Greenpeace vows incarceration will not stop Arctic oil campaign
UK director says Russian action has inadvertently strengthened will to protest against drilling in the Arctic
The Guardian, Thursday 19 December 2013
Greenpeace will step up its campaign to confront oil companies working in the Arctic, but has not decided whether to attempt to board Russian oil platforms, again, its UK director said .
Speaking after it was announced that an amnesty approved by the Russian parliament would cover the Arctic 30 protesters, John Sauven said that the arrests had backfired spectacularly on the Russian authorities by creating an "iconic" campaign that had gained global attention.
There have been 860 protests in 46 countries, with more than 2.6 million people writing to embassies. Celebrities including Paul McCartney, Madonna, Jude Law and Ewan McGregor offered support as well as Nobel prize winners including Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Russia was also wrongfooted by the political support Greenpeace received from Angela Merkel, David Cameron, François Hollande, Ban Ki-moon and Hillary Clinton.
The campaigners' incarceration would not deter Greenpeace from campaigning on Arctic drilling. "Going to the Arctic is not going to change. That's certain. But we haven't thought 'what next'. We haven't thought through whether we should confront Gazprom or Russia again," Sauven said.
"There is a sense of fantastic relief at the Russian parliamentary amnesty. [But] we know we have not won. We haven't stopped oil companies industrialising the Arctic. We need to go back there. We have to bear witness and show the risks [to the environment]," he said.
"We have to end the age of oil, step up the campaign on the alternatives. Ultimately we need to remove the market for oil and end the age of oil."
Just as the French intelligence services inadvertently helped Greenpeace's cause when its agents sank the Rainbow Warrior in 1984 to prevent the ship from interfering with a nuclear test, so the storming of the Arctic Sunrise by 15 federal security service officers had helped make the world far more aware of what oil companies are doing in the Arctic, he said.
"The Russians have shot themselves in the foot by massively raising the profile of the campaign. There is huge new awareness of what is happening. Millions more people now know. The political leaders from 18 countries [which had Arctic 30 campaigners] had to engage with Russia over it. The idea that these oil companies will go up to the Arctic now in secret is no longer the case."
The 21 judges sitting at the international tribunal for the law of the sea convention may have provided the knock-out blow, voting 19-2 in favour of Greenpeace last month. "The convention [on the law of the sea] is the same one that Russia has used to claim much of the Arctic. They could not be seen to accept some parts of it but not others," Sauven said.
The group intends to campaign more in Russia. "Russia has not been favourable to Greenpeace in the past. But we have had a lot of airtime in the last few months. The Russian public is much more aware. We have got to find ways to develop this and connect with the Russian public," he said.
"Half the oil spills in the world happen in Russia. But if you look at the opinion polls, people there want to protect the Arctic. People understand the history of the Soviet Union is one of environmental destruction."
He said the focus of Greenpeace's Arctic campaign may now switch to Shell, Exxon and other large oil companies planning to work in the Arctic. "Things are changing. Oil companies are beginning to see some of the risks. Investors are getting worried. Shell alone has spent billions and got nothing from it. It costs more and more to go to these hostile environments."
12/19/2013 04:55 PM
Dead Sea: Environmentalists Question Pipeline Rescue Plan
By Julia Amalia Heyer and Samiha Shafy
An "historic" agreement between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians is supposed to save the shrinking Dead Sea. But some environmentalists believe the plan to pump water from the Red Sea could do the salt lake more harm than good.
Even as it shrinks in size, the Dead Sea, a turquoise blue shimmering salt lake, remains a mystical place. Boat jetties jut out into nothingness, abandoned as the water has retreated further and further; each year the level dropping by a meter. The Dead Sea is dwindling to nothing, deprived of water by humans.
Where there once was water, there is now a crumbling coastline, which is already riddled with deep craters that can open up suddenly. Nonetheless, the lake's withered beauty still attracts many to its shores.
The only question is, for how long?
The Dead Sea is now set to be saved -- but the plans of its self-appointed savior may actually turn out to be more like euthanasia.
Last week, Israeli Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, together with his Jordanian and Palestinian counterparts, agreed to a joint project which, it was solemnly declared, would prevent the Dead Sea from drying out. At the same time, what Shalom described as an "historic agreement" would secure water supplies for the notoriously arid region -- and send a signal of international understanding in the Middle East.
Nothing But a Waste
But numerous environmentalists and the 20 Palestinian NGOs who spoke out in advance against the project argue that the acclaimed agreement is nothing but a waste.
The plan is to build a desalination plant in the Jordanian city of Aqaba on the Red Sea, which will then supply both the neighboring Israeli city of Eilat and southern Jordan with fresh water. The brine that is created in the desalination process will be pumped 180 kilometers through a pipeline to the Dead Sea.
Will this stop the Dead Sea from shrinking?
"Nonsense," says Gidon Bromberg simply. As director of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East, the Israeli lawyer has been involved with issues surrounding the Dead Sea for more than a decade.
What is taking place, Bromberg says, is not a ground-breaking project to save the lake, but simply a water exchange. Israel and Jordan want to build up their water supplies, and the supposedly economically-friendly rescue action is an excellent way to attract international money to do so.
Catastrophic Ecological Consequences
Bromberg is not the only one who thinks like this, primarily because the 200 million cubic meters of brine set to be pumped into the Dead Sea by 2017 at the earliest only make up about 10 percent of the water needed to halt the lake's retreat.
"The amount of water is not sufficient," says hydrogeologist Christian Siebert from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in the German city of Halle, who is investigating how the decline of the water level in the Dead Sea is affecting aquifers in the region. "And the environmental consequences are not foreseeable."
What worries Siebert and environmentalists is the question of what will happen when mixing seawater and lake water.
Experiments carried out by Israeli microbiologists on behalf of the Geological Survey of Israel show that the transfusion of water from the Red Sea could have catastrophic ecological consequences for the Dead Sea. They could include: an uncontrolled growth of red or green algae; the proliferation of bacteria; the lake turning a rusty red color; and the formation of white gypsum crystals on the water's surface.
"The lake would be completely cloudy," says hydrogeologist Siebert. It would also be possible that the water from the Red Sea would not mix properly with the water from the Dead Sea because of different densities, but would rather form layers. In the worst case scenario, according to Siebert, microorganisms could establish themselves and convert the gypsum into noxious, putrid, stinking hydrogen sulfide.
The brine produced as the product of desalination is also usually contaminated with chemicals and copper.
Until now, people with skin conditions have been drawn to the Dead Sea because of the healing power of its waters. But who wants to bathe in a foul-smelling lake full of chemical waste?
Siebert and Bromberg agree that anyone wanting to save the Dead Sea must first save the Jordan River. It once supplied the salt lake with its water; now the flow has almost completely dried up. The river, which plays a prominent role in the Bible, is today just a miserable, dirty little trickle.
Water As a Weapon
An incredible 98 percent of the Jordan River's water is diverted by bordering countries, and more than half of that by Israel. Until two years ago, Syria and Jordan shared the rest; the Syrians have now largely been left out in the cold due to the country's civil war. The Palestinians claim about 5 percent.
To restore the river, Israel and Jordan would have to do without one-third of its water. It's a tall order in a region where water is also always a weapon, an instrument of power.
Bromberg, therefore, has a different solution in mind, namely that the chemical companies on the shores of the Dead Sea, and especially the Israeli Dead Sea Works Company and the Jordanian Arab Potash Company, must finally relinquish some of the millions they make selling salts and other minerals.
In order to produce these substances, the firms allow water to evaporate from the salt lake in massive quantities. For this precious water, they pay nothing.
Translated from the German by David Knight.
Scientists cut million-year natural process to convert algae into crude oil to about an hour
By Travis Gettys
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 9:11 EST
Engineers have sped up a naturally occurring process to make crude oil from algae from about a million years to just minutes.
Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory pumped a slurry of wet algae into a chemical reactor, which then subjects the biological material to very hot water under high pressure to tear it apart and convert it into liquid and gas fuels.
The resulting crude oil can then be conventionally refined into aviation fuel, gasoline or diesel fuel, the researchers reported in the journal Algal Research.
The team’s experiments converted more than 50 percent of the algae’s carbon into crude oil, sometimes up to 70 percent, in about one hour and created nothing more hazardous than an odor of dirty socks, rotten eggs and wood smoke from the processed biological material.
In fact, the leftover water and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium can be recycled to grow more algae.
Algae has long been considered a potential source of biofuel and has been produced by several companies on a research scale, but the fuel was projected to be prohibitively expensive.
However, the recently developed technology uses a number of methods to reduce costs and has been licensed by the Utah-based Genifuel Corp., which is building a pilot plant with an industrial partner.
The process works an algae slurry that contains up to 90 percent water, unlike most current processes that used dried algae, and cuts costs significantly by eliminating the need for time and energy used to dry out the biomaterial.
“Not having to dry the algae is a big win in this process; that cuts the cost a great deal,” said Douglas Elliott, who led the PNNL research team. “Then there are bonuses, like being able to extract usable gas from the water and then recycle the remaining water and nutrients to help grow more algae, which further reduces costs.”
Other groups have tested similar processes, but most of that work was done one batch at a time.
The PNNL system runs continuously and processes about 1.5 liters of algae slurry per hour in the laboratory reactor, and scientists think this can be accomplished on a commercial scale.
The method also eliminates the need for complex processing with solvents such as hexane to extract energy-rich oils from the algae.
The system runs at more than 660 degrees Fahrenheit at about 3,000 pounds per square inch, combining processes known as hydrothermal liquefaction and catalytic hydrothermal gasification.
The system isn’t easy or cheap to build, but Elliott said cost savings later in the process justified the investment.
“It’s a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher,” Elliott said. “In a sense, we are duplicating the process in the Earth that converted algae into oil over the course of millions of years. We’re just doing it much, much faster.”
Oil industry 'devastating' for Amazon communities, warns UN rapporteur
James Anaya says oil companies have affected health and food sources of indigineous people in the Peruvian rainforest
Dan Collyns in Lima
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 17.11 GMT
Indigenous people in Peru have suffered "devastating consequences" as a result of extractive industries in the Amazon rainforest, according to the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights.
During a week-long trip to the country, James Anaya visited indigenous communities in Loreto, an Amazon region which has been heavily contaminated over the last 40 years by oil companies. In particular he visited an oil concession known as Block 192 (formerly Block 1AB).
"I have been able to personally confirm the serious environmental problems that exist in this zone due to the oil industry," Anaya said. "This includes the contamination of the body of waters and the soil used by the indigenous people in this region, which has affected their food sources and their health."
Last month, Peru's environmental regulator OEFA fined Argentine oil and gas company Pluspetrol $7.2m (£4.4m) for contaminating a lake to such an extent that it effectively disappeared. It said the company caused irrecoverable ecological loss to the Shanshacocha lake and had failed to report the incident.
Pluspetrol blamed the contamination on the previous operators, Occidental Petroleum. The company owes millions of dollars in unpaid fines and, in March, sparked an environmental emergency in the same northern Amazon region.
“An example of the various negative experiences of natural resources in Peru is the situation of indigenous people in the Pastaza, Tigre, Corrientes and Marañon river basins,” Anaya said. “These people, for more than four decades, have been affected by oil exploitation in Block 1-AB.”
He called on the Peruvian government and Pluspetrol to increase environmental remediation efforts and said the indigenous people in the area should be compensated for the decades of environmental contamination.
“The indigenous leaders repeatedly made clear to me that they do not oppose development, but that the development must be in keeping with their rights, including their rights over their lands, natural resources and their own aspirations and priorities for development,” he added.
Conflicts over natural resources are common in Peru. Anaya last visited the country in 2009 following the violent clashes in Bagua in which more than 30 police officers and indigenous protesters were killed.
The special rapporteur said since then progress had been made with the congressional approval of law on the prior consultation of indigenous peoples in 2011, but its implementation had been slow and it was unclear if it would help resolve disputes.
Anaya said decades of suffering the negative impact of extractive industries had caused a “deterioration of relations between indigenous people and the state that still needs to be overcome.”
“The challenge now is to ensure that prior consultation is implemented according to the relevant international standards,” he said.
He also urged the Peruvian state to act with “extreme caution” in the proposed extension of Block 88, part of the Camisea gas fields, which already overlaps the Nahua-Kugapakori indigenous reserve, where nomadic groups live in a situation of "voluntary isolation and initial contact".
Australia approves $5.7 billion coal project despite criticism
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 20, 2013 23:22 EST
Waratah Coal on Saturday welcomed the Australian government’s approval of its $6.4 billion (US$5.7 billion) Galilee coal project, as conservationists warned the decision threatened the environment.
The proposed coal mine, rail and infrastructure development in Queensland received approval for its environmental impact statement on Friday.
“The project has been approved subject to 49 strict conditions to avoid, mitigate and manage impacts to matters of national environmental significance, including water resources,” the government said.
Brisbane-based Waratah Coal, which is owned by one of Australia’s richest men and new federal politician Clive Palmer, plans to build a thermal coal mine in the Galilee Basin coal region.
The mine will be linked to a proposed coal terminal at Abbot Point by a new 453-kilometre (283-mile) railway line, and Waratah said the entire project would create thousands of jobs.
“The reality is the project will create jobs to a total of about 6,000 jobs all up — being the mine, the rail and the port,” managing director Nui Harris told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
But environmentalists have criticised the decision, which follows the green light for a major coal port expansion on the deep-water Abbot Point development in north Queensland last week which also drew criticism.
The Australian Greens said the approval of the Palmer’s coal mine in the Galilee Basin, announced along with the approval of the Surat Gas Expansion also in Queensland, threatened the climate, the Great Barrier Reef, groundwater and biodiversity.
Queensland Senator Larissa Waters said the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott had “snuck out two devastating decisions for the environment very late on the Friday before Christmas”.
“With Tony Abbott’s blessing, Clive Palmer’s mine is set to worsen climate change, use the Great Barrier Reef as a shipping highway, clear fell the last remnant woodland in the region and push a precious endangered finch closer to extinction,” she said.
The 49 conditions imposed by the government include limits on the total area of habitat for listed threatened species and the 8,000-hectare Bimblebox Nature Refuge that can be disturbed by the project.
But Waters said the proposed mine was “simply enormous”.
“The last thing that the world needs is more coal mines and this one for Clive Palmer is right in the middle of the last bit of the remnant woodland left in the Galilee Basin,” she told the ABC.
Waratah hopes to produce about 40 million tonnes a year of thermal coal from the Galilee “China First” project.
Why outer space really is the final frontier for capitalismThe private sector is far more timid than it appears, so if we want to mine the untold riches of the moon, international socialism must step in
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 11.45 GMT
Such is the state of advanced capitalism: we can't pay our bills, but China's on the moon. In fairness, the Chinese government is doing humanity a favour.
The race to populate space has been staggeringly slow, and the idea that someone would finally think to scan below the moon's surface for precious minerals is rather moving. For so long, the moon had appeared to us as merely a dull, lifeless wodge of dust and space-shit. To think of it as being radiantly packed with precious minerals is actually quite romantic. One can imagine poems being written about it.
It gets better. Apparently, the substance sought is helium-3, an isotope of the element that could potentially replace oil and gas as our energy generators. Not only is the moon redeemed, but the earth is saved.
It takes a lot to make this cynic weep, but I'm seriously waxing lachrymose now.
The question is, why haven't the moon's resources been thoroughly plundered by now? Why hasn't it provided us with the energy necessary to colonise the rest of space? I'll tell you why: it's because capitalism is weak and timid.
In principle, it shouldn't be this way. Capitalism, said Rosa Luxemburg, always needs a periphery. There needs to be a non-capitalist outside to appropriate – new land, new resources, to provide profitable investment opportunities. Whether it takes the form of colonisation, privatising public goods, turfing peasants off their lands or creating "intellectual property", there is a need to accumulate beyond the existing realm of capitalist property relations.
The geographer David Harvey points out that the world capitalist system needs to find $1.5tn profitable investment opportunities today in order to keep growing at its historical average of 3% a year. In 20 years' time, it will need to find $3tn.
The effects of this are complex. On the one hand, such production places a tremendous burden on the planet and risks making large parts of it uninhabitable and extinguishing a great deal of life. Further, this production both exploits workers and becomes imbricated with all manner of brutality – consider the relationship between coltan production and war in the Congo. On the other hand, well: tablets, smartphones, DVD players, advanced sex toys that do something other than just buzz, cars that don't smell like foot disease, an abundance of stuff that makes life easier and more interesting.
The problem with capitalism, though, is that it's actually staggeringly timid in some respects. For all that the Communist Manifesto breathlessly extolled the revolutionary spirit of capital – "constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions … all that is solid melts into air" – businesses are really quite conservative. They aren't going to invest unless they're reasonably sure of a profit, even if the result is sluggish growth and flatlining innovation.
This is why, as Mariana Mazzucato points out,it falls to states to undertake the risky investments that pay off in the technology that makes, for example, iPhones possible. Of course, capitalist states do a great deal else to overcome the inertia of the system, from war to violent enclosures. It doesn't do to idealise the state. The point here is that, if it were left to private sector enterprise, we would never have seen a human foot touch down on the moon's surface.
Of course, under capitalism the state's ability to explore the unknown is limited by its priority of making things work for business, or developing a greater war machine. States don't need an immediate return on investment, but if they're to justify taxing profits, they need to demonstrate some sort of plausible return. Hence, there's always more money for military arsenals than spaceships. We could be holidaying on Mars, but some people would rather bomb Afghanistan. Put that on a placard.
However, as Leigh Phillips explains, even the limited exploration of space thus far has produced unexpected bounties for the Earth-bound: cooling suits used by nuclear reactor technicians, dialysis technology, running shoes, water purification, housing insulation, food preservation, fire retardants and so on. And even if it didn't provide all these spin-offs, human curiosity is an end in itself. So what if we don't find the aliens who have been kidnapping drunk rednecks and plumbing their lower intestines? We'll find precious mineral ore on an asteroid, and that's more than enough.
So, this is what we need. First, international socialism. And to paraphrase Lenin, socialism = soviet power + interstellar travel. Don't ask me how we get that, we just need it as a precondition for everything else. Second, an international space exploration programme, funded with the express purpose of adding to the sum of stuff and human knowledge. Third, a popular space tourism programme. We have to be careful with this. The last thing anyone wants to see is a conga line of pot-bellied fortysomethings drinking Red Stripe on Jupiter. But hopefully socialism will elevate the culture. Finally, a publicly funded cryogenics programme now for everyone who wants to live to see this day.
Is that really too much to ask?
Former BP geologist: Peak oil is here and it will ‘break economies’
By Nafeez Ahmed, The Guardian
Monday, December 23, 2013 8:01 EST
Industry expert warns of grim future of ‘recession’ driven ‘resource wars’ at University College London lecture
A former British Petroleum (BP) geologist has warned that the age of cheap oil is long gone, bringing with it the danger of “continuous recession” and increased risk of conflict and hunger.
At a lecture on ‘Geohazards’ earlier this month as part of the postgraduate Natural Hazards for Insurers course at University College London (UCL), Dr. Richard G. Miller, who worked for BP from 1985 before retiring in 2008, said that official data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), US Energy Information Administration (EIA), International Monetary Fund (IMF), among other sources, showed that conventional oil had most likely peaked around 2008.
Dr. Miller critiqued the official industry line that global reserves will last 53 years at current rates of consumption, pointing out that “peaking is the result of declining production rates, not declining reserves.” Despite new discoveries and increasing reliance on unconventional oil and gas, 37 countries are already post-peak, and global oil production is declining at about 4.1% per year, or 3.5 million barrels a day (b/d) per year:
“We need new production equal to a new Saudi Arabia every 3 to 4 years to maintain and grow supply… New discoveries have not matched consumption since 1986. We are drawing down on our reserves, even though reserves are apparently climbing every year. Reserves are growing due to better technology in old fields, raising the amount we can recover – but production is still falling at 4.1% p.a. [per annum].”
Dr. Miller, who prepared annual in-house projections of future oil supply for BP from 2000 to 2007, refers to this as the “ATM problem” – “more money, but still limited daily withdrawals.” As a consequence: “Production of conventional liquid oil has been flat since 2008. Growth in liquid supply since then has been largely of natural gas liquids [NGL]- ethane, propane, butane, pentane – and oil-sand bitumen.”
Dr. Miller is co-editor of a special edition of the prestigious journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, published this month on the future of oil supply. In an introductory paper co-authored with Dr. Steve R. Sorrel, co-director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex in Brighton, they argue that among oil industry experts “there is a growing consensus that the era of cheap oil has passed and that we are entering a new and very different phase.” They endorse the conservative conclusions of an extensive earlier study by the government-funded UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC):
“… a sustained decline in global conventional production appears probable before 2030 and there is significant risk of this beginning before 2020… on current evidence the inclusion of tight oil [shale oil] resources appears unlikely to significantly affect this conclusion, partly because the resource base appears relatively modest.”
In fact, increasing dependence on shale could worsen decline rates in the long run:
“Greater reliance upon tight oil resources produced using hydraulic fracturing will exacerbate any rising trend in global average decline rates, since these wells have no plateau and decline extremely fast – for example, by 90% or more in the first 5 years.”
Tar sands will fare similarly, they conclude, noting that “the Canadian oil sands will deliver only 5 mb per day by 2030, which represents less than 6% of the IEA projection of all-liquids production by that date.”
Despite the cautious projection of global peak oil “before 2020″, they also point out that:
“Crude oil production grew at approximately 1.5% per year between 1995 and 2005, but then plateaued with more recent increases in liquids supply largely deriving from NGLs, oil sands and tight oil. These trends are expected to continue… Crude oil production is heavily concentrated in a small number of countries and a small number of giant fields, with approximately 100 fields producing one half of global supply, 25 producing one quarter and a single field (Ghawar in Saudi Arabia) producing approximately 7%. Most of these giant fields are relatively old, many are well past their peak of production, most of the rest seem likely to enter decline within the next decade or so and few new giant fields are expected to be found.”
“The final peak is going to be decided by the price – how much can we afford to pay?”, Dr. Miller told me in an interview about his work. “If we can afford to pay $150 per barrel, we could certainly produce more given a few years of lead time for new developments, but it would break economies again.”
Miller argues that for all intents and purposes, peak oil has arrived as conditions are such that despite volatility, prices can never return to pre-2004 levels:
“The oil price has risen almost continuously since 2004 to date, starting at $30. There was a great spike to $150 and then a collapse in 2008/2009, but it has since climbed to $110 and held there. The price rise brought a lot of new exploration and development, but these new fields have not actually increased production by very much, due to the decline of older fields. This is compatible with the idea that we are pretty much at peak today. This recession is what peak feels like.”
Although he is dismissive of shale oil and gas’ capacity to prevent a peak and subsequent long decline in global oil production, Miller recognises that there is still some leeway that could bring significant, if temporary dividends for US economic growth – though only as “a relatively short-lived phenomenon”:
“We’re like a cage of lab rats that have eaten all the cornflakes and discovered that you can eat the cardboard packets too. Yes, we can, but… Tight oil may reach 5 or even 6 million b/d in the US, which will hugely help the US economy, along with shale gas. Shale resources, though, are inappropriate for more densely populated countries like the UK, because the industrialisation of the countryside affects far more people (with far less access to alternative natural space), and the economic benefits are spread more thinly across more people. Tight oil production in the US is likely to peak before 2020. There absolutely will not be enough tight oil production to replace the US’ current 9 million b/d of imports.”
In turn, by prolonging global economic recession, high oil prices may reduce demand. Peak demand in turn may maintain a longer undulating oil production plateau:
“We are probably in peak oil today, or at least in the foot-hills. Production could rise a little for a few years yet, but not sufficiently to bring the price down; alternatively, continuous recession in much of the world may keep demand essentially flat for years at the $110/bbl price we have today. But we can’t grow the supply at average past rates of about 1.5% per year at today’s prices.”
The fundamental dependence of global economic growth on cheap oil supplies suggests that as we continue into the age of expensive oil and gas, without appropriate efforts to mitigate the impacts and transition to a new energy system, the world faces a future of economic and geopolitical turbulence:
“In the US, high oil prices correlate with recessions, although not all recessions correlate with high oil prices. It does not prove causation, but it is highly likely that when the US pays more than 4% of its GDP for oil, or more than 10% of GDP for primary energy, the economy declines as money is sucked into buying fuel instead of other goods and services… A shortage of oil will affect everything in the economy. I expect more famine, more drought, more resource wars and a steady inflation in the energy cost of all commodities.”
According to another study in the Royal Society journal special edition by professor David J. Murphy of Northern Illinois University, an expert in the role of energy in economic growth, the energy return on investment (EROI) for global oil and gas production – the amount of energy produced compared to the amount of energy invested to get, deliver and use that energy – is roughly 15 and declining. For the US, EROI of oil and gas production is 11 and declining; and for unconventional oil and biofuels is largely less than 10. The problem is that as EROI decreases, energy prices increase. Thus, Murphy concludes:
“… the minimum oil price needed to increase the oil supply in the near term is at levels consistent with levels that have induced past economic recessions. From these points, I conclude that, as the EROI of the average barrel of oil declines, long-term economic growth will become harder to achieve and come at an increasingly higher financial, energetic and environmental cost.”
Current EROI in the US, Miller said, is simply “not enough to support the US infrastructure, even if America was self-sufficient, without raising production even further than current consumption.”
In their introduction to their collection of papers in the Royal Society journal, Miller and Sorrell point out that “most authors” in the special edition “accept that conventional oil resources are at an advanced stage of depletion and that liquid fuels will become more expensive and increasingly scarce.” The shale revolution can provide only “short-term relief”, but is otherwise “unlikely to make a significant difference in the longer term.”
They call for a “coordinated response” to this challenge to mitigate the impact, including “far-reaching changes in global transport systems.” While “climate-friendly solutions to ‘peak oil’ are available” they caution, these will be neither “easy” nor “quick”, and imply a model of economic development that accepts lower levels of consumption and mobility.
In his interview with me, Richard Miller was particularly critical of the UK government’s policies, including abandoning large-scale wind farm projects, the reduction of feed-in tariffs for renewable energy, and support for shale gas. “The government will do anything for the short-term economic bounce,” he said, “but the consequence will be that the UK is tied more tightly to an oil-based future, and we will pay dearly for it.”
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Dramatic decline in industrial agriculture could herald ‘peak food’
By Nafeez Ahmed, The Guardian
Saturday, December 21, 2013 9:19 EST
Most conventional yield projection models are oblivious to the real world say US researchers
Industrial agriculture could be hitting fundamental limits in its capacity to produce sufficient crops to feed an expanding global population according to new research published in Nature Communications.
The study by scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln argues that there have been abrupt declines or plateaus in the rate of production of major crops which undermine optimistic projections of constantly increasing crop yields. As much as “31% of total global rice, wheat and maize production” has experienced “yield plateaus or abrupt decreases in yield gain, including rice in eastern Asia and wheat in northwest Europe.”
The declines and plateaus in production have become prevalent despite increasing investment in agriculture, which could mean that maximum potential yields under the industrial model of agribusiness have already occurred. Crop yields in “major cereal-producing regions have not increased for long periods of time following an earlier period of steady linear increase.”
The paper makes for ominous reading. Production levels have already flattened out with “no case of a return to the previous rising yield trend” for key regions amounting to “33% of global rice and 27% of global wheat production.” The US researchers concluded that these yield plateaus could be explained by the inference that “average farm yields approach a biophysical yield ceiling for the crop in question, which is determined by its yield potential in the regions where the crop is produced.” They wrote:
“… we found widespread deceleration in the relative rate of increase of average yields of the major cereal crops during the 1990–2010 period in countries with greatest production of these crops, and strong evidence of yield plateaus or an abrupt drop in rate of yield gain in 44% of the cases, which, together, account for 31% of total global rice, wheat and maize production.”
Past trends over the last five decades of perpetually increasing crop yields were “driven by rapid adoption of green revolution technologies that were largely one-time innovations” which cannot be repeated. These include major industrial innovations such as “the development of semi-dwarf wheat and rice varieties, first widespread use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides, and large investments to expand irrigation infrastructure.”
Although agricultural investment in China increased threefold from 1981 to 2000, rates of increase for wheat yields have remained constant, decreased by 64% for maize and are negligible in rice. Similarly, the rate of maize yield has remained largely flat despite a 58% investment increased over the same period. The study warns:
“A concern is that despite the increase in investment in agricultural R&D and education during this period, the relative rate of yield gain for the major food crops has decreased over time together with evidence of upper yield plateaus in some of the most productive domains.”
The study criticises most other yield projection models which predict compound or exponential production increases over coming years and decades, even though these “do not occur in the real world.” It notes that “such growth rates are not feasible over the long term because average farm yields eventually approach a yield potential ceiling determined by biophysical limits on crop growth rates and yield.”
Factors contributing to the declines or plateaus in food production rates include land and soil degradation, climate change and cyclical weather patterns, use of fertilisers and pesticides, and inadequate or inappropriate investment.
The new research raises critical questions about the capacity of traditional industrial agricultural methods to sustain global food production for a growing world population. Food production will need to increase by about 60% by 2050 to meet demand.
A report out this month from the Dutch bank Rabobank recommends cutting food waste by 10%, as over 1 billion tonnes – half of which is related to agriculture – ends up being wasted. More efficient use of water is necessary, the report says, such as micro-irrigation, to address a potential water supply deficit of 40% by 2030. Currently, agriculture accounts for 70% of global water demand. The report also calls for a reduction in dependence on fertilisers using ‘input optimisation’ methods designed to reduce the amount of energy and water required. As 53% of fertiliser nutrients remain in the ground post-harvest, fertilisers contribute to soil degradation over time due to groundwater contamination, leaching, erosion and global warming.
The Rabobank obsession with focusing on improvement of existing industrial methods – without quite grasping the scale of the problems facing industrial agriculture – is, however, a serious deficiency. Two years ago, a landmark report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food demonstrated that agroecology based on sustainable, small-scale, organic methods could potentially double food production in entire regions facing persistent hunger, over five to 10 years.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Madagascar's forests vanish to feed taste for rosewood in west and China
As political instability since the 2009 coup revives the illegal logging trade, precious bois de rose trees are now hard to find
Tamasin Ford in Cap Est
The Guardian, Monday 23 December 2013 17.39 GMT
Blood-red sawdust coats every surface in the small carpentry workshop, where Primo Jean Besy is at the lathe fashioning vases out of ruby-coloured logs.
Besy and his father are small-scale carpenters in Antalaha in north-east Madagascar, and are taking advantage of a recent resurgence in demand for wood from the bois de rose tree, prized for the extraordinary coloured streaks that weave through its centre.
"It's easy to sell because the wood is so famous," said Besy, whose skin glistens with red powder. "People from [the capital] Antananarivo come here [to buy goods]. They like it because they can sell it to foreigners."
The father and son pair are just the tip of the booming trade in bois de rose, one of the world's rarest trees, even though the logging and export of rosewood from Madagascar is banned.
The wood is being smuggled out of Madagascar at an alarming rate, said Randrianasolo Eliahevitra, regional director of the church-based development organisation SAF/FJKM."People are afraid to talk [about who is behind the smuggling]," said Eliahevitra, adding that he feared for his life if he named any of those responsible.
He said continuing political instability in Madagascar, a country reeling in poverty after four years of military rule and crippling economic sanctions, allowed the multimillion-dollar industry to flourish.
"At this time we don't have yet a legal government, so everyone is taking advantage of the situation and they are doing what they want," Eliahevitra said.
In the village of Cap Est, a nine-hour journey from Antalaha along a sandy coastal track interrupted by wide rivers, which motorbikes and 4x4s have to cross by precariously straddling canoes, residents say the once tiny fishing community is almost unrecognisable. Deep muddy troughs made by the constant convoys of pick-up trucks line the sandy path that cuts through the smattering of small wooden houses; crates of beer, sacks of rice and mattresses stream in on a daily basis.
Anita, 22, who is too afraid to give her real name, moved here two months ago. "It's all because of the bois de rose," she said, sitting in front of a table laden with cigarettes, bottles of beer and batteries that she sells. Cap Est has become the unofficial smuggling capital, and thousands of people have descended on the village to take advantage of trading opportunities. "Business is booming here," said Anita.
It is not hard to find men who have recently come back from bois de rose foraging expeditions in the forests.
"After I found out how much money you can get, that's when I started logging," said Randeen, 22, who also did not want to give his full name. He joined a logging team in April. He said he had to walk for two days deep into the forest before even seeing one tree big enough to cut, claiming there are at least "1,000 men" doing the same thing.
Jam Lamouche, 34, has been in the bois de rose trade for more than 10 years, and employs 20 loggers. "From October, the business has boomed," he said, explaining each man gets 3,000 Malagasy ariary (£0.81) for every kilo of wood they log, while he gets 2,000 ariary. "Yes, we are making money," he said with a smile.
Lorries weighed down with rosewood logs make their way to the port day and night, where they are loaded on to boats in full public view. "The final destination is China," claimed Guy Suzon Ramangason, director general of Madagascar National Parks (MNP), the state body tasked with managing the country's protected areas. He said the government was aware of the problem but had failed to intervene, allowing the illicit industry to flourish.
"There is a network of mafiosi of bois de rose," he said. "Money in this type of network is very, very powerful." He said the wood was first shipped to intermediary countries, where false papers were drawn up legalising the cargo. "But we have no proof," he added.
The illegal logging and smuggling of bois de rose in the Masoala and Marojejy national parks in the country's north-east exploded after the coup in 2009. An investigation by two non-governmental organisations, Global Witness and the Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency, documented the illegal harvesting and trafficking of the wood, destined mainly for China. In addition, the US guitar manufacturer Gibson reached a settlement over claims it had used illegally sourced Madagascan bois de rose.
The transitional government reinstated a ban in early 2010 and all seemingly went quiet until the runup to the first round of presidential elections this October, when rumours spread of a bois de rose revival. An internal MNP report documenting the movement of bois de rose for November concluded that trafficking had almost returned to 2009 levels.
Mamonjy Ramamonjisoa, from the ministry of environment and forests in Antalaha, said everyone knew what was going on but "they close their mouths and they close their eyes". But while carpenters, loggers and smugglers are profiting, the precious bois de rose is rapidly vanishing from the island.
In 2009, up to £300,000 worth of bois de rose was being shipped out of Madagascar each day. There are no figures for the levels it has reached today but Ramangason said that from what he had heard, it was "worse than in 2009".
"If we don't take measures to reduce this phenomenon then maybe after 20-25 years it will be disastrous," said SAF/FJKM's Eliahevitra.
Additional reporting by Iloniaina Alain Rakotondravony
Conservatives Donate $1 Billion To Climate Denying Groups Per Year
By Kiley Kroh.
Organizations that actively block efforts to address climate change are funded by a large network of conservative donors to the tune of nearly $1 billion a year, according to the first in-depth study into the dark money that fuels the denial effort.
The study, published Friday in the journal Climatic Change, analyzed the income of 91 think tanks, advocacy groups, and industry associations, funded by 140 different foundations, that work to oppose action on climate change. The study’s author, Robert Brulle, refers to these organizations as the climate change counter-movement, and concludes that their outsized influence “has not only played a major role in confounding public understanding of climate science, but also successfully delayed meaningful government policy actions to address the issue.”
“It is not just a couple of rogue individuals doing this,” Brulle told the Guardian. “This is a large-scale political effort.”
From 2003 to 2010, the organizations had a total income of more than $7 billion, averaging out to over $900 million per year. Over the eight year span, their funding has increased by 13 percent and in 2010, total funding for the organizations was nearly $1.2 billion. An important caveat, as Brulle notes, is that many of the organizations are multi-purpose, so not all of the income was devoted to anti-climate change initiatives.
Brulle defines the climate change counter-movement as the organized effort to prevent policies that will limit the carbon pollution emissions that drive man-made climate change. Their efforts cover a range of activities, from lobbying to political contributions to media campaigns that attempt to discredit the scientific consensus around global warming.
The 91 groups include trade associations, think tanks, and advocacy organizations. The vast majority of the groups — 78 percent — were registered as charitable organizations and enjoyed considerable tax breaks.
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation, two of the best-known conservative think tanks in the U.S., were also among the top recipients of funding. AEI received 16 percent of the total grants that were made to organizations active in the climate change counter-movement and Heritage was close behind, receiving 14 percent of total grants.
The largest and most consistent funders of organizations leading the charge on climate change denial are a number of well-known conservative foundations, such as the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation.
A key shift Brulle uncovered is that traditionally high-profile funders of climate denial, such as the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil, have moved away from publicly funding organizations that oppose action on climate change. The single-largest funders are the combined foundations Donors Trust/Donors Capital Fund, providing more than $78 million in funding to the groups over the eight year span. These donor directed foundations make grants on behalf of an individual or corporation, thereby funding their preferred causes while keeping their identity a secret. As a result, writes Brulle, “these two philanthropic organizations form a black box that conceals the identity of contributors to various CCCM organizations.”
The Donor Trust/Capital giving increased dramatically over the period of time Brulle examined, from just 3.3 percent in 2003 to 23.7 percent in 2010. At the same time, the funding from Koch Affiliated Foundations and ExxonMobil Foundation declined significantly, with Exxon effectively ending public funding of climate change counter-movement groups in 2007.
Just as it’s impossible to know whether Koch Foundations and ExxonMobil are channeling their climate-denying funds through third-party groups such as Donors Trust, most funding for denial efforts is untraceable. Despite extensive data compilation and analyses, only a fraction of the hundreds of millions in contributions to climate change denying organizations can be specifically accounted for from public records. According to Brulle, approximately 75 percent of the income of these organizations comes from unidentifiable sources.
Despite the significant amount of “dark money” being funneled into efforts that seek to obstruct action on climate change or misinform the public, Brulle concludes that sufficient evidence exists that “a number of major conservative foundations have clearly played a crucial role in the development and maintenance of the [climate change counter-movement].”
The result is not just an obfuscation of fact and deliberate effort to slow any progress on addressing the most pressing issue of our time, but an assault on democracy. “Without a free flow of accurate information, democratic politics and government accountability become impossible,” said Brulle. “Money amplifies certain voices above others and, in effect, gives them a megaphone in the public square. Powerful funders are supporting the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat. At the very least, American voters deserve to know who is behind these efforts.”
The Planet’s Rate Of Warming Is 400,000 Hiroshima Bombs Per Day
By Joe Romm.
GW_KittenSneezes450Conveying abstract or hard-to-visualize ideas is always a challenge. That’s a core reason the best communicators have always used metaphors.
As Aristotle wrote in his classic work Poetics, “the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.”
How can one convey the Earth’s staggering rate of heat build up from human-caused global warming — 250 trillion Watts (Joules per second)? The analogy to the energy released by the Hiroshima bomb has been used in recent years by a number of scientists, such as NOAA oceanographer John Lyman, and Mike Sandiford, Director of the Melbourne Energy Institute. In his TED talk Climatologist James Hansen explained the current rate of increase in global warming is:
“… equivalent to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day, 365 days per year. That’s how much extra energy Earth is gaining each day.”
That comes out to more than four Hiroshima bombs a second, which is a metric Skeptical Science has turned into a widget. I prefer the 400,000 Hiroshimas per day metric simply because the heat imbalance is occurring over a very large area, which four Hiroshimas don’t do justice to.
The deniers don’t like the metaphor because, they assert, it is inexact and sensationalistic. But the deniers don’t like the literal facts because they think those are inexact and sensationalistic, too, so we can safely ignore them.
Some climate scientists disagree with those scientists (and others) who use this metric “because climate change is nothing like atom bombs” and “my problem is that the association of death and destruction is also easy to grasp,” as Dr. Doug McNeall of the UK Met Office has tweeted.
Metaphors are not literal — by design — so if you don’t like non-literal comparisons, you won’t like metaphors. I have argued at great length that one of the major failings of science communication is the failure to use figurative language. For what it’s worth, Aristotle believed, “To be a master of metaphor is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”
So I’ve been delighted to see scientists start to use metaphors, such as analogizing the effect of greenhouse gases on extreme weather, by saying it’s like the climate on steroids. But of course the climate isn’t literally on steroids. It is figuratively on steroids. It is literally on CO2, which is much worse.
Abraham Lincoln was a master of metaphors. He famously said of a nation split by slavery that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” But, of course, he was literally wrong: You could turn it into a duplex.
Ironically, a metaphor is the source of some of the most common terms in climate science: the greenhouse effect and greenhouse gases. And yet at least one expert has argued that the metaphor is fatally flawed:
“By producing an illusion that the climate system will respond instantly at the moment when CO2 level is reduced, the greenhouse metaphor is ultimately responsible for the wait-and-see approach to climate change.”
So it is certainly the case that “Metaphors are double-edge swords,” which this amazing 1962 ad for Humble Oil makes clear:
Yes, Humble Oil (which later consolidated with Standard and became Exxon) touted oil’s ability to melt glaciers!
Ultimately, metaphors need to be judged for whether they bring more light than heat, as it were.
In my quarter century communicating on climate change, I’ve found that many people in the media and the public have a visceral belief that “Humans are too insignificant to affect global climate.”
The anti-science CNBC anchor Joe Kernen voiced this conviction when he suggested that “as old as the planet is” there is no way “puny, gnawing little humans” could change the climate in “70 years.”
Certainly humans do seem tiny compared to the oceans or even a superstorm like Sandy. So I don’t see anything wrong with trying to find a quantitatively accurate metaphor that puts things in perspective.
The assertion that “climate change is nothing like atom bombs” isn’t quite true. Like global warming, atom bombs deliver a vast amount of energy in a very short period of time, which is the primary point of the metaphor. Indeed, when the first nuclear explosion in history occurred in July 1945, one observer said the fireball “rose from the desert like a second sun.” Also, climate change and atoms bombs are manmade — and highly destructive (more on that shortly). Like Frankenstein’s monster, both have become symbols of how our mastery of science and technology has had unintended consequences. The scientific community issued warning after warning about the dangers of both an unrestricted nuclear arms race and unrestricted CO2 emissions — warnings that were largely ignored for decades.
So it is a pretty good metaphor. Yes, the Hiroshima bomb has an element that goes beyond most nuclear bombs because it was dropped on a city and killed some 100,000 people. But is the metaphor flawed because “the association of death and destruction is also easy to grasp”?
Well, one of the whole points of the metaphor is that “puny humans” can in fact inflict catastrophic damage through human-caused global warming. On our current emissions path, Sandy-type storm surges will be an every year phenomenon for the New Jersey coast in a half-century! And then we have the warning of Harold Wanless, chair of University of Miami’s geological sciences: “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.”
Like the Hiroshima bomb, global warming is capable of destroying cities. So the “association of destruction” of the metaphor isn’t a bug, it’s a feature, as they say. Assuming we don’t end our self-destructive carbon feeding frenzy anytime soon, I do not think future generations will think this aspect of the metaphor is flawed in the least bit.
That leaves “the association of death” and all its implications. Hiroshima killed some 100,000 people in a flash. That is, arguably, the most problematic aspect of the metaphor. And if you are speaking to an audience you think might be sensitive to that, for instance, if you are speaking in Japan, you might want to use a different metaphor or at least be especially clear you are just talking about the energy released.
That said, while global warming doesn’t kill tens of thousands of people in a flash, it is on track to reduce the carrying capacity of the planet post-2050 far below the 9 billion people that we are projected to have. Again, where we are headed, I doubt future generations will think this aspect of the metaphor was somehow morally inappropriate. It’ll be our inaction — and everyone and everything that fed our inaction — that will be seen as morally inappropriate.
I do understand metaphors are not for everyone, but I do think that they are the perhaps the defining figure of speech of history’s greatest communicators. And as metaphors go, the Hiroshima bomb one seems to be better than most.
Last week, Skeptical Science reported that “Previous estimates put the amount of heat accumulated by the world’s oceans over the past decade equivalent to about four Hiroshima atomic bomb detonations per second, on average, but [Dr. Kevin] Trenberth’s research puts the estimate equivalent to more than six detonations per second.”
Skeptical Science’s John Cook reported at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting, “For those who prefer a cuddlier comparison, Cook converted this to units of kitten sneezes — 7.4 quadrillion per second.” If Trenberth’s new paper is right, that is actually more than 10 quadrillion kitten sneezes per second.
Finally, the kitten metaphor brings us to some advice offered by a student of climate communications. She offers seven things that worked for her. Here are two of them:
Making jokes. Climate change is perceived as a serious, heavy, difficult topic. Which it can be — but that doesn’t mean that talking about it needs to be serious, heavy and difficult. Making appropriate, engaging jokes made people laugh and then think about whatever they were laughing about. It made the topic more accessible. They don’t have to be full jokes — just point out one of the many weird, quirky things that go on in the climate and alpine environments…
Metaphors. To explain how a glacier worked, I used the example of a glacier as a savings account. And how rising temperatures and decreased snow pack affects the balance of the savings account. One of the most powerful climate-metaphors that Simon taught us is the extreme weather, steroids and baseball one.
Aristotle would be proud.
Reservoir found under Greenland's snow. What it means for shrinking glaciers.
The water in the huge reservoir remains liquid year-round, and researchers say it could help them estimate how Greenland's rapidly melting ice sheet will respond to global warming.
By Pete Spotts / December 23, 2013
Scientists have discovered a vast reservoir of fresh water captured in layers of old snow buried near the surface of Greenland's vast ice sheet.
The reservoir, located in southeastern Greenland, is similar to a subsurface aquifer found on land. Its water remains liquid all year and covers an area about half the size of New York State.
Scientists can only theorize on why the water remains liquid year-round. But, researchers say, its surprising discovery could help scientists improve their estimates of how Greenland’s ice sheet, which has been losing mass at an increasing pace over the past two decades, will respond to global warming.
The pace of ice loss has accelerated quickly. The loss averaged 121 billion tons a year between 1993 and 2005, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That pace increased to 229 billion tons a year between 2005 and 2010. Over the past two decades, the losses have raised average sea levels by 0.34 inches.
Scientists made the discovery in April 2011 as part of a three-year program known as Arctic Circle Traverse. The goal was to determine how much snow has fallen on Greenland over the past 30 to 60 years and how global warming has affected the rate of accumulation. The island's ice sheet results from the accumulation and compression of snow to form the ice, so understanding what gets added over time feeds into calculations of gains or losses to the ice sheet's overall mass.
At the end of April 2011, a small team from the University of Utah and the Byrd Polar Research Center at the Ohio State University in Columbus, were extracting core samples from the surface of the ice sheet in southeastern Greenland when they hit a layer of waterlogged snow. The layer appeared 33 feet below the surface in a region of compacted snow known as firn. The water filled the spaces between the snow grains.
The waterlogged layer prevented further drilling at the site, so the team moved about 2 miles east and tried again. They hit water-laden firn again, although this time at a depth of 82 feet. The scientists used ground-penetrating radar to look beneath the surface for additional watery deposits and found a continuous layer of water between the two drill sites and beyond.
At the same time, NASA flew over the area with a specially equipped aircraft during Operation Ice Bridge, a program designed to fill a data-gathering gap left between the demise of ICESat, an ice monitoring satellite that operated from 2003 to 2009, and the launch of its successor, ICESat-2 in early 2016. The aircraft's radar found that the reservoir extended far beyond the area the Arctic Circle Traverse team had covered.
“This discovery was a surprise,” said Rick Forster, a University of Utah geographer who was part of the four-person team that made the discovery. Dr. Forster is the lead author of a paper describing the discovery that appears in the current issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.
The team discovered the reservoir before the summer melt season begins, which meant that the water remained liquid through the ice sheet's frigid winter.
Other teams had noted that even in winter, streams originating at the edges of the ice sheet can flow freely, suggesting a source of liquid water within the cap even in the dead of winter.
Some suggested that the water could come from moulins, circular shafts up to 30 feet wide that summer melt water can drill into the ice sheet. Moulins are thought to be one kind of pipeline that can deliver melt water to the base of the cap, where it can lubricate the underside of the ice to accelerate the movement of the cap's outlet glaciers as they slide toward the sea.
Others had suggested that firn also could serve as sources for the water running through streams in winter.
Yet "no one had yet reported observing water in the firn that had persisted through the winter,” Forster said in a prepared statement.
The international team reporting the results suggests that the water in the firn, summer melt water that has percolated down through layers of snow, can remain liquid because the layers of snow above it insulate the firn from the bitingly cold air temperatures during a Greenland winter.
Although it's unclear how much water the newly-found reservoir holds, the potential storage capacity of firn layers that extend to higher elevations on the ice sheet as climate warms is considerable
Based on its own field studies on the ice sheet, a team led by University of Montana glaciologist Joel Harper last year estimated that the potential storage capacity of firn is enormous – from 322 billion to more nearly 1.3 trillion tons of water.
The fate of the water, however, is unclear. Year-round firn aquifers could serve as additional lubricant that could accelerate ice loss. Or it could slow the pace at which melt water adds its volume to sea-level rise.
Even then, portions of the ice sheet at lower altitudes and firn-free "will experience enhanced melt, too, and this run-off will occur without lag," he writes in an e-mail. "The increased melt from these lower zones will exceed the stored melt from the firn zones," so Greenland's overall contribution to sea-level rise will continue to increase.
The Christian Science Monitor
Water for uranium: A Faustian bargain at Wyoming ranch?
By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
On a lonely stretch at the edge of the Great Plains, rolling grassland presses up against a crowning escarpment called the Pumpkin Buttes. The land appears bountiful, but it is stingy, straining to produce enough sustenance for the herds of cattle and sheep on its arid prairies.
"It's a tough way to make a living," said John Christensen, whose family has worked this private expanse, called Christensen Ranch, for more than a century.
Christensen has made ends meet by allowing prospectors to tap into minerals and oil and gas beneath his bucolic hills. But from the start, it has been a Faustian bargain.
As dry as this land may be, underground, vast reservoirs hold billions of gallons of water suitable for drinking, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Yet every day injection wells pump more than 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste from uranium mining into Christensen's aquifers.
What is happening in this remote corner of Wyoming affects few people other than Christensen – at least for now.
But a roiling conflict between state and federal regulators over whether to allow more mining at Christensen Ranch – and the damage that comes with it – has pitted the feverish drive for domestic energy against the need to protect water resources for the future. The outcome could have far-reaching implications, setting a precedent for similar battles sparked by the resurgence of uranium mining in Texas, South Dakota, New Mexico and elsewhere.
Twenty-five years ago, the EPA and Wyoming officials agreed that polluting the water beneath Christensen Ranch was an acceptable price for producing energy there.
The Safe Drinking Water Act forbids injecting industrial waste into or above drinking water aquifers, but the EPA issued what are called aquifer exemptions that gave mine operators at the ranch permission to ignore the law. Over the last three decades, the agency has issued more than 1,500 such exemptions nationwide, allowing energy and mining companies to pollute portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers.
When the EPA granted the exemptions for Christensen Ranch, its scientists believed that the reservoirs underlying the property were too deep to hold desirable water, and that even if they did, no one was likely to use it. They also believed the mine operators could contain and remediate pollution in the shallower rock layers where mining takes place.
Over time, shifting science and a changing climate have upended these assumptions, however. An epochal drought across the West has made water more precious and improved technology has made it economically viable to retrieve water from extraordinary depths, filter it and transport it.
"What does deep mean?" asked Mike Wireman, a hydrologist with the EPA who also works with the World Bank on global water supply issues. "There is a view out there that says if it's more than a few thousand feet deep we don't really care ... just go ahead and dump all that waste. There is an opposite view that says no, that is not sustainable water management policy."
Federal regulators also have become less certain that it is possible to clean up contamination from uranium mining. At Christensen Ranch and elsewhere, efforts to cleanse radioactive pollutants from drinking water aquifers near the surface have failed and uranium and its byproducts have sometimes migrated beyond containment zones, records show.
In 2007, when the Christensen Ranch mine operator proposed expanding its operations, bringing more injection wells online and more than tripling the amount of waste it was injecting into underground reservoirs, Wyoming officials eagerly gave their permission, but the EPA found itself at a crossroads.
If the agency did what Wyoming wanted, it could destroy water that someday could be necessary and undermine its ability to protect aquifers in other places. If it rejected the plan, the agency risked political and legal backlash from state officials and the energy industry.
The EPA declined interview requests from ProPublica for this story and did not respond to a lengthy set of questions submitted in writing. After learning that ProPublica contacted several EPA employees directly involved in the debate over Christensen Ranch, the agency instructed staffers not to discuss the matter without agency approval.
For the last five years, as regulators have vacillated over what to do, John Christensen has experienced a similar ambivalence.
His property is speckled with thousands of small, mysterious black boxes. From each dark cube, a mixture of chemicals is pumped into the ground to dissolve the ore and separate out the uranium so that it can be sucked back out and refined for nuclear fuel.
Horses graze behind a gate on a dirt road that winds across this 35,000-acre tract, 50 miles south of Gillette. Nearby, a small metal sign is strung to a cattle guard with chicken wire: "Caution. Radioactive Material."
Christensen still places a tenuous trust in the system that promises to keep his water safe and leave his ranch clean. He relies on the royalty income and believes the national pursuit of energy is important enough to warrant a few compromises.
Yet if he had it to do over again, he's not sure he would lease out the rights to put a uranium mine on Christensen Ranch.
"It's probably worthwhile for this generation," he said. "You just don't know about future generations."
* * *
John Christensen's grandfather, Fred, first allowed uranium exploration on the family's ranch in the 1950s.
Fred Christensen had come to Wyoming from Michigan as a homesteader in 1906, finding work as a ranch hand and settling on a small tract at the base of the northernmost Pumpkin Butte. The Christensens farmed sheep, selling their meat and their wool, and used the proceeds to buy up more land. Through marriage and business, the family amassed some 70,000 acres, coming to rank among the largest private landowners in the United States.
Yet droughts plagued the region, making agriculture difficult. Tapping into Wyoming's resource wealth, the Christensens staked claims on the property, selling mining and drilling rights to companies that helped transform the Powder River Basin into the energy basket of America.
Uranium was discovered underneath Christensen Ranch in 1973. In 1978, after the property had been divided between cousins, Westinghouse Electric launched the first large-scale uranium mine on John Christensen's portion.
Modern mining for the radioactive ore inevitably pollutes water.
To avoid digging big holes in the ground, operators inject a mixture of sodium bicarbonate, hydrogen peroxide and oxygen into the rock to separate out the minerals and bond to the uranium. Then, they vacuum out the uranium-laden fluids to make a fine powder called yellowcake. The process leaves a toxic mix of heavy metals and radioactive ions floating in the groundwater and generates millions of gallons of waste that need to be dumped deeper underground.
The federal Safe Drinking Water Act, implemented in the early 1980s as mining began in earnest on Christensen Ranch, posed a potential hurdle to such ventures because it prohibited disposal of waste in aquifers. But the law allowed regulators to exempt aquifers if they determined that water was too dirty to use, or buried too deep to be worth pumping to the surface, or unlikely to be needed.
In 1982, when Wyoming officials anticipated the need for an aquifer exemption at Christensen Ranch, the state's then-governor, Ed Herschler, wrote to urge EPA officials to streamline their review of such requests and not to delay energy projects or interfere with Wyoming regulators. Steven Durham, the EPA's regional administrator at the time, wrote back to assure the governor the EPA would not second guess state officials, and that he had adjusted the rules so that they "should assure a speedy finalization of any exemptions."
Wyoming environment officials issued the first permit exempting several deep groundwater aquifers on the ranch from environmental protection in 1988. It said the water was of relatively poor quality, and was too deep and too remote to be used for drinking. The permit did not address the possibility that usable aquifers could lie in even deeper rock layers beneath the site.
The EPA confirmed the state's exemptions and issued separate ones allowing the mine operator to contaminate the shallow layer of groundwater closest to the surface, where anyone who needed water – including John Christensen – was likely to go for it first.
Even as they gave their stamp of approval, EPA officials noted that the mine operator's application had not set precise boundaries for the depth or breadth of the exempted area. "The information contained in the submittal does not specifically delineate the area to be designated," the EPA's Denver chief administrator acknowledged in a letter to Wyoming regulators in August 1988.
Still, Christensen, who continued to run stock on his land, saw the pollution as an inconvenience, not a threat. He was assured that the mine operator could steer contaminants toward the center of the exemption zone by manipulating pressure underground. Monitoring wells surrounded the perimeter of the mining site like sentries, checking if pollutants were seeping past the border.
Drilling new water wells beyond the mine's boundary was expensive, but Christensen took comfort from rules obliging the mine operator to restore contaminated water within the exempted area to its original condition once mining was complete.
"That was our best quality water," Christensen said. "I've been given to believe that it is not sacrificed, that they will restore the groundwater quality."
The mining proceeded in fits and starts, stalling in 1982 with a collapse of the uranium market, picking up five years later, stopping again in 1990, and then restarting in 1993. Ownership of the facilities changed hands at least five times.
By 2000, mining activity seemed to be over for good, and restoration efforts geared up under the supervision of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The restoration wouldn't go entirely as planned.
* * *
In July 2004, contaminants were detected in one of the monitoring wells surrounding the mining facility at Christensen Ranch.
This wasn't that unusual, mining and regulatory officials say. Other excursions, as they are called, had occurred over the years. The monitoring wells are an early warning system, detecting benign chemicals long before more dangerous toxins can spread.
"It's sort of like a smoke detector," said Ron Linton, who oversees the licensing for Christensen Ranch for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "They will go back in and adjust their flow with their production practices within their ore zone to get those levels down."
But according to documents from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, Cogema – the company then handling the restoration effort – could not fix the problem or identify its cause. The company tested water from the area and examined their injection wells for defects, but told state officials they believed the contaminants had occurred naturally and were not from the mine.
For six years, the contaminants continued to spread, disappearing for short periods as the restoration progressed only to reappear again, records show.
"This really shouldn't happen," said Glenn Mooney, a senior state geologist who oversaw the Christensen Ranch site for Wyoming from the late 1970s until last July.
Mooney observed that the concentration of contaminants at the boundary had leveled, but "showed no hint that they may drop," and warned that some of the chemicals found posed a considerable risk.
"The increase in uranium levels, a level over 70 times above the maximum contaminate limit for uranium, in a well that is located at the edge of the aquifer exemption boundary, is a major concern to WDEQ," he wrote in a 2010 letter.
Christensen said he was never told about the excursions beneath his property and that, as far as he knew, several of the minefields had been fully restored. He said he expected to use the shallow aquifer polluted by the mining as a source of drinking water in the future.
Restoration is the most important backstop against the risk that contaminants will spread from the mining site after the mining is finished. Polluted water is pumped from the ground, filtered using reverse osmosis, and then re-injected underground. The worst, most concentrated waste is disposed of in deeper waste wells.
Yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved Cogema's restoration of minefields associated with Christensen Ranch even as the excursion remained unresolved.
The commission deemed nine mining fields there successfully "restored" even though records show that half of the contaminants in the aquifer, including the radioactive byproduct Radium 226, remained above their natural levels.
Studies by the NRC, the U.S. Geological Survey and private consultants have found that similar cleanups elsewhere have rarely been fully successful.
The Geological Survey's study of uranium restoration in Texas found that no sites had been completely restored to pre-mining levels, and the majority had elevated uranium when the restoration was finished. The 2008 NRC review concluded that each of 11 sites at three mines certified by the agency as "restored" had at least one important pollutant above baseline levels recorded before mining began. The report concluded that restoring water to baseline levels was "not attainable" for many of the most important contaminants, including uranium.
Some regulators and mining industry executives call attempts to fully restore aquifers at uranium sites idealistic. Such water was often contaminated with uranium before mining began, they contend.
"When you restore it ... you bring each individual ion down to a level that is within the levels that occurred naturally," said Richard Clement, the chief executive of Powertech Uranium, which is currently applying for permits for a new mine in South Dakota. "It depends what you mean by 100 percent successful. Are people saying it is different than what it was? Yes it is. But is it worse? No."
Efforts to restore the groundwater at Christensen Ranch had other consequences. While the water was supposed to be filtered and re-injected, millions of gallons were removed and disposed of permanently as a result of the process, lowering the ranch's water table.
Water wells outside of the mine area that had routinely produced 10 gallons a minute struggled to produce a single quart, Christensen said. The water levels in the aquifer also dropped – in some places by 100 feet.
"They have always claimed that they could restore the groundwater," Christensen said. "The main concern is there isn't much water left when they get it to that quality. It never came back."
* * *
In 2007, as uranium commodities skyrocketed and a new mining boom began, Cogema applied to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permits to restart and expand its operations at Christensen Ranch.
To do it, the company would need to use two additional deep injection wells, making four total, to dispose of waste produced from ongoing restoration efforts and absorb the byproducts of drying and refining yellowcake. The plan called for more than tripling the amount of waste the company could pump into the Lance aquifer, more than 3,000 feet under Christensen Ranch.
Wyoming had permitted the additional wells years earlier, which it can do under authority delegated to states by the EPA to enact the Safe Drinking Water Act. But Cogema's request required something more – a change to past exemptions – that only the EPA had the power to grant.
Earlier exemptions issued for Christensen Ranch had only indirectly addressed the deep aquifers underlying the Lance.
In November 2010, Wyoming officials asked the EPA to exempt every layer of water below the Lance, regardless of its quality or whether it was being used by the mine, and without additional study. The water quality at those depths was "not reliably known," they wrote. The EPA should apply the exemptions to all of the deep aquifers, they said, "whether or not they meet the definitions of 'underground sources of drinking water.'"
For the EPA, Wyoming's request opened up a morass of legal and environmental concerns.
In the eight years since the agency had approved the last exemption at the ranch, its scientists had grown increasingly convinced that the deep layers of aquifers beneath the property might contain one of the state's largest reserves of good water. One layer, the Madison, is described in a state assessment as "probably the most important high-yield aquifer in Wyoming" and supplies drinking water to the city of Gillette.
Some within the EPA worried that approving Wyoming's request would create a damaging precedent, several EPA employees told ProPublica. It would write off billions of gallons of water in perpetuity, stripping them of legal protections against pollution, even though they were not necessary to the mining process.
Also, arguments that nobody would ever pay to pull water from aquifers below Christensen Ranch seemed more tenuous as scarcity made every drop of clean water more valuable and changing technology made deeper resources economically viable.
"Where do we get that water?" asked Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has received a National Science Foundation grant to look at energy and water issues. "Right now we want to get it from the near surface because it's cheaper. The question is, is that going to change in the future?"
If the EPA rejected Wyoming's request, it opened itself to other problems, however.
The EPA had granted exemptions allowing the two injection wells already operating at Christensen Ranch based on the notion that the aquifers below them did not qualify as sources of drinking water. If the agency reversed itself on this, it could make the existing mine operations illegal.
"I don't think that you could argue very strongly that it was the intent of the law to routinely use these exemptions to get around complying with the law," Wireman said.
"The law is very clear," he added, referring to the prohibition against allowing injection wells for toxic waste above aquifers. "That was done for a reason."
The process slowed to a crawl as federal officials from Denver to Washington considered the matter.
In December 2010, the EPA sent a letter to Wyoming's chief groundwater supervisor saying the agency saw no justification for granting new exemptions at Christensen Ranch and asked the state to make a stronger scientific argument.
The EPA also informed Wyoming regulators it planned to publish the exemption requests in the Federal Register, a move that would open them up for public comment and push back their potential approval date.
Infuriated, Wyoming officials approved the renewal permit on their own authority on Aug. 7, 2012, and decided the new injection wells did not need EPA permission because they were covered by past exemptions that could not be reversed.
"We were pretty disappointed with the amount of time it was taking to get a determination, and of course the operator was as well," Kevin Frederick, groundwater manager for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, told ProPublica. "The delay ... really kind of caused us to rethink what we were asking EPA to consider. We recognized that we were essentially issuing a permit that had already been approved."
Wyoming's top elected official punctuated the state's position on the case by complaining to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson about the agency's interference.
"Wyoming is the number one producer of uranium in the United States. The industry provides the nation with a reliable, secure source of domestic uranium," Gov. Matthew Mead wrote in a stern Aug. 29 letter. The EPA's review was having a "direct impact on operations, planning, investment and jobs. This has resulted in a standstill which has been the situation for far too long."
* * *
The problems and pressures the EPA is facing at Christensen Ranch are not unique.
With uranium mining booming, the agency has received a mounting number of requests for aquifer exemptions in recent years. So far, EPA records show, the agency has issued at least 40 exemptions for uranium mines across the country and is considering several more. Two mines are expanding operations near Christensen Ranch.
In several cases, the EPA has struggled to balance imposing water protections with accommodating the industry's needs.
In South Dakota, where Powertech Uranium is seeking permits for a new mine in the Black Hills, state regulations bar the deep injection wells typically used to dispose of mining waste. The EPA is weighing whether to allow Powertech to use what's called a Class 5 well – a virtually unregulated and unmonitored shallow dumping system normally used for non-toxic waste – instead.
Powertech officials say they will voluntarily meet the EPA's toughest construction standards for injection wells and will treat waste before burying it to alleviate concerns about groundwater.
"It's not going around the process," said Clement, the company's CEO. "It's using the laws the way they were designed to be used."
Environmental groups say the EPA should not be letting mining companies write their own rules.
"It's disturbing that such a requirement would be so easy to get around," said Jeff Parsons, a senior attorney for the Western Mining Action Project, which is representing the Oglala Sioux in a challenge to stop the Powertech mine. "There is a reason that South Dakota prohibited Class 1 wells; it's to protect the aquifers."
Similar disputes are erupting across the country.
In Goliad County, Texas, a proposal for a new uranium mine has triggered a bitter fight between state officials and the EPA.
In 2010, Texas regulators gave a mining company preliminary permission to pollute a shallow aquifer even though 50 homes draw water from wells near the contamination zone.
EPA scientists were concerned by the mining area's proximity to homes and believed the natural flow of water would send contaminants toward the water wells. At first, the agency notified Texas officials it would deny an exemption for the mine unless the state did further monitoring and analysis.
Texas regulators refused. "It appears the EPA may be swayed by the unsubstantiated allegations and fears of uranium mining opponents," Zak Covar, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, wrote in a May 2012 letter to William Honker, acting director of the EPA's local Water Protection Division.
As the case dragged on without a final determination, some within the agency worried that the EPA would go back on its initial decision and capitulate to appease Texas authorities, with whom it has clashed repeatedly.
"This aquifer exemption issue in Goliad County might become a sacrificial lamb that the federal government puts on the altar to try to repair some relations with the state," said a former government official with knowledge of the case.
On Dec. 5, the EPA approved the exemption in Goliad County.
Many disputes over aquifer exemptions focus on water people might need years in the future, but in Goliad County the risk is imminent. People already rely on drinking water drawn from areas close to those that would be polluted.
"This is a health issue as much as a water supply issue," said Art Dohmann, president of the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District, a local agency that manages water resources.
As of now, it's unclear how the EPA will answer Wyoming's challenge to its authority at Christensen Ranch.
Meanwhile, uranium mining has resumed on the property.
Uranium One, a Canadian-based company with majority Russian ownership that bought the facility from Cogema in 2010, is moving forward with the added injection wells to expand the operation.
For Christensen, it's the same old story. "I'm going to be dead before it's turned back into grazing land," he said of the ranch. "I'm almost 63 years old... so you know, it's gone on my whole life."
The Christian Science Monitor
How is global warming affecting precipitation? New satellite to help explain.
By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / December 26, 2013 at 4:13 pm EST
The United States and Japan are getting set to launch a 4.3-ton satellite designed to monitor rain and snowfall in unprecedented detail.
The agencies announced on Thursday that they have scheduled the launch for Feb. 28, 2014, from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center on an island off the southern tip of the larger island of Kyushu.
The spacecraft, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite, has been designed as the centerpiece of an international squadron of nine satellites that are already on orbit.
The data the new satellite will gather not only will feed unique information into current efforts to forecast weather and monitor the effects of global warming on precipitation. GPM data also will serve as a standard against which data from the other satellites in the constellation will be adjusted to improve their accuracy.
Beyond weather and climate applications, data from the constellation will improve flood and landslide forecasts, as well as help track changes in the distribution of waterborne diseases, notes Ramesh Kakar, program scientist for this mission and its predecessor, the US-Japanese Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, which was launched in 1997.
As the name implies, the TRMM satellite focuses on precipitation in the tropics – peering into the structure and rainfall patterns of storms ranging from afternoon thundershowers to large tropical cyclones. But it covered only the tropics and subtropics, and moderate to heavy precipitation intensities.
GPM and its sister craft, however, aim to extend those measurements to the rest of world and over a wider range of storm intensities. Of particular interest are storms over mid-latitudes, which can deliver precipitation at intensities ranging from gentle to torrential and with a variety of raindrop and snowflake sizes and shapes.
Adding this information will give climate researchers a more inclusive measure of the global water cycle than they have now, Dr. Kakar explains – a change that could help improve the way climate models represent the water cycle.
The satellite is equipped with two instruments: A high-resolution microwave radiometer, built by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, will provide estimates of the overall intensity of rain and snow falling from particular storms, and a dual-frequency radar from Japan can build a 3-D picture of the distribution of rainfall and its intensity within a storm. In addition, the radar can capture data on the sizes and shapes of raindrops and snowflakes that a storm generates.
The two instruments also will yield estimates of the amount of heat that storms release as they form rain and snow, and how that energy is distributed within a storm. This heat is known as the latent heat of condensation. In essence, as droplets condense from water vapor as the vapor rises in a storm and cools, the droplets are releasing the heat it took to create the water vapor in the first place.
The released heat can further intensify storms. Its cumulative effect globally plays an important role in redistributing energy in the atmosphere.
The craft is designed to send updated information to the ground every three hours. In addition, its orbit some 250 miles above Earth is designed to cross those of other satellites in the constellation, with opportunities for simultaneous measurements that will allow the GPM satellite to serve as the benchmark for data from the other satellites.
NASA also provided the spacecraft's "bus," which houses navigation, communications, and power hardware in addition to serving as a platform for the instruments. Japan provided the radar and the rocket, an H-IIA, that will launch the satellite. NASA's portion of the tab for the mission is $913 million, says Candace Carlisle, deputy project manager for the mission at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Japan hasn't published hard numbers for its contribution, but the radar and rocket don't come cheap, Ms. Carlisle explains.
NASA shipped the satellite to Japan at the end of November after extensive tests at Goddard, "and the first month of testing at the launch site went extremely well," she says. "From the engineering side, we're very pleased" about the announced launch date, "and we're on target to meet it."
[Editor's note: The original version of this story did not correctly identify what GPM stands for.]
Ugandans fear curse of oil wealth as it threatens to blight 'pearl of Africa'
Oil drilling may bring benefits in healthcare and education, but critics are concerned about corruption and the effect on wildlife
The Observer, Sunday 29 December 2013
Most of Uganda's oil is in the Albertine Graben region in the west of the country, an expanse of lush green vegetation that is home to about half of Africa's bird species. There are also baboons, antelopes and elephants.
A visit to Murchison Falls, one of five national parks in the region and the biggest game reserve in Uganda, reminds one why Winston Churchill thought the nation was the pearl of Africa. But tucked away behind all this startling beauty are 13 oil wells, right inside the national park. Drilling for oil in Uganda is caught between the demands of nature, public interest and commerce.
"You should bring your friends and family here before everything changes," a ranger tells me, sweeping his hand over an area of short, sprouting grass, the site of an unsuccessful drill that has been left to rejuvenate.
It is just a matter of time before oil extraction in Uganda starts in earnest and tourism revenue, contributing 4% of GDP, becomes a drop in the sea of oil dollars. The ranger says: "There is already a lot of activity at this early stage. The animals are moving further away. What will happen when drilling actually starts?"
The speeding trucks that force us to pull to the sides of the narrow roads, the towering oil rigs and the crews walking around in Total uniforms are a blight on the serenity of the park and a reminder that things may never be the same again. Britain's Tullow, France's Total and China's CNOOC operate in Uganda. Amid criticism of the industry, they emphasise they are doing their part to make sure the country does not turn into another sad oil curse story, and that oil brings prosperity rather than instability and poverty.
Commercial oil production in Uganda is expected to begin in 2018 and carry on for 30 years. Dates have been changed as stakeholders iron out the bureaucracies and complications of producing this rather waxy oil. But once production begins in earnest, revenue from the estimated 3.5bn barrels is expected to turn around the impoverished country whose president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in power for 27 years.
Oil money is expected to bring electricity to the 90% who live without it, revive the ailing universal primary education system, put beds in the dilapidated hospitals and finance an ambitious presidential initiative (Vision 2040) to put Uganda in the league of upper-middle-income countries.
So what if oil comes with some risks? While studies show that oil mining will affect the ecosystem and destabilise the rich wildlife, it is hard to say for certain to what extent. And government, lured by the promise of oil reserves rich enough to fund the country for the next 20 years, has chosen to cut through the foliage to find liquid gold.
However, critics have expressed doubts that oil will deliver its promise of transformation. They say that from the beginning oil has been an area shrouded in suspicion. At the onset of exploration, the government refused to release the production-sharing agreements to the public, ruling that they were confidential. After pressure from civil society, parliament was given limited access to the agreements, but the public still cannot access them.
Allegations of corruption, residents disgruntled over property compensation, indecisiveness over the best infrastructure (refinery or pipeline, and how big?) for the industry, and painfully slow government bureaucracy are responsible for Uganda's delayed oil production. Countries such as Ghana, which discovered oil later than Uganda, have already started production.
As a 2013 Chatham House report by Ben Shepherd, a consultant on the Great Lakes region, points out, the delay is a frustration and a blessing. Commercially viable oil in Uganda was discovered in 2006, since when the country has had time to prepare for the production phase, says Shepherd. Parliament has debated and passed legislation, policies are in place and there is no lack of environmental impact assessment reports. These are the "successes" the government brandishes as proof the country is on the right path to crude production.
Critics accuse the government of bungling the entire process – from the withholding of information from the public to displacing and compensating local communities through an ambiguous and unfair system, to commissioning a refinery whose economic viability is still uncertain.
"They come here and force us to sign documents. They say if we do not, we shall lose our land," says Stella Keihangwe, a woman who accused the government of coercing her into signing over her property to her son and husband, disregarding her marital rights. Innocent Tumwebaze, whose land the government also acquired for the oil project, says he was arrested and beaten with a gun barrel for questioning government activities in the region.
Oil is a sensitive topic, and those who dare to meddle risk their lives. They often receive threats from the government, which has labelled dissidents economic saboteurs. Faced with government power and handicapped by poverty and lack of education, the people most affected feel helpless to defend their rights. It is situations like these that have caused people such as the Ugandan development lawyer Busingye Kabumba to declare that the oil curse is already on the country.
Still, Ugandans are optimistic. Local and international NGOs, many of them funded by Britain, Uganda's second biggest donor, are watching and reporting on the oil sector. Their presence can be felt in spite of government disapproval of their "foreign agenda".
Some Ugandans still doubt that a government whose president has already declared that "it is my oil" will use revenue from the industry to benefit the people. Their reality – the poor-quality services and poverty – has not changed in spite of the billions already paid out by oil companies in the pre-production stages.
"Everything good is in Kampala [the capital]. We will not see any oil benefits here," says the hired motorcycle rider who takes me around the dusty oil district of Hoima. "We have been hearing that there is oil for a long time, but we have seen nothing."