Hurricane Irene: An Early Taste of Climate Change?

In a year that’s already seen droughts in Texas, floods in Montana, and heat waves across much of the eastern part of the country, you might think US residents have already had their share of weather-related disasters in 2011.  Yet now it looks like densely populated cities on the east coast could face one of the year’s most dangerous weather events yet.

Hurricane Irene, a major tropical storm, has glanced off the North Carolina coast and is predicted to hit New York and other states further north over the course of the next few days.  If it pummels highly populated areas, like New York City, it could cause unprecedented amounts of property damage, and perhaps the loss of hundreds of lives.

But Hurricane Irene is more than a potential catastrophe looming in the immediate future.  Like this year’s floods, droughts, and heat waves, it is also a sample of the kind of extreme weather that is growing more common as a result of climate change.

For years, scientists have warned that global warming and associated regional changes in climate will produce more severe storms—including hurricanes.  Sure enough, the last several years have seen more than their share of tropical storm activity in the Western Atlantic Ocean.  This trend hasn’t registered fully in the public consciousness, because in any particular year stronger tropical storms don’t necessarily translate into more damage from hurricanes.

The destructiveness of the hurricane season depends on where storms land, which varies randomly from year to year.  When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the danger posed by hurricanes seared itself into the national consciousness.  On the other hand, last year saw relatively little damage in the US from hurricanes.  Though an unusually large number of storms grew out of the Western Atlantic, by pure luck none hit a US population center.

None of this changes the fact that the number of intense storms has increased dramatically since the middle of last century.  As this has happened, it has become more likely in any given year that a major storm will hit a population center.  That could be what’s about to happen this year, as Hurricane Irene prepares to slam North Carolina and states further north.

Hurricanes have always occurred up and down the east coast of the US, but storms the size of Hurricane Irene are rare in northern latitudes.  The last major hurricane to collide with land as far north as New York was the “Great Storm of 1938,” which hit Long Island and flooded parts of New York City.  Since then the odd Category Two hurricane has made it that far up the coast, but for the most part these storms have steered clear of dense populations.

Hurricane Irene might be about to break that trend.  And while it will probably be smaller than the Great Hurricane of 1938 by the time it reaches Long Island, it has potential to cause far more damage.  That’s because Long Island is a much more populated place than it was in 1938, with low-lying areas highly vulnerable to flooding.

If the worst-case scenario occurs, and Hurricane Irene floods New York City, it will be impossible to put the blame solely on climate change.  However conditions like warmer-than-average waters in the Atlantic, and a 4% increase in atmospheric water vapor due to rising temperatures, have likely helped the storm grow stronger than it would have otherwise.  These conditions, the result of climate change caused by human activity, can be expected to lead to worse storms in the future.

It might be comforting to say that Hurricane Irene can’t be blamed on global warming with certainty—just as it would be nice to dismiss droughts, floods, and heat waves as chance events.  But the truth is a changing climate has produced a world where extreme weather of all types is becoming more common.  Hurricane Irene may be just a preview of things to come.

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Bananas: Brought to You by Dirty Oil?

Environmentalists are calling out two of the biggest US fruit companies for their role in what may be the most destructive industrial project on the planet: the tar sands oil extraction zone in Alberta, Canada.  At the same time that thousands of people are descending on Washington, DC to urge President Obama to nix a new tar sands oil pipeline, groups like ForestEthics are asking Dole and Chiquita not to use tar sands oil in their trucks.

Tar sands oil is considered one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet.  Unlike conventional crude oil, it must be extracted from a rock-like substance called bitumen—a process that consumes large amounts of energy and gives tar sands oil an even bigger carbon footprint than regular oil.  Mining for bitumen in Alberta is also transforming vast areas of boreal forest into industrial wasteland, and will destroy more forest if the project is allowed to continue.

Help stop the tar sands extraction project by signing a petition to Dole and Chiquita!

“If tar sands development continues unchecked, we will lose an area of boreal forest the size of Maine, said ForestEthics volunteer Naomi Konopka on Friday, at a protest outside a Safeway that sells bananas from Dole and Chiquita.  Volunteers handed out “tar covered” (actually chocolate-covered) bananas to curious passersby, and used an eight-foot banana costume to pique the interest of store customers.

The event was one of three protests that occurred last week and over the weekend, in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon.  Each took places outside of a store that sells produce from Dole and Chiquita.  

Oil probably isn’t the first thing you think about while shopping in the fruit aisle at the store.  However it takes an incredible amount of fuel to transport bananas and other fruit by truck, from plantations in Central America to shelves in US supermarkets.  This means fruit companies like Dole and Chiquita are major consumers of oil.

It also means these companies have enough purchasing clout to influence oil industry decisions.  ForestEthics is calling on Dole and Chiquita to use this power for good, by pledging not to fuel their truck fleets with tar sands oil.  This would send a message to oil companies and the Canadian government that the future lies in shifting to cleaner fuels, not mining for even dirtier forms of petroleum in the boreal forest.

“With fifty percent of the world’s banana production, Dole and Chiquita have a responsibility to avoid the worst fuels—like those from the tar sands,” said Adam Gaya, an organizer for ForestEthics.

ForestEthics launched its Dole and Chiquita campaign earlier this summer, as part of an international day of action to stop the tar sands.  At events scattered across the US, Canada, and Europe, activists called on the fruit giants and other companies involved in the tar sands to embrace clean energy instead of dirty oil.  The request isn’t unrealistic: twenty Fortune 1000 companies have already pledged to work toward reducing or eliminating their dependence on tar sands oil.

This month the pressure on Dole and Chiquita continues.  Besides the three protests held last week, ForestEthics is collecting thousands of “customer complaints” from supermarket shoppers who want to see Dole and Chiquita abandon ties to the tar sands.  ForestEthics is also running full-page ads in papers in Cincinnati and Los Angeles—the hometowns of Chiquita and Dole—accusing the companies of encouraging dirty oil development.

On Wednesday thousands of ForestEthics supporters logged onto Dole’s and Chiquita’s Facebook pages to post links to the ads and make their feelings about the tar sands known.  The pages received so much traffic that comments on Chiquita’s page were temporarily shut down.

ForestEthics organizers are hopeful their efforts will begin to pay off, as they start to get Dole’s and Chiquita’s attention.  “Americans want companies to use clean energy, not the dirtiest fuels on earth,” said Konopka at Friday’s protest in Portland.  “This is a fun way to educate consumers about how their products get to them, and help them take action.”

Please help stop the tar sands, by signing the petition to Dole and Chiquita

Photo credit: ForestEthics

Thousands to Join Sit-In Against New Oil Pipeline

This weekend hundreds of people are gathering in Washington, DC for one of the biggest acts of mass civil disobedience the climate movement has yet seen.  Between August 20th and September 3rd, over two thousand people will risk arrest outside the White House, to protest one of the most massive new fossil fuel projects proposed in the United States.

Their focus is the Keystone XL pipeline—an oil pipeline that, if built, would transport some of the world’s dirtiest fuel from Canada, down through the Midwestern United States to Texas.  Leading environmental groups and the nation’s most respected climate scientists say building the pipeline would be a disaster for the climate, cementing US dependence on oil while triggering a “carbon bomb” that could tip the planet toward irreversible global warming.

Oil companies hope to use Keystone XL to transport oil from the Canadian tar sands in Alberta to the US oil market.  Tar sands oil is a particularly dirty form of petroleum, extracted from a tar-like rock called bitumen.  Because large amounts of energy are needed to separate oil from bitumen, tar sands oil has a higher carbon footprint than almost any oil in the world. 

The tar sands also happen to be the world’s second-largest known petroleum deposit.  Tapping into that deposit could pave the way for continued reliance on oil for decades to come in the US, making catastrophic global warming all but impossible to avoid.  According to NASA climate scientist James Hansen, opening the tar sands to unrestrained oil development would mean “essentially game over” for a stable climate.

Sign a petition to President Obama opposing the Keystone XL pipeline!

Thus the sit-in that starts this weekend, during which over a thousand people will risk arrest for trespassing on the White House steps.  They’re urging President Obama to withhold his approval of Keystone XL, and prevent the project from moving forward.  But they aren’t planning a typical protest.  Indeed, many participants will be wearing the Obama ’08 pins and buttons they sported during the presidential elections three years ago. 

They are hoping to remind the president of his pledge to halt global warming, and convince him to nix one of the single largest threats to a stable climate.  In this sense, the thousand-plus gathering isn’t about protesting President Obama’s policies, so much as reminding him of principles he pledged to fight for on the campaign trail.

Acts of civil disobedience are not particularly uncommon in Washington, DC, where protesters often risk arrest for trespassing.  However the Keystone XL sit-in is different.  Not only will it involve a much larger number of people than are usually arrested at any single action—it will go on for a much longer time.

Protesters are planning to descend on the White House steps in stages, over a period of two weeks.  Every day between seventy-five and a hundred people will sit down in front of the White House and risk arrest, to be replaced by another wave of people the following day. 

The sit-in will target President Obama, because the Obama administration must give the go-ahead before Keystone XL can break ground.  The permitting process for pipelines that cut across national borders means the president himself must give a stamp of approval, quite independent from any act by Congress or other elected officials. 

“For once,” wrote author and activist Bill McKibben in a recent piece for the Washington Post, “the president will get to make an important call all by himself.” 

McKibben is one of twelve activists, scientists, and public figures who signed a letter earlier this year asking people from around the US to join the sit-in.  That call has so far been answered more than two thousand times over, as groups of concerned citizens prepare to travel by carpool and caravan to the protest. 

Success is certainly not guaranteed.  But by harnessing the power of principled civil disobedience, the voters converging in Washington, DC hope to remind President Obama why he was put into office.

If they succeed, the forecast for the Earth’s future will look a lot brighter.  

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Tuna Industry Accused of Wiping Out Marine Life

The innocent-looking canned tuna you buy at the store may have made its way to the supermarket shelf at huge cost to the world’s oceans, according to environmental watchdog group Greenpeace.  Greenpeace, which made a name for itself in decades past partly by campaigning to “save the whales,” is mounting a new effort to save dozens of marine species threatened by the tuna industry. 

It’s a campaign that already has the attention of three leading producers of tuna, which are threatening legal action to suppress a video released by Greenpeace on YouTube.  Watch the video that has the tuna industry up in arms.

According to Greenpeace, which recently launched a new campaign to expose the “dirty secret” of the tuna industry, leading tuna companies are using fishing practices that kill dozens of non-target species.  These species range from sharks to rays to sea turtles, and include some of the most-loved and most threatened large animals in the oceans.  Every year thousands of non-target species are killed and discarded by the tuna industry, as a side effect of unsustainable fishing.

There are several fishing practices that kill non-target species.  These include the use of “fish aggregating devices” and “longlines”—both fishing methods designed to bring in as many tuna and other large marine animals as possible at minimum cost.  Unfortunately, a large percentage of the catch from longlines and aggregating devices consists of species the tuna industry has no use for. 

Longlining is a leading cause of death for sea turtles, which are drawn to baited hooks on fishing lines deep underwater.  After becoming caught on hooks meant for tuna, turtles are unable to return to the surface for air, and drown.  With six of the world’s seven sea turtle species classified as endangered or critically endangered, turtle deaths from longline fishing present a serious conservation concern.

Fish aggregating devices (also known as FADs) can be equally destructive to sea life, including endangered sharks and non-target tuna.  FADs work by attracting large fish to an artificial floating object that serves as a temporary habitat for invertebrates and small fish that predatory fish feed on.  The floats can be remotely controlled by radio, and are later collected by fishing boats—along with all the sea creatures that have started following them.

Part of the problem with FADs is that in addition to adult tuna belonging to species most commonly sought by fishing boats, they also attract juvenile tuna that are killed before they have a chance to reproduce, and endangered tuna species like bigeye and yellowfin tuna.  “If we don’t stop using FADs,” says Greenpeace, “we will run out of yellowfin and bigeye tuna because we kill all of the juveniles.”

Fortunately there are ways to catch tuna that avoid the most destructive side effects of the industry.  Greenpeace recommends that consumers buy tuna (which may be called albacore in supermarkets) that were caught using a pole-and-line or other methods that can single out target tuna species and avoid killing large amounts of non-target marine life.   

Greenpeace has also challenged tuna industry giants Chicken of the Sea, Starkist, and Bumble Bee to stop using unsustainable practices like longlining and FADs.  In a humorous YouTube video that makes fun of the industry’s own advertising campaigns, Greenpeace has urged the three companies to “clean up their act” and abandon unsustainable fishing.

In response, all three targeted companies have demanded that Greenpeace either take down the video or face legal action.  It’s a threat tactic that may actually backfire with the public, as Internet users don’t usually take kindly to corporations deciding what they can or can’t see.  The tuna video has already accumulated over 40,000 views, and Greenpeace has a goal of reaching the 60,000 mark.

Help change the tuna industry by watching the Greenpeace video, and then taking action online!

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College Looks to Develop Sustainable Biomass

College campuses across the United States are taking the lead in the transition to a clean energy future, thanks both to the part they play as developers of new technologies and ideas, and to the activities of students themselves who are determined to create a more sustainable world.

But as more and more colleges and universities move to reduce their reliance on coal and other dirty fossil fuels, some have found themselves in a quandary over what cleaner fuel makes the best alternative.  Will colleges that once relied on coal power merely switch to slightly cleaner natural gas, or can they go all the way and transition to truly renewable energy?

A technology being used at Middlebury College in Vermont could eventually help colleges, utilities, and other institutions make the jump to clean energy more easily.  Middlebury has some of the most ambitious climate and energy goals of any college in the country, and aims to be carbon neutral by 2016.  Among other efficiency and clean energy goals designed to help the college meet that target, Middlebury is developing a biomass gasification plant with the hope of using sustainably harvested local resources to generate a sustained clean energy supply.

In recent years, biomass plants have been strongly criticized by some environmental groups because they come with a variety of problems of their own.  Some types of biomass incinerators can produce as much or more local pollution than coal-burning boilers, contributing to poor air quality and health problems for nearby communities.  And if biomass boilers are supplied with wood harvested in an unsustainable manner, they contribute to deforestation.

The Middlebury biomass gasification system addresses at least some of these problems.  In contrast to a conventional wood stove, gasification involves burning woody material at extremely high temperatures to generate steam.  This steam can then be used for heating buildings and water.  The system is much more efficient than a wood stove, and other features help reduce particulate matter and other harmful emissions.  According to some reports, filters in the system can ensure more than 99% of particulate emissions are removed.

In addition to using energy as efficiently as possible and minimizing particulate emissions, Middlebury has a stated goal of obtaining all wood chips for the plant from sustainably managed forests within seventy-five miles of the college.  This would mean minimizing the degree to which the system contributes to deforestation and impacts biodiversity.

If enough wood can be provided by sustainable sources, it will mean the biomass facility isn’t simply replacing fossil fuel combustion with deforestation that also contributes to climate change.  The even larger question, of course, is whether a sustainable biomass model developed at a single college can be applied to other projects throughout the country.  The more energy you are trying to produce, the harder it is to make sure all of it comes from sustainable sources.

For this reason biomass will never be the silver bullet that fixes the US addiction to dirty fuels.  However experiments now moving forward at college campuses could help energy providers throughout the country build biomass systems that are as clean and sustainable as possible.  Such biomass plants could play an important part in the new clean energy economy.

For biomass to become a viable replacement for fossil fuels that doesn’t create a host of new environmental problems of its own, biomass facilities must be designed to run on a locally grown food supply, minimize particulate air emissions, and of course be as efficient as possible.

With momentum building for a clean energy revolution, these goals have never been more important.

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Offshore Wind May Increase Biodiversity

As more utilities turn to wind power to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, many green-minded individuals are understandably concerned about the environmental impacts of wind turbines.  After all, wind turbines are large, artificial structures, often built in what are otherwise semi-natural areas.  It makes sense to question what the impacts of wind turbines on wildlife and local ecosystems might be. 

Fortunately, a new study reveals that at least some wind farms seem to have very minimal impact on wildlife—and in fact may even increase local biodiversity.  The study looked at the effects on wildlife of the first large offshore wind farm in the Netherlands, over a period of two years.  The researchers examined effects of the giant wind turbines on sea birds, fish, marine mammals, and the plethora of invertebrate species that live on the ocean floor. 

The conclusion of the study is the overall effect of the Dutch wind farm was to increase biodiversity by providing habitat for invertebrates that attach themselves to hard underwater surfaces, and by serving as a haven for fish and other species that are protected from fishing within the confines of the wind farm. 

Though some kinds of birds are negatively impacted, even this effect seems to be minimal.  The study is welcome news for those who believe wind energy must have a place in the transition to a low-carbon energy grid. 

The most direct positive impact on marine species is that the submerged turbine pillars provide a hard surface on which mussels, anemones, and other invertebrates can anchor themselves.  In the ocean, almost all hard objects from large rocks to floating drift wood serve as habitat for largely stationary invertebrates that fix themselves to a surface and glean their food from the plankton and small fish swept past in the tides. 

These invertebrates in turn attract species like sea stars, crabs, and snails that rely on forests of stationary invertebrates for food, shelter, or both.  Healthy invertebrate populations also ensure a stable food source for many sea birds and marine mammals.

It’s unsurprising that submerged turbine pillars should turn out to serve as habitat for invertebrate communities.  However the Dutch study confirms what seems to make intuitive sense: offshore wind turbines attract a wide variety of invertebrates, actually increasing overall local biodiversity in the process. 

More indirect is the Dutch wind farm’s positive impact on large fish like cod, which have learned to seek refuge among the wind turbines.  Because fishing is not allowed in the wind farm, it serves as a de facto shelter for species that have suffered from decades or centuries of over-harvesting.  Similarly, the researchers recorded hearing more porpoise vocalizations inside the wind farm than outside.  The relative abundance of fish may have attracted these marine mammals to the area.

One group of animals on which offshore turbines clearly can have a negative impact is on sea birds—although even here, the Dutch study finds fewer negative effects than might be expected.  The researchers estimate the number of birds killed by rotating turbine blades to be very low.  However some bird species, like gannets, tend to avoid the area around the turbines.  Other species, like cormorants, actually seem to be drawn to the wind farm, perhaps because of the abundance of fish in the waters.

In short, the offshore wind farm examined in the study is not a disaster for wildlife, and even seems to provide benefits for some species.  Of course impacts on the local environment will vary from one farm to another, and may be more pronounced in other locations not looked at in this particular study. 

With that in mind, it’s important to remember what kind of energy development wind farms are displacing.  Failing to develop wind power will mean drilling and mining for more oil, coal, and gas—both in the oceans and on land.  This kind of energy has huge impacts on wildlife, from marine mammals affected by sonar equipment used to explore for oil and gas, to the multitude of species put at risk whenever an oil spill occurs

In the end, environmentalists may need to choose whether to embrace wind energy in offshore areas, or go along with the alternative choice of more oil, coal, and gas extraction.  Judging from the recently released Dutch study, wind farms should be the clear winner.  Not only does wind energy avoid the environmental devastation that comes with extracting fossil fuels, it can even provide benefits for at least some of the species that call offshore areas home.  

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Shell Agrees to Pay for Cleanup of Oil Spilled in Nigeria

When Shell Oil found petroleum in Africa’s Niger Delta (pictured at left) more than fifty years ago, it sparked a half-century long battle between one of the word’s biggest oil companies and local communities affected by oil pollution.  The fight over oil in the Niger Delta has been one of the longest and bloodiest environmental battles in the world, and is certainly far from over.

However this month community activists scored an important victory that could turn the tide against Shell.  After being sued over damage from two massive oil spills that occurred in 2008 and early 2009, the oil giant accepted legal responsibility for the spills.  This means Shell could be required to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to communities in the Niger Delta, to aid a cleanup effort that could take up to two decades to finish.

The Niger Delta in southern Nigeria is among the most productive oil extraction zones in Africa.  Nigeria is also the most populated country on the African continent, with hundreds of thousands of people living in areas that are highly impacted by oil industry operations.  Because the oil industry in Nigeria is relatively unregulated, practices that would be illegal in the United States or Europe are a routine occurrence in the Niger Delta.

Since 1989, an estimated 7,000 oil spills of varying size have occurred in the region, polluting local water supplies.  Another environmentally dangerous practice connected with oil is that of natural gas “flaring.”  Unwanted gas found in oil wells is burned or flared by companies like Shell, posing safety issues for nearby populations and contributing to climate change.  If the natural gas now flared by oil companies was instead used to generate energy, it could meet over 40% of Africa’s natural gas demand.

While damage to the environment is a regular occurrence in the Niger Delta, two oil spills that occurred close together a couple of years ago were particularly devastating.  In late 2008 and early 2009, two accidents at Shell operations spilled an amount of oil roughly equivalent to that released in Alaska’s Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

As much as ten million gallons of oil from the two spills seeped into the water supplies of Bodo, a community of about 69,000 people, as well as dozens of smaller villages in the region of the Niger Delta known as Ogoniland.  In contrast to oil spills in the US, which are usually dealt with right away, Shell at first made no attempt to clean up toxic sludge from the spills.

Only now, after a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of communities in Ogoniland, has UK-based Shell agreed to accept cleanup responsibility for the accidents.  Removing all the oil spilled in 2008 and 2009 is a process expected to take up to twenty years to complete.  The fact that Shell has accepted responsibility is a major victory for Nigerian activists, and may set a precedent that makes it easier for impacted communities to receive compensation from oil companies in the future.

Winning the right to challenge oil industry operations hasn’t been easy for the residents of Bodo and other villages in Ogoniland.  In the 1990s, eight anti-oil organizers from the region were executed by Nigeria’s government after causing problems for the oil industry.  The Nigerian government has historically been a strong supporter of Shell in the Niger Delta, with locals saying it is hard to tell the difference between hired company thugs and pro-oil government security forces.

However publicity around the deaths of the activists sparked an international outcry over oil industry activities in Nigeria.  And far from being intimidated, residents of impacted communities continued to push for the cleanup of their land and water.  Shell’s acceptance of responsibility for two of the biggest spills in recent years is a sign these efforts are at last paying off.  It’s also hopeful news for communities everywhere who seek compensation for pollution from the oil industry.

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More Efficient Trucks and Buses to Hit the Streets

In the Obama administration’s second major announcement about vehicle fuel efficiency this summer, President Obama and representatives of the trucking industry unveiled a plan Tuesday to cut fuel consumption and carbon emissions from some of the nation’s largest vehicles.  Under the new rules, large trucks and buses will be required to ramp up fuel efficiency for the first time in US history.

Though smaller personal vehicles have long been regulated to ensure a measure of fuel efficiency, similar standards have never before been applied to buses, semis, and other heavy duty vehicles.  This is somewhat ironic, as these very large vehicles account for nearly 20% of oil consumption in the US transportation sector.  The cost of fueling large trucks and buses is also a drain on the budgets of companies and government entities that use these big vehicles.

“Thanks to the Obama administration, for the first time in our history we have a common goal for increasing the fuel efficiency of the trucks that deliver our products, the vehicles we use at work, and the buses our children ride to school,” said US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “These new standards will reduce fuel costs for businesses, encourage innovation in the manufacturing sector, and promote energy independence for America.”

Under the new standards, tractor trailers and the biggest trucks will have to cut fuel consumption by 20% by the year 2018.  Meanwhile large vans and pickup trucks will be required to improve fuel economy by 15%, and garbage trucks and buses by 10%.  According to the administration, this will save 530 million barrels of oil and 270 million metric tons of the carbon emissions that cause climate change.

The new truck and bus standards build on the Obama administration’s successful efforts to implement stricter fuel economy standards for smaller, personal vehicles.  Under a rule announced in 2009, average fuel economy of cars and small trucks will be ramped up to 35.5 miles per gallon by the year 2016.  A second set of rules unveiled at the end of last month will increase the car standard to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Working on those standards for cars apparently inspired administration officials to begin pursuing similar rules for heavy vehicles—a goal the administration saw as beneficial for both consumers and the environment.

“While we were working to improve the efficiency of cars and light-duty trucks,” President Obama said on Tuesday, “something interesting happened.  We started getting letters asking that we do the same for medium and heavy-duty trucks. They were from the people who build, buy, and drive these trucks.”

Sure enough, the new standards have enjoyed strong support from the trucking industry.  “Today’s announcement by President Obama is welcome news to us in the trucking industry,” said Bill Graves, President and CEO of the American Trucking Associations.  “Our members have been pushing for the setting of fuel efficiency standards for some time, and today marks the culmination of those efforts.”

Environmental groups praised the new standards as well, saying they will help reduce climate change and dependence on oil.  Cutting fuel consumption from large vehicles will also reduce air pollutants that cause illness and premature death in people.

“By setting fuel efficiency and carbon pollution standards for medium and heavy duty trucks,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, “we will, for the first time, be able to clean up and improve the performance of the delivery trucks, city buses and freight trucks that Americans rely on each day, clearing our air, saving truckers and businesses money at the pump, creating jobs and bringing the nation a step closer to moving beyond oil.”

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Coal Export Company Accused of Deceiving the Public

One of the companies involved in a controversial proposal to build a coal export terminal in northern Washington has been accused of violating local environmental laws.  The terminal developer, SSA Marine, was discovered clearing roads through the wetland on Cherry Point, the site of the proposed coal terminal.  According to Whatcom County Councilmember Carl Weimer, this activity is probably against county rules.

Weimer was the one who first discovered the roads, which he estimates have displaced about five acres of wetland already.  Weimer was walking his dog at Cherry Point when he saw that someone had been clearing land at the site of the proposed coal export terminal.

“I thought that was odd,” wrote Weimer on his blog, “since the Council had just recently been told by our planning staff that to date SSA had not even submitted a complete application for their project, let alone been given permits to start clearing anything.”

Weimer asked County Planning and Development Services to look into the matter.  According to the Bellingham Herald, county natural resources supervisor Wayne Fitch investigated, and discovered a consulting firm working for SSA Marine was indeed behind the development.  The company was ordered to halt work immediately and to apply for permits if it wants to go on clearing wetlands.

Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen agrees SSA Marine was violating local laws, and says the company should be held accountable.  However company representatives say the road building was part of monitoring work they received a permit to conduct back in 2008.  In his blog post, Weimer had noted this earlier permit, saying he was informed about it when he asked Planning and Development Service to look into the road-building.

According to Weimer, Whatcom Planning and Development Services “said that SSA had asked for and was given written permission in 2008 to drill some monitoring wells, but that permission did not include permission to clear vegetation or do anything near this level of ground disturbance.” 

The discovery that SSA Marine was clearing wetlands without permission isn’t the first time communities in the Pacific Northwest have had a coal export company deceive them.  Earlier this year, it turned out the developer of a proposed coal export terminal in Longview, Washington had lied to county officials about the amount of coal the company wants to send through the Port of Longview.

The developer of the Longview proposal, Millennium Bulk Logistics, had said in a permit application that it wanted to export five million tons of coal each year.  However internal documents obtained by environmental groups showed Millennium was really planning to export up to 25 million tons of coal every year, making for a much bigger project with a larger environmental impact than county officials were informed of.

After the true scale of its plans became public, Millennium withdrew its permit application.  It is now working on a new application for a 25 million ton facility—a development that has moved back the timeline for the project.  It remains to be seen whether news of SSA Marine’s illegal clearing will similarly affect the Cherry Point export proposal.

What’s certain is that should this or another coal export facility be built in the Pacific Northwest, the impact on the environment would be vastly larger than the five acres of wetland SSA Marine has already cleared.  The United States has the largest reserves of coal in the world, and proposed coal export terminals would link the US coal supply to quickly-growing demand in developing nations. 

With abundant, cheap coal readily available, countries like China and India would be tempted to run their growing economies on the dirty fossil fuel rather than invest in clean energy.  The result would be catastrophic for the global climate, and likely make the worst effects of global warming almost impossible to avoid.  A new generation of coal plants in eastern Asia would also emit pollutants like mercury that would blow across the Pacific Ocean, affecting air and water quality in the western United States.

What happens at Whatcom County’s Cherry Point thus has implications for the global fight against climate change, and will influence the direction of world energy development.  However for county residents, the local environmental impacts are just as important.  And SSA Marine’s recent actions have cast doubt on the company’s ability to win the trust of the community.

“I’m not seeing SSA Marine acting in good faith here,” wrote an anonymous commenter on Councilmember Weimer’s blog about the road-building.  “If this is representative of how they are going to treat Whatcom County, then I now officially have trust issues with them.”

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New Zealand Successfully Curbing Carbon

At a time when neighboring Australia is getting ready to launch a national program to reduce carbon emissions, officials from New Zealand report a similar project in their own country is meeting with early success.  Adopted in its current form about one year ago, New Zealand’s emissions reduction program has already helped the island nation cut carbon while encouraging renewable energy and reversing deforestation.

New Zealand is currently the only major economy outside of Europe with a comprehensive national carbon policy.  Based on a cap and trade model, New Zealand’s carbon program has successfully started to reduce emissions of the main gases that cause climate change.  The policy is also helping New Zealand meet its obligation to reduce carbon emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

Some of the most noticeable impacts of New Zealand’s carbon policy have been in the forestry sector.  This isn’t surprising, because emissions from forestry were the first to be regulated at a national level.  Back in 2008 the New Zealand government began forcing forestry operations to pay for carbon emissions, providing an incentive to avoid unsustainable deforestation.

The effect on New Zealand’s forests has been noticeable.  In 2007 the country was experiencing a net loss in forest cover of 16,000 hectares annually.  Today New Zealand’s forest cover is actually growing, as the amount of land re-planted with trees each year outstrips the area of forest loss.  This is good news not only for the climate, but for the unique plants and animals that call New Zealand’s forests home.

In the summer of 2010 New Zealand’s carbon reduction policy expanded to include other sectors of the economy—namely industry, energy, and transportation.  That was also the year the current version of the national carbon trading program went into effect.  One year later, polluting companies covered by the program are successfully cutting their carbon emissions.  A recent government report found that only 2% of polluters were failing to comply with the law.

In the year since the national carbon policy went into effect, no major new fossil fuel infrastructure has been built in New Zealand, ending years of growth in polluting energy.  Meanwhile 1,340 megawatts of renewable energy capacity are being added to the grid—an encouraging sign of a trend toward cleaner energy sources.  The national carbon policy is credited with have helped trigger this shift.

News of New Zealand’s successful carbon policy could hardly have come at a better time, as it provides a measure of reassurance for policymakers in nearby Australia.  The Australian government seems set to pass its own climate policy, which will start out as a tax on carbon and shift to a cap and trade program a few years out.  Australia’s trading program could eventually be linked to New Zealand, a move that lawmakers in both countries hope to encourage.

Outside of New Zealand and Australia, countries in the European Union have been participating in a carbon trading program for years.  Other major polluters, however, have been slow to adopt this or any other comprehensive strategy for curbing emissions.

In 2010 the United States failed to pass a national climate policy supported by President Obama.  China has plans to experiment with carbon trading at a regional level, but has yet to implement a comprehensive national climate policy.  Other large economies from India to Japan have made varying levels of commitment to reduce their carbon emissions, but so far lack a dependable mechanism for doing so.

The success of New Zealand’s climate policy may have a ripple effect that extends far beyond the small island country’s borders.  Though especially relevant for Australia, policymakers in other countries could also learn from New Zealand’s progress.  If they study New Zealand’s experiences thoroughly, they may discover cutting the emissions responsible for climate change isn’t quite so hard, after all.

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