Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Big Oil Scorns Energy Independence

What’s good for America, of course, is bad for Big Oil.

Energy independence is good for America but bad for the oil companies because they have been making and can continue to make huge profits off of Americans’ energy dependence and profligate thirst for oil.

Big Oil berates talk of energy independent America

By Deepa Babington

HOUSTON, June 27 (Reuters) - The popular refrain in Washington of weaning America off Middle Eastern oil is an unattainable goal that may end up hurting the country in the long run, top oil executives said on Tuesday.
Oh lord.

"Repeated pronouncements by U.S. policymakers about backing off Middle East imports may deter Arab [countries] from expanding capacity at the very time the world needs them to do so," [William] Berry [Executive VP of exploration and production for ConocoPhillips] said. "Furthermore, ongoing references about reducing Middle East imports will motivate producers to become more focused on meeting Asian needs and hamper the ability of the United States to compete for supplies."
Uh, Mr. Berry, the whole point of weaning ourselves off of oil is so that we no longer have to rely on the
now-dubious prospect of expanded Middle East capacity. With its current demand, the world may “need” the Saudis to increase capacity, but there is a growing question of how much more they can do that, especially with not-so-positive prognoses coming from their largest fields.
In April, 2006, a Saudi Aramco spokesman admitted that its mature fields are now declining at a rate of 8% per year, and its composite decline rate of producing fields is about 2%.
Secondly, who cares if Asian countries like China will get a stronger foothold in the Middle Eastern oil market? They are just digging their own economic graves with an increased dependence on an unsustainable and dwindling energy supply. With decreased energy demand through conservation and investing in sustainable energy, the U.S. will not need to compete with China or India for oil.
Though popular among consumer activists and politicians, the concept has come under attack from Big Oil and Arab countries who see the move as fantasy at best and counterproductive at worst. [Reuters article]
Fantasy and counterproductive under our current lifestyle that oil has underwritten, but certainly a reality if we slowly but consistently invest in conservation, energy efficiency, and, thirdly, alternative energy sources.
An energy-guzzling country like the United States needs a diversity of oil suppliers, said Chevron's international exploration and production chief John Watson.

"True energy security comes from recognizing that the world needs more sources of energy, not less," he said. [Reuters article]
Watson just made a good case for community renewable energy.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Supreme Court to Hear Global Warming Case

There was potentially huge news for the environment on Monday, specifically regarding how the government will respond to global warming in the future.

The Supreme Court
agreed to hear Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, a case that would decide whether or not the EPA “is required under the federal clean air law to treat carbon dioxide from automobiles as a pollutant harmful to health.”

As it stands,

President Bush has rejected calls by environmentalists and some lawmakers in Congress to regulate carbon dioxide, the leading heat-trapping "greenhouse" gas going into the atmosphere. Bush favors voluntary actions and development of new technologies to curtail such emissions.
Voluntary. You know, like Ronald Reagan’s
gutting of OSHA in the 1980s so corporations could “voluntarily comply” with workplace safety regulations.

The plaintiffs, which include 12 states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington), three cities (Baltimore, New York, and Washington D.C.), an island (American Samoa), and three environmental organizations (Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth), have argued that

carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping chemicals from automobile tailpipes should be treated as unhealthy pollutants. [The 12 states] filed a lawsuit in an effort to force the EPA to curtail such emissions just as it does cancer-causing lead and chemicals that produce smog and acid rain.


While the case doesn't specifically involve carbon releases from power plants, environmentalists said a court decision declaring carbon dioxide a harmful pollutant would make it hard for the agency to avoid action involving power plants which account for 40 percent [of] the carbon dioxide released into the air. [AP article, linked above]
The debate centers on the intent and content of the
Clean Air Act.

Sec. 160. The purposes of this part are as follows:
(1) to protect public health and welfare from any actual or potential adverse effect which in the Administrator's judgment may reasonably be anticipate [sic] to occur from air pollution or from exposures to pollutants in other media, which pollutants originate as emissions to the ambient air), notwithstanding attainment and maintenance of all national ambient air quality standards;

If one follows the chain of logic connecting the facts of global warming, one would conclude that the plaintiffs make a compelling argument, especially considering a
soon-to-be-published study by Kevin Trenberth and Dennis Shea of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The study found that “[g]lobal warming accounted for around half of the extra hurricane-fueling warmth in the waters of the tropical North Atlantic in 2005,” when Hurricane Katrina pummeled and flooded New Orleans and surrounding areas.

"The global warming influence provides a new background level that increases the risk of future enhancements in hurricane activity," Trenberth says. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, NCAR's primary sponsor.

The study contradicts recent claims that natural cycles are responsible for the upturn in Atlantic hurricane activity since 1995. It also adds support to the premise that hurricane seasons will become more active as global temperatures rise. Last year produced a record 28 tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma all reached Category 5 strength.


By analyzing worldwide data on sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) since the early 20th century, Trenberth and Shea were able to calculate the causes of the increased temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic. Their calculations show that global warming explained about 0.8 degrees F of this rise. Aftereffects from the 2004-05 El Nino accounted for about 0.4 degrees F. The Atlantic multidecadal oscillation (AMO), a 60-to-80-year natural cycle in SSTs, explained less than 0.2 degrees F of the rise, according to Trenberth. The remainder is due to year-to-year variability in temperatures.
Hurricanes and other powerful meteorological events constitute both actual (Hurricane Katrina and the 27 other Atlantic tropical storms or hurricanes in 2005) and potential (those in future, more active hurricane seasons) adverse effects to public health and welfare. And hurricanes are just the tip of the (increasingly melting) iceberg of
actual and-or potential effects of climate change.

Given the
international consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to global warming, and the new NCAR study that clearly pinpoints global warming’s substantial influence on the SSTs that increased the probability of hurricanes in 2005, it should be clear that these adverse effects “may reasonably be anticipate[d] to occur from air pollution.” In other words, overwhelming scientific evidence has given us an undefeatable, albeit not exhaustive, logical progression from CO2 emissions to adverse effects on the public health and welfare.

But the connection, like so many other things in this universe, is complex. The links in the chain are all probabilities and likelihoods. No hurricane occurred specifically because John Q. Suburbanite drove his Mercedes Benz SUV from Orange to downtown Los Angeles and back every weekday. Droughts in Ethiopia are not exclusively traceable back to emissions from a coal power plant in Pennsylvania. In this complexity lies the tragedy. Americans are in general reluctant to do something because the cause-and-effect of global warming are veiled by complex meteoric and climatic systems as well as time. The complexity has allowed
conservative talking heads, think tanks, Exxon-funded scientists, the religious right, and others to get away with misinforming Americans for 20 years. And it is allowing the Bush administration to continue waffling on working to reduce carbon emissions.

The [Environmental Protection] [A]gency should not be required to "embark on the extraordinarily complex and scientifically uncertain task of addressing the global issue of greenhouse gas emissions" when voluntary ways to address climate change are available, the administration argued in its filing with the high court. [AP article]
The agency is correct in that addressing greenhouse gas emissions is complex and bears a certain degree of scientific uncertainty. The same is true with cancer research, and myriad other human endeavors. But that does not and should not relieve the EPA from the responsibility to do something about it. And I mean actually do something, not just waiting for the polluters to do something. It does not hide the fact that shining through the complex causality between carbon emissions and the status of the world’s climate is the simple truth that, at some significant level – to some significant extent – carbon emissions do contribute to hurricanes, drought, flooding, and so forth.

So the plaintiffs have the merit of common sense on their side. You want CO2 emissions to be regulated because you know that they are part of the problem. However, the legal side of the equation is a little trickier. Ultimately, it may be difficult for the plaintiffs to win this case, partly, I reckon, due to the complexity of the logical connection between the EPA’s inaction and the actual and potential harm endured (or soon to be endured) by the states. See
jlowery’s comments at Daily Kos for a more detailed explanation of the legal issues.

By the way, I wonder why Louisiana is not one of the 12 states on here. If any state has standing to show concrete harm from global warming, it is them.

Other notes

xlation at dKos mentions that Dr. James Hansen, the climate scientist at NASA whose findings on global warming were partially muffled by his supervisors, filed an amicus brief in this case, along with 10 other scientists.

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) has also
filed a petition against the US government urging action on climate change. Hat tip to martini at dKos for this article.

And a hat tip to
a gnostic for the original link to the AP article and the reference to Sec. 160 of the Clean Air act.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

City Spotlight: Beijing's Water Crisis...and Ski Hills

Beijing, with a metropolitan area of about 12 million, is “suffering its worst drought in 50 years,” according to an article Friday in the Toronto Globe and Mail (via jillian’s environmental news roundup at dKos).

The drought, which has lasted seven years, spells bad news for a city with an already dangerously dwindling supply of water.

The government has already warned that Beijing residents must take urgent measures to save water or else the city will face a shortage of 1.1 billion cubic metres of water by the time of the 2008 Olympics. Beijing has promised a "Green Olympics" in 2008, but it will have to take drastic action to achieve that goal. Because of the drought, the water level in one of Beijing's main reservoirs has fallen 91 per cent below its average level.

The drought is compounded by heavy pollution, which has left more than half of the surface water in China's seven biggest rivers unfit for human consumption. Of the country's 600 biggest cities, 110 have serious shortages of drinkable water, and 320 million rural residents are also suffering water shortages. Last year, a chemical spill on the Songhua River left millions of people without water.
If surface water is not potable, cities and towns have to tap into alternative sources for water, such as underground reserves. This puts a strain on the entire country’s water supply and diminishes the underground reserves, which contain what is called “fossil water” because they are not replenished by rain nearly as quickly as water is abstracted from them. Here’s Fred Pearce’s outlook on the underground water in the North China Plain, where Beijing is located, from his new book,
When the Rivers Run Dry:

The underground reserves on the North China plain are being emptied 24 million acre-feet a year faster than the rains replenish them. In the 1960s, the water table was almost at the surface; now it is 100 feet down. In places around Beijing, 90 percent of the replenishable water is gone, and here and there the city is tapping water half a mile down in fossil aquifers that will never refill. Fearing the worst, the city has banned new water-guzzling industries and even emptied the lakes in front of the Summer Palace.
I’m not sure which lakes Pearce is referring to here. It looks as if some of the lakes still get
40 million cubic meters of water every year from the Beijing water system. The point, in any case, is that China’s second-largest city is facing a supply crisis.

One would think then, that Beijing could do without
artificial ski hills.

…just northeast of Beijing is the most bizarre sight of all: a massive 10-storey indoor ski resort, Qiaobo Ski Dome, which provides artificial snow on two slopes at a constant temperature of three degrees below 0 C, even in the oppressive heat of a Chinese summer.
This must be an example of one of the water-guzzling industries Pearce says are now banned (although Qiaobo is only one year old, so I wonder what the nature and effective date of the ban is – unfortunately this edition of Pearce’s book has no citations). But, as water intensive as Qiaobo is, Beijing’s slew of outdoor ski hills appear to be worse culprits, which, according to the Globe and Mail article, “need to produce a constant supply of artificial snow because Beijing's winter temperatures are not cold enough to prevent melting.”

One study estimated that the 13 outdoor ski resorts around Beijing are pumping up 3.8 million cubic metres of groundwater every year -- enough for the annual water needs of 42,000 city residents.
This represents a little less than 1 percent of Beijing’s total annual water demand, which is pretty large for just one (unnecessary) activity. The simplest thing to do would be to retire the ski hills, a water-sucking luxury provided by profit-driven engineering attempts to defy Beijing’s climate, but of course this is not what’s being done. Instead, the Chinese government (besides implementing some token water-saving measures) is trying to subvert nature to quench Beijing’s thirst.

[Globe and Mail article] …the Communist regime is seeking to bend science to its needs. Chinese air force jets have flown nearly 3,000 cloud-seeding flights in the past five years, sowing chemicals that have produced an estimated 210 billion cubic metres of rain water over a third of China's territory. Thousands of rocket launchers and cannons are also used to seed the clouds.
The cloud-seeding flights, however, are nothing compared to a proposed project to transfer massive amounts of water from the southern region of China to the northern region, which, according to Pearce, would be the world’s largest civil engineering project.

The south-to-north scheme will divert part of the flow of the Yangtze, the world’s fourth biggest river, to replenish the dried-up Yellow River and the tens of millions of people in megacities that rely on it. The price tag is $60 billion.
Pearce reports of Chinese officials’ fears that the project could turn out to be an ecological disaster. This is not surprising in a country where environmental and humanitarian crises from hydrological mega-projects are all too common. (See
here and here, for example.)

Giving up the ski hills will not solve all of Beijing's water problems. After all, the North China Plain is already a very heavily populated area with relatively little water per capita. But it would be a good start. And conservation is a much more viable alternative than massive water diversion strategies.

[Globe and Mail article] "Water is so precious in Beijing," a researcher who worked on the study told the China Daily. "Beijingers can afford to live without skiing, but they cannot live without water."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The New Brudaimonia

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the new Brudaimonia, dedicated to reporting and commentary on the state of planet Earth. The five-or-so of you know that environmental issues were a favorite topic of mine on the old Brudaimonia. Now they will represent the singular focus of this blog. Ideally, this transformation will streamline and enhance my writing and consistently provide you with a cornucopia of articles and analysis on the berries and barbs along our world’s challenging path to sustainability.

The same underlying environmental philosophy carries over to this new incarnation. Humankind is currently living unsustainably, as evidenced by massive resource depletion, pollution, land degradation, habitat destruction, species extinction, and other symptoms of our collective lifestyle. We can indeed right these wrongs and begin to live sustainably, and the simplest solutions are often the best solutions to impending environmental problems.

For example, Brudaimonia is an outspoken advocate for conservation as the primary way out of the global energy crisis. It is much easier to simply not require a certain amount of energy than it is to find an alternative source for it, once the traditional sources run out. Only when conservation has been addressed first should we begin to formulate renewable energy strategies.

But Brudaimonia will cover so much more than just energy. All things are interconnected in the universe and on Earth. No more fundamental truth has ever been discovered of existence, and it has manifestations on the metaphysical, physical, biological, and ethical levels. Hence my goal to blog on a broad horizon of environmental issues, including energy, pollution, Peak Oil, water, city planning, transportation, toxics, forests, deserts, grasslands, marine conservation, land contamination, environmental health, and much more.

You’ll find that I have removed my previous posts and stripped the template down to a bare minimum, giving Brudaimonia a clean slate, as it were. Do not fret about either change. Regarding the former, I have archived my old posts in a Word document. If there was any one that struck a chord with you, email me and I will gladly send it to you. Regarding the latter, the minimalist template, ideally, will serve as a starting point for a gradual customization of Brudaimonia’s landscape. Rest assured that the clear-cut look will not long persist (at least – once again – ideally).

I will, undoubtedly, continue to write on so-called non-environmental matters (though everything, really, is related to the environment). This will take place on a new blog, the link to which I will provide you when it is up and running.

But here – here is where you can find a herald of sustainability’s springtime. Here is an advocate for choosing the right path from the crossroads at which humankind finds itself with respect to its host planet. The choice is truly momentous for our generation: either we can be proactive now about restructuring our collective lifestyle to become sustainable and thus leave a healthy planet for future generations, or we can continue to trudge along the same unsustainable road on which we are currently trudging and thus experience an unfortunate series of hardships in the not-too-distant future. Or, to put it another way (from The Shawshank Redemption), “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”