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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the climate, ecology and environment topic  (Read 144623 times)
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« Reply #600 on: Aug 07, 2013, 06:06 AM »

NOAA warns Arctic ice is melting has reached new ‘striking’ record

By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Tuesday, August 6, 2013 16:45 EDT

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate study puts 2012 among the 10 warmest years on record

The Arctic lost record amounts of sea ice last year and is changing at an unprecedented pace due to climate change, a landmark climate study said on Tuesday.

Last year was among the 10 warmest years on record – ranking eighth or ninth depending on the data set, according to a report led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa). The year 2012 also saw record greenhouse gas emissions, with concentrations of carbon dioxide and other warming gasses reaching a global average of 392.7 parts per million for the year.

“The findings are striking,” Kathryn Sullivan, Noaa’s acting administrator, said on a conference call. “Our planet as a whole is becoming a warmer place.”

The scientists were reluctant to point directly to the cause of the striking changes in the climate. But the annual reports are typically used by the federal government to prepare for the future, and in June president Barack Obamaused his climate address to direct government agencies to begin planning for decades of warming atmosphere and rising seas.

The biggest changes in the climate in 2012 were in the Arctic and in Greenland, said the report, which is an annual exercise by a team of American and British scientists. The Arctic warmed at about twice the rate of lower altitudes, the report found. By June 2012, snow cover had fallen to its lowest levels since the record began. By September 2012, sea-ice cover had retreated to its lowest levels since the beginning of satellite records, falling to 1.32 million square miles.

That was, the report noted, a whopping 18% lower than the previous low, set in 2007, and a staggering 54% lower than the mark for 1980.

The changes were widespread on land as well, with record warm permafrost temperatures in Alaska and in the Canadian Arctic, the report’s authors noted. On 11 July last year, Greenland experienced surface melting on 97% of the ice sheet. The record-breaking events indicate an era of “new normal” for the climate, the researchers said.

“The record or near-records being reported from year to year in the Arctic are no longer anomalies or exceptions,” said Jackie Richter-Menge, a civil engineer with the US army corps of engineers. “Really they have become the rule for us, or the norm that we see in the Arctic and that we expect to see for the forseeable future.”

That ice melt was also a major cause of sea-level rise, the report found. Global sea levels rose to record highs last year, after being depressed during the first half of 2011 because of the effects of La Niña. The average global sea level last year was 1.4in above the 1993-2010 average.

“Over the past seven years of so, it appears that the ice melt is contributing more than twice as much to the global sea level rise compared with warming waters,” said Jessica Blunden, a climatologist at Noaa’s national climactic data centre.

© Guardian News and Media 2013
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« Reply #601 on: Aug 08, 2013, 07:06 AM »

Tons of radioactive water pouring out of crippled Fukushima nuclear plant

By Reuters
Wednesday, August 7, 2013 22:30 EDT

By Mari Saito and Antoni Slodkowski

TOKYO (Reuters) – Highly radioactive water from Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant is pouring out at a rate of 300 tons a day, officials said on Wednesday, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the government to step in and help in the clean-up.

The revelation amounted to an acknowledgement that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) has yet to come to grips with the scale of the catastrophe, 2 1/2 years after the plant was hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami. Tepco only recently admitted water had leaked at all.

Calling water containment at the Fukushima Daiichi station an “urgent issue,” Abe ordered the government for the first time to get involved to help struggling Tepco handle the crisis.

The leak from the plant 220 km (130 miles) northeast of Tokyo is enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in a week. The water is spilling into the Pacific Ocean, but it was not immediately clear how much of a threat it poses.

As early as January this year, Tepco found fish contaminated with high levels of radiation inside a port at the plant. Local fishermen and independent researchers had already suspected a leak of radioactive water, but Tepco denied the claims.

Tetsu Nozaki, the chairman of the Fukushima fisheries federation said he had only heard of the latest estimates of the magnitude of the seepage from media reports.

Environmental group Greenpeace said Tepco had “anxiously hid the leaks” and urged Japan to seek international expertise.

“Greenpeace calls for the Japanese authorities to do all in their power to solve this situation, and that includes increased transparency…and getting international expertise in to help find solutions,” Dr. Rianne Teule of Greenpeace International said in an e-mailed statement.

Fukushima is on Japan’s northeastern coast and faces the Pacific. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not believe the seepage will have any effect on the West Coast.

“Even 300 tons – that’s still going to be diluted to an almost undetectable level before it would get to any U.S. territory,” said Scott Burnell, public information officer for the commission. “The scale of what’s occurring at Fukushima is nowhere near the scale of the releases we saw during the actual accident.”

In the weeks after the disaster, the government allowed Tepco to dump tens of thousands of tons of contaminated water into the Pacific in an emergency move.

But the escalation of the crisis raises the risk of an even longer and more expensive clean-up, already forecast to take more than 40 years and cost $11 billion.

The admission further dents the credibility of Tepco, criticized for its failure to prepare for the tsunami and earthquake, for a confused response to the disaster and for covering up shortcomings.

“We think that the volume of water (leaking into the Pacific) is about 300 tons a day,” said Yushi Yoneyama, an official with the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees energy policy.

Tatsuya Shinkawa, a director in METI’s Nuclear Accident Response Office, told reporters the government believed water had been leaking for two years, but Yoneyama told Reuters it was unclear how long the water had been leaking at the current rate.

Shinkawa described the water as “highly” contaminated.

The water is from the area between the crippled reactors and the ocean, where Tepco has sought to block the flow of contaminated water by chemically hardening the soil.

Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima fisheries federation called for action to end the spillage.

“If the water was indeed leaking out at 300 tons a day for more than two years, the radiation readings should be far worse,” Nozaki told Reuters. “Either way, we have asked Tepco to stop leaking contaminated water into the ocean.”


Abe ordered his government into action. The contaminated water was “an urgent issue to deal with”, he told reporters after a meeting of a government task force on the disaster.

“Rather than relying on Tokyo Electric, the government will take measures,” he said after instructing METI Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to ensure Tepco takes appropriate action.

The prime minister stopped short of pledging funds to address the issue, but the ministry has requested a budget allocation, an official told Reuters.

The Nikkei newspaper said the funds would be used to freeze the soil to keep groundwater out of reactor buildings – a project estimated to cost up to 40 billion yen ($410 million).

Tepco’s handling of the clean-up has complicated Japan’s efforts to restart its 50 nuclear power plants. All but two remain shut since the disaster because of safety concerns.

That has made Japan dependent on expensive imported fuels.

An official from the newly created nuclear watchdog told Reuters on Monday that the highly radioactive water seeping into the ocean from Fukushima was creating an “emergency” that Tepco was not containing on its own.

Abe on Wednesday asked the regulator’s head to “do his best to find out the cause and come up with effective measures”.

Tepco pumps out some 400 tons a day of groundwater flowing from the hills above the nuclear plant into the basements of the destroyed buildings, which mixes with highly irradiated water used to cool the fuel that melted down in three reactors.

Tepco is trying to prevent groundwater from reaching the plant by building a “bypass”, but recent spikes of radioactive elements in sea water prompted the utility to reverse denials and acknowledge that tainted water is reaching the sea.

Tepco and the industry ministry have been working since May on a proposal to freeze the soil to prevent groundwater from leaking into the reactor buildings.

Similar technology is used in subway construction, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that the vast scale of Tepco’s attempt was “unprecedented in the world.”

The technology was proposed by Kajima Corp, , a construction company already heavily involved in the clean-up.

Experts say maintaining the ground temperatures for months or years would be costly. The plan is to freeze a 1.4 km (nearly one mile) perimeter around the four damaged reactors by drilling shafts into the ground and pumping coolant through them.

“Right now there are no details (of the project yet). There’s no blueprint, no nothing yet, so there’s no way we can scrutinize it,” said Shinji Kinjo, head of the task force set up by the nuclear regulator to deal with the water issue.

($1 = 97.6050 Japanese yen)

(Additional reporting by Osamu Tsukimori, Kentaro Hamada, Emi Emoto and William Mallard; Editing by Aaron Sheldrick and Ron Popeski)


August 7, 2013

Japan Stepping In to Help Clean Up Atomic Plant


TOKYO — First, a rat gnawed through exposed wiring, setting off a scramble to end yet another blackout of vital cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Then, hastily built pits for a flood of contaminated water sprang leaks themselves. Now, a new rush of radioactive water has breached a barrier built to stop it, allowing heavily contaminated water to spill daily into the Pacific.

As the scope of the latest crisis became clearer on Wednesday, Japan’s popular prime minister, Shinzo Abe, ordered his government to intervene in the cleanup of the plant — taking a more direct role than any government since the triple meltdowns in 2011 qualified Fukushima as the world’s second worst nuclear disaster.

Mr. Abe, a staunch defender of the country’s nuclear program, appears to have calculated that he needed to intervene to rebuild public trust and salvage a pillar of his economic revival plan: the restarting of many idled nuclear plants. That trust has been eroded not only by the original catastrophe, but also by two and a half years of sometimes embarrassing missteps by the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, and what many Japanese see as the company’s continuing attempts to mislead the public and cover up continuing troubles at the plant.

“This is not an issue we can let Tepco take complete responsibility of,” Mr. Abe told a group of cabinet ministers gathered to discuss the water problem that has swiftly emerged as the biggest challenge at the plant and that appears to be slowly spiraling out of control. “We must deal with this at the national level.”

But taking a bigger role in a vast and unprecedented cleanup may also be a political gamble for Mr. Abe, especially if the government proves as unable as Tepco to contain the unending leaks of radioactive materials from the devastated plant.

Many analysts said Mr. Abe’s move was an admission that previous governments had erred by entrusting the 40-year, $11 billion cleanup to the same company that many blame for allowing the catastrophe to happen in the first place. Tepco’s leadership has been particularly worrisome, critics say, since it remains enmeshed in the collusive ties between the government and the industry that many say made the plant vulnerable.

Tepco had clung to the chance to lead the cleanup as an opportunity to redeem itself and regain its position as a leading member of Japan’s corporate community. But critics say it has continued to lose credibility by repeatedly underplaying dangers at the plant, following a pattern set in the early days of the disaster when it hid information about the extent of the damage and frequently bungled its response. The company balked at adding seawater to the reactors even as their cores became dangerously hot, for fear of ruining them for good, and officials did not acknowledge for two months that three reactors had suffered meltdowns.

In the latest instance involving groundwater troubles, Tepco’s own advisory group of foreign experts criticized the company’s late admission, with one saying it “brings into question whether Tepco has a plan and is doing all it can to protect the environment and the people.” Although the advisers said Tepco was doing a good job cleaning up, other experts and some regulators have questioned the company’s ability to handle the highly complex decommissioning of reactors.

“This is an admission by the government that Tepco has mismanaged the cleanup and misinformed the public,” said Eiji Yamaguchi, a professor of science and technology policy at Doshisha University in Kyoto. “The government has no choice but to end two years of Tepco obfuscating the actual condition of the plant.”

The groundwater problems at the plant started soon after the disaster, when Tepco realized that tons of water flowing from the mountains and toward the sea were pouring into the contaminated reactor buildings, filling their basements with water that had to be pumped out. But the company was slow to come up with longer-term solutions, like digging wells to draw out the water before it reached the buildings. Then, in May, Tepco realized it had a new problem, with contaminants apparently leaking from a maze of conduits near the wrecked reactors causing a spike in radiation levels in groundwater elsewhere in the plant.

It began to build an underground “wall” created by injected hardening chemicals into the soil — even as it denied there was a threat to the ocean — but the barrier created a dam and water pooled behind it eventually began to flow over. On Wednesday, government officials said they believed 300 tons, or 75,000 gallons, of the tainted water was entering the ocean daily.

The amounts of some radioactive materials, like cancer-causing strontium, flowing into the ocean are above safety limits, but experts say that given the size of the plant’s previous releases, the new ones are relatively minor.

Some experts suggested Wednesday that the government’s intervention may be the first step in attempts to win public acceptance for what they say is an increasing inevitability: the dumping into the ocean of some of the less contaminated of the huge amount of water being stored in hulking tanks that are overwhelming the plant. At a news conference last week, Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, seemed to lay the groundwork, saying that eventually “it will be necessary to discharge water,” a possible solution likely to raise concerns not only in Japan but in other Pacific Rim countries.

Whether the government intervention will help remedy the groundwater issue is an open question, Mr. Yamaguchi and others said. The government’s expanded role will probably be led by the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, or METI, which has been criticized as having close ties to Tepco and the rest of the nuclear industry which it nurtured since before Japan’s first commercial reactor went online in the 1960s. Other aspects of the Fukushima plant’s decommissioning have also been dominated by other members of Japan’s collusive “nuclear village,” as the close-knit industry is called, including reactor makers and politically connected large construction companies.

Experts have long worried that the government erred early on by refusing to bring in Japanese and foreign companies in leading roles, including American companies with experience in nuclear cleanups from Three Mile Island.

Experts like Mr. Yamaguchi said the only way to increase transparency at the plant was to bring in true outsiders.

It was also not clear how intensively the government would actually get involved in the cleanup, or whether it would allow Tepco to remain in charge. Mr. Abe did not give specifics beyond directing his ministers to help resolve the water problem, which he said was causing public anxiety. On Wednesday, local news reports quoted unidentified officials in METI as saying that Tokyo would likely help pay for a $400 million wall of ice that is being planned to surround the damaged reactor buildings.

Some top officials hinted that Wednesday’s move amounted to little more than an effort to provide public money to assist Tepco. Others suggested that the government might seek to take the lead in at least certain aspects of the cleanup, like the technologically challenging ice wall.

“There is no precedent in the world to create a water-shielding wall with frozen soil on such a large scale,” said the government’s top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Indeed, the proposed ice wall is seen here as a symbol of both the daunting technological challenges posed by the cleanup, and the need — critics say desperation — for creative solutions as the plant, which already stores enough contaminated water to fill 160 Olympic-size swimming pools, is faced with having to store hundreds of more tons every day.

The plan calls for freezing the soil around the reactor buildings to keep out groundwater before it can become contaminated. The wall would run nearly a mile in length and reach almost 100 feet into the ground. Officials said no wall of ice on such a scale has ever been attempted before, and was thus beyond the capacities of Tepco alone to pull off.

But even as Tepco — and now the government — place a bet on the ambitious plans for the wall, experts have begun to raise concerns, including that the wall will need to be consistently cooled using electricity at a plant vulnerable to power failures. The original disaster was brought on by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out electricity.

Hiroko Tabuchi contributed reporting.

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« Reply #602 on: Aug 08, 2013, 07:11 AM »

August 7, 2013

Deaths of Manatees, Dolphins and Pelicans Point to Estuary at Risk


MELBOURNE, Fla. — The first hint that something was amiss here, in the shallow lagoons and brackish streams that buffer inland Florida from the Atlantic’s salt water, came last summer in the Banana River, just south of Kennedy Space Center. Three manatees — the languid, plant-munching, over-upholstered mammals known as sea cows — died suddenly and inexplicably, one after another, in a spot where deaths were rare.

A year later, the inquiry into those deaths has become a cross-species murder mystery, a trail of hundreds of deaths across one-third of the Indian River estuary, one of the richest marine ecosystems in the continental United States.

Along 50 miles of northern estuary waters off Brevard County and the Kennedy space complex, about 280 manatees have died in the last 12 months, 109 of them in the same sudden manner as the Banana River victims. As the manatee deaths peaked this spring, hundreds of pelicans began dying along the same stretch of water, followed this summer by scores of bottlenose dolphins.

The cause continues to evade easy explanation. But a central question is whether the deaths are symptoms of something more ominous: the collapse of the natural balance that sustains the 156-mile estuary’s northern reaches.

“We may have reached a tipping point,” said Troy Rice, who directs the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, a federal, state and local government partnership at the St. Johns River Water Management District.

Mr. Rice’s fear, widely shared, is that an ecosystem that supports more than 4,300 species of wildlife — and commercial fisheries, tourism and other businesses generating nearly $4 billion annually — is buckling under the strain of decades of pollution generated by coastal Florida’s explosive development.

The evidence of decline is compelling. In 2011 and 2012, unprecedented blooms of algae blanketed the estuary’s northern reaches for months, killing vast fields of underwater sea grass that are the building blocks of the estuary ecosystem. The grasses are breeding grounds for fish, cover from predators, home to countless creatures at the bottom of the food chain and, not least of all, the favorite menu item of manatees.

The sea grass has largely been supplanted by macroalgae, fast-growing seaweeds that clump into huge mats that drift free in the waters. And the character of the estuary is changing: already, algae-eating fish like menhaden are significantly increasing, Mr. Rice said.

Leesa Souto, a conservation biologist who heads the Marine Resources Council, a nonprofit group devoted to protecting the estuary, quoted one expert as saying that the loss of grasses destroyed the habitat for 1.4 billion immature fish.

“We fear the fishery collapse may be forthcoming as these missing juveniles will never reach adulthood two or three years from now,” she wrote in an e-mail.

The scope and suddenness of the algae blooms took scientists by surprise, but their source is no secret: off Brevard County, the estuary is badly overloaded with nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient found in fertilizers, rotting organic matter and human and animal waste.

State and federal authorities long ago limited dumping of nitrogen-rich effluents from sewage-treatment plants and factories. But so-called nonpoint sources of pollution, like lawn fertilizer and septic tanks, have been far harder to control.

Now, some experts say, the rapid urbanization of the Florida coast, from the boom years of the space age to the later growth of retirement condos, appears to have pushed the accumulation of those wastes.

Brevard has grown explosively, to nearly 545,000 in the 2010 census, from 23,700 people in 1950. The Banana River and other fingers of the estuary are a bricolage of pristine nature reserves cheek-to-jowl with beachfront motels, tract homes fronting on canals, even a golf course in the center of the Banana River itself.

Surveys in 2011 and 2012 by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University concluded that estuary waters off Brevard contained 45 percent more nitrogen than is acceptable, and three times as much as in the estuary’s southern waters, said Brian Lapointe, a research professor at the institute.

Where the nitrogen came from is unclear. Relying on analyses of nitrogen isotopes in algae collected from the estuary, Dr. Lapointe concluded that most came from sewage — most likely from the 100,000 or so septic tanks that he estimated were dug during Brevard’s rapid expansion.

 But a comprehensive search for the origins of the nitrogen has yet to be conducted. A handful of studies in waters outside the estuary have indicated that fertilizer runoff can be a major contributor to algae blooms. Dr. Souto cites a third source: a thick muck that has covered the once-pristine sand on the estuary floor, an accumulation of decades of pollutants and nitrogen-rich decayed plant matter.

“It would almost take a giant vacuum cleaner to remove it,” she said. “It remains a source of nitrogen, and whenever it’s stirred up, it goes back into the water.”

The Brevard waters seemed deceptively healthy in the mid-2000s, perhaps because a prolonged drought reduced the flow of nitrogen into the estuary. But when heavy rains returned in 2011, experts suggest, the resulting slug of pollution triggered the algae blooms.

With the sea grass mostly gone, there are few roots to stabilize the nitrogen-heavy muck when winds stir up the waters. A switch from septic tanks to sewer systems — and, perhaps, a giant vacuum cleaner — might quickly restore the Brevard waters to health. Otherwise, experts say, recovery seems likely to be a longer, more arduous process.

That makes the question of whether the estuary’s problems are linked to the wildlife die-offs all the more important. But that is likely to be a devilishly difficult investigation, scientists say.

The manatees died without warning, while the dolphins and pelicans wasted away over days, losing muscle and becoming disoriented. Manatees eat plants; dolphins and pelicans eat fish. Manatees and dolphins are mammals; pelicans are birds. Pelicans died by the hundreds; other estuary birds seem to have gone mostly unscathed. Other creatures that eat seaweed, like sea turtles, also seem to have remained healthy.

There are few clues. In fact, there are even few dolphins; most decomposed or were eaten by sharks before useful body parts could be recovered.

One of the best clues, however, involves the seaweed that replaced the estuary’s sea grass.

The three Banana River manatees seemed to be in robust health when they died. The sole exception was their intestines, which showed evidence of severe shock or irritation. Autopsies showed that the stomachs of all three manatees were filled with macroalgae, mostly a fanlike seaweed called gracilaria.

“We hypothesize that whatever caused these manatees to die was either ingested or gotten through drinking,” Martine de Wit, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who autopsied the manatees, said in an interview. “It’s logical to think it’s the macroalgae that they ingested.” A federal laboratory is analyzing seaweed samples in search of toxins.

Both Dr. de Wit and Jan H. Landsberg, a biotoxin expert at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute of the Conservation Commission who is helping coordinate the inquiry, emphasize that the hypothesis is just one of many. The deaths “might just be coincidental,” Dr. Landsberg said. “The key is not to go down too many rabbit holes.”

And to go down the most promising ones quickly. For the deaths may not be a one-time event; the estuary’s dolphins suffered suspiciously similar, still unexplained die-offs in 2001 and 2008.

“If this spreads,” she said, “we don’t know what the implications are.”

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« Reply #603 on: Aug 09, 2013, 07:36 AM »

Camels may be source of Middle East's Sars-like virus

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus could have come from camels, prompting further investigation into camel meat

Sarah Boseley, health editor
The Guardian, Friday 9 August 2013   

The Sars-like virus that has infected 94 people who have lived in or had links to the Middle East, and killed almost half of them – including a 38-year-old man who died in the UK reportedly after exposure to a relative who visited Mecca, Saudi Arabia – could have come from camels, research suggests.

Until now, there have been few clues as to how people had come to be infected with the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, MERS-CoV, although the virus has similarities to a strain in pipistrelle bats. But bats, shy and nocturnal creatures, have been thought to be an unlikely source of human infection.

Now scientific detective work is suggesting a more plausible animal reservoir. A team of researchers led by Chantal Reusken, of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in Bilthoven, the Netherlands, tested blood samples from a range of domestic animals, including cattle, sheep and goats. They and drew a blank until they came to dromedary camels.

Tests on a group of 50 retired racing camels in Oman proved 100% positive. Every camel had antibodies in its blood that suggested it had at some point been in contact with MERS-CoV. The animals came from various places in Oman, suggesting the virus or one like it was widespread in camels across the country, said the researchers in their paper in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The team also tested 105 camels in the Canary Islands, where they serve the tourism industry, and found 15 of those were infected, or 14%.

The scientists said the virus could be slightly different – maybe more transmissible in Oman – or the camels might have been kept in circumstances that made it less likely to spread in the Canaries. But it is also possible that the virus was brought in by one of the three oldest Canary Island camels, who arrived from Morocco more than 18 years ago.

"We cannot rule out that the population might have once had an outbreak but that by the time of sampling, antibody titres had waned and no new introductions of the virus had occurred," they write. "The camels have contact with wild rodents, pigeons, and other doves, and possibly also bats. Seven insectivorous bat species, including three pipistrellus [species], are native to the Canary Islands, while Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) have been introduced."

There have been no human cases of MERS-CoV infection in Oman, even though it is close to countries in the Arabian peninsula where people have fallen sick and died. But it is possible that infection of the camel population happened years ago, they say.

The infection could have been imported in camels from Africa, where there are bats carrying a virus related to MERS-CoV.

"In the Middle East, huge numbers of camels are imported from Africa to meet the demand for meat," they write. "The top five camel breeding countries are all African, and Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are in the top five camel-meat producing countries."

They called for further studies and especially for investigation into any contacts with camels, camel products or camel meat by those who have fallen ill.

In a linked commentary, Vincent Munster, of NIAID Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, US, pointed out that there had not been reports of camels falling ill as a result of the virus.

"This fact begs the question of whether the detection of MERS-CoV neutralising antibodies in camels from both Spain and Oman is a result of unrelated cross-species transmission events or whether the virus has been circulating in camels for a long time. Regardless, a change in the ecology of MERS-CoV must have occurred to enable emergence in people."

A genetic change in the virus or some change in the environment or in agricultural practices might have enabled the virus to move into man, he said.

He agreed that there was an "urgent need for an integrated, one health approach by public and veterinary health stakeholders in all involved countries, combined with the rapid dissemination of data."

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« Reply #604 on: Aug 11, 2013, 06:13 AM »

China and India’s ‘water grabs’ endangering ecology in the Himalayas

By John Vidal, The Observer
Saturday, August 10, 2013 17:16 EDT

More than 400 hydroelectric schemes are planned in the mountain region, which could be a disaster for the environment

The future of the world’s most famous mountain range could be endangered by a vast dam-building project, as a risky regional race for water resources takes place in Asia.

New academic research shows that India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan are engaged in a huge “water grab” in the Himalayas, as they seek new sources of electricity to power their economies. Taken together, the countries have plans for more than 400 hydro dams which, if built, could together provide more than 160,000MW of electricity – three times more than the UK uses.

In addition, China has plans for around 100 dams to generate a similar amount of power from major rivers rising in Tibet. A further 60 or more dams are being planned for the Mekong river which also rises in Tibet and flows south through south-east Asia.

Most of the Himalayan rivers have been relatively untouched by dams near their sources. Now the two great Asian powers, India and China, are rushing to harness them as they cut through some of the world’s deepest valleys. Many of the proposed dams would be among the tallest in the world, able to generate more than 4,000MW, as much as the Hoover dam on the Colorado river in the US.

The result, over the next 20 years, “could be that the Himalayas become the most dammed region in the world”, said Ed Grumbine, visiting international scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming. “India aims to construct 292 dams … doubling current hydropower capacity and contributing 6% to projected national energy needs. If all dams are constructed as proposed, in 28 of 32 major river valleys, the Indian Himalayas would have one of the highest average dam densities in the world, with one dam for every 32km of river channel. Every neighbour of India with undeveloped hydropower sites is building or planning to build multiple dams, totalling at minimum 129 projects,” said Grumbine, author of a paper in Science.

China, which is building multiple dams on all the major rivers running off the Tibetan plateau, is likely to emerge as the ultimate controller of water for nearly 40% of the world’s population. “The plateau is the source of the single largest collection of international rivers in the world, including the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtse and the Yellow rivers. It is the headwater of rivers on which nearly half the world depends. The net effect of the dam building could be disastrous. We just don’t know the consequences,” said Tashi Tseri, a water resource researcher at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

“China is engaged in the greatest water grab in history. Not only is it damming the rivers on the plateau, it is financing and building mega-dams in Pakistan, Laos, Burma and elsewhere and making agreements to take the power,” said Indian geopolitical analyst Brahma Chellaney. “China-India disputes have shifted from land to water. Water is the new divide and is going centre stage in politics. Only China has the capacity to build these mega-dams and the power to crush resistance. This is effectively war without a shot being fired.”

According to Chellaney, India is in the weakest position because half its water comes directly from China; however, Bangladesh is fearful of India’s plans for water diversions and hydropower. Bangladeshi government scientists say that even a 10% reduction in the water flow by India could dry out great areas of farmland for much of the year. More than 80% of Bangladesh’s 50 million small farmers depend on water that flows through India.

Engineers and environmentalists say that little work has been done on the human or ecological impact of the dams, which they fear could increase floods and be vulnerable to earthquakes. “We do not have credible environmental and social impact assessments, we have no environmental compliance system, no cumulative impact assessment and no carrying capacity studies. The Indian ministry of environment and forests, developers and consultants are responsible for this mess,” said Himanshu Thakkar, co-ordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

China and India have both displaced tens of millions of people with giant dams such as the Narmada and Three Gorges over the last 30 years, but governments have not published estimates of how many people would have to be relocated or how much land would be drowned by the new dams. “This is being totally ignored. No one knows, either, about the impact of climate change on the rivers. The dams are all being built in rivers that are fed by glaciers and snowfields which are melting at a fast rate,” said Tsering.

Climate models suggest that major rivers running off the Himalayas, after increasing flows as glaciers melt, could lose 10-20% of their flow by 2050. This would not only reduce the rivers’ capacity to produce electricity, but would exacerbate regional political tensions.

The dams have already led to protest movements in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Assam and other northern states of India and in Tibet. Protests in Uttarakhand, which was devastated by floods last month, were led by Indian professor GD Agarwal, who was taken to hospital after a 50-day fast but who was released this week.

“There is no other way but to continue because the state government is not keen to review the dam policy,” said Mallika Bhanot, a member of Ganga Avahan, a group opposing proposals for a series of dams on the Ganges.

Governments have tried to calm people by saying that many of the dams will not require large reservoirs, but will be “run of the river” constructions which channel water through tunnels to massive turbines. But critics say the damage done can be just as great.

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« Reply #605 on: Aug 11, 2013, 07:25 AM »

Filipino farmers destroy genetically modified ‘Golden Rice’ crops

By David Ferguson
Saturday, August 10, 2013 13:07 EDT

A group of activist farmers in the Philippines stormed a government research facility and destroyed an area of genetically modified rice crops the size of 10 football fields. According to New Scientist, the farmers say that genetically modified organism (GMO) foods have not been established to be safe for consumption and that the real solution to world hunger isn’t biologically engineered plants, but a reduction in worldwide rates of poverty.

“The Golden Rice is a poison,” said Willy Marbella to New Scientist. Marbella is a farmer and deputy secretary general of a group of activists known as KMP — Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas or Peasant Movement of the Philippines.

The farmers attacked the fields at the research facility in Pili, Camarines Sur out of concern that their own crops could be pollinated and thereby contaminated by the GMO plants, possibly resulting in a boycott of their products like U.S. farmers of soft white wheat saw when a strain of Monsanto herbicide-resistant wheat abruptly appeared in an Oregon field. South Korea and Japan both halted imports of U.S. wheat in the wake of the discovery.

Golden Rice is a strain of rice that has been modified by scientists to contain beta carotene, a source of vitamin A. An estimated 2 million people die from vitamin A deficiency worldwide every year. Annually, about 500,000 children — mainly in the developing world — go blind from lack of the nutrient.

Golden Rice advocates claim that replacing half of a child’s rice intake with Golden Rice provides them with 60 percent of their daily requirement of vitamin A.

Representatives of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a fervently pro-Golden Rice organization, say that even though the GMO has yet to be approved for human consumption, research trials suggest that it’s safe, and that scientists can’t find out anything more if people destroy the test plants.

Framing attacks on GMO crops as attacks on the effort to end world hunger, the IRRI issued a series of press releases since the action at Pili on Thursday decrying the farmers as ill-informed “vandals.”

Anti-GMO activists say that too many studies on the effects of GMOs are being undertaken by organizations that have a stake in their success. They also say that Golden Rice is being used as a seeming innocuous “poster boy” crop to sell GMOs to an overly credulous public.

Beau Baconguis of Greenpeace Southeast Asia told New Scientist, “There is not enough safety testing done on any GM crops.”

“I think that the farmers know what they want,” she said. “What they want is a safe environment that they can grow their crops in” without fear of contamination and a subsequent boycott…This is playing with the lives of people when you are using Golden Rice to promote more GMOs in our food.”

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« Reply #606 on: Aug 12, 2013, 05:37 AM »

A Texan tragedy: ample oil, no water

Fracking boom sucks away precious water from beneath the ground, leaving cattle dead, farms bone-dry and people thirsty

Suzanne Goldenberg in Barnhart, Texas, Sunday 11 August 2013 15.07 BST    

Link to video: Texan drought sets residents against fracking

Beverly McGuire saw the warning signs before the town well went dry: sand in the toilet bowl, the sputter of air in the tap, a pump working overtime to no effect. But it still did not prepare her for the night last month when she turned on the tap and discovered the tiny town where she had made her home for 35 years was out of water.

"The day that we ran out of water I turned on my faucet and nothing was there and at that moment I knew the whole of Barnhart was down the tubes," she said, blinking back tears. "I went: 'dear God help us. That was the first thought that came to mind."

Across the south-west, residents of small communities like Barnhart are confronting the reality that something as basic as running water, as unthinking as turning on a tap, can no longer be taken for granted.

Three years of drought, decades of overuse and now the oil industry's outsize demands on water for fracking are running down reservoirs and underground aquifers. And climate change is making things worse.

In Texas alone, about 30 communities could run out of water by the end of the year, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Nearly 15 million people are living under some form of water rationing, barred from freely sprinkling their lawns or refilling their swimming pools. In Barnhart's case, the well appears to have run dry because the water was being extracted for shale gas fracking.

The town — a gas station, a community hall and a taco truck – sits in the midst of the great Texan oil rush, on the eastern edge of the Permian basin.

A few years ago, it seemed like a place on the way out. Now McGuire said she can see nine oil wells from her back porch, and there are dozens of RVs parked outside town, full of oil workers.

But soon after the first frack trucks pulled up two years ago, the well on McGuire's property ran dry.

No-one in Barnhart paid much attention at the time, and McGuire hooked up to the town's central water supply. "Everyone just said: 'too bad'. Well now it's all going dry," McGuire said.

Ranchers dumped most of their herds. Cotton farmers lost up to half their crops. The extra draw down, coupled with drought, made it impossible for local ranchers to feed and water their herds, said Buck Owens. In a good year, Owens used to run 500 cattle and up to 8,000 goats on his 7,689 leased hectares (19,000 acres). Now he's down to a few hundred goats.

The drought undoubtedly took its toll but Owens reserved his anger for the contractors who drilled 104 water wells on his leased land, to supply the oil companies.

Water levels were dropping in his wells because of the vast amounts of water being pumped out of the Edwards-Trinity-Plateau Aquifer, a 34,000 sq mile water bearing formation.

"They are sucking all of the water out of the ground, and there are just hundreds and hundreds of water trucks here every day bringing fresh water out of the wells," Owens said.

Meanwhile, residents in town complained, they were forced to live under water rationing. "I've got dead trees in my yard because I haven't been able to water them," said Glenda Kuykendall. "The state is mandating our water system to conserve water but why?... Getting one oil well fracked takes more water than the entire town can drink or use in a day."

Even as the drought bore down, even as the water levels declined, the oil industry continued to demand water and those with water on their land were willing to sell it. The road west of town was lined with signs advertising "fresh water", where tankers can take on a box-car-sized load of water laced with industrial chemicals.

"If you're going to develop the oil, you've got to have the water," said Larry Baxter, a contractor from the nearby town of Mertzon, who installed two frack tanks on his land earlier this year, hoping to make a business out of his well selling water to oil industry.

By his own estimate, his well could produce enough to fill up 20 or 30 water trucks for the oil industry each day. At $60 (£39.58) a truck, that was $36,000 a month, easily. "I could sell 100 truckloads a day if I was open to it," Baxter said.

He rejected the idea there should be any curbs on selling water during the drought. "People use their water for food and fibre. I choose to use my water to sell to the oil field," he said. "Who's taking advantage? I don't see any difference."

Barnhart remained dry for five days last month before local work crew revived an abandoned railway well and started pumping again. But residents fear it is just a temporary fix and that next time it happens they won't have their own wells to fall back on. "My well is very very close to going dry," said Kuykendall.

So what is a town like Barnhart to do? Fracking is a powerful drain on water supplies. In adjacent Crockett county, fracking accounts for up to 25% of water use, according to the groundwater conservation district. But Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, argues fracking is not the only reason Texas is going dry – and nor is the drought. The latest shocks to the water system come after decades of overuse by ranchers, cotton farmers, and fast-growing thirsty cities.

"We have large urban centres sucking water out of west Texas to put on their lands. We have a huge agricultural community, and now we have fracking which is also using water," she said. And then there is climate change.

West Texas has a long history of recurring drought, but under climate change, the south-west has been experiencing record-breaking heatwaves, further drying out the soil and speeding the evaporation of water in lakes and reservoirs. Underground aquifers failed to regenerate. "What happens is that climate change comes on top and in many cases it can be the final straw that breaks the camel's back, but the camel is already overloaded," said Hayhoe.

Other communities across a bone-dry south-west are resorting to extraordinary measures to keep the water flowing. Robert Lee, also in the oil patch, has been hauling in water by tanker. So has Spicewood Beach, a resort town 40 miles from Austin, which has been trucking in water since early 2012.

San Angelo, a city of 100,000, dug a pipeline to an underground water source more than 60 miles away, and sunk half a dozen new wells.

Las Cruces, just across the border from the Texas panhandle in New Mexico, is drilling down 1,000ft in search of water.

But those fixes are way out of reach for small, rural communities. Outside the RV parks for the oil field workers who are just passing through, Barnhart has a population of about 200.

"We barely make enough money to pay our light bill and we're supposed to find $300,000 to drill a water well?" said John Nanny, an official with the town's water supply company.

Last week brought some relief, with rain across the entire state of Texas. Rain gauges in some parts of west Texas registered two inches or more. Some ranchers dared to hope it was the beginning of the end of the drought.

But not Owens, not yet anyway. The underground aquifers needed far more rain to recharge, he said, and it just wasn't raining as hard as it did when he was growing up.

"We've got to get floods. We've got to get a hurricane to move up in our country and just saturate everything to replenish the aquifer," he said. "Because when the water is gone. That's it. We're gone."

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« Reply #607 on: Aug 12, 2013, 05:39 AM »

Fracking: a botch on the landscape

Britain's nascent shale gas industry is in danger of being doused by inept PR and poor practice

Damian Carrington   
The Guardian, Saturday 10 August 2013   

In the golden rule usually attributed to spin doctor Alastair Campbell, there is some dispute over the exact number of days a story has to run for before its subject is doomed. A week, say some; 10 days or a fortnight say others. What is beyond doubt is that the fracking firm Cuadrilla's attempts to drill a hole in the Sussex countryside, which began on 25 July, has ploughed through even the longest of time limits.

As a result the UK's embryonic shale gas industry is in danger of being stillborn. It is facing a Monsanto moment: an introduction so botched that leaves the technology unusable on arrival. In the late 1990s millions of tins of genetically modified tomato puree were bought by British shoppers before they knew anything about genetic modification techniques. When they did, they decided they didn't like the whiff of it, and imposed their own ban that killed the prospects for GM food stone dead.

With neat synchronicity, just a few days before Cuadrilla took its run at the barricades in Balcombe and after 17 years of trying to get its GM crops approved in Europe, Monsanto finally gave up.

Through inept public relations and poor practice Cuadrilla is set to scorch the earth of the nascent shale gas industry in the same way, ably abetted – as was also the case for GM crops – by a tone-deaf and blinkered government.

I've reported on how Cuadrilla broke the terms of its planning permission in Lancashire by drilling beyond a cut-off date that protected wintering birds; how it failed to tell the government for six months that small earthquakes triggered by drilling had deformed a well casing that prevents the contamination of ground water; and how it repeatedly trespassed on to private land during seismic surveys – and in one garden marked a site for an explosion before being chased off. Planning permission for the Balcombe drilling slipped through the parish council without much discussion.

This, and disastrous public meetings that led their PR minders to lament "this is how they burn witches, I guess", led to ministerial bollockings for the firm's executives and its chair, former BP boss Lord Browne. Cuadrilla's chief executive moved aside and despite paying top dollar to its new PR firm Bell Pottinger, the company managed to start its incursion into the home counties in the news desert of the summer and spark a firestorm of opposition and bad press. Balcombe has been kindled into the new beacon of protest against a fossil-fuelled future.

If Cuadrilla is torching public confidence, David Cameron and George Osborne, high on fracking fumes, are stoking the flames. They rejected a key recommendation from the Royal Society that specific regulations for shale gas should be put in place to protect people and places from bad practice. Instead, the chancellor trumpeted tax breaks and issued new planning guidelines without consultation which emphasise the "great weight to [be given] to the benefits" of approving fracking. The prime minister's zeal led him to mistakenly promise an upfront £1m to fracked communities.

Shale gas could, responsibly produced, offset some of the rapid decline in North Sea production and diversify domestic sources, improving energy security. But a repetition of the US shale gas revolution is a hallucination shared by no one outside the industry. The sober voices, from the International Energy Agency to the CBI to Deutsche Bank and even gas giants like Centrica, have concluded that widespread fracking on a densely populated island with tricky mineral rights laws will be a tough sell.

Burning gas produces plenty of carbon dioxide but Osborne and the frackers, blinded by their conviction that action on climate change is nothing but vapid hot air, only see the alluring mirage of near-limitless cheap fuel. Their frenzied attempts to convert this fantasy into reality led them to trample over the concerns of the public. As day after day of headlines stack up, this careless dash for gas is heading for its own Monsanto moment – an industry fracked by its own arrogance.

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« Reply #608 on: Aug 12, 2013, 05:41 AM »

Fracking push blinding government to greener energy, say campaigners

Exploiting the potential of biogas from waste instead of fracking could create tens of thousands of jobs, proponents say

Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 9 August 2013 19.16 BST   

An "obsession" with fracking is blinding the government to greener sources of energy, according to proponents who claim the economy will miss out on up to £3bn a year and tens of thousands of jobs by failing to exploit organic biogas.

Figures from the government and the biogas industry show that generating gas from waste can produce cheaper energy in the short term with fewer carbon emissions than current controversial hydraulic fracturing projects.

Alan Whitehead, a Labour MP who sits on the energy and climate select committee, said: "This coalition seems to have an obsession with fracking, to the exclusion of other possibilities, and despite the very clear issues with fracking and the opposition we've seen from local communities. It is very short-sighted."

Whitehead said the current incentives for biogas should be bolstered. "The government is not putting enough behind this. There is a lot at stake and a lot of potential here, but the coalition seems to prefer shale gas, even though it is problematic, than this cheap and readily available form of fuel."

The calls come as protests against oil drilling in the West Sussex village of Balcombe continue, with demonstrators awaiting an influx of new anti-fracking campaigners next weekend. The No Dash for Gas coalition has announced that it intends to bring its camp to Balcombe, which could mean hundreds of people joining the current protest, made up of more than 200 local people and more than 30 tents of activists.

Estimates from the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body that advises parliament, show that at least one in 20 of the UK's homes could be supplied with gas from biomass and waste by 2020.

The Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association, the industry trade body, calculates that this could be doubled, and a tenth of the UK's domestic gas needs could be supplied by biogas, given the UK's resources in waste and agricultural products.

Using biogas from waste could save the UK at least 7.5m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, according to Matthew Hindle, policy manager at the ADBA. That is because the waste would otherwise be sent to landfill or, as it decomposes, release methane – a greenhouse gas 25 to 30 times more powerful than CO2.

Fracking, by contrast, requires substantial amounts of energy to release gas from dense underground rocks, and some of the gas is likely to be flared rather than captured.

Hindle contrasted the government's response to fracking – setting up a new agency, the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, to support the industry – with the lack of political interest in biogas, which is rarely mentioned by ministers.

One reason biogas has received less attention is that it falls between three government departments – energy, environment and communities and local government.

At present, according to estimates from the government's Waste Resource and Action Programme, the UK throws away 15m tonnes of food waste a year, from homes, industry and retail. Only about 1m tonnes of the waste is used to generate biogas, or methane, using anaerobic digestion techniquesthat are well-established in other parts of the world. This diverts resources to landfill and gives rise to greenhouse gas emissions, because the rotting food produces methane that is not captured and adds to the concentration of carbon in the air.

About 90m tonnes of animal waste is also produced in the UK each year, only a tiny portion of which is used for energy production. Sewage treatment plants are also overlooked. Biogas can be poured into the national gas grid and used for heating homes, burned to generate electricity, or used in specially adapted vehicles.

Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, said: "Anaerobic digestion needs to be locally based and ideally community or locally owned, rather than having a few large-scale facilities. [Biogas and other renewables] are the energy sources of the 21st century. Fossil fuels are 20th-century dinosaurs – fracking would cause significant local environmental damage, cannot fit within our essential carbon emission limits to avoid catastrophic climate change, and would lock us into future high cost and volatile household energy bills."

In 2010-11, there were more than 2,600 jobs in the biogas sector, which could also be turned to at least 35,000 green jobs with the necessary investment, according to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

But there are currently only 40 megawatts-worth of new projects under construction and a similar number awaiting planning permission. Projects capable of producing a further 180MW have been given the go-ahead. That would be enough to double current production, however this is still tiny compared to a typical fossil fuel power station. Drax, the UK's largest coal plant has a capacity of just under 4,000MW.

Gas from organic sources is, according to people in the biogas industry, slightly cheaper than imported fossil gas, in part because of government incentives. But fracking may prove to be more expensive in the UK. Cuadrilla has already poured £100m into fracking in three years, so far without producing any gas.

Fracking is also likely to take at least five years to produce commercial quantities of natural gas, and although a government-commissioned geological survey found that decades-worth of the fuel are likely to lie below the surface, it is not known how much can be extracted at economically viable rates. Cuadrilla estimates between 0-40% of the total resource. Lord Browne, chairman, told the Guardian the company and its backers would spend "whatever it takes" to produce commercial quantities of fracked gas.

A spokesperson for the Department for Energy and Climate Change said: "We are committed to a secure, diverse energy mix that includes renewables, new nuclear and gas."

Leila Deen, energy campaigner at Greenpeace, said: "With the right policies in place, biogas could provide up to half the UK's domestic heat, reduce landfill and help us achieve our climate change targets. But David Cameron's too tipsy on the fracking kool-aid to acknowledge biogas's potential. If his government put half as much effort into incentivising green energy like biogas as it does into foisting fracking on communities that don't want it, the UK would be well on its way to long term energy security. Biogas would actually help farmers and people in rural communities, rather than incensing them."

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« Reply #609 on: Aug 12, 2013, 05:45 AM »

Fracking boss faces growing tremors of resistance from public, press and Tories

With plans to drill in West Sussex, Cuadrilla CEO Francis Egan has received death threats and an offer to frack his garden

Rupert Neate   
The Guardian, Wednesday 7 August 2013 13.44 EDT   

He knew it would be a tough job when he took it on last year, but Francis Egan, chief executive of fracking firm Cuadrilla Resources, could not have imagined the role would bring with it death threats and reporters turning up at his house trying to "frack" his garden.

Environmentalists have been campaigning against fracking for years, but Egan's attempt to drill in the pretty West Sussex village of Balcombe has turned hydraulic fracturing (to give it is proper name) into a highly emotive subject that has galvanised opinions across the political and environmental spectrum and threatens to align some of the highest ranking members of the Tory party with a new generation of eco-warriors.

Egan, 52, would like those debates to be about how fracking – pumping high pressure water and chemicals into deep wells to break up shale rock, releasing gas – will help secure the UK's energy future, increase the tax take and bring down gas bills. But an explosion of publicity against Cuadrilla's drilling in Balcombe – fanned by naked protesters, the "frack off" slogan and the arrest of Natalie Hynde – daughter of the Pretenders' Chrissie – has left the nation more concerned than ever about the risk of environmental damage and earthquakes. (Cuadrilla's test fracking was thought to cause a 2.3-magnitude earthquake near Blackpool.)

Last week someone took the fight to the extreme by sending Egan an anonymous death threat, warning he would be sent pipe bombs unless the company stopped its activities. "Fracking kills, and so do we," the email read.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday last weekend, in an apparent attempt to address middle England directly, Egan was at pains to defend the Balcombe drilling. They are not fracking on the site, he said, but drilling a 6in diameter well looking for oil. There are 50 such wells in Sussex alone already, he said.

"If we don't find oil," he wrote, "our work at Balcombe will come to an end." If Cuadrilla does find oil, one option is fracking.

He addressed the "scare stories" about hydraulic fracturing. Drinking water might be polluted? "No, it won't," he wrote. "Not one confirmed case has come to light where fracking has contaminated an aquifer." That gas flaring can cause cancer? "No, it doesn't," he said. What about fracking industrialising the countryside? "No, it won't."

Chancellor George Osborne is a fan of fracking and believes it would be a "real tragedy" if Britain let this potential "energy revolution" slip through its fingers. "It would mean we would have much higher energy costs than other countries, it would mean jobs would go to other countries and we would lose out."

Egan has explained: "Developing our own huge shale gas resources, on the other hand, could generate billions in tax revenue and tens of thousands of jobs."

Conservative backbenchers and more than a few cabinet ministers, however, may be concerned that they could lose their seats if widespread fracking gets the go-ahead. Research by Greenpeace shows 35 Tory MPs in the south have constituencies in areas that could be licensed for fracking.

The public's fracking fears - largely inspired by horror stories from the US where the controversial technique accounts for more than a fifth of domestic gas production - even extend to worries that Cuadrilla might use the wells for toxic waste.

"We've heard everything," Egan said last year. "From suggestions that Blackpool will sink beneath the waves to the idea that we will use the wells for nuclear waste."

Egan, who in a previous job was once stranded in the desert between Tripoli and Benghazi, was recruited by Cuadrilla's chairman and significant financial backer, Lord Browne, last summer.

His first task was to repair the company's public image, which had been more than a little shaken by the Blackpool earthquake, allegations that Cuadrilla staff trespassed into back gardens to survey for gas and a series of bruising public meetings.

Less than a month after taking over, Egan was summoned to meet Charles Hendry, then the energy minister. Hendry told Egan and his team, including his predecessor Mark Miller (who is still with the company) and Lord Browne: "Fracking has now turned into a very controversial issue. The issue of seismic tremors has contributed to this, but the situation has got worse because of recent reports of badly managed community meetings, reports of trespass on people's land.

"These incidents only served to strengthen what was now becoming a national campaign [against fracking],"

Asked how he would improve the public perception of the company, Egan, echoing Tony Blair's famous 1997 election pledge, replied: "Communication, communication, communication."

The residents of Balcombe – who voted 82% against the drilling despite Egan promising them £100,000 for every well fracked if it goes ahead – say he isn't talking enough, and certainly isn't listening to their concerns.

Egan says the company has held several public meetings, and campaigner Louisa Delphy conceded that Egan did sit down and listen to her concerns for an hour at a recent drop-in session.

Ken Cronin, a friend of Egan and chief executive of UK Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG), which represents the shale gas industry, says Egan "tries his hardest to be cheerful" while doing a "very tough job, that I don't think everyone would want to do".

Egan, whose blood runs black and sticky after three decades in the oil industry at Marathon Oil and BHP Billiton, declined to speak to the Guardian for this article. His so-called crisis-PR representatives at Bell Pottinger, the corporate spinners famous for defending Trafigura over its dumping of toxic oil waste in the Ivory Coast, said he didn't have time and "could really do with a holiday".

Campaigners say if they do get the chance to meet Egan, his Bell Pottinger minders – some of whom operate from behind a Cuadrilla, rather than Bell Pottinger email address – are always in attendance.

Craig Bennett, director of policy and campaigns for Friends of the Earth, says Egan "seems like a perfectly pleasant person to go and have a drink with".

But he adds: "That's probably the image he wants to put across to us … There's always someone from Bell Pottinger with him."

Bennett says the size of the backlash in Balcombe has "absolutely shocked" Egan. "He's a man with a long history in the oil and gas industry. I've met a heck of a lot of people in oil and gas, they are so embedded in it they find it hard to understand why other people would have any problem with oil and gas.

"They talk about mitigating the impact on the environment, and have absolute faith they will be able to do it. He can make all the assurances he likes about mitigating the local impact, but the opposition will continue to grow."

Egan is at pains not to lock horns with Bennett's organisation: "It's hard to say you are opposed to Friends of the Earth," he said in another interview with the Daily Mail. "I mean, even the name makes that hard. Who isn't a friend of the Earth?"

But Bennett says it was clear from the moment he met Egan that he's never going to give up. Neither are the campaigners or the people of Balcombe. "There is going to be a fight," vows Bennett.

The Bell Pottinger gatekeepers say Egan is making every attempt to calm nerves. "Francis has regularly communicated with the local communities in both Lancashire and in Balcombe," they say. "He has written them letters informing them what is happening as well as attending information days held for the local communities. Additionally Cuadrilla has a community line to assist in answering questions from the public. Francis is a good communicator."

Except, apparently, when the tabloids turn up. Last week a Sunday People reporter arrived at Egan's Cheshire home in a digger and hard hat to cheekily ask to frack his garden (which is in an area of high shale concentration). Egan didn't answer the door, leaving Bell Pottinger to fire off an email instead:

"You appear to have pulled up outside Mr Egan's house with a digger," they wrote. "We were wondering what exactly you are proposing to do."

Name Francis Egan

Nickname Mr Frack

Born Ireland, 6 June, 1961

Education Ireland: BE civil degree, first class hons. Master of engineering science. Los Angeles: PhD student, California Institute of Technology. Warwick: MBA, Warwick University.

Home life Married, two children. Manchester United season ticket holder.

Career Eight years with Marathon Oil in engineering and commercial roles; BHP Billiton, including spells in London, Islamabad, Algiers, a Sahara production facility and Melbourne, then president of oil and gas production in Houston. Joined Cuadrilla July 2012.

He says 'By spreading misinformation and scare stories, without any credible, verified evidence, extremists deliberately alarm and frighten people They also seek to stifle debate and understanding.'

They say 'There is going to be a fight.'

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« Reply #610 on: Aug 12, 2013, 05:49 AM »

Poland Is Getting Fracked

By CleanTechnica
Sunday, August 11, 2013 11:43 EDT

Originally published on Gas2.

fracking-hellIn recent years, the fiercely independent people of Poland have found themselves caught up in the global hunt for natural resources. In this case, it’s natural gas, and the chemical fracking that companies are using to produce it is sending the country to “fracking hell”, according to the documentary film-makers at Journeyman Pictures.

In the US, unregulated fracking has been linked to cancer, water pollution, sinkholes, and even earthquakes and other “seismic events“. Poland, too, is facing these problems. Like their American counterparts, too, Polish farmers and landowners are being bullied to sell to crooked looters and “exploration services” companies.

In the words of one Polish farmer, one company threatened him with expropriation, fines, and “other things” if he maintained his unwillingness to sell and/or allow the exploration company to pull gas from his land.

It’s a nasty scene, and one that – to Americans – is all too familiar. You can check out the video for yourself, below.

Click to watch:

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« Reply #611 on: Aug 12, 2013, 06:41 AM »

Extinction of large animals could destroy soil fertility: study

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, August 11, 2013 14:43 EDT

The mass extinction of large animals in the Pleistocene era caused today’s dearth of soil nutrients, scientists said Sunday, and warned of further damage if modern giants like the elephant disappear.

The Pleistocene epoch, which dated from about 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago, saw large animals dubbed megafauna take over domination of the planet from extinct dinosaurs, only to die out en masse themselves.

During their peak, much of the world resembled a modern-day African savannah.

South America, for example, was teeming with five-tonne ground sloths, armadillo-like glyptodonts the size of a small car, and herds of elephant-like cuvieronius and stegomastodonts.

These megafauna, animals weighing more than 44 kilograms (97 pounds), played a key role in fertilising soil far away from the areas near rivers where they fed — ploughing the nutrients they consumed back into circulation through their dung or their decomposing bodies when they died.

Large animals ate much more and travelled further than small ones, and were mainly responsible for long-distance fertilisation, said a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

“Big animals are like the nutrient arteries of the planet and if they go extinct it is like severing these arteries,” co-author Chris Doughty of the University of Oxford’s Environment Change Institute told AFP.

“Because most of these animals went extinct the world has many more nutrient poor regions than it would have had.”

Using mathematical models, researchers estimated the megafauna extinction reduced the dispersal of key plant nutrient phosphorus in the Amazon basin by 98 percent, “with similar, though less extreme, decreases in all continents outside of Africa”, the only continent where modern humans co-evolved with megafauna.

Instead, the nutrients became concentrated near floodplains and other fertile areas.

The model used in the study will allow scientists to predict the effect of further extinctions, a fate the team said was “fast approaching many of the large animals that remain” today, mainly in Africa and Asia.

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« Reply #612 on: Aug 13, 2013, 07:19 AM »

Doctors warn of health consequences of NSW mine planning changes

Environmental lobby group says state government plan to put economic benefits first could result in unsafe air pollution

Bridie Jabour, Tuesday 13 August 2013 10.12 BST   

New South Wales's proposed changes to mine approvals would loosen air quality standards and could affect people's health, a doctors' environmental lobby group says.

Comments on proposed amendments to environmental planning policy by the NSW government closed on Monday after being made public a fortnight ago.

The changes proposed include emphasis on economic benefits of mines over social and environmental costs and changes to the way air pollution is measured.

Doctors for the Environment Australia, a group of medical doctors who focus on environmental policies, said they were alarmed that the changes could leave some towns with unsafe levels of air pollution.

The changes would allow mines to meet a yearly average of air quality rather than a daily average which a spokesman for the doctors' group, Dr Ben Ewald, said could mean some towns would experience air quality that put people's health at risk and that mining companies would not be penalised.

"It is like driving at 160km/h and being pulled over and saying, 'It's all right, the average speed per year is 20km/h and the car sits in the garage most of the time," Ewald said.

"The mining companies would be able to pollute as much as they like and still comply with the yearly average."

A consent authority would have to approve a mining project if it was "significant" to the state and met basic standards, with the most emphasis being placed on economic benefits.

In their submission, the doctors' group said positive economic benefits were outweighing social and environmental considerations.

"Mining may adversely affect other industries such as agriculture and tourism, and adverse impacts include both social and economic costs," the submission said.

"Therefore concentrating principally on expected economic benefits from mining, distorts decisions affecting communities in a way that is out of line with community expectations and good long-term management of resources."

The submission ends with the doctors strongly recommending the amendments be rejected and with a list of substantial modifications.

These include considering the cost of developing a resource when approving a mine; including damage to people's health and the environment in cost-benefit analysis and having a 24-hour air quality standard.

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« Reply #613 on: Aug 14, 2013, 06:36 AM »

August 13, 2013

Coal Mine Fight Embodies an Economic Struggle in Rural Australia


BULGA, Australia — Bulga, a hamlet nestled in the verdant hills of the wine country north of Sydney, is at the center of a legal dispute that could reshape the regulatory environment of a national economy heavily dependent on natural resource extraction.

On Wednesday, a court in the state of New South Wales is set to hear an appeal of a ruling this year that blocked the expansion of a nearby open-pit coal mine. The ruling was on a lawsuit brought by Bulga residents against the British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. The state is joining Rio in the appeal, which is being heard in the highest court in New South Wales.

At stake is not just the fate of the village of 300 people. The mining industry and other state governments will be watching the outcome closely as slowing growth in China, the chief consumer of Australian commodities, heightens anxieties over the country’s economy.

If the appeal succeeds, the mine expansion will proceed as approved by the state last year. If it fails, it could set a precedent that favors the environmental interests of local communities over the economic interests of state governments. That would upend a system that has traditionally given primacy to the interests of large mining companies.

“This is a wake-up call,” Leslie Krey, 66, said in an interview at her house near the Bulga town center.

“There’s got to be something other than mines,” said Ms. Krey, whose husband, John, is one of the leading opponents of expanding the mine.

In February 2012, the New South Wales planning authorities approved plans intended to extend the life of the Mount Thorley Warkworth Mine by more than a decade, to 2033. Those plans involved expanding the operation, owned by a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, onto land that Rio Tinto had pledged in 2003 as a permanent conservation zone to shield Bulga from the mine.

Bulga residents feared that the noise and dust from an expanded mine would irrevocably damage the environment and reduce home values that were already low. In addition, Saddle Ridge, a spiny natural buffer between the town and the mine, would be demolished. Also, a large section of the critically endangered Warkworth Sands Woodland would face eradication, the residents argued.

Many environmental studies were conducted, but no one, not even Rio, is disputing that the expansion would destroy the ridge and the woodland. Rio is asserting that the economic benefit outweighs the environmental impact and is offering to set aside land elsewhere. Graham Witherspoon, a spokesman for Rio, declined to comment on any environmental or financial impact the mine may have on the community.

A citizens’ group, the Bulga-Milbrodale Progress Association, filed a suit to stop the expansion, and in April, the state’s Land and Environment Court issued a ruling in the group’s favor, citing “negative social impacts on local community” and threats to its “sense of place.”

Now, Rio Tinto has taken the unusual step of asking the New South Wales court to entirely void the ruling, which was handed down by Judge Brian J. Preston. His ruling in April represented the first time the lower Land and Environment Court had ruled against an approved mining grant of this scope and scale, and it had the potential to significantly expand the court’s authority.

In a 2009 affidavit to the state’s Department of Planning, Rio Tinto argued that an expansion would give it access to an additional 163 million tons of coal over the lifetime of the mine. The decision to expand the mine, it said, was based on a sharp increase in the long-term average price of coal to $53 per ton in 2009, from $33 per ton when the 2003 grant was approved. The represents more than $8 billion in additional revenue for the company over the life of the mine.

Mining, whether for the high-quality thermal coal around Bulga — the kind used to fuel power plants — or the iron and gold in the country’s vast open west, is woven deeply into the fabric of rural Australia, where it provides many of the best-paying and most stable jobs. It has also been the engine powering a decade of robust economic growth that has largely spared the country from the effects of the global downturn.

Rio Tinto says that if the ruling is upheld, production at the mine will begin to slow next year, with the eventual loss of more than 1,300 jobs across the region, the Hunter Valley.

That prospect has unsettled many mineworkers, including several interviewed during a recent tour of the Mount Thorley complex, which looks like a network of vast dusty shelves scored crudely into the hills, descending in places into deep pits.

Although the mine’s environmental manager said the complex was home to a population of curious kangaroos, there was no sign of life beyond the huge Caterpillar trucks that crawled slowly along the tracks.

Jemma Callaghan, 37, drives one of those trucks. She moved to the Hunter Valley six years ago for a permanent position after the grind of rotating shifts as a driver in other states left her exhausted. Whatever sense of security she gained in the move, she said, has now evaporated.

“You’re thinking about this 24/7 — what am I going to be doing in six months’ time?” she said.

Wayne Dark, 54, said he had worked at the mine for more than 26 years and, like many others who are dependent on it, finds its potential shutdown almost impossible to fathom. “For a range of people to have committees and talk for years and years about this, and then it’s granted, and for one man to come along and go, ‘No, I’ve changed my mind,’ I just find that very hard to swallow,” he said.

But for longtime Bulga residents like Stewart Mitchell, those arguments miss the point. When Mr. Mitchell was young and Bulga was an even smaller town than it is today, the sound of just a single engine echoing around the valley near his family’s farm was enough to stir up excitement, he said.

“We used to run out onto the veranda when we heard a car coming,” Mr. Mitchell, 71, said over the evening din at Bulga’s only pub, the Cockfighter Creek Tavern. “Not anymore, of course.”

Today, a fleet of building-size vehicles rumbles noisily day and night, carting away the pulverized hills one load at a time in the search for coal and, residents say, blanketing the surrounding area with dust. From the vantage of a sloping hill where Melanie Caban’s family has lived for about 80 years, the trucks are clearly visible and audible. Like the others in town, Mrs. Caban has stories of sleepless nights connected to the mine, but she is hardly a partisan. Her husband works there.

The planned extension stretches in places to within about a mile of the town center — so close that Rio Tinto says it was obliged to buy at least two dozen houses that would have been too close to be inhabited safely. Her choice is perhaps as clear as anyone’s in Bulga.

“If they come any closer,” she said, “we’ll have to go.”

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« Reply #614 on: Aug 14, 2013, 07:58 AM »

August 13, 2013

Government Must Continue Review of Nevada Nuclear Waste Site, Court Says


WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was “flouting the law” when it stopped work on a review of the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, despite the Obama administration’s insistence that the site be shut down.

The 2-to-1 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit allows an increment of progress that could help push the project forward and was embraced by supporters of the Yucca site, the focus of a quarter-century-old fight.

In a strongly worded opinion, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote that “the president may not decline to follow a statutory mandate or prohibition simply because of policy objections.”

Judge Kavanaugh, who was largely supported by a second judge in the three-member panel, A. Raymond Randolph, added that “it is no overstatement to say that our constitutional system of separation of powers would be significantly altered if we were to allow executive and independent agencies to disregard federal law in the manner asserted in this case by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

Congress chose Yucca, a volcanic ridge, as a nuclear waste site in the 1980s, over the objections of the State of Nevada. President Obama, while still a candidate for president, promised to scuttle it.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader and a longtime opponent of the site, has in recent years prevented Congress from appropriating money for the project. But $11 million for review of the site remains on hand from earlier years, which Judge Kavanaugh said by law must be spent.

“Congress speaks through the laws it enacts,” Judge Kavanaugh wrote. “No law states that the commission should decline to spend previously appropriated funds.”

A third judge, Merrick B. Garland, dissented, and said the court was ordering the commission to “do a useless thing” because there was not enough money left to reach a conclusion about whether the site was suitable for nuclear waste.

At a news conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Mr. Reid dismissed the ruling. “With no disrespect to the court, this decision means nothing,” he said. “Yucca Mountain is an afterthought.”

Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the Energy Department submitted an application to build a repository at Yucca, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began to review. If the commission found the site to be adequate — which is still very much in question — the plan was for it to grant a license so construction on Yucca could begin.

Anticipating years of hearings, the commission built a courtroom in Las Vegas and a computer link to a hearing room in its headquarters in Rockville, Md.

But the Energy Department asked to withdraw its license application, and a previous commission chairman, Gregory B. Jazcko, a former aide to Mr. Reid, shut down the program. The Las Vegas courtroom was disassembled, as was a special computer network that would have provided access to the thousands of documents submitted in the case. Before the work stopped, the commission staff had completed most of the work on a first step in the review, a Safety Evaluation Report. A first volume of the report was published, but other volumes were published only as technical reports, with the conclusions removed.

A former head of the Energy Department’s civilian radioactive waste program, Lake Barrett, said in in a telephone interview on Tuesday that the $11 million would allow completion and publication of the Safety Evaluation Report — or, he said, it could be wasted by using the money “unpacking and repacking boxes” with files from the case.

The case was brought by the States of South Carolina and Washington, which have military wastes that could be buried at Yucca, and several other entities.

A commission spokesman said the agency had not decided whether to appeal.

The current head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Allison M. Macfarlane, a geologist, expressed strong reservations about the site before she was appointed, and once organized a conference of experts to look for better alternatives.

The appeals court’s decision comes after a bipartisan group of four senators introduced legislation to try to restart the search for a location for a nuclear waste repository.

Keith Chu, a spokesman for one of the four, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said in a statement on Tuesday that it was clear that the $11 million would not go very far, “which means the ball is still in Congress’s court when it comes to deciding the direction of U.S. nuclear waste policy.”
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