UNEP stakeholders’ conference prioritizes sustainability issues

This post contributed by Terence Houston, Science Policy Analyst  Last week’s  United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) North American Major Groups and Stakeholders Consultation in Washington, DC focused on how to implement sustainable development goals (SDGs) outlined during the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this past June.  It was noted during the meeting that – in the time since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio 20 years ago – countries, NGOs and private corporations now recognize that the environment is critical to sustainable development. The meeting’s keynote speaker, Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs, spoke on the connection between climate change and economic development. He discussed how record droughts have adversely affected the quality and quantity of crop yields. Sachs also talked about the pressures on natural resources and promoted the need for better public health access including empowering women to make family planning choices.  Sachs stated that gender equality is a vital part of the solution to mitigating poverty and fostering environmental sustainability. He also said that the private sector has a big role to play in producing new energy technology that will be part of achieving “sustainable cities.” The need to link environmental stewardship to economic development was among the major themes discussed during the UNEP meeting. This includes acknowledging that we have a finite quantity of natural resources and should work on practices that help to sustain these resources for the long-term. Water, oil, coal, natural gas, phosphorous and rare earth elements have all been cited as vital resources that the world’s burgeoning population will have significantly reduced within the next 50-200 years.  Global oil and natural gas reserves would be depleted closer to the half century mark, according to information from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. In fact, UNEP, the Environmental Law Institute, the University of Tokyo, and McGill University last month released a book  that looks at how improving management of our dwindling natural resources may prove critical in deterring armed conflicts over these resources. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has a website, which outlines measures to help Americans manage resources more efficiently and reduce the amount of waste we produce. The US Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service works with farmers, landowners and nonprofits on techniques to help to make the most of their land and soil and to indentify natural resource concerns in accordance with improving management of the environment. This includes helping farmers and ranchers manage agriculture in times of extreme weather conditions, including hurricanes, droughts or flooding. From a fiscal perspective, continued investment in these...

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Increase in magnitude 3+ earthquakes likely caused by oil and gas production (but not fracking)

by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer WE don’t typically think of the middle of the US as earthquake country, but small earthquakes, many just on the edge of perception, send shock waves through the prairies and southlands more than twenty times a year, on average,  and have done so since regular monitoring began circa 1970. They are becoming more common. Over the last few years, earthquakes in the magnitude 3-6 range have increased in frequency, and people are starting to notice. In 2011, 134 quakes of magnitude 3 or higher shook central North America, up from 87  in 2010 and 50 in 2009. Last week, USGS geologist Bill Ellsworth linked the increasing incidence of quakes to oil and gas production. He told the Seismological Society of America meeting in San Diego that forcing wastewater deep underground appears to be triggering earthquakes.  An abstract posted to the meeting site stated that “the seismicity rate changes described here are almost certainly manmade,” triggering a wave of news reports. Many headlines erroneously implied that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale rock for natural gas production directly triggers earthquakes. Earthquakes are a known hazard of deep wastewater injection wells. Geologists and engineers discovered the complication in the 1960s, when injections of contaminated water from a big surface reservoir into a 12,000 ft deep well at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal chemical munitions plant triggered a series of over 700 earthquakes in the Denver area. Not all deep injection wells trigger earthquakes, but if they are in the vicinity of a fault, the increasing fluid pressure in the pores of the rock can relieve the friction resisting slippage (strain) between the rock layers. It accelerates the timetable on a jolting slip in the fault. The effect is accentuated if fluid is pumped in fast. It takes time for the liquid to disperse and pressure to return to equilibrium (hydrostatic pressure), and in the meantime, the dynamically heightened pore pressure opposes the weight of the rock on top, “floating” it. Surface reservoirs, flooded mines, extraction of large amounts of oil, gas or ore, and geothermal energy projects can also stimulate earthquakes. “Manmade” earthquakes, it turns out, are not a novelty at all. Fracking is in the hot seat because the method has expanded so rapidly and successfully in the last decade. The process uses a lot of water. Ecologists have pointed out potential risks to surface water quality, and the void of empirical data on impacts. Fracking forces water (mixed with proprietary additives, some of which are fairly nasty) horizontally through shale rock to open pores, releasing natural gas.  Some 25-50 percent of the fluid returns to...

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ESA Policy News: April 20

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: CJS BILLS SUPPORT SCIENCE, SENATE TRANSFERS SATELLITES TO NASA The week of April 16, both the House and Senate Commerce Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittees approved their respective funding bills for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. In total, the House CJS appropriations bill would provide $51.1 billion to all agencies under its jurisdiction, a reduction of $1.6 billion below FY 2012 and $731 below the president’s request. The Senate bill would fund all agencies under its jurisdiction at $51.862 billion, a $1 billion reduction from FY 2012.  While the House bill’s funding levels are overall less than the Senate, both chambers supported increases in key science agencies in comparison to the current fiscal year. The Senate CJS bill would also move funding for weather satellite procurement from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There has been bipartisan, bicameral criticism directed at NOAA’s costly satellites. According to Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the move would save $117 million in FY 2013 and reduce duplicative federal activities. Enclosed are funding levels for key science bureaus outlined within the House and Senate bills: The National Science Foundation House: $7.333 billion, an increase of $299 over FY 2012. Senate: $7.273 billion, an increase of $240 million over FY 2012. NASA House: $17.6 billion, $226 million below FY 2012 Senate: $19.4 billion, an increase of $1.6 billion over FY 2012. (*The increase is due to the bill’s provision transferring weather satellite procurement from NOAA to NASA. Absent these funds, the bill would mean a $41.5 million cut for NASA. NOAA House: $5 billion, $68 million above FY 2012 Senate: $3.4 billion, $1.47 billion below FY 2012 For additional information on the Senate CJS bill, click here. For additional information on the House CJS bill, click here.  APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE RELEASES FY 2013 ENERGY AND WATER BILL On April 17, the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee released its funding bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. The bill, which funds federal programs for the Department of Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water programs within the Department of Interior, would be funded at $32.1 billion, $965 million less than the president’s request, yet a slight increase from FY 2012. Department of Energy (DOE) – DOE would receive $26.3 billion, $365 million less than FY 2012. DOE environmental management activities would be funded at $5.5 billion, $166 million below FY 2012. The bill increases funding for nuclear security by $300 million from FY 2012 and would direct funding...

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State of the Science, 2012

Thoughts and twitterings around the ecosphere on President Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress, Tuesday, January 24th, 2012. In the Wednesday morning quarterbacking that followed this year’s State of the Union, pundits aired the perennial complaint that the President’s speech ran too long, heavily-laden with a Clinton-style laundry list of programs. But citizens like to hear their favorite programs mentioned, and we in the science community are no exception! Technical education and funding for basic research briefly made the list, but the majority of the attention went to energy. The President pitched “clean” energy from wind, sun and reduced waste, alongside a drill-baby-drill enthusiasm for oil and gas exploration, while sidestepping any awkward mention of nuclear energy. Here’s a replay of exciting moments in #SOTU, interleaved with a sampling of comments tweeted out of the eco-science bubbleverse. Enter POTUS, with entourage. Shaking hands as he moves down the aisle, he sweeps down upon Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz) for a rare moment of bipartisan good-feeling. Giffords will formally resign on the following day to continue her recovery from the terrible head wound she suffered in a shooting last year. Share “ Obama and Giffords hug and rock back and forth. WHAT, I HAVE SOMETHING IN MY EYE. #SOTU   daveweigel Wed, Jan 25 2012 20:11:41 ReplyRetweet Share “ Boehner invites pipeline pals to #SOTU: is.gd/VlmGQk   David Roberts Wed, Jan 25 2012 11:04:28 ReplyRetweet “As the camera pans around the Capitol chamber for President Obama’s State of the Union address, see if you can spot the representatives from the state of Oil: four avid supporters of the Keystone XL Pipeline who will attend the speech as the guests of House Speaker John Boehner.” Scott Rosenberg, reporting in real-time on Gristlist. Share Congress leaps before it looks at Keystone pipeline permit review efforts | EcoTone This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst H.R. 3630, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2011,… Esa [*President Obama didn’t actually kill the Keystone XL Pipeline; he rejected a bid from TransCanada. The project is on hold pending a State Department environmental review. Tune in to EcoTone’s Policy News this Friday to learn more.] POTUS: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans: Share “ Climate is only mentioned as something that Congress can’t seem to agree on. #SOTU   Kate Sheppard Wed, Jan 25 2012 20:11:41 ReplyRetweet [Kate Sheppard is clearly reading ahead in the script, because POTUS is still talking about courage, selflessness and teamwork, and coming together to get the job done, like the military (and unlike some other...

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In ecology news– land-walking octopi, turtle locomotion, Pebble Mine science, fracking, Neanderthal love

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer An unusual crowd converged at the recent meeting of the Arctic Division of the American Association for Science in Dillingham, AK. Over 150 locals joined the 75 meeting attendants to discuss technical and scientific questions about development of a very large copper mine in the area. The fight over the proposed Pebble Mine has been under way for much of the last decade, with passionate verbal artillery flying from both sides. John Shively, CEO of the mining conglomerate Pebble Limited Partnership, was on hand to discuss the interests of the mine. Bryce Edgmon, who represents the region in the Alaska State Legislature, described the pro-mining atmosphere in Juneau. With oil revenues declining, state government is looking to mining to fill the gap. The Pebble claim sits at the headwaters of two major salmon spawning rivers, the Nushagak and Kvichak, which flow into Bristol Bay, the largest and most profitable salmon fishery in the world. The mining company promises unprecedented technological feats to secure mine tailings and contain dangerous, contaminated water behind dams up to 740 feet high. But members of the half-billion a year salmon industry are worried. The sport fishing industry, environmental organizations, and Alaska Native groups reliant on subsistence fishing have joined them in resisting exploitation of the deposit. Pebble has the potential to become one of the largest mines in the world, holding an estimated 80.6 billion pounds of copper and smaller amounts of gold, molybdenum, silver, rhenium and palladium worth 300-500 billion dollars. The ore also contains sulfides, which will be exposed to the elements by the digging and crushing of the mining process. Without stringent mitigation, sulfuric acid drainage from the mine will profoundly change the chemistry of the watershed. Pebble Partnership is cagy about its exact plans for the site, but it is likely that the open pit mine would cover two square miles and would require an enormous amount of power from a source yet to be identified. During the public forum, CEO Shively offered the Fraser River near Vancouver, British Columbia, as evidence that salmon and mining can coexist. Not everyone agrees. The Fraser had an unexplained record run of 36 million fish in 2010 after a decade of decline (2009’s run was below 2 million). The river hosts two copper mines, including Highland Valley, the largest copper mine in Canada, in operation since the 1970s. Scientists say that only 5 grams of copper (about 2 pennies) in 1 million liters of water (around the volume of public swimming pool)  is enough to screw up salmon’s sense of smell and cause them...

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Weighing potential costs of hydraulic fracturing

The recent expansion of hydraulic fracturing across the nation has set off a debate among oil and gas industry officials and conservationists and environmental scientists. During a recent House Space, Science and Technology Committee hearing, Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) outlined the points of contention: “You have one group that’s got long experience with hydraulic fracturing [contending] it’s very safe” and “you have another group that’s new to it and is having to analyze the potential of risks associated with it.” Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking” involves using high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand to open cracks that release gas trapped in rock deep underground. Advances in fracturing technology have led to a dramatic surge in gas extraction nationwide. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the United States has 2,119 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, about 60 percent of which is “unconventional gas” stored in low permeability formations such as shale, coalbeds, and tight sands. In 2010, production of this “shale gas” doubled to 137.8 billion cubic meters, up from 63 billion cubic meters in 2009. A Pennsylvania State University study stated that deployment in 2008 of hydraulic fracturing technology in the Marcellus Shale region generated more than $240 million in state and local taxes for Pennsylvania, 29,000 jobs and $2.3 billion in total economic development. The oil and gas industry falls into the camp of those who contend that decades of practice show that hydraulic fracturing is important economically and poses no discernable threat to public health or the environment. In the other camp are conservationists and some researchers who say that fracking could pose a risk to drinking water supplies. During the recent congressional hearing, the committee’s majority Republican members repeatedly asserted that the Environmental Protection Agency’s $12 million study on the safety of hydraulic fracturing is wasting taxpayer dollars. “The study intends to identify the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water without ever taking into consideration the probability that such an effect may occur,” said Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX). A key part of understanding different views of the potential risks of “fracking” is how it is defined. Many in the oil and gas industry use the term to describe not the drilling process but, more specifically, the completion phase where chemical-laced water and sand are blasted underground to break apart rock and release gas. Companies assert it is a safe practice since so far there has been no indication of hydraulic fracturing fluid rising above the mile or so of rock layers to reach drinking water aquifers. Others outside the industry typically view fracturing and drilling as interconnected. Consequently,...

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