Obama removes Bristol Bay area of Alaska from oil and gas drilling
President orders indefinite extension of short-term protection for area, which he says is one of the US’s great natural resources
Associated Press in Anchorage
The Guardian, Wednesday 17 December 2014 07.38 GMT
Barack Obama has announced he is removing more than 52,000 sq miles (135,000 sq km) of waters off Alaska’s coast from consideration for oil and gas exploration or drilling.
The US president said Bristol Bay and nearby waters, covering an area roughly the size of Florida, would be withdrawn from consideration for petroleum leases. He called Bristol Bay one of the country’s great natural resources and a massive economic engine.
“It’s something that’s too precious for us to be putting out to the highest bidder,” Obama said.
Bristol Bay had supported Native Americans in the Alaska region for centuries, he said.
“It supports about $2bn in the commercial fishing industry,” Obama said. “It supplies America with 40% of its wild-caught seafood.”
The bay is north of the Alaska peninsula, which juts out west from mainland Alaska at the start of the Aleutian Islands chain.
Petroleum leases sold there in the mid-1980s were bought back in 1995 for $95m (£60m) at taxpayers’ expense after the Exxon Valdez spill, said Marilyn Heiman, US Arctic director for Pew Charitable Trusts. Fisheries around the world are in decline but Bristol Bay’s well-managed fisheries were some of the most productive in the world and worthy of protection, she said.
“This is one of the most important ocean protection decisions this president or any president has ever made,” Heiman said.
Governor Bill Walker said the waters of Bristol Bay fed world-premier fisheries. “I look forward to working cooperatively, in Alaska’s clear interest, with the federal government to safely and economically develop regions of our state and offshore waters for oil and gas,” he said in a statement. “Bristol Bay, however, is not that place.”
Robin Samuelson, chairman of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and a lifelong resident of Dillingham at the head of the bay, said protection for the fishery has been a 25-year battle. The bay supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, and the waters are nursing grounds for halibut and crab.
Obama and former interior secretary Ken Salazar announced in March 2010 that a planned 2011 lease sale in what the interior department refers to as the North Aleutian Basin would be cancelled. Salazar cited a lack of infrastructure and the bay’s valuable natural resources.
The temporary withdrawal was set to expire in 2017. Obama’s decision on Tuesday under authority of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 withdraws the area permanently.
Republican senator Lisa Murkowski said she was not objecting to the president’s decision at this time, given the industry’s lack of interest in the area and a public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration there.
According to the White House, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower was the first to use presidential authority to withdraw acreage from offshore drilling consideration. Eisenhower in 1960 withdrew an area now included in the Florida Keys national marine sanctuary, and presidents from both parties have withdrawn other areas.
Snow Is Down and Heat Is Up in the Arctic, Report Says
By KENNETH CHANG
DEC. 17, 2014
SAN FRANCISCO — The Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of the globe, and with greater repercussions, scientists are reporting.
The new findings appear in the Arctic Report Card, first published in 2006 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and updated annually. The report card catalogs the wide-ranging changes caused by the rising temperatures, in large part driven by emissions of greenhouse gases.
Snow cover, measured since 1967, was below average and set a record low in April in the Eurasian region of the Arctic. Sea surface temperatures are rising, particularly in the Chukchi Sea, northwest of Alaska, where the waters are warming at a rate of almost one degree Fahrenheit per decade.
The extent of Arctic sea ice, which retreats in summer, did not hit a record low in 2014. But it was the sixth lowest since satellite measurements began in 1979, and the scientists noted that the eight smallest extents have occurred in the last eight years.
“We can’t expect records every year,” Martin Jeffries of the Office of Naval Research, who edited this year’s report, said at a news conference here at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. “It need not be spectacular for the Arctic to continue to be changing.”
With less sea ice and more open water, sunlight entered more of the ocean, leading to a bloom of tiny marine plants. On land, the greenness of the tundra continues to increase, the report said, indicating fewer snow-covered areas.
The decline in sea ice also diminished the number of polar bears in western Hudson Bay in Canada from 1987 to 2011, but populations appeared to be stable elsewhere. Polar bears rely on sea ice to travel and hunt.
In Greenland, scientists observed that melting occurred on almost 40 percent of the ice sheet during the summer, and in August, the ice sheet reflected less of the sunlight than at any time since the beginning of satellite observations in 2000. In a separate news conference, scientists reported that NASA satellite measurements have confirmed that a darker, less reflective Arctic absorbs more heat and accelerates melting.
The mass of the Greenland ice sheet, however, remained steady from 2013 to 2014, compared with major losses two years ago. The report card also noted the unusual jet-stream wind pattern last winter, often labeled the polar vortex, that led to frigid weather across much of the United States but balmy temperatures in Alaska.
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Times Topic: Global Warming & Climate Change
The NASA reflectivity measurements found that since 2000, the amount of absorbed solar radiation in the Arctic during the summer months rose 5 percent. No significant change was seen for the rest of the planet. The Arctic areas with the greatest increases corresponded to the areas of declining sea ice. The change is equivalent to a 10-watt light bulb shining over every square meter, or 10.76 square feet, of the Arctic Ocean. In areas of greater warming, like the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, the increase is 50 watts per square meter.
Many scientists expect the Arctic to become ice-free in summer by the end of the century, with some predicting that it could happen much sooner.
“I think the important point about the models is not to dwell on the fact that they differ, but it is to dwell on the similarities,” Dr. Jeffries said. “They all point in the same direction.” The decline of ice will continue to affect life in the Arctic. It will also open up shipping lanes and the possibility of oil drilling. “You don’t have to go to zero for these to become a big deal,” Dr. Jeffries said.
Year-to-year variability also remains large, so much so that it is not certain that the extent of sea ice will shrink in the near future.
“If someone asked me if sea ice is going to go up or down in a decade, I’d flip a coin,” said Jennifer Kay, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado. But she also had no doubts about the long-term trend toward a warmer Arctic with less ice.
“If it’s 30 or 40 years out,” she said, “I have no need to flip a coin.”
Obama expresses scepticism over Keystone pipeline
President says pipeline’s extension from Canada to Nebraska would do little to reduce American energy prices, and generate only a limited number of US jobs
Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Friday 19 December 2014 21.49 GMT
US President Barack Obama has delivered his most sceptical remarks yet on the future of the Keystone oil pipeline, claiming its controversial extension from Canada to Nebraska would do little to reduce American energy prices and generate only a limited number of US jobs, but could add to the infrastructure costs of climate change.
Speaking during an end-of-year press conference just one day after Republicans promised fresh legislation designed to force the project’s approval, the president departed from official White House neutrality on an upcoming review by the State Department to deliver a withering assessment of its merits, claiming his opponents were wrong to insist the pipeline was a “magic formula” for economic growth.
“At issue in Keystone is not American oil; it is Canadian oil that is drawn out of tar sands in Canada,” he said when asked if he was minimising the benefits. “That oil currently is being shipped out through rail or trucks, and it would save Canadian oil companies and the Canadian oil industry an enormous amount of money if they could simply pipe it all the way through the United States down to the Gulf.”
Seemingly aware of the impact his unusually blunt language may have on the politically-charged debate over whether environmental or economic arguments should prevail, Obama checked himself briefly but left reporters in little doubt of his strong feelings on the issue.
“So there’s no – I won’t say no – there is very little impact, nominal impact, on US gas prices, what the average American consumer cares about, by having this pipeline come through,” he said. “Sometimes the way this gets sold is, you know, ‘Let’s get this oil, and it’s going to come here,’ and the implication is that that’s going to lower gas prices here in the United States. It’s not.”
Despite pressure from US producers who claim the Keystone XL extension would benefit them too, Obama added: “There’s a global oil market. It’s very good for Canadian oil companies, and it’s good for the Canadian oil industry, but it’s not going to be a huge benefit to US consumers. It’s not even going to be a nominal benefit to US consumers.”
Republicans, who argue the pipeline would create large numbers of jobs, announced this week that they plan to pass legislation authorising the extension when they take control of the Senate next month.
Obama refused to say whether he would definitely block such a bill – a presidential veto which would need two-thirds of Congress to override – but insisted the employment benefits had been “hyped” out of proportion.
“The construction of the pipeline itself will create probably a couple thousand jobs. Those are temporary jobs,” he said.
“There’s probably some additional jobs that can be created in the refining process down in the Gulf. Those aren’t, you know, completely insignificant. But when you consider what we could be doing if we were rebuilding our roads and bridges around the country, something that Congress could authorise, we could probably create hundreds of thousands of jobs or a million jobs.”
The pipeline’s backers are currently waiting for a court verdict from Nebraska on whether their route is permissible, and it is unclear whether a Senate vote on the matter would come before or after a planned State Department environmental review.
Nevertheless, the White House has shown growing willingness to defy energy interests in the weeks since November’s midterm elections, and Obama echoed some of the environmental arguments he used when agreeing to major new climate change targets with China.
“I want to make sure that if in fact this project goes forward, that it’s not adding to the problem of climate change, which I think is very serious and does impose serious costs on the American people, some of them long term,” he told the press conference. “If we got more flooding, more wildfires, more droughts, there are direct economic impacts in that and as we’re now rebuilding after Sandy, for example, we’re having to consider how do we increase preparedness – that’s an example of the kind of costs that are imposed and you can put a dollar figure on it.”
Yet despite Obama’s growing scepticism over what has been a symbolic decision for environmentalists and industrialists alike, the president also used his opening remarks to praise America’s newfound energy self-sufficiency.
“America is now the number one producer of oil, the number one producer of natural gas,” he said in opening remarks designed to emphasise a recent recovery in the job market. “We’re saving drivers about 70 cents a gallon at the pump over last Christmas.”
Otherwise, the shorter-than-usual press conference focused mainly on North Korea’s alleged role in attacking Sony and a reaffirming of recent comments on Cuba and US race relations. The first family flies to Hawaii on Friday night for a two-week vacation.
E.P.A. Issues Rules on Disposal of Coal Ash to Protect Water Supply
By EMMARIE HUETTEMAN
DEC. 19, 2014
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday announced the first federal guidelines for disposing of coal ash, instructing power plants to implement safeguards against contaminating nearby water supplies.
But the agency did not require many of the restrictions that had been urged by environmentalists and other advocates, who point to studies showing coal ash — the material that remains when coal is burned to produce electricity — contains a significant amount of carcinogens.
“This rule is a pragmatic step forward that protects public health while allowing the industry the time it needs to meet these requirements,” said Gina McCarthy, the E.P.A. administrator.
The E.P.A. declined to designate coal ash a hazardous material, but said power plants would have to meet certain minimum structural standards for landfills and disposal ponds, and monitor them for leaks. If a breach is discovered, it will be the utility company’s responsibility to reinforce or close the pond. New ponds and landfills will have to be lined to provide a barrier against leaks. Controls must be used to prevent people from breathing in coal ash dust.
Power plants will also have to report the results of their inspections on a public website. The rule provides little oversight, leaving it to citizens and the states to sue if power plants are suspected of not adhering to the E.P.A.’s guidelines.
The rule is a victory for electric utility companies and the coal industry, which had decried the increased financial burden that would have been placed on companies to revamp their existing disposal facilities if the E.P.A. had decided to phase out ponds and impose other, stricter guidelines.
The decision also reinforced the growing, multibillion-dollar coal ash recycling business, in which coal ash is used to make wallboard, concrete and other products. The United States produced nearly 114.7 million tons of coal ash in 2013, according to an annual report released Wednesday by the American Coal Ash Association. Of that, less than 51.4 million tons were reused.
Officials celebrated the end of what they characterized as a costly period of uncertainty for an environmentally friendly industry.
“This stuff is just as safe as we thought it was before the rule-making started, and it’s time to keep that growth going,” said Thomas H. Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association.
Advocates for stronger restrictions on coal ash expressed disappointment in the rule, especially that coal-fired power plants would be allowed to continue dumping the ash into existing ponds that they are left to largely police themselves.
“As we’ve seen over the past six years, irresponsible storage of coal ash by big utilities has caused unprecedented disasters and threatened the health and safety of Americans around the country,” Frank Holleman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “While there are some new tools for addressing our nation’s coal ash problem in these new federal protections, there are glaring flaws in the E.P.A.’s approach.”
“When the day’s done, the E.P.A. regulates toxic coal ash less stringently than household waste,” said Lisa Evans, a lawyer with Earthjustice who used to work for the E.P.A.
For environmentalists, the ruling helped address a problem that gained attention after an episode in 2008 in Tennessee when millions of gallons of sludge and contaminated water spilled into a river that ultimately feeds into the Tennessee River. The sludge that contaminated the water supply and swept away homes — a failure of the wall separating a Tennessee Valley Authority plant’s coal ash storage from the river — was the largest coal ash disaster in United States history.
Despite frustrations with the pace and outcome of the debate, some environmentalists expressed gratitude for the decision to impose at least some restrictions on coal ash, applauding the Obama administration for its incremental changes to environmental policy. Before the rule, storage and disposal were managed on a state-by-state basis, with little uniformity.
Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, acknowledged that the E.P.A. was not in an easy spot politically during a time when many lawmakers were hostile to increased regulations.
“I’m looking at what they tried to do here and respecting that in areas like public disclosure, they’re trying to push things forward,” he said.
Correction: December 19, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of sludge and contaminated water from a coal ash spill that flowed into a river in Tennessee in 2008. It was millions of gallons, not millions of tons.