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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the climate, ecology and environment topic  (Read 144433 times)
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« Reply #855 on: Dec 13, 2013, 08:16 AM »

Researchers: Antarctic ice sheet thinning continues to increase

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 12, 2013 19:40 EST

The West Antarctic ice sheet appears to be shedding far more ice than a few years ago, according to climate research unveiled Wednesday.

Previous research, conducted between 2005 and 2010, estimated that the ice sheet contributed 0.28 millimetres (0.1 inches) per year to the rise in global sea levels.

But three years of observations by Europe’s ice-monitoring satellite, CryoSat, suggests that the contribution is now 15 percent greater.

The ice sheet is losing over 150 cubic kilometres (36 cubic miles) of ice per year, the European Space Agency (ESA) said in a press release.

The phenomenon is linked to a thinning of ice flows at three big glaciers — Pine Island, Thwaites and Smith, said polar scientist Malcolm McMillan, at Britain’s University of Leeds.

The phenomenon is linked to a thinning of ice flows at three big glaciers — Pine Island, Thwaites and Smith, said polar scientist Malcolm McMillan, at Britain’s University of Leeds.

“We find that ice thinning continues to be most pronounced along fast-flowing ice streams of this sector and their tributaries, with thinning rates of between four to eight metres (13 to 26 feet) per year near to the grounding lines — where the ice streams lift up off the land and begin to float out over the ocean,” he said.

Climate scientists are casting a worried eye at the mighty ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.

There remain many unknowns about how this stored ice is responding to global warming, but the loss of just a significant chunk of it would threaten vulnerable coastal cities.

The global mean sea level rose by 19 centimetres from 1901-2010, an average 1.7 mm per year. It accelerated to 3.2 mm per year between 1993 and 2010.

In September, the UN’s panel of climate experts said in their Fifth Assessment Report that loss of Greenland’s ice sheet had probably increased from 34 billion tonnes per year in the decade to 2001 to 215 billion tonnes a year over the following decade.

In Antarctica, the rate of loss probably increased from 30 billion tonnes a year to 147 billion tonnes a year over the same timescale, the panel said.

Most of the loss came from the northern Antarctic peninsula, considered a “hot spot” where the rate of warming is several times that of the global average, and from the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica, it said.

CryoSat uses a radar that measures the variation in ice height to high accuracy, enabling scientists to calculate the volume of the ice sheet.

The new findings were presented at a meeting in San Francisco, California, of the American Geophysical Union, ESA said.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #856 on: Dec 13, 2013, 08:50 AM »

December 12, 2013

Experts Eye Oil and Gas Industry as Quakes Shake Oklahoma


OKLAHOMA CITY — Mary Catherine Sexton has been rattled enough.

This fall her neighborhood in the northeastern part of this city has been shaken by dozens of minor earthquakes. “We would just have little trembles all the time,” she said.

Even before a magnitude 4.5 quake on Saturday knocked objects off her walls and a stone from above her neighbor’s bay window, Ms. Sexton was on edge.

“People are fed up with the earthquakes,” she said. “Our kids are scared. We’re scared.”

Oklahoma has never been known as earthquake country, with a yearly average of about 50 tremors, almost all of them minor. But in the past three years, the state has had thousands of quakes. This year has been the most active, with more than 2,600 so far, including 87 last week.

While most have been too slight to be felt, some, like the quake on Saturday and a smaller one in November that cracked a bathroom wall in Ms. Sexton’s house, have been sensed over a wide area and caused damage. In 2011, a magnitude 5.6 quake — the biggest ever recorded in the state — injured two people and severely damaged more than a dozen homes, some beyond repair.

State officials say they are concerned, and residents accustomed to tornadoes and hail are now talking about buying earthquake insurance.

“I’m scared there’s going to be a bigger one,” Ms. Sexton said.

Just as unsettling in a state where more than 340,000 jobs are tied to the oil and gas industry is what scientists say may be causing many of the quakes: the widespread industry practice of disposing of billions of gallons of wastewater that is produced along with oil and gas, by injecting it under pressure into wells that reach permeable rock formations.

“Disposal wells pose the biggest risk,” said Austin Holland, a seismologist with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, who is studying the various clusters of quakes around the state.

Oklahoma has more than 4,000 disposal wells for waste from tens of thousands of oil and gas wells. “Could we be looking at some cumulative tipping point? Yes, that’s absolutely possible,” Dr. Holland said. But there could be other explanations for the increase in earthquakes, he added.

Scientists have known for years that injection wells and other human activities can induce earthquakes by changing pressures underground. That can have the effect of “unclamping” old stressed faults so the rocks can slip past each other and cause the ground to shake.

The weight of water behind a new dam in China, for example, is thought to have induced a 2008 quake in Sichuan Province that killed 80,000 people. In Australia, a 1989 quake that killed 13 people was attributed in part to the opposite effect — the removal of millions of tons of coal during more than two centuries of mining.

In other places, including California and Switzerland, enhanced geothermal projects, in which water is pumped into hot rocks deep underground to produce energy, have caused quakes.

In Texas, some earthquakes have been connected to the industry practice of “water flooding,” increasing the yield of older oil wells by pumping water into nearby wells to force the oil out, said Cliff Frohlich, a University of Texas scientist. In other cases, Dr. Frohlich said, just the extraction of oil and gas from a long-producing field has been seen to induce quakes.

The practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — injecting liquid at high pressures into shale rock — causes very small tremors as the rocks break, releasing trapped oil or gas. The technique has also been linked to a few minor earthquakes — in Oklahoma about a year ago, and in England and British Columbia. Yet unlike the continuing clusters of quakes elsewhere, the fracking-related earthquakes occurred only over short time periods, scientists say.

Of greater potential concern, scientists say, is wastewater disposal — from fracked or more conventional wells. Disposal wells linked to quakes have been shut down in a few states, including Arkansas and Ohio.

Along with oil and gas, water comes out of wells, often in enormous amounts, and must be disposed of continuously. Because transporting water, usually by truck, is costly, disposal wells are commonly located near producing wells.

The oil and gas industry points out that many of Oklahoma’s disposal wells are in areas with no earthquake activity, and that the practice of injecting wastewater has been going on for years.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time and it hasn’t been an issue before,” said Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association.

But Dr. Frohlich said that what had changed was where the disposal was occurring. With the boom in production of oil and gas from shale formations, he said, “People are disposing of fluids in places they haven’t before.”

Still, it is difficult to show a definitive link between a group of quakes and nearby disposal wells, and Dr. Holland thinks there may be other explanations for some of the recent quakes, including the largest one, which occurred on a known fault line about 50 miles east of Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma does have natural seismic activity, he noted, and has had a few powerful quakes in the past, including one with a magnitude of 5.5 in 1952 and one estimated at about a magnitude of 7 that the geological record shows occurred 1,300 years ago. He also thinks changes in the water level of a large nearby lake may be responsible for some of the quakes around Oklahoma City, although he says this is not the most likely explanation.

The swarm of quakes has state regulators concerned, but cautious.

“We have to look at what data and scientific evidence supports some connection,” before deciding on steps to manage the risk, said Dana L. Murphy, a commissioner with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. Theoretically, at least, the commission could order some wells to be shut.

Already the commission has reached an agreement with a disposal well operator in Love County, about 100 miles south of Oklahoma City, to reduce the amount of wastewater injected into his well. The facility had been operating for only two weeks, injecting up to 400,000 gallons of water a day from nearby fracking operations, when earthquakes started occurring in September, including one that toppled a chimney and caused other damage.

All the shaking in the state has people talking about what to do if a bigger one were to hit. “I’ve been through a lot of tornadoes — you can go hide from them,” said Bill Hediger, whose home in Edmond, just north of Oklahoma City, shows cracks in the walls from the magnitude 5.6 quake. “But you can’t hide from an earthquake.”

Dr. Holland said that given the geological record, he could not rule out the possibility that a larger quake may occur in the state.

Ms. Sexton said she was not against the oil and gas industry, but added that if the quakes in her area were definitively linked to disposal wells, they should be shut down.

“It would hurt oil and gas,” she said. “But it’s oil and gas hurting homeowners and making people fearful.”

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« Reply #857 on: Dec 14, 2013, 06:41 AM »

12/13/2013 05:24 PM

A Tale of Two Cities: America's Bipolar Climate Future

By Marc Hujer and Samiha Shafy

New York City and New Bern, North Carolina both face the same projected rise in sea levels, but while one is preparing for the worst, the other is doing nothing on principle. A glimpse into America's contradictory climate change planning.

When Veronica White and Tom Thompson stand on the coastline of their respective cities, 680 kilometers (423 miles) apart, they gaze out at the same ocean, but see different things.

White, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, believes "we have to prepare the entire coastline for disasters, including storms and rising floodwaters." Thompson, a former city planner in New Bern, North Carolina -- an eight-hour drive to the south -- argues the opposite. "All this panic about the climate always amazes me, but people like to believe horror stories," he says.

Since 1900, the sea level in both cities has risen by about 30 centimeters (12 inches). According to calculations by a group of climatologists working for New York City, the sea level in that city could rise by more than three-quarters of a meter (2.5 feet) by 2050, and by one-and-a-half meters 30 years later. The group of experts warns that by the end of the century, average temperatures in New York could be as high as they are in North Carolina today.

According to the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), that state, like New York, will also see warmer temperatures by the end of the century, as well as a sea-level rise of more than one meter. But now the state government in North Carolina has muzzled the CRC with a new law that requires coastal communities to ignore its prognoses. The legislation states that the sea level off the North Carolina coast will not rise more quickly than it has in the last 100 years.

In the United States, two very different worlds have come into existence along the same coastline. In one of those worlds, people pay attention to climate predictions. In the other, they don't. While New Yorkers believe they have to do something against global warming, because it could spell the city's demise, the citizens of New Bern would rather put their faith in God's creation. In New Bern, climate change is a question of faith and conviction that touches on broader issues of American identity. Indeed, climate change has become central to a culture war over the future of America.

A Movement to Prevent Preparations

"If sea levels did go up by a meter," says Tom Thompson at the New Bern marina, "most of New Bern would be uninhabitable." He is 69 and despite his white hair, looks younger. He walks along the boardwalk, past a new riverfront park and the Hilton Hotel. All of it reflects his work as a city planner. Thompson has brought companies to New Bern, including Bosch-Siemens, which built a factory for electronic devices there, and he knows many people in the North Carolina business world.

He had just retired -- proud of the world he had created -- when the CRC delivered its prognosis that sea levels would rise by about a meter within the next 100 years, swallowing buildings, roads and public squares. It was the same number officials in other coastal states had come up with as a result of scientific research. For Thompson, however, that one-meter announcement was nothing less than a declaration of war, an assault on his legacy.

Shortly after the news appeared in the papers, Thompson worked from an office in the storage room of his wife's business, a home furnishings store on Main Street in New Bern. Sitting in a small space between two cuckoo clocks, Thompson began reaching out to the lobby he had once assembled to protect the local economy against regulation.

He called heads of chambers of commerce with whom he was on a first-name basis. He also spoke to the urban developers and chief executives of the companies he had brought to North Carolina. Thompson told all of them his horror story: of roads and highways that would have to be raised by at least a meter because of the predicted rise in sea level, of disappearing boardwalks and businesses fleeing the area. He also warned them that the building conversions, evacuation routes and property insurance would cost billions.

'They Have No Evidence'

According to Thompson, some 5,200 square kilometers (about 2,000 square miles) of the state would be in jeopardy. His friends and business associates were alarmed. Was North Carolina about to become a billion-dollar grave?

Thompson told his story until, eventually, Pat McElraft, a Republican member of the state's General Assembly, wrote a paragraph into a bill known as HB 819, which included various anti-climate change provisions.

In April 2013, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety presented an official report on what a one-meter rise in sea level would mean to the state. The economic losses would be staggering, since the affected areas are covered with homes, office buildings and public facilities worth a total of $7.4 billion (€5.16 billion). Everything would have to be rebuilt to withstand the storm surges.

And why? "Just because a few scientists are claiming that that's what will happen," says Thompson. "But they have no evidence. We're supposed to spend money on something that might not happen at all."

Thompson is a God-fearing conservative fighting against the scientific finding that climate change exists. In his view, there are too many numbers and too many estimates that seem contradictory. To him, it feels more like a lottery than science.

Post-Sandy New York

It's early morning in Queens, New York. The sun is rising over the Atlantic, its shimmering surface broken only by gentle waves. Veronica White, 54, isn't exactly dressed for a fall walk on the beach. She is going to a gala dinner with the mayor in the evening, and she knows she'll be too busy to change her outfit first.

As commissioner of the Parks & Recreation Department, part of White's job is to protect New York from climate change and rising sea levels. She and her staff of roughly 6,000 employees are responsible for the city's beaches and coastal areas, monuments like the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, the High Line and about 1,700 other city parks, 500 community gardens and 2,500 street medians known as Greenstreets. But Rockaway Beach, where she is now standing, is perhaps the best place for White to explain why New York is worried about climate change.

The view from the shore of the Atlantic, with its calm, blue waters and a few well-fed seagulls, seems perfectly idyllic. But when you turn around, the devastation becomes all too apparent: a beach that could no longer truly be called a beach.

In October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy, dubbed a "Frankenstorm," struck the East Coast of the United States, Rockaway Beach was washed away, swallowed up by a raging storm surge.

A Climate Change 9/11

What's left of the beach is now several meters below the coastal road, surrounded by sand bags. The boardwalk is gone. "It flew up into the air and, when it was all over, pieces of it were spread around the entire community," says White. The Rockaway community was flooded and littered with sand, overturned trees and utility poles with torn cables dangling from them. Residents were all but paralyzed. "We spent months just cleaning up," says White. "God, it was so discouraging."

She walks quickly along a makeshift wooden platform and looks down at the construction site on the beach, where workers are pounding planks into the sand. They're building a barrier designed to protect Rockaway Beach from being washed away by the next storm. In the coming months, the US Army Corps of Engineers will bring in 2.7 million cubic meters (95 million cubic feet) of sand, which will be piled up and secured with the help of protective walls, geotextiles and beach grass, so that Rockaway Beach can become a real beach again. But will it be enough?

Even before the storm hit, the majority of New Yorkers supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plans to transform their city of superlatives into the world's greenest metropolis. "But Sandy brought home to people what climate change really means," says White, "just as 9/11 showed New Yorkers what's at stake in the war against terror."

White concedes that a single storm cannot be directly attributed to climate change. But she also points to the models developed by the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), which indicate that by the end of the century, storms like Sandy will likely occur once every two years. In New York City alone, the storm killed 44 people, destroyed thousands of buildings and hundreds of thousands of cars, and caused $19 billion in total damage.

And as the sea level rises, the consequences of every storm surge will spread to larger areas and affect more and more people. About 400,000 New Yorkers live in flood-prone areas today, a figure the NPCC estimates will double by 2050.

North Carolina: Faith in God

Sandy also caused damage in North Carolina. The Outer Banks, a group of barrier islands and one of the state's most popular tourism destinations, were cut off from the mainland for a period of time. But residents are accustomed to storm damage and have gotten used to rebuilding destroyed houses instead of investing a lot of money in precautions to avert future damage.

In Tom Thompson's world, they call it faith in God. It's a world in which a government that provides for its citizens is not seen as a moral necessity, but as an immoral temptation that makes hardworking people lazy. And it's a world shaped by the fear of a nanny state that deprives citizens of their freedom.

In Thompson's worldview, only socialists and cowards prepare for the worst. Although North Carolina had a Democratic governor until the beginning of the year, and a majority voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, it remains a state that defends its lax gun laws, closes abortion clinics and where many people flatly refuse to believe in the existence of climate change.

And so North Carolina continues to plod along, blithely ignoring the warnings of the scientific community. When the law was passed in July 2012, then Governor Bev Perdue merely warned: "North Carolina should not ignore science when making public policy decisions." She was referring to climate change. Nevertheless, she refused to veto the law, which dictates to the sea how high it is permitted to rise off the coast of North Carolina. Perdue did point out that the issue would be revisited in four years.

"If we discover in 10 years that the sea level is truly rising at a faster pace, we can always start building roads at higher levels," says Thompson. "But why start now?"

The Green Mayor
Michael Bloomberg will complete his third and last term as mayor of New York at the end of the year, after being in office for 12 years. He has always taken the climate reports seriously, and the fact that New York is fighting climate change is primarily his achievement -- and his legacy.

In August, the New York Times published an editorial, titled "Wanted -- Another Green Mayor," which was critical of Bloomberg's successor, Bill de Blasio, for not making environmental policy a focal point of his election campaign.

Deputy Mayor Caswell F. Holloway IV, 40, meets with us in the ornate City Hall in Lower Manhattan, where he praises Bloomberg for what he calls his pioneering spirit. Holloway looks the part of a New York City official, with his bright orange tie and blue shirt, shaved head and athletic build. "When New York does something, the world pays attention," says Holloway. New York, he adds, has the ability to spur global changes because it's a "world capital."

New York as Pioneer

The deputy mayor cites the city's smoking ban as evidence. "California introduced its smoking ban in the 1990s," he says, "but then it became that strange place no one wanted to visit anymore." Then New York banned smoking in bars and restaurants, "and now you can't smoke in bars and restaurants in Paris and Hamburg, either!"

For conservative Americans, Bloomberg's New York epitomizes the nanny state. The multibillionaire and his allies aren't just fighting climate change. They're also trying to make their citizens healthier by encouraging them to stop smoking and stop eating unhealthy fats and drinking sugary beverages. They also want them to exercise more, using the city's bike-share program, for example. None of this seems to bother most New Yorkers. In polls, three out of four respondents say that they approve of their city's climate policies.

So will stubborn North Carolina soon realize that the world capital is right, and start fighting climate change? The question puts a smile on Holloway's face. He shakes his head and says: "Well, in this country we just happen to have a long tradition of vast differences in our politics."

Then the New Yorker launches into his plea, as if North Carolina itself were sitting in front of him: "They can believe what they want, as to whether or not climate change is manmade, but there is a wealth of data that all points in the same direction." According to Holloway, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that phenomena like superstorm Sandy, the flooding in Colorado and the wildfires in the Midwest will repeat themselves, and that they will happen more often and become more severe than ever, unless humans don't reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Washington 'Is Doing Nothing'

Holloway leans forward in his chair, his body becoming tense. "It's irresponsible for a government to have all this information and still do nothing." His plea complete, he leans back in his chair. New York deserves credit, he continues, for having recognized what was happening as far back as 2007. George W. Bush was president at the time and climate change was an esoteric subject, to put it mildly.

But in the capital of the world, the mayor launched a plan to prepare for climate change while making New York a greener and more environmentally friendly city: PlaNYC. The goal was to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent between 2005 and 2030. The city has already reduced emissions by 16 percent, says Holloway.

Of course, he notes, it would be easier if the country had a national climate policy to serve as a model for cities and states. "But the government in Washington is still doing nothing about climate change."

New York, on the other hand, is leading the way. Skyscrapers are being renovated to consume less energy. Some 76 percent of New Yorkers can reach a city park within a 10-minute walk of where they live, which is six percent more than six years ago. The city has already planted 800,000 of the one million new trees promised by City Hall. Times Square has become a pedestrian zone. Some 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of bike paths have been built all over the city. New York's air is less polluted today than it's been in 50 years.

A Country with Two Poles

New York and New Bern are two opposite poles in a country where it is becoming increasingly difficult to find common ground.

In Washington, the Democratic president must contend with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives dominated by a small, radical group of Tea Party lawmakers that blocks all reasonable compromises on issues ranging from gun control to healthcare to protecting the climate.

And in New York, there is speculation over whether Bloomberg's green legacy will last. "We tried to build climate protection into the city's DNA, so that it would become essentially self-perpetuating," says Deputy Mayor Holloway. He pauses briefly, and then says: "We hope we were successful." As of yet, Veronica White doesn't know if the new mayor will keep her on or if she will have to look for a new job.

And back in New Bern, Tom Thompson has postponed his retirement for the time being. Someone has to fight the insanity.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #858 on: Dec 14, 2013, 06:55 AM »

Supervolcano under Yellowstone larger than previously thought, could doom mankind

By Travis Gettys
Friday, December 13, 2013 13:31 EST

The supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park is much, much larger than was previously believed.

A new study shows the volcano’s magma chamber about 2.5 times larger than previous estimates suggested, stretching more than 55 miles and containing between 200 to 600 cubic kilometers of molten rock.

The cavern is about 20 miles wide and nearly 2 miles deep.

“We’ve been working there for a long time, and we’ve always thought it would be bigger,” said Bob Smith, University of Utah professor. “But this finding is astounding.”

The findings were presented this week at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

“We record earthquakes in and around Yellowstone, and we measure the seismic waves as they travel through the ground,” said Dr. Jamie Farrell, of the University of Utah. “The waves travel slower through hot and partially molten material (and) with this, we can measure what’s beneath.”

The last major eruption 640,000 years ago covered North America with ash and affected the climate of the entire planet. An eruption today would be catastrophic for the entire planet

The magma chamber extended much further east than previously believed, holding a mixture of solid and molten rock.

“To our knowledge there has been nothing mapped of that size before,” Farrell said.

But the larger size does not necessarily make the Yellowstone hazard greater, Smith said.

Researchers can’t say for sure when the volcano might erupt again, but they monitor the area for advance warning of seismic activity.

Some believe that a massive eruption is overdue because the Yellowstone volcano erupts every 700,000 years or so.

Previous known eruptions occurred about 2 million years ago and 1.3 million years ago.

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« Reply #859 on: Dec 14, 2013, 10:22 AM »

Fracking protest leads to bigger debate over indigenous rights in Canada

by Benjamin Shingler @benshingler December 10, 2013 5:00AM ET
Al Jazeera

A single campaign in the country's smallest province is now a flashpoint for land rights of First Nations communities

MONTREAL — It’s a single shale gas exploration project in one of Canada’s smallest provinces, but it has become a flashpoint in the debate over indigenous land rights in the country.

What began this summer in a small encampment near the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick has triggered a broader movement with a groundswell of support across the country.

After protesters in New Brunswick set up another blockade last week on a highway near a seismic testing site, demonstrations were held in solidarity in cities across the country. Activists contend this is only the beginning of a lengthy battle in New Brunswick – and part of a larger fight over the stewardship of the country's natural resources.

Elsipogtog — along with the Mi’kmaq indigenous who are part of that nation — has come to represent the struggle for indigenous self-determination, land rights and environmental protection, said Clayton Thomas-Muller, an activist and organizer of the aboriginal movement Idle No More, which took hold last year in Canada.

“It very quickly could set off a firestorm given the current political climate in Canada with Idle No More,” Thomas-Muller said

For now, protesters in Elsipogtog expect a period of quiet, at least over the holiday season.

SWN Resources, a shale gas testing company based in Texas, announced last Friday it had completed its initial round of testing.

Protesters report the company’s high-powered, specialized trucks have left the area and its workers have gone home

But no one is under the impression the company is gone for good.

How will it play out? First Nation, Algonquin, protests, Elsipogtog

“They're probably hoping that morale and the movement will slow us down,” said Suzanne Patles, a Mi'kmaq woman originally from neighboring Nova Scotia, who has been on the protest's front lines since June.

“If the company is gone, everybody is going to strategically plan out their actions.”

A spokeswoman for SWN Resources declined a request for details on its plans for New Brunswick. The statement said only that the company “is pleased to announce that we have completed our seismic acquisition program in New Brunswick.”

A defense fund has been set up to help pay for a legal battle with the company, and another for the 13 protesters who were sued for damages by the company.

Meanwhile, similar disputes over land rights are unfolding elsewhere in the country.

In Barriere Lake, Quebec, an Algonquin community is protesting the clear-cutting of forests near their community.

Across the country in Alberta, the Lubicon Lake First Nation is suing an oil and gas company for “the destruction of its traditional lands.”

But it's Elsipogtog that has garnered the most attention, and activists say they are anxious to see how the dispute plays out.

Aboriginal land rights

The protests made headlines when police raided the encampment in October, enforcing a court injunction against a blockade.

Many believe the underlying issue of indigenous land rights in Elsipogtog could have an enduring impact elsewhere.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government is banking on the support of aboriginal communities while working toward his stated goal of making Canada an “energy superpower.”

There are plans, for instance, to build more pipelines carrying oil sands bitumen and natural gas through Alberta and British Columbia, but many of them need to pass through aboriginal territories.

A new report by a Harper-appointee outlines how to “forge relationships” with aboriginals. It advises the government to focus on “building trust, fostering inclusion, and advancing reconciliation.”

In that respect, there appears to be quite a lot of work to do.

A full one-third of aboriginal Canadians have “zero” trust in the country's oil and gas companies, according to a recent survey. The same survey suggests some are willing to talk about resource development if it's shown to be beneficial to them.

In New Brunswick, the Mi’kmaq have argued the exploration work is being conducted on land that they never ceded to the crown when they signed treaties with the British in the 18th century.

New Brunswick's government granted SWN licenses to explore for shale gas four years ago in exchange for investment in the province worth approximately CA$47 million (about US$44 million).

Larry Chartrand, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said disputes over aboriginal land rights appear to be increasingly common – though it’s difficult to predict how each will end.

“Sometimes it's settled pretty quietly, with some incentives for the (aboriginal) bands, other times the conflict escalates,” said Chartrand, an expert in aboriginal rights.

A little history

Thomas-Muller said he sees parallels between Elsipogtog and another First Nations protest over land rights held two decades ago.

In 1990, real-estate developers in the town of Oka wanted to extend a golf course onto an ancestral Mohawk burial ground.

In what became known as the Oka Crisis, the Mohawks barricaded a road leading to the development that summer. The government countered with an intervention from police and, eventually, the Canadian military.

“On a broader geopolitical context, Elsipogtog has emerged as the Oka of the Harper Conservative administration,” Thomas-Muller said.

“They're trying to use force instead of diplomacy, trying to erase democratic freedoms in the interest of defending corporations.”

One province westward, a similar dispute over traditional territory is underway involving the Algonquins of Barriere Lake.

Barriere Lake's Chief Casey Ratt said there have been disagreements with forestry companies since the 1980s, when he was a boy.

This year, Ratt said he feels more optimistic about the fight.

“The community is trying to accomplish one thing – that we get properly consulted on areas that are within our traditional territories,” he said.

“They've taken enough resources out of this territory without giving anything back to the community.”
New Brunswickers skeptical

In New Brunswick, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, the provincial government has tried to present shale gas as an economic generator.

But opinion polls suggest many New Brunswickers remain skeptical.

Opponents fear that shale gas extraction by means of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would contaminate the environment, especially the ground water. The process involves injecting water and chemicals into shale rock to release gas deposits trapped inside.

Neighboring Quebec, as well as New York, have introduced moratoriums.

The protests in New Brunswick aren't limited to the Elsipogtog First Nation. Anglophones and Acadians have also taken part in demonstrations.

According to Patles, New Brunswickers worried about fracking see the benefits of aligning themselves with aboriginal protesters from the Elsipogtog First Nation, who argue they have a right to consultation over natural resources.

“The people who are not indigenous are invoking upon the indigenous people for help because of our treaty rights,” Patles said.

“They have reached out to the indigenous people to say we need help.”

Click to watch the documentary:

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« Reply #860 on: Dec 15, 2013, 08:00 AM »

Poor nations serve as e-waste dumping ground, says United Nations

By George Chidi
Saturday, December 14, 2013 19:02 EST
John Vidal, The Observer

Millions of mobile phones, laptops, tablets, toys, digital cameras and other electronic devices bought this Christmas are destined to create a flood of dangerous “e-waste” that is being dumped illegally in developing countries, the UN has warned.

The global volume of electronic waste is expected to grow by 33% in the next four years, when it will weigh the equivalent of eight of the great Egyptian pyramids, according to the UN’s Step initiative, which was set up to tackle the world’s growing e-waste crisis. Last year nearly 50 million tons of e-waste was generated worldwide – or about 7 kilograms for every person on the planet. These are electronic goods made up of hundreds of different materials and containing toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and flame retardants. An old-style CRT computer screen can contain up to 3 kilograms of lead, for example.

Once in landfill, these toxic materials seep out into the environment, contaminating land, water and the air. In addition, devices are often dismantled in primitive conditions. Those who work at these sites suffer frequent bouts of illness.

An indication of the level of e-waste being shipped to the developing world was revealed by Interpol last week. It said almost one in three containers leaving the EU that were checked by its agents contained illegal e-waste. Criminal investigations were launched against 40 companies. “Christmas will see a surge in sales and waste around the world,” says Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of Step. “The explosion is happening because there’s so much technical innovation. TVs, mobile phones and computers are all being replaced more and more quickly. The lifetime of products is also shortening.”

According to the Step report, e-waste – which extends from old fridges to toys and even motorised toothbrushes – is now the world’s fastest growing waste stream. China generated 11.1 million tons last year, followed by the US with 10 million tons, though there was significant difference per capita. For example, on average each American generated 29.5 kilograms, compared to less than 5 kilograms per person in China.

By 2017, Kuehr expects the volume of end-of-life TVs, phones, computers, monitors, e-toys and other products to be enough to fill a 15,000-mile line of 40-ton lorries. In Europe, Germany discards the most e-waste in total, but Norway and Liechtenstein throw away more per person. Britain is now the world’s seventh most prolific producer, discarding 1.37 million tons, or about 21 kilograms per person. No figures are available from government or industry on how much is exported.

Although it is legal to export discarded goods to poor countries if they can be reused or refurbished, much is being sent to Africa or Asia under false pretenses, says Interpol. “Much is falsely classified as ‘used goods’ although in reality it is non-functional. It is often diverted to the black market and disguised as used goods to avoid the costs associated with legitimate recycling,” said a spokesman. “A substantial proportion of e-waste exports go to countries outside Europe, including west African countries. Treatment in these countries usually occurs in the informal sector, causing significant environmental pollution and health risks for local populations,” he said.

Few countries understand the scale of the problem, because no track is kept of all e-waste, says the European Environment Agency, which estimates between 250,000 tons and 1.3 million tons of used electrical products are shipped out of the EU every year, mostly to west Africa and Asia. “These goods may subsequently be processed in dangerous and inefficient conditions, harming the health of local people and damaging the environment,” said a spokesman.

A new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that the US discarded 258.2 million computers, monitors, TVs and mobile phones in 2010, of which only 66 percent was recycled. Nearly 120 million mobile phones were collected, most of which were shipped to Hong Kong, Latin America and the Caribbean. The shelf life of a mobile phone is now less than two years, but the EU, US and Japanese governments say many hundreds of millions are thrown away each year or are left in drawers. In the US, only 12 million mobile phones were collected for recycling in 2011 even though 120 million were bought. Meanwhile, newer phone models are racing on to the market leaving old ones likely to end up in landfills. Most phones contain precious metals. The circuit board can contain copper, gold, zinc, beryllium, and tantalum, the coatings are typically made of lead and phone makers are now increasingly using lithium batteries. Yet fewer than 10 percent of mobile phones are dismantled and reused. Part of the problem is that computers, phones and other devices are becoming increasingly complex and made of smaller and smaller components.

The failure to recycle is also leading to shortages of rare-earth minerals to make future generations of electronic equipment. © Guardian News and Media 2013

[Indian youths dismantle reusable parts from electronic waste on a pavement in 2005. Source: AFP]

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« Reply #861 on: Dec 15, 2013, 08:02 AM »

Fracking Hell: what it’s really like to live next to a shale gas well

By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Saturday, December 14, 2013 7:55 EST

Nausea, headaches and nosebleeds, constant drilling, slumping property prices – welcome to Ponder, Texas.

Veronica Kronvall can, even now, remember how excited she felt about buying her house in 2007. It was the first home she had ever owned and, to celebrate, her aunt fitted out the kitchen in Kronvall’s favourite colour, purple: everything from microwave to mixing bowls. A cousin took pictures of her lying on the floor of the room that would become her bedroom. She planted roses and told herself she would learn how to garden.

What Kronvall did not imagine at the time – even here in north Texas, the pumping heart of the oil and gas industry – was that four years later an energy company would drill five wells behind her home. The closest two are within 300ft of her tiny patch of garden, and their green pipes and tanks loom over the fence. As the drilling began, Kronvall, 52, began having nosebleeds, nausea and headaches. Her home lost nearly a quarter of its value and some of her neighbours went into foreclosure. “It turned a peaceful little life into a bit of a nightmare,” she says.

Energy analysts in the US have been as surprised as Kronvall at how fast fracking has proliferated. Until five years ago, America’s oil and gas production had been in steady decline as reservoirs of conventional sources dried up. Then a Texas driller, George Mitchell, began trying out new technologies on the Barnett Shale, the geological formation that lies under the city of Fort Worth, Texas, and the smaller towns to the north, where Kronvall lives. Mitchell did not invent the technique. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was first used in the 1940s to get the gas out of conventional wells. As the well shaft descended into the layer of shale, the driller would blast 2m-4m gallons of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals down the shaft at high pressure, creating thousands of tiny cracks in the rock to free the gas.

Mitchell’s innovation was to combine the technology with directional drilling, turning a downward drill bit at a 90-degree angle to drill parallel to the ground for thousands of feet. It took him more than 15 years of drilling holes all over the Barnett Shale to come up with the right mix of water and chemicals, but eventually he found a way to make it commercially viable to get at the methane in the tightly bound layers of shale. The new technology has turned the Barnett Shale into the largest producible reserve of onshore natural gas in the US. Other operators, borrowing from Mitchell’s work, began drilling in Colorado, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and, most recently, California. More than 15 million Americans now live within a mile of an oil or gas well, 6 million of them in Texas.

The industry has been quick to publicise fracking’s apparent benefits. Electricity and heating costs have dropped. The activity from the oil and gas sector has helped buoy up an ailing national economy and paid for new schools in country towns. Last October, the US produced more oil at home than it imported for the first time since 1995.

New evidence, however, has begun to emerge that fracking, while reducing coal consumption, is not significantly curtailing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Campaigners warn that fracking is binding the US even more tightly to a fossil-fuel future and deepening the risks of climate change. There have been stories from homeowners of fracking chemicals seeping into their drinking water, video footage of flames shooting out of kitchen taps because of methane leaks. Companies have been fined for releasing radioactive waste into rivers.

In north Texas, where Kronvall lives, the number of new oil and gas wells has gone up by nearly 800% since 2000. It’s impossible to drive for any length of time without seeing the signs, even after the rigs have moved on elsewhere: the empty squares of flattened earth, the arrays of condensate tanks, the compressor stations and pipelines, and large open pits of waste water. Virtually no site is off limits. Energy companies have fracked wells on church property, school grounds and in gated developments. Last November, an oil company put a well on the campus of the University of North Texas in nearby Denton, right next to the tennis courts and across the road from the main sports stadium and a stand of giant wind turbines. In Texas, as in much of America, property owners do not always own the “mineral rights” – the rights to underground resources – so typically have limited say over how they are developed.

Kronvall moved from the Fort Worth area to the small farming town of Ponder – population: 1,400 – for the peace and quiet, and the affordable house prices; it also meant a fairly easy commute to her job at the survey research centre at the University of North Texas. Wesley and Beth Howard moved into the Remington Park neighbourhood in the same year, two doors down, after making a similar calculation. It was close to where Beth works as a graphic designer at Texas Woman’s University. Wesley, 41, a support engineer at IBM, works from home. The neighbourhood was still only partially built, but the developers said they were planning 150 new homes, a park and walking trails on the meadow behind their house. “This was the first home we had together,” Wesley says. “We looked at being here for a good couple of decades. It was our expectation and our hope that this would grow and property values would improve and services would come up.”

In February 2011, Beth, 31, had just found out she was pregnant when the couple noticed some wooden stakes with fluttering bright plastic strips had gone up in the meadow behind their home.

Kronvall had seen them, too, and assumed workers were staking out cul-de-sacs for the next phase of homes. She was away at a work conference in May 2011 when she got a call from another neighbour: crews had arrived with heavy earth-moving equipment. The meadow was about to be drilled for a well.

None of the neighbours received any official notice, either from the energy company or the town authorities. “The law at the time didn’t require them to tell us or give any public notice or anything,” Wesley says. “They could just spring it on us as a surprise, and so they did.” At that time, Texas law did not require companies to disclose which chemicals they were using to frack the well. Residents say that, to this day, none of them has any idea, though there is now a voluntary chemical disclosure registry at

The crews proceeded to flatten the earth and install a 200ft red and white drilling tower that loomed high above their homes. Convoys of articulated lorries rumbled down the main road. “It was terrible,” Kronvall says. “There was a lot of banging and clanging. The number of trucks was just phenomenal, and the exhaust, the fumes in the air, it was 24/7.”

She says the activities on the other side of her fence deposited a layer of white powder on her counter tops. The sound of the crew shouting into megaphones invaded her bedroom. Bright lighting pierced her curtains and made it difficult to sleep. The rumble of trucks and equipment rattled the glasses in her cupboard, and the smell – an acrid blend of chemicals – was all-pervasive.

“My wife was pregnant the whole time the rig was there,” Wesley says. There was the din of diesel generators belching soot, and a nauseating mix of chemicals competing with the aroma of dinner. The noise and smells penetrated to the next street over, where Christina Mills lives. Like the Howards and Kronvall, Mills, 65, was attracted to Ponder because of its sleepiness, and bought the fourth house built in the entire development when she moved to the town in 2001. “But when that derrick was up, you would have thought you were in Las Vegas,” she says, “and I live one street over.”

Devon Energy Corporation, the firm drilling behind their homes, did install a sound curtain to try to buffer the noise. Devon – which bought out George Mitchell and has become one of the biggest operators in the extraction of shale gas – says it is committed to supporting residents. “We are always working to find new and better ways to do what we do with the smallest possible impact that we can have on our neighbours,” says Tim Hartley, a Devon spokesman. “Wherever we are, we want to have a healthy, safe, best-in-class operation, so we are committed to that and we have delivered that in the Barnett Shale area for many years.”

The curtain did little to muffle the sound or reduce the other effects of fracking, say residents. The Howards’ baby, Pike, arrived several weeks early. The couple say there is no way of knowing whether that was connected to the fracking, but they were very nervous about exposing him to possible chemicals from the process. “He was in really good health, but he was still a newborn,” Wesley says. “When you can smell diesel exhaust and you have got other unusual odours, and all the things you don’t know about what is going on with industrial stuff, it can be stressful. We didn’t know what we were breathing in at any given time, and he was breathing it, too. It was what made his homecoming so stressful.”

Two doors down, Kronvall says, her eyes watered constantly when she was at home, stopping only after she had been at work for an hour or two. As well as bouts of nausea and low, throbbing headaches, there was blood when she blew her nose. “I had nosebleeds pretty much throughout the entire process,” she says.

Devon says it is not aware of any complaints about health problems suffered after it began its activities at Remington Park, though company representatives attended public meetings from 2011, and were accused by residents of being dismissive of health concerns. In response, Hartley has said, “It would be inappropriate for us to publicly discuss asserted claims.”

As well as struggling with the noise and smells, Christina Mills says, there was the dust. One morning she found a gritty white powder all over her car, so she stopped at a car wash on the drive to work. “I went there to wash the stuff off, and the black paint came off with it,” she says, still shocked at the memory. “It took the paint off my car.”

The three neighbours all tried to stop the fracking, or at least get compensation. They sought legal advice and appealed to the town authorities and state environmental regulators. Inspectors for the Texas environmental regulator came out to Kronvall’s home, commiserated about the smell and collected air samples, only to report back weeks later that they were unable to detect dangerous emissions.

As the neighbours soon discovered, both they and the developer who owned the meadow behind Kronvall and the Howards were powerless because they did not control the mineral rights. The local authorities had already changed the zoning regulations to allow fracking close to their homes, and fought attempts to hold a public meeting about the drilling. Even now, Mills is furious at the way the council treated Remington Park: “They continued to allow them to build and sell homes, knowing full well that they were getting ready to drill behind us.”

She is, somewhat to her surprise, angry at the energy company, too. This is a first for Mills. An accountant, she started her career carrying out audits in the oilfields of Oklahoma. She considered herself a supporter of oil and gas. “In 17 years in Oklahoma, never did I see them intrude on a heavily populated area. They made it personal here, and that’s when I had a problem… They came into the back of our neighbourhood, 300ft from the back fence. That is so intrusive.”

There have been cases where energy companies have compensated residents for damage to health and property as a result of fracking. The details of these agreements are closely held because of non-disclosure agreements. The Ponder residents, however, were unable to get their lawyer to pursue their case because their property values are too low: their lawyer told them the potential property damages were not enough to make it worth their while.

All the neighbours could do, for the eight months it took to put the wells into production, was watch. Eventually, the rig was dismantled and moved on, leaving two oilwells and three waste tanks in the area just behind their homes. Another three wells, six more waste tanks and a large open pond were erected on the other side of the meadow. Heavy trucks still pull up almost every day to empty the tanks beside the well pad.

There have been scares, too. At the start of this year, a loud whistling sound came out of the tanks and residents wondered if one of the wells was about to blow up. Some residents simply sold up – some for less than they had paid – or rented their homes and moved out.

Mills now uses an inhaler after developing asthma. “I am not ever sick,” she says, “but in the past 18 months I’ve had pneumonia three times.” She has missed about eight weeks of work.

“It just seems that this has been my whole life,” Kronvall says. “It’s hard to remember what it was like before, because this was such a dramatic event to go through. You feel violated. How can they come in and do this, and not even consult with the person? No respect for any kind of human decency or rights, just take what you want. And they will do it in the UK, too, if many lessons aren’t learned.”

Now it’s Britain’s time to decide whether it wants a piece of “Saudi America”. A report from the British Geological Survey last July significantly increased estimates for the amount of gas sitting beneath the north of England, raising hopes of replicating America’s gas rush. The report suggests there could be as much as 1,300tn cubic feet of gas over an area stretching from Lancashire to Yorkshire and down to Lincolnshire. Depending on what fraction of that is recoverable, the gas could supply Britain for decades. The government began promoting the idea that it would be irresponsible not to take advantage, and talked of opening up lands to fracking not only in the north of England, but also in the south-east and Wales.

The chancellor’s autumn budget statement last week included generous tax breaks for fracking companies. “I want Britain to tap into new sources of low-cost energy like shale gas,” George Osborne said. “Shale gas is part of the future and we will make it happen.” David Cameron has said that unlocking the shale will transform Britain as it has America, driving down energy prices, creating tens of thousands of jobs and providing new revenue for local councils.

Fracking has not had an easy start in Britain. In April 2011, two small earthquakes and dozens of aftershocks occurred when Cuadrilla Resources drilled its first well in Weeton, Lancashire. The tremors could be felt as far away as Blackpool. The company halted its operations for a seismic investigation, but continued work on its other wells.

Protesters forced companies to delay or back away from other well sites. Even with those challenges, however, the industry remains committed to going ahead. At least six oil and gas companies have announced plans to pursue shale gas in Britain. Cuadrilla has already drilled exploratory wells at Singleton and Becconsall in Lancashire, and is pursuing another at Balcombe in West Sussex. Celtique Energie and Coastal Oil and Gas have applied to drill in Kent, West Sussex and Wales.

The main industry body, the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG), expects a number of those exploratory wells to go into production in 2014 or 2015. The pro-industry Institute of Directors said in a report that there could be 100 well sites across the country in the next 10 to 15 years.

The industry maintains that fracking in Britain will be vastly different from that in America because of the nature of the geology and more stringent regulations. The Bowland shale is much thicker than the Barnett shale, for example, which, industry experts say, means energy companies will be able to dig many more wells spiralling out from a single site, and so limit the impact of fracking above ground. “The reality is there will be a much smaller footprint for the industry,” says Ken Cronin, chief executive of UKOOG. “The other reality is that we have a vastly more comprehensive regulatory system in the UK.” Unlike in Pennsylvania, where there have been multiple complaints of contaminated drinking water wells, Britain will require that drillers monitor water quality throughout the fracking process.

The regulations also require companies to disclose what chemicals they are using, and the British government has already restricted some chemicals used in the US.

Cronin says Britain would also have higher standards for dealing with the enormous amounts of radioactive and toxic waste water that results from fracking – some 280bn gallons last year alone in the US, according to a report by Environment America. That’s enough to flood all of Washington DC beneath a 22ft-deep toxic lagoon.

Unlike Texas, where waste water from fracking is sometimes left to evaporate in open pits, Britain will require sealed disposal units. And unlike North Dakota, where producers simply burned off excess gas, spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, companies will capture the gas and feed it into the national gas supply.

Perhaps most important of all, Cronin says, there would be strict standards for well quality, and regular inspections to ensure there is no escape of frack fluids or gas into the water supply.

Cuadrilla believes that these regulations put Britain far ahead of America in terms of protecting human health and the environment. The company, however, has already been warned by ministers about its performance for failing to recognise the significance of the damage to its well following the 2011 earthquakes, and for failing to report it for six months, according to documents released under the freedom of information act.

The company would respond only to written questions through its PR firm, which continues to maintain that Britain is better prepared for fracking than the US, stating: “The regulatory standardisation and world class performance-based regulations make the UK better prepared for a growing shale gas industry sector.”

Opponents of fracking remain unconvinced. “No system is foolproof,” says Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP arrested in August for blocking a drilling site in Balcombe. “No system is entirely robust. We have to make a judgment as to risk and trade-off, and it just seems to me that with fracking, even if regulations are tighter than they are in the US, there are risks we don’t need to run.”

Lucas says she is concerned about water shortages – huge volumes are needed to frack a well – especially in the south-east, and about the risks of bringing a new industry into a much more densely populated terrain than America’s fracking heartland.

But Lucas’s biggest fear by far is that launching a shale gas revolution in Britain will destroy any prospects of action on climate change. “Scientists are telling us that we need to leave four-fifths of already proven fuels in the ground if we are going to have any chance of avoiding two degrees’ warming. Therefore to be hunting around for new sources of fossil fuel seems particularly perverse.”

Another prominent opponent of fracking, the landowner Lord Cowdray, says that if fracking went ahead, he could foresee a scenario of well pads scattered across the South Downs. Some of the proposed sites around Fernhurst in West Sussex, he says, are within 600ft of private homes, about twice as far as the Ponder site from Veronica Kronvall’s, but still very close.

What Cowdray fears most, however, is that the oil companies are not prepared, or sufficiently insured, to deal with a major contamination event such as a leak of fracking fluids or waste into the water supply. “I don’t trust the industry,” he says. “I think there have been too many contamination events in the past around the world – many we know about and some that we possibly don’t.”

Can Britain do it differently? Back in his small town in Texas, Wesley Howard says that, as fracking spread from state to state across the US, he often heard that refrain. “That is the same sort of thing that got said in Ohio, when people said, ‘Look what has happened in the Dakotas.’ Every state in the US, you hear that story get told one way or another: that the ground here is different, that the types of shale here are different, that the rules here are different, that the companies doing it are different.”

He goes on: ”It’s always different but, sooner or later, it is always the same.” © Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #862 on: Dec 16, 2013, 07:14 AM »

Benjamin CarlsonDecember 16, 2013 01:05

Waterless World: China’s ever-expanding desert wasteland

As climate change makes vast parts of Inner Mongolia uninhabitable, an official declares: ‘Land desertification is China’s most important ecological problem.’

NAIMAN QI, INNER MONGOLIA, China — Over the last three years, San Qinghai has had to dig four new wells, each one deeper than the last.

The village's old stone wells used to go down 30 feet. But the 31-year-old Mongolian farmer and shepherd’s new wells descend 140 feet to reach groundwater.

Squinting and wearing a ragged gray sweater, San pointed to several acres of dry, brittle corn behind his house. He said he lost a third of his crop this year.

"The winters have been getting colder, and there hasn't been much rain," he said. "I'm worried that the sandstorms will destroy my crops. It's been getting worse."

Long days in the dry air and punishing sun have left deep creases in his leathery skin, making him look older than his age. After gazing at the field, he tosses a few dry husks into a horse’s feed trough and plods back home on the village’s narrow lanes. The streets are soft and thick with sand.

Life has never been easy here on the edge of the Gobi Desert, 400 miles northeast of Beijing. The soil is sandy and lacks the fertile loess that allowed agriculture to flourish in China’s dry north. For centuries, Mongol herdsman roamed these steppes, grazing their flocks on low, scrubby grasses native to the area.

In the mid-20th century, excessive farming began to erode the land. By 2005, 300,000 acres of what used to be rolling grassland here in Naiman was desert.

Now, the primary threat to San and thousands of farmers like him is climate change, according to Wang Shaokun, a researcher who studies desertification in Inner Mongolia. With declining rainfall and falling water tables, the land is in danger of becoming uninhabitable if trends continue.

"Our biggest concern today is not man-made problems, it is climate change and water resources," said Wang.   

If the water situation continues to worsen, they may need to abandon their pastures and move into cities like Naiman or Tongliao. Leaving the land would be a sad fate for Mongolians like San, who have lived here since the invasion of Genghis Khan.

Already, 178,000 people have been forced to relocate from the grasslands near Beijing as part of officials’ anti-desertification efforts, according to state media reports.

Damming the desert

“Land desertification is the most important ecological problem in China," said Zhang Yongli, deputy director of the State Forestry Administration, at a press conference earlier this year. “It causes erosion to the available space for people's existence and development, provokes natural disasters like sandstorms, and endangers agricultural production by degrading the land.”           

For decades, researchers have battled desertification in this part of Inner Mongolia, which sends sandstorms blasting into Beijing every spring. Scientists first came in the 1960s to tame sand dunes that had spread because of excessive farming and grazing.

In the 1980s institutes like the Naiman Semi-Arid Research Center were founded to develop methods to help bring back the grasslands. They planted trees such as poplars and aspen pines, and enclosed fields to encourage the growth of native grasses.

When it came to slowing local causes of desertification, their efforts were largely successful. From 1985 to 2005, the amount of degraded land in Naiman decreased from 733 square miles to 463 square miles (an area about the size of New York City’s five boroughs).

But now climate change is bringing drier, hotter weather, threatening to undo all their work.

Since the turn of the century, average rainfall has decreased 10 percent in this part of Inner Mongolia, according to the Naiman research center. The average temperature has risen by about 1 degree Fahrenheit.

As a result, millions of trees planted by the government as a “Green Belt” to protect Beijing from sandstorms have died.

"Around here, many lakes have also disappeared,” said Zhao Xueyong, director of the center. “This is due to the decline of rainfall and the variability of climate change."

The grasslands that covered Naiman in the 19th century have given way to a sandy landscape that the locals call the Horqin. It lies to the southeast of the Gobi desert, but in many places the two geographic features have become indistinguishable. The desertified Horqin covers an area more than twice the size of New Jersey and is spreading rapidly.


 Beijing’s sand blizzards

Driving around the area, you can see desertification’s effects firsthand.

To the north, rolling sand dunes have blown onto construction sites, covering backhoes until they can be cleared away. On the eastern side of Naiman town, the government has posted signs directing drivers to a “Desert Tourism Area,” where soft, huge dunes spread for miles. Locals race cars, motorcycles, and horses across the desert.

You can also see the government’s efforts to combat it. Young saplings line either side of a new six lane road named "Ecological Avenue." Colorful propaganda billboards exhort farmers to save water, conserve the environment, and refrain from chopping trees. A policy lets farmers receive thousands of yuan a year if they convert their water-intensive cropland to grasslands or forest. But there’s only so much they can do when water supplies are dwindling.

In the village of Yaole Dianzi, where officials have proudly deployed anti-desertification techniques since the 1980s, the local chiefs now have to worry about disappearing groundwater. Deputy Township Secretary Comrade You, who was wearing stylish black glasses and a fake-leather satchel, illustrated the dilemma by pointing to the town’s name: the original Mongolian name of Yaole Dianzi means "water coming out of the ground," he said.

"Now, you will never see that happening.”

Comrade You explained that the government had restricted the number of wells farmers could dig as a stopgap measure. When asked how many wells were permitted, he demurred. “We make decisions based on the big picture. Land that already has a working well cannot build another."

The village boss, Comrade Yan, has stained teeth and a tatty jacket that give him a scruffy charm. He said that despite the worrisome change in the climate, he remained optimistic about his town’s future.

"I believe in cycles," he said, alluding to a traditional Chinese belief that good and bad fortune come in 60 year cycles. "There was a terrible dry period in the 1950s. So I think there will be a couple years of rain coming."

If the rains don’t come, towns like Yaole Dianzi could vanish. Farmers who depend entirely on the aquifers to tend their crops would be uprooted and forced to find another home.

In other parts of Inner Mongolia, the government seems to be exacerbating the water crisis.

Good intentions, poor results

Sun Qingwei, China water and energy expert for the Woodrow Wilson Institute, laments that provincial authorities care more about building coal plants than dealing with climate change.

“The priority for the local government is to develop the economy, the GDP,” he said. “In fact, the policy itself is a cause of the desertification. They are encouraging the development of coal mining there, which has a huge effect on the water resources.”

Coal plants need huge quantities of water to produce steam for turning turbines. In western Inner Mongolia, Sun said, groundwater used to be a foot and a half below the surface; now it is about 330 feet down.

Critics also note that planting too many trees, particularly poplars, contributes to the depletion of groundwater. Nevertheless, China continues to pump funds into such projects. In August, the Chinese government announced a plan to plant more than 2,000 square miles of pine forest in Horqin by 2020.

“I feel that’s crazy,” said Sun Qingwei. Instead of addressing the underlying cause — deteriorated land and depleted aquifers — the policy simply adds more trees to an already strained ecosystem. “There is a natural balance. Land degradation does not happen because there is not enough vegetation. If you just plant trees, you are making the situation worse. This is very commonly practiced. They call it anti-desertification, but in my opinion it is totally wrong.”

That’s not counting the NGOs that are also getting involved.

The Million Tree Project, an initiative of the Shanghai branch of Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots network, has already planted more than 1.4 million trees in Tongliao. The project’s Inner Mongolia coordinator, Wang Kai, 27, says they now maintain 23 separate forests covering 2300 acres. He acknowledged that scientists believe that planting trees could be depleting groundwater, worsening desertification in the long run.

But in the end, with rainfall decreasing and temperatures rising, there may be nothing people can do to completely arrest the degradation of the land in northern China.

"It seems stable from the outside,” says Wang. “But the underground water problem is like a time bomb. When it goes off, everything will be chaos."

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« Reply #863 on: Dec 17, 2013, 06:46 AM »

2013 in review: the year fracking shook the UK

Adam Vaughan looks back at a year dominated by protests over fracking, drilling in the Arctic, and Fukushima leaks

Adam Vaughan   
Tuesday 17 December 2013 11.15 GMT     

The pumping of water, sand and chemicals underground at pressure to crack rocks and release gas dominated headlines in 2013. Fracking for shale gas, even if the process has not actually been producing much energy beyond its homeland in the US, has barely been out of the public consciousness.

In the UK, drilling for oil by fracking explorers Cuadrilla in Sussex roused one of the biggest environmental protests in years, as thousands marched outside the village of Balcombe and Green party MP Caroline Lucas was arrested. A similar series of protests was mirrored in Manchester, later in the year.

Public figures and industry bodies lined up to say the technology should go ahead in the UK, from David Cameron down to geologists, water companies and some environmentalists, and the government laid out sweeteners of £100,000 for communities who live near any shale gas wells that are fracked.

Around the world, the Polish environment minister was sacked for not green-lighting fracking projects quickly enough – halfway through the UN climate talks, no less – fracking licences were granted for a wildlife reserve in Botswana and indigenous protesters in Canada fought against the expansion of shale gas operations. Enormous potential reserves were identified in Australia.

The ramping up of exploration and awareness around shale gas is part of the wider picture of fossil fuel companies looking for unconventional sources of energy. Elsewhere, companies continued their efforts to push into the Arctic to drill for oil and gas.

When a small group of Greenpeace activists boarded one of those efforts, a Gazprom rig in the Barents Sea, it inadvertently turned into one of the biggest stories of the year.

The Russian authorities, which had allowed a similar protest the year before, responded by winching armed coastguards off a helicopter onto the group's Arctic Sunrise vessel, arresting the 28 activists and two journalists onboard, and detaining them without trial for several months, before finally releasing them on bail. They are still in Russia, and have been told they cannot leave – yet.

Coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, hasn't gone away, despite talk of gas replacing it, the US taking steps in the summer to clean up old coal power plants, and Daw Mill, one of the UK's few remaining coal mines, closing. Instead, the respected energy thinktank, the IEA, predicted that coal was now on track to challenge oil as the world's biggest source of energy, and UK greenhouse gas emissions jumped 4.5% because coal was so cheap.

It emerged that China now burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined – bad news for the climate, but good news for Australia, which approved two mega coal mines in Queensland. The short-term impacts of coal were still on display – some of the most dramatic smog episodes of the year in major cities of China including Shanghai and Beijing were blamed on coal-burning.

The year ended with the UK and US saying they would no longer fund coal projects in the developing world and the UN's climate chief telling the coal industry to leave its reserves in the ground.
China consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined China consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined Photograph: US Energy Information Administration

Nuclear power had a good year in the UK, but a bad one pretty much everywhere else.

Most of Japan's nuclear reactors remained offline, forcing the country to rely on imported fossil fuels for energy. A steady drip of worrying news emerged from Fukushima, where workers continued cleanup efforts on the nuclear power station amid repeated leaks of radioactive material.

In the UK, energy company EDF struck a deal with the government guaranteeing an above-market rate for nuclear electricity, paving the way for the country's first new nuclear power station in over 20 years. But critics said the deal was a bad for consumers, and just this week the boss of Ineos, one of the UK's biggest energy consumers, said the electricity from the new reactors would be too expensive.

In the UK, Labour leader, Ed Miliband, sparked a debate over energy prices by promising to freeze them until 2017 if his party comes to power in 2015. In response, prime minister David Cameron was reported as saying he would "get rid of the green crap" – the subsidies for environmental and social programmes on energy bills. The political tussle inside the coalition ultimately led to changes that cut £50 off the average household's energy bill but watered down the government's main scheme for making energy companies insulate people's homes.

Meanwhile, renewable energy continued its upward march, despite subsidies being cut in several countries. In the UK, the amount of wind power installed at sea and on land was up by over 40% on the year before, including the opening of the world's biggest offshore windfarm, the London Array, which David Cameron attended and called "a great day for Britain and a big win for renewable energy."

Elsewhere in the country new plans for a barrage across the Severn estuary were rejected, and the government delayed (again) an incentive scheme to encourage householders to switch to renewable forms of heat, such as biomass.

Globally, it emerged that wind power had expanded by around 20% in 2012 and several countries, notably Spain and Germany, set new records for how much wind power they generated. The cost of solar photovoltaic panels, which generate electricity, plummeted.

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« Reply #864 on: Dec 17, 2013, 07:16 AM »

Scientists help Brazilian farmers adapt to climate change

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 16, 2013 16:24 EST

Hundreds of scientists are helping Brazil’s giant agricultural sector prepare for the effects of climate change and anticipate pests that hit neighboring countries.

Spearheading the effort is the Brazilian Agriculture Research Corporation (Embrapa), a state agency tasked with developing and extending technology to support sustainable farming.

“We have 400 investigators currently focusing on how to adapt our agriculture to climate change,” said Embrapa chief Mauricio Lopes.

“We have a tropical climate and it is the first to be affected by these variations.”

Brazil, South America’s biggest country in terms of size and population, has gradually emerged as an agricultural powerhouse.

A net importer of farm products in the 1970s, it now ranks among the world’s five top agricultural producers and exporters and serves as a model for many developing countries.

It ranks only second to the United States for biofuel production.

Lopes said Embrapa is studying the effects of rising temperatures on crops “30, 40, 100 years” from now.

“Where will we have to move coffee, sugarcane and corn production? We are carefully anticipating the potential impacts of climate change in areas where we are adapting the crops,” he said.

This, he noted, includes sophisticated experiments to try to imitate the effects of rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and determine whether this will have a positive or negative impact on crops.

Embrapa also seeks to foster sustainable farming through public programs of low carbon emissions.

Agriculture, which represents 22 percent of GDP in the world’s seventh largest economy, is a major source of greenhouse gases.

Embrapa also plays a major role in combating crop pests and diseases.

It has identified 489 such pests which affect neighboring countries or trade partners and which could enter Brazil.

Lopes said Embrapa researchers are therefore developing crop resistance and tolerance.

“Even before the scourge enters the country, we have the solution,” said Embrapa researcher Marcio Elias Ferreira.

The agency is trying to bar the entry of crop diseases such as the armyworm, a common pest of grass which entered the country in 2001 and spread nationwide.

Embrapa is now focusing on a wheat pest that emerged in Africa five years ago, then moved into the Middle and is now in South America, although not yet in Brazil.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #865 on: Dec 17, 2013, 08:07 AM »

December 16, 2013

A Struggle to Balance Wind Energy With Wildlife


DENVER — As the Obama administration seeks to clear a path for more renewable energy projects, it has increasingly found itself caught between two staunch allies: the wind energy industry and environmental organizations.

Tensions between both groups and the administration have risen since a new federal rule was announced this month allowing wind farms to lawfully kill bald and golden eagles under 30-year permits.

Conservation groups reacted with anger to the rule, saying it gives wind farms too much leeway to operate without sufficient environmental safeguards and does not consider the long-term impact on eagle populations.

“A 30-year permit is like a blank check,” said David Yarnold, president and chief executive of the National Audubon Society, which was involved in months of negotiations on the rule. “It basically says you can go operate these wind turbines and kill as many eagles as happen to die.”

Conservation groups said the United States Fish and Wildlife Service needlessly rejected an agreement, also endorsed by the wind industry, to develop more detailed regional plans that would set firm, research-based limits on how many eagles could be killed in a particular geographic area.

“We put a historic deal on the table, and they didn’t have the vision to say yes,” Mr. Yarnold said.

“Eagles are migratory birds,” he added. “Having a regional plan that reflects how they live and where they travel just makes sense.”

Federal wildlife officials defended the rule, which will take effect early next year, saying it sought to balance the practical considerations of long-term wind farm projects with the need to keep eagle populations stable.

While neither bald nor golden eagles are considered endangered — the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007 — both birds are still afforded federal wildlife protections. It is illegal to kill or hunt them without a proper permit.

Since 2009, wind farms have been able to apply for five-year permits, allowing them to “take” — meaning kill — a certain number of eagles, as long as the farms demonstrate that they have undertaken adequate measures to keep the birds safe.

The new rule extends the maximum term of the permits to 30 years. It includes federal reviews every five years to assess whether sufficient measures are being taken to make sure eagles are being conserved.

While it is unknown precisely how many birds are killed by wind turbines annually — usually by flying into a turbine’s path — estimates range from 10,000 to more than 500,000. According to the American Wind Energy Association, eagles account for only a tiny fraction of those deaths.

The group said that less than 2 percent of the annual golden eagle deaths from human causes are because of wind turbines, and fewer than six bald eagles have ever been killed by a wind turbine.

Last month, in the first case of its kind, Duke Energy agreed to pay $1 million in fines after a subsidiary pleaded guilty in federal court in Wyoming to violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The company was charged with killing dozens of birds since 2009, including 14 golden eagles, at two Wyoming wind farm projects.

Daniel M. Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that ensuring eagle populations are preserved is a central focus of the new rule.

“The conservation element is key,” he said. “We’re not going to authorize a permit unless we believe it provides for the conservation of eagles.”

Mr. Ashe added that the wildlife service would issue a permit only if a wind developer had minimized the risk to eagles through its choice of location and the design of the project, among other variables. Regional thresholds on how many eagles can realistically be killed are already in place, according to the service.

Mr. Ashe said that many of the measures presented by environmentalists and the wind energy industry would likely be considered as the permitting process continued to be modified.

For its part, the American Wind Energy Association has publicly endorsed the new permitting process, saying that the spirit of many points of common interest had been included, or would be addressed in the near future.

The group said that it expected wind companies would seek the longer permits, because it made more sense than having to reapply every five years.

“This is a conservation plan for eagles,” said John Anderson, director of siting policy for the association, “so all efforts must be first made to reduce the potential for impacts on eagles and then fully offset them.”

“Wind developers are willing to go through all these requirements,” he added. “It is in the best interest of the species from a conservation standpoint, as well as their own from the standpoint of legal certainty.”

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« Reply #866 on: Dec 17, 2013, 08:10 AM »

Evidence confirms Italian Alps are warming at twice the global rate

By The Guardian
Monday, December 16, 2013 8:10 EST

It was only a single, withered conifer needle, but it told a dramatic story of climate change. Glaciologists found it in a set of ice cores drilled through a glacier on top of Mount Ortles, in the Italian Alps.

It lay about 80 metres below the glacial surface, encased in solid ice, and carbon dating confirmed that it had blown from the branches of Larix decidua, the European larch, 2,600 years earlier.

It was found about 30 kms from a far more dramatic exposure: the body of Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified bronze age corpse revealed by a melting glacier in 1991.

Both finds deliver the same uncompromising message: for at least 5,000 years – because Ötzi perished around that time – the Italian Alps had continued to stay frozen throughout the year.

And now they are melting. Or, to put it the scientific way, in the words of Paolo Gabrielli, of Ohio State University, who led the project: “Our first results indicate that the current atmospheric warming at high elevation in the Alps is outside the normal cold range held for millennia. This is consistent with the rapid, ongoing shrinking of glaciers at high elevation in this area.”

The problem for all climate scientists – and for glaciologists in particular – is that direct measurements are relatively recent: the oldest thermometer readings date back little more than three centuries, and consistent world coverage began only in the 20th century.

Since climates undergo natural cycles of change on a scale of centuries, measurements over a short period are not, in themselves, of much use. Glaciers, in particular, are a problem: retreat or advance would have been imperceptible to the small populations likely ever to have observed them.

Visual records – paintings dating from the early 19th century, in most cases – indicate that today’s glaciers are in retreat, but romantic age painters weren’t particularly interested in climate or precision topography, so the evidence from paintings is limited.

But direct measurement of surviving ice really can tell a story, and Gabrielli’s team produced a fragment of this narrative in San Francisco at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

The Alps are warming at twice the global rate, and the glaciers are everywhere in retreat. Alto dell’Ortles is the highest glacier in the eastern Alps, at 3,900 metres: its ice is likely to hold much more evidence of climate change and human impact.

As they drilled into the glacier, the research scientists from six nations found that the first 30 metre layer was composed of grainy compacted snow that had partly melted. Below that was nothing but solid, enduring ice all the way down to frozen bedrock.

They could be sure that nothing had changed in this permanent layer of ice for at least 2,600 years, because it had preserved a larch needle from a tree that must have grown at least 2,000 years after Ötzi had perished in the same complex of Alpine glaciers.

“The leaf supports the idea that prehistoric ice is still present at the highest elevations of the region,” Gabrielli said. © Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #867 on: Dec 18, 2013, 08:16 AM »

Antarctica could be rich in diamonds, geologists say

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 17, 2013 13:13 EST

Australian geologists on Tuesday opened up the tantalising but controversial prospect that Antarctica could be rich in diamonds.

In a scientific paper published in the journal Nature Communications, a team said they had found a telltale rock called kimberlite in the Prince Charles Mountains in East Antarctica.

No diamonds were found in the samples, taken from Mount Meredith, and the study — focusing only on the region’s geology, not on mining possibilities — was not designed to quantify how many could be there.

But, it said, the mineral’s signature is identical to that in other locations in the world where diamonds have been found.

“The samples are texturally, mineralogically and geochemically typical of Group 1 kimberlites from more classical localities,” said the probe, led by Greg Yaxley at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Kimberlite, a rock that is rarely found near Earth’s surface, is believed to be formed at great depths in the mantle, where conditions are right for forming diamonds — carbon atoms that are squeezed into lattice shapes under extreme pressure and temperature.

The study suggested kimberlite was thrust towards the surface around 120 million years ago, when present-day Africa, the Arabian peninsula, South America, the Indian sub-continent, Australia and Antarctica were glommed together in a super-continent called Gondwana.

Outcrops of kimberlite studded the centre of Gondwana at this time.

The component continents then drifted apart, which explains why diamonds have been found in such diverse and distant locations, from Brazil to southern Africa and India, according to this theory.

Mining banned – for now

Independent experts were divided as to whether the discovery could unleash a diamond rush that would ravage the world’s last pristine continent.

A treaty protecting Antarctica was signed in 1961 and was updated with an environmental protocol in 1991 whose Article 7 expressly prohibits “any activity relating to mineral resources.”

The 1991 pact comes up for review in 2048, 50 years after it came into effect following ratification. It has been ratified by 35 nations.

Robert Larter, a geophysicist with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), said “the default assumption” was that the protocol will continue.

“Any change would require agreement of the majority of parties at a review conference, including three-quarters of the states which were Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties at the time of adoption of the protocol,” he said in comments to Britain’s Science Media Centre.

Teal Riley, a BAS survey geologist, said the discovery of kimberlite was “not unsurprising” given that the local geology in East Antarctica has a feature called cratons, a telltale of this rock.

“However, even amongst the Group 1 kimberlites, only 10 percent or so are economically viable, so it’s still a big step to extrapolate this latest finding with any diamond mining activity in Antarctica,” where extraction would be tougher and costlier.

But Kevin Hughes, a senior officer at an international panel called the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), was more cautious.

More than three decades from now, “we do not know what the treaty parties’ views will be on mining… or what technologies might exist that could make extraction of Antarctic minerals economically viable,” he said.

“An additional issue is that nations outside the protocol are not bound by its provisions, including the ban on mineral resource activities.”

Kimberlite takes its name from the town of Kimberley, in South Africa, which was created by a diamond rush.

In 1871, a cook found a huge stone while digging on a farm, and within a year 50,000 prospectors were there, digging feverishly and living in a makeshift tented city.

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« Reply #868 on: Dec 18, 2013, 08:53 AM »

BP makes first major Gulf of Mexico oil discovery since Deepwater Horizon

Find at Gila prospect marks first big oil discovery since US regulators lifted ban on deepwater drilling

Jennifer Rankin, Wednesday 18 December 2013 09.53 GMT   
BP has reported a "significant oil discovery" in the Gulf of Mexico, its first major find since the deadly rig explosion that triggered the worst environmental disaster in US history.

The company said it had hit oil at depths close to 9,150 metres (30,000ft) at its Gila prospect in the Gulf of Mexico, about 300 miles south-west of New Orleans.

The announcement marks the first big oil discovery since US regulators lifted a five-month ban on deep-water drilling in 2010 after the Macondo well blowout; it follows two finds in the Gulf in 2006 and 2009.

The discovery, whose commercial potential remains unclear, came as BP revealed a $1bn (£650m) write-off from its Pitanga well off the coast of Brazil, which never yielded the lucrative fossil fuels the company had hoped for. The oil company admitted it would not recover the $850m it paid to buy the Pitanga well, nor a further $230m spent on developing it.

BP said 2013 had been its most successful year for oil exploration for almost a decade: it had investigated 15 wells, making seven potentially commercial discoveries.

The company expects to spend around $4bn a year exploring and drilling new wells in the Gulf of Mexico over the next decade, a figure roughly equivalent to the sum it has set aside for clean-up costs, fines and compensation related to the disaster, which killed 11 people and released 4m barrels of oil into the sea. The final bill will not become clear until a US court judgment next year.

BP, which employs 2,300 people in the Gulf of Mexico, had seven wells in 2012, up from five in 2011, a further sign of the drilling revival in the region since the spill. While fracking and cheap gas have captured public attention, big oil companies have been moving back to the Gulf, building new rigs. A record 807 oil permits for the Gulf were issued in the first nine months of this year, up 14% on 2012, according to Bloomberg.

BP continues to fight a ban on competing for US government contracts that was imposed following the oil rig explosion, recently winning the support of the British government.

"The Gila discovery is a further sign that momentum is returning to BP's drilling operations and well execution in the Gulf of Mexico," said Richard Morrison, regional resident of BP's Gulf of Mexico business. The US oil major ConocoPhillips has a minority stake in the Gila prospect.

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« Reply #869 on: Dec 19, 2013, 06:59 AM »

British Petroleum engineer found guilty of obstructing oil spill investigation

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 16:23 EST

A drilling engineer for British oil giant BP was found guilty Wednesday of destroying text messages in his smartphone, obstructing the investigation into the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

“Today a jury in New Orleans found that Kurt Mix purposefully obstructed the efforts of law enforcement during the investigation of the largest environmental disaster in US history,” acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman in a statement.

The jury found the engineer did “alter, destroy, mutilate and conceal” iPhone text messages with BP’s then-drilling engineer manager for the Gulf of Mexico, with the purpose of impairing the data’s “integrity and availability for use in an official proceeding,” the indictment said.

Raman added that the “prosecution shows the commitment of the Justice Department to holding accountable those who interfere with the administration of justice.”

Mix worked on efforts to stop oil flow following the April 20, 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from New Orleans.

The explosion killed 11 workers and spilled oil for 87 days until it was plugged.

The disaster blackened beaches in five states and crippled the region’s tourism and fishing industries in a tragedy that riveted the United States.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]


Scientists find evidence that BP oil spill killed dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico

By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 13:11 EST

US government scientists have for the first time connected the BP oil disaster to dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico, in a study finding direct evidence of toxic exposure.

The study, led by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found lung disease, hormonal abnormalities and other health effects among dolphins in an area heavily oiled during the BP spill.

The diseases found in the dolphins at Barataria Bay in Louisiana – though rare – were consistent with exposure to oil, the scientists said.

“Many disease conditions observed in Barataria Bay dolphins are uncommon but consistent with petroleum hydrocarbon exposure and toxicity,” the scientists said.

Half of the dolphins were given a guarded prognosis, and 17% were expected to die of the disease, the researchers found.

“I’ve never seen such a high prevalence of very sick animals – and with unusual conditions such as the adrenal hormone abnormalities,” Lori Schwake, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

The scientists caught, examined and released about 30 bottlenose dolphins from Barataria Bay in 2011, one year after the disaster. The area was one of the most heavily oiled areas following the April 2010 blowout of BP’s deepwater well, that killed 11 workers and spewed millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf.

Government scientists and conservation groups had been concerned from the outset about the effects on marine life of the vast amounts of oil that entered the water.

But Wednesday’s study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, produced the strongest evidence to date of the effects of the spill on marine life.

“The severe disease documented by this study and the continued elevation of mortalities raise significant concerns regarding both short-term and long-term impacts on the Barataria Bay dolphin population,” the study said.

Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director of the Oceana conservation group, said the findings confirmed her fears at the time that the oil spill would take a high toll on dolphins, whales and other marine life in the Gulf.

“After the spill I saw dolphins swimming in and out of oil slicks, breathing air at the surface that I knew contained hydrocarbons from the spill since I could smell them myself,” Savitz said. “The dolphins were likely exposed to the oil in other ways as well, by swallowing water, and through their food. While we have seen an unusual number of dolphin deaths during and after the spill, this report verifies that the oil took a larger toll on dolphins.”

None of the symptoms in the Barataria Bay dolphins were reported among wild dolphin populations in Sarasota Bay, Florida, which was not oiled during the spill, the scientists said.

BP has in the past disputed any connection between the oil spill and a mysterious spike in dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico that was first reported three months before the oil spill.

“The agency still has not provided BP with any data demonstrating that the alleged poor health of any dolphins was caused by oil exposure,” Jason Ryan, a company spokesman, said.

He said the symptoms observed in the study had been seen in other wild dolphin populations exposed to other contaminants, and that there had been a number of unexplained die-offs of dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico over the years. © Guardian News and Media 2013

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