Some examples of priority areas are restoration activities to reduce pollutant load in impaired watersheds for which total maximum daily loads have been developed; projects in priority watersheds that would reduce the source of impairment; and priority activities that lead to water quality restoration and protection.

In this latest grant round, 169 eligible applicants requested about $38.8 million. Applications came from counties, authorities and other municipalities; county conservation districts; councils of governments; watershed organizations that promote local watershed conservation efforts; and other authorized organizations involved in restoring and protecting the environment.

For more information about Growing Greener or to see the complete list of grant recipients, email GrowingGreener@pa.gov; call 717-705-4500; or visit DEP’s website at www.dep.state.pa.us, keyword: Growing Greener.

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[ Tesla’s Musk Promises to Halve Loan Payback Time to DOE, Jokes About ‘Times’ Feud ]

Tesla CEO Elon Musk offered a sort of parting gift to Energy Secretary Steven Chu Tuesday, as the pair were about to conclude a session at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit near Washington, D.C.

Asking for a for a bit more time to make an announcement, Musk first said he thought the Department of Energy’s 2009 loan to the California-based electric carmaker had been a success. “We’re exporting cars, we’re selling powertrains to two of the most respected brands in the world … an electric car won Car of the Year last year. I mean, this is pretty good stuff,” Musk said of Tesla.

“So if people are going to attack the DOE for bloody Solyndra—honestly—then there should be some praise for the DOE when there is a success. So I want to make a public commitment, and we’re going to codify it, that Tesla’s going to cut the payment time in half of the loan.”

Last fall, the DOE asked Tesla to work out a faster repayment schedule for the $465 million loan, which it made to the company in 2009. The company agreed, speeding up the first payment, which was originally due this March. Musk’s commitment at ARPA-E cuts the overall payback time of 10 years by half.

Chu, who announced this month that he is stepping down as secretary, just smiled as the audience applauded.

Musk was also able to joke about his recent,  heated flap with The New York Times over its account of a test drive that ended with Tesla’s Model S on the back of a flatbed truck. (See related post: “In Tesla Motors-NYT Spat, Cold Realities About Electric Cars.“) That piece sparked a war of words (and driving logs) between Musk and the reporter, John Broder.

Atlantic editor Steve Clemons, who moderated the session with Chu and Musk, noted that Musk’s first foray into business was the software company Zip2, in which the Times invested. “You actually helped take The New York Times online,” Clemons said.

“I think that’s called being hoisted on your own petard,” Musk replied.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, BP Capital founder T. Boone Pickens and others are appearing at the three-day ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy) summit, which also spotlights a variety of projects the agency has funded. (See related story: “Storage, Biofuel Lead $156 Million in Energy Research Grants.”) The creation of ARPA-E was authorized by Congress in 2007 and it began funding projects in 2009.

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[ Focusing on Facts: Can We Get All of Our Energy From Renewables? ]

 

In my recent post, “The Limited Vision of the Pro-Nuclear Energy Argument,” one of the commenters wrote: “it is a fact that only carbon-based energy and nuclear have a high enough energy density to meet our world’s demands. None of the renewables come close.”

I responded, “It is far from ‘fact’ that only carbon-based and nuclear energy sources can meet the world’s needs. There are many studies showing that a combination of renewable sources can indeed meet that need. And that will be easier still with a rethinking of what we employ energy for and how it actually improves our lives.”

I was referring, in part, to several sources, including a 2009 article in Scientific American titled “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables,” as well as this study, this report and other promising work suggesting that renewables do, in fact, have the potential to meet our energy demand.  (See related story: “Going ‘All the Way’ With Renewable Energy?“) A recent Climate Progress post offered an indicator that we might even be headed in the right direction, noting that, according to government numbers, wind and solar made up 100 percent of new U.S. electricity capacity in September. And earlier reports in 2011 (see here and here) showed renewables outpacing conventional energy sources in both investment dollars and capacity growth.

Then, almost on demand, up pops a post by the inestimable Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in which he responds to President Obama’s recent statement that we “need some big technological breakthrough” to tackle climate change:

Mr. President — our nation already has the technologies to protect the climate while advancing prosperity. Here’s how.

Your National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed just last June how to produce 80 to 90 percent of America’s electricity from proven, reliable and increasingly competitive renewable sources like the sun and wind.

Lovins points to findings from his RMI book “Reinventing Fire” describing how a combination of energy efficiency and renewables can indeed meet the world’s future energy requirements. Energy efficiency, he writes, “can save 44 percent of projected 2050 electricity needs through proven building and industrial technologies that pay back far faster than any new source of supply. Wasting far less energy and getting the rest at lower and stable prices would powerfully boost jobs and growth.” (Similarly, a new report from the Alliance Commission on Energy Efficiency Policy says that we can double energy productivity by 2030.)

Lovins continues, “Conventional wisdom is wrong that solar and wind aren’t viable without a breakthrough in electricity storage. Analysis and experience prove that 60-80 percent solar and wind power — sited across a region, forecasted, and balanced by flexible supply and demand — can keep the lights on with often less storage or backup than traditional giant power stations need now. That’s how Germany, without adding storage, is already one-fourth renewable-powered, and at times last spring met over half its electric load just with solar power. A smart grid will make this even more successful and resilient.”

(You may have heard about the rather spectacular recent claim on Fox News that solar power works better in Germany than it could here because “they’ve got a lot more sun than we do.” There are many reasons, all involving policies, incentives and economics, that solar power has been more successful there than here, but amount of sunshine is definitively not one of them.)

My bet is that the commenter above could provide a bunch of similarly confident-sounding reports supporting his statement.

My father, who was a science journalist (and covered some of the early environmental stories), had a plaque on his desk with the quote “There are three sides to every story. Yours, mine and the facts.” But that was before the age of instant digital communications, sound bites and Citizens United. Now, it seems, there are just two sides: your facts and my facts. And anything, repeated often enough, now takes on the feeling of fact.

And beliefs have become confused with facts. (Making light of this, Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted: “I’m often asked whether I believe in Global Warming. I now just reply with the question: “Do you believe in Gravity?”)

It’s become increasingly difficult to ascertain whose facts are, in fact, factual. I subscribe to the “follow the money” rule, or rather, don’t follow the money. Self-interest is an incredibly strong force and money, these days, is its enabler. Virtually every climate denier’s “fact” can be traced to “research” or reports funded by corporate, usually fossil fuel, interests.

The counterclaim, frequently utilized in “climategate” and elsewhere, is that scientists manipulate facts in order to secure funding for their research — as if that funding amounts to even a miniscule fraction of what corporate grant recipients and lobbyists receive. (Even that, by the way, doesn’t always work.)  And never mind that scientific findings go through strenuous competitive peer review before being labeled facts, while the only review of most corporate statements is by their public relations departments.

I know that this “not following the money” rule is a dangerously broad one and subject to the great observation by Mark Twain that all generalizations are false. But I’ve seen little to lead me to believe otherwise.

 
A version of this post originally appeared at EcoOptimism.

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[ Climate Change Q&A with Physicians for Social Responsibility ]

Q&A with Physicians for Social Responsibility

Stethoscope

Alex E. Proimos / Flickr

 

Climate
change is real
; it is happening now, and it is one of the gravest threats to
the public’s health that we will face this century. Catherine Thomasson, MD, Executive Director of EarthShare member
charity Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR)
answered our questions
about the health impacts of climate change:

 

Why should health professionals care about
climate change?

Climate
change is impacting health!  Heat waves
and elevated levels of air pollution (ozone) are already harming our health and
we expect a minimum temperature increase of 3-5C by 2100 or 5-10F
with little change in our output.  Four
out of five Americans have been victims of an extreme weather event in the last
ten years, losing homes and jobs. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, and droughts
resulting in a loss of crops and price hikes on many food items last summer
impacted the health of children whose parents can’t afford food. Water supplies
are also at significant risk. Epidemics of dengue fever, the increasing range
of Lyme disease and other insect borne diseases are occurring more due to
milder winters and hotter summers.  

 

What is PSR doing on this issue?

PSR
brings the message of health threats due to climate change to our policymakers,
to medical associations, and to the public.
 
We advocate closing polluting coal-burning power plants. We study the
health impacts of hydraulic fracturing and bring health professionals to our
legislatures and governors calling for a ban until and if this practice can be
done without fouling our air, our groundwater and releasing high levels of
methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. 
We also call for solutions such as increasing energy efficiency to
reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to develop healthy sources of
electricity such as solar, wind and geothermal.

Our voice is
heard in city councils and state legislatures through our 31 chapters and at
the federal level at the EPA, Capitol Hill and the president’s office. 

There we also advocate for preparation or adaptation to the known impacts of
climate change.

 

What specific health (or other) impacts
from climate change have you seen in your own region? / What makes this issue
personal to you?

I
have friends who were stranded in hospitals during Hurricane Katrina and in New
York City during Hurricane Sandy.  It is horrifying to think
about caring for and evacuating intensive care patients in the dark because the
hospitals were not prepared for the intensity of the storms.  These events are increasing in severity.

 

What do medical associations (AMA, ANA,
etc.) say about climate change?

Both
the American Medical Association and the American Nursing Association acknowledge
the consensus of the scientific community on climate change caused by humankind
primarily from burning fossil fuels. They call on all providers to speak to
patients and educate their communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and
to prepare for higher temperatures and sea level as well as extreme weather
events.

 

Is human-caused climate change widely
accepted by individuals in the medical community?

Unfortunately
not!  In a review article written by a
PSR member, there were many letters received denouncing the journal for
covering the issue.

 

What is your opinion of the “Human Health”
section of the new National Climate Assessment, released in January 2013? 

PSR
will be making every effort to share this very concise and well-documented
information with the public and health professionals in efforts to spur
preparation and mitigation of future effects. 
In a fact-based document such as this, it is hard to convey or
measure the health impacts of storms such as Sandy and Katrina which are
overwhelming to families who lost everything or are trying to repair when
foundations are waterlogged and overrun with mold.

 

Are hospitals and medical professionals
preparing for climate change? How?

Some
hospitals have joined an organization called Practice Greenhealth and have signed
on to the climate challenge, which requires building improvements and educating
on climate change. They are recycling, installing energy efficient features,
improving their heating systems and installing solar panels. Some hospital
systems are educating their staff and communities to prepare for extreme
weather and take action to reduce the severity of climate change. Others, along
with some cities or counties are doing nothing. It is these people we need to
reach.


7657561850_12fcb2d506_z

The Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia, a LEED Gold building, has green roofs, efficient HVAC system, indoor air quality plans, and more to support human and environmental health. Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers

What can communities do to adapt to the
health impacts of climate change?

PSR
health professionals are educating and working with some cities and counties
who recognize the need to prepare for the changes such as a 3 to 5 degree
Fahrenheit increase, or a sea level rise of over two feet in the coming 50 years.  Communities can bolster their public health
system to add warning systems and preparations for heat waves and extreme weather,
and evaluate the water shortages that will occur. Well-prepared cities and
counties have climate change plans which take health into consideration.

 

What are the health benefits to addressing climate change?

The
health or co-benefits of cutting fossil fuels are myriad.  Burning fossil fuels causes a majority of our
air and water pollution. The secondary benefits of reducing coal, oil, gasoline
and natural gas use will provide cleaner air and water.  Cutting red meat from our diets reduces
methane production and will reduce heart disease and environmental degradation
from beef production.

 

What gives you hope?

Communities that
are addressing climate change and preparing for impacts are becoming more
resilient to all kinds of threats.  They
are often increasing pride and cooperation across city and county government,
business and social entities.  Buildings
that are more energy efficient are better places to work, with more natural
sunlight, better insulation and show improved productivity and fewer sick days.
 I also am very hopeful that we have a
president who is speaking out on the issue and I hope there will be more market
incentives to make the changes we need!


To learn more about PSR's climate change program, follow their blog here. Be sure to read our article on the health impacts of climate change too.

 

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[ Photos from Forward on Climate Rally ]

Photos from Forward on Climate Rally

On February 17, 2013, over 35,000 people gathered in
Washington, DC to call for action on climate change. It was the
largest ever gathering
on climate in US history. EarthShare members Natural
Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and
many others
joined together to call for President Obama to deny the
Keystone XL pipeline and for Congress to pass legislation to cut carbon
emissions. We took these photos at the rally:

Monu

A crowd rallies in front of the Washington Monument to hear Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, 350.org President Bill McKibben, Rebuild the Dream President Van Jones, US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Maria T. Cardona of Latinovations, Hip Hop Caucus President and CEO Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Chief Jacqueline Thomas of Saik’uz First Nation and Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nations.

Mn

Flag

A woman carrying the flag of the Iroquois Confederacy marches down 17th Street

Whouse

A crowd of over 35,000 marches past the White House

Kzoo

A tar sands pipeline through Michigan ruptured in 2010, releasing over 840,000 gallons of thick oil into the Kalamazoo River. The river is still not cleaned up.

 

March

To see more images from the event, visit the 350.org Flickr page.


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[ Can Accountants Succeed on Climate Where Others Have Failed? ]

This past week the Government Accountability Office, the federal government’s independent auditor and watchdog agency, added climate change to its list of “high-risk” threats to the nation’s fiscal health.

“Climate change creates significant financial risks for the federal government,” the GAO report said. “The federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, and needs a government wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks.”

And for anyone concerned about getting the government to act on climate change, that raises a tantalizing question: Can accountants succeed where scientists and the environmental movement haven’t?

Fiscally speaking, the GAO said there are three major areas where the government is vulnerable:

  • The government is a huge property owner. The government owns thousands of buildings, from post offices to the Pentagon, and many are at risk of being damaged or destroyed by severe weather and other climate changes. Indeed, the GAO said there were at least 30 military bases already at risk from rising sea levels. And that’s not counting the impact on the 650 million acres of federally managed lands.
  • The government is on the hook as an insurance provider. The National Flood Insurance Program and the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation are already more exposed to weather-related costs than in the past, and could both face significant claims in the future if droughts, floods and severe weather develop as expected.
  • Disaster relief costs could rise. Disaster declarations have increased in recent years, with 98 declarations in 2011 compared to 65 in 2004. In 2004-11, the GAO said FEMA obligated about $80 billion in disaster aid. Superstorm Sandy alone required $60 billion in federal aid.

Right now, there isn’t any coordinated federal effort to adapt to the impact of climate change, much less provide state and local governments with the information they need, the GAO said. The agency called for better planning, information management, and reforms to insurance and disaster relief programs. In addition, the government should develop and share research that will allow local governments to make better decisions in planning, zoning and infrastructure. “The increasing fiscal exposure for the federal government calls for more comprehensive and systematic strategic planning,” the report said.

One new and worrisome entry on the GAO high-risk report is the danger of a gap in weather satellite coverage starting in 2014, as aging satellites fail before new ones come on line. Less accurate satellite information could mean more damage from severe weather — in fact, the GAO says forecasters might have failed to project Superstorm Sandy’s path.

The GAO has been doing annual “high-risk” reports for decades, and the results are mixed. A lot of the problems the auditors identify actually get fixed. This year, for example, the GAO said problems in interagency contracting and IRS management systems had improved enough so that they could be dropped from the list. On the other hand, the Pentagon’s troubled weapons-acquisition process has been on the GAO’s hit list for a depressing 20 years.

But there are two reasons why this GAO report may make a difference. One is that the respected, independent auditing agency is drawing a direct line between climate change and the nation’s fiscal health. As we’ve pointed out before, there are some troubling parallels between the federal budget debate and energy policy. Both the federal budget and our energy policy are unsustainable over the long term. And our inability to deal with both of these challenges stems from our national inability to make difficult tradeoffs to avoid a slow-developing but inevitable challenge.

The second point is that the GAO isn’t calling for actual changes in energy policy, or examining the reality of climate change. The agency is calling for controlling the government’s fiscal exposure by being smarter about managing the risks from climate change. When you’re talking about threats to the federal budget, climate change isn’t nearly in the same category as rising health care costs and an aging population, which are driving our long-term problem with deficits and debt. But climate will have a fiscal impact. In essence, the auditors are saying: “Climate change is real. It will cost us money. Deal with it.”

That message is sobering, and absolutely correct. We can and should limit carbon emissions. We can and should develop a sustainable energy policy. But the environmental changes already under way are going to cost us money. It’s just a question of how much – and how smart we are in dealing with it.

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