Environmental news this week

There was a lot of environmental news this week that somehow does not get reported in the Arizona news media.

First up, in an intentionally snarky headline from the Washington Post, This has been the warmest winter on record, except in the most politically important part of the world:

This map, showing deviation from normal temperatures by part of the world in February, is stunning. And for advocates of taking strong action on climate change, probably a little depressing.

ClimateMap

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2014 was the warmest year on record, we couldn’t help but notice that the Eastern United States was among the places that recorded their coldest temperatures last year. The year-end map was the minor league version of the map above, which shows a giant blue blanket over half of the country — despite this being the warmest winter on record.

InhofeThat eastern half, of course, is where most of America’s residents live and all of its federal legislators work. Which is why we get things like Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) bringing a snowball to the Senate floor for show-and-tell. Inhofe was right in one sense: February did end up being colder than usual. And for those who insist that cold weather disproves the idea of a warming climate (which it obviously doesn’t), that was just more fodder.

Senator Snowball from the Flat Earth Society is hilarious — not. This fool chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. I’m not laughing.

In related news, Scientists say Arctic sea ice just set a disturbing new record:

Two weeks ago, we noted here that the Arctic was on the verge of a scary new record — an unprecedented “lowest winter maximum” for sea ice extent. What that would mean is that during the season of the year when there is the most ice covering the seas of the Arctic, the peak extent of that ice was nonetheless smaller than in any year – at least since satellite measurements began in the late 1970s.

And now, the Boulder-based National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), which tracks sea ice, has indeed announced that the peak winter Arctic sea ice extent “likely” occurred Feb. 25, and that this maximum “not only occurred early; it is also the lowest in the satellite record.” However, the agency does include several caveats. That includes not only the word “likely,” but also the observation that “a late season surge in ice growth is still possible.”

polar-bear-on-ice-flowThe loss of sea ice around the Arctic has a vast number of consequences. They range from climatic — exposing more dark ocean water, which absorbs more solar radiation than ice does, leading to further warming — to social and cultural: Undermining the subsistence hunting techniques that Alaskan native villages have pursued atop the ice for generations.

On Feb. 25, Arctic sea ice extent stood at 5.61 million square miles across the Arctic, and featured “below-average ice conditions everywhere except in the Labrador Sea and Davis Strait.” This total extent is 50,200 square miles less than the prior lowest winter maximum, which occurred in 2011.

* * *

In general, new records for low Arctic sea ice maxima draw less attention than records for low sea ice minima, which usually occur in September (the current record low was in 2012). That’s because September is the time of year when there is the least total sea ice at the top of the world, and as that amount ticks lower and lower, it becomes harder for the ice to regrow.

But declining maxima are also important — indeed, a trend of declining maxima and minima, combined, underscore the dramatic overall change in the Arctic system.

“This new data on sea ice loss sends a clear message to the global community that the Arctic is unraveling, warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet,” said Rafe Pomerance, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who chairs a group called Arctic 21, a collection of Arctic-focused groups.

You can play with this interactive from the National Snow and Ice Data Center to see the decline over the past few decades.

“We can make that decline more obvious by comparing imagery showing ice cover at recent peaks with the recent troughs. The animations below show the winter and summer lows versus recent highs in 1980 and 1982, demonstrating how much ice loss we’ve seen. (The images are also from the NSIDC.)” What the Arctic’s melting ice looks like over time.

While the Septuagenarian Ninja Turtle, Sen. Mitch McConnell, like his Confederate brethren before him, encourages nullification and secession laws to thwart EPA regulations for coal, McConnell Urges States to Help Thwart Obama’s ‘War on Coal’, the White House this week announced new steps for cutting the federal government’s greenhouse gas emissions. Obama to cut federal government’s carbon emissions 40 percent over 10 years:

President Obama signed an executive order Thursday dictating the federal government will cut its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent over the next decade from 2008 levels and increase the share of renewable energy in the federal government’s electricity supply to 30 percent during that same period.

Simultaneously, federal suppliers including Honeywell, IBM, General Electric and other major U.S. firms are pledging to reduce their own carbon footprint by 5 million metric tons over the next 10 years compared with 2008 levels. Taken together with the new executive order this would cut overall U.S. emissions by 26 million tons by 2025, the equivalent of taking nearly 5.5 million cars off the roads for a year.

Speaking to reporters Thursday at the Energy Department, Obama said that “America once again is going to be leading by example.”

“So we’re proving that it is possible to grow our economy robustly while at the same time doing the right thing for our environment and tackling climate change in a serious way,” he said.

White House senior adviser Brian Deese estimated the new measures will save $18 billion; the federal government has already cut its overall emissions 17 percent since Obama took office, saving $1.8 billion.

The White House also announced tougher standards Friday on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) on public lands, seeking to lower the risk of water contamination from a controversial practice. Obama administration tightens federal rules on oil and gas fracking:

The Obama administration imposed tougher restrictions Friday on oil and gas “fracking” operations on public lands, seeking to lower the risk of water contamination from a controversial practice that is chiefly behind the recent boom in U.S. energy production.

The regulations represent the administration’s most significant effort to tighten standards for hydraulic fracturing, a technique that helped make the United States the world’s No. 1 producer of natural gas while igniting a fierce debate over environmental consequences.

The Interior Department rules apply only to oil and gas drilling on federal lands, or about a quarter of the country’s current fossil-fuel output. But the prospect of new regulations has drawn sharp opposition from industry groups who say the new requirements will drive up production costs everywhere.

* * *

In the decade since the [fracking] technology became widely available, the practice has revolutionized the country’s natural-gas industry while also raising fears about groundwater pollution and even a heightened risk of earthquakes.

The rules announced on Friday are intended chiefly to minimize the threat of water contamination from fracking. Companies that drill on public lands would be subject to stricter design standards for wells and also for holding tanks and ponds where liquid wastes are stored.

Interior officials also introduced new transparency measures that require firms to publicly disclose the types of the chemical additives they use. The liquid injected into fracking wells consists mainly of water and sand, with small amounts of other substances that can range from coffee grinds to acids and salts.

* * *

[T]he rules quickly came under attack by industry groups and even from environmentalists, some of whom complained that the regulations did not go nearly far enough.

Two industry groups immediately filed suit to block the measures. The Independent Petroleum Association of America and Western Energy Alliance called the rules a “reaction to unsubstantiated concerns,” and warned that the U.S. natural gas boom could fizzle.

* * *

Among environmentalists, the reaction was mixed. Madeleine Foote, legislative representative for the League of Conservation Voters, called the regulations “an important step forward in regulating fracking,” but said environmental groups were disappointed that the requirements were not tougher.

“It represents a missed opportunity to set a high bar for protections that would truly increase transparency and reduce the impacts to our air, water, public lands, and communities by the oil and gas industry,” she said.

Others environmentalists said fracking has no place on taxpayer-owned land, especially at a time when the White House is looking for dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change.

* * *

The Interior Department regulations, the final result of a rule-making process that began four years ago, apply to about 90,000 oil and gas wells currently operating on lands managed by the department’s Bureau of Land Management as well as tribal lands. At least four times as many fracking operations occur on private  or state land, where they are subject to local regulations which range from stringent to non-existent.

* * *

“We believe that in order to have a more durable industry in the future we need to strike a more appropriate balance between public health and safety and allowing for responsible production,” White House deputy chief of staff Brian Deese said at a press breakfast shortly before the rules were announced.

Despite their limited scope, the federal regulations could lead to broader changes throughout the industry, particularly when it comes to disclosure requirements, Deese said.

“That is very important from a transparency perspective but it also is important for having a template that this industry can work from, given the degree of localized concern and public concern about this,” Deese said.

Comments are closed.