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Archive for the ‘climate change’ Category

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

As global warming accelerates, the world will become not only hotter, flatter, and more crowded but also thirsty, according to a new study that finds 70 percent of counties in the United States may face climate change-related risks to their water supplies by 2050.

One-third of U.S. counties may find themselves at “high or extreme risk,” according to the report prepared for the Natural Resources Defense Council by Tetra Tech, a California environmental consulting firm.

“It appears highly likely that climate change could have major impacts on the available precipitation and the sustainability of water withdrawals in future years under the business-as-usual scenario,” the study’s authors conclude. “This calculation indicates the increase in risk that affected counties face that water demand will outstrip supplies, if no other remedial actions are taken. To be clear, it is not intended as a prediction that water shortages will occur, but rather where they are more likely to occur.”

Those conclusions are based on climate modeling, predicted precipitation, historical drinking water consumption as well as water use by industry and for electrical generation.

It’s no surprise that states in the hot and dry West faces the highest risk of water shortages. Arizona, California, Nevada, and Texas top the list, though the study also finds that part of Florida could find itself tapped out.

“As a result, the pressure on public officials and water users to creatively manage demand and supply — through greater efficiency and realignment among competing uses, and by water recycling and creation of new supplies through treatment — will be greatest in these regions,” the report states. “The majority of the Midwest and Southern regions are considered to be at moderate risk, whereas the Northeast and some regions in the Northwest are at low risk of impacts.”

The forecast relies on the continuation of business as usual — i.e. the nation does not change its water-wasting ways — and also on federal government data that predicts the U.S. will continue to use thirsty fossil-fuel power plants to generate electricity.

That should whet some appetites for renewable energy sources that use less water and for investment in new water technologies.

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photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

On Thursday, Yale Environment 360 published a story I wrote about a growing fight over using the U.S. Endangered Species Act to protect wildlife at risk of extinction from climate change:

While a high-profile battle raged over listing the polar bear as a threatened species due to melting Arctic sea ice, U.S. environmentalists were quietly building a case to protect a critter closer to home, one whose existence also seems gravely threatened by a warming world.

A pocket-sized member of the rabbit family with a distinctive squeak and large ears that frame dark eyes and a button nose, the American pika lives on rocky slopes high in alpine mountain ranges from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies. Sporting a thick gray-brown coat, the pika does not hibernate and so maintains a high internal temperature to survive frigid winters. Because it can’t turn off its heater, the animal can die in the summer if its body temperature increases by as little as 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 F).

As temperatures have risen across the American West, scientists who study the pika have discovered that it is disappearing from lower elevations. In the Sierra Nevada, for instance, biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the pika had moved upslope 500 feet to cooler climes over the past 90 years. Another study determined that nine of 25 pika populations in the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah have vanished over the past century, with surviving pikas migrating up 900 feet. Eventually, the tiny mammal will reach the mountaintop and the end of the line, with nowhere left to go if temperatures continue to climb, according to numerous biologists.

The pika has become an indicator species in more ways than one. It is in the vanguard of a growing number of animals and plants that U.S. environmental groups have petitioned to protect as the Endangered Species Act becomes the latest battleground over global warming.

The effort to put a furry face on the abstract phenomenon of climate change is bringing to a head a simmering issue: As scientific evidence accumulates about global warming’s impact on wildlife, how effective can the Endangered Species Act be in cushioning the blow of climate change on various species? But beyond this issue, an even thornier question looms: Can conservation groups use the act to force the U.S. government to use the legislation’s powerful provisions to mandate greenhouse gas reductions to protect wildlife and their habitat?

You can read the rest of the story here.

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This post first appeared in Grist.

As we know, one of the few beneficial side effects of the Great Recession of 2009 was the decline in global greenhouse gas emissions as our consumer-centric economy sputtered. But that also sent the voluntary carbon markets into a tailspin, according to a new report released Tuesday by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and Ecosystem Marketplace.

Voluntary carbon markets, such as the Chicago Climate Exchange, allow companies to trade carbon credits, usually as part of corporate sustainability programs where they pledge to neutralize greenhouse gas emissions by buying offsets tied to forestry programs, the capture of methane gas from landfills, and other efforts. (Such markets should not be confused with mandatory, regulated markets such as the European Trading Scheme.)

The value of greenhouse gas emissions credits traded on the voluntary markets plunged 47 percent in 2009 to $387.4 million, while the volume of greenhouse gas emissions traded fell 26 percent to 93.7 millions of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e).

“The economic recession had a marked impact on the number of companies offsetting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” wrote the report’s authors, who compiled data provided by more than 200 carbon credit suppliers and the carbon exchanges. “In response to the global financial crisis, companies cut back on discretionary funding for corporate social responsibility initiatives, including offsetting emissions. At the same time, the prospects for new compliance demand remained uncertain.”

Still, even in a recession the volume of greenhouse gas emissions traded in 2009 was 39 percent higher than in 2007.

Interestingly, the regulated carbon markets powered through the downturn, growing 7 percent with 8,625 MtCO2e traded at a value of $144 billion, according to the report.

The United States became the world’s biggest supplier of voluntary carbon credits for the first time last year, followed by Latin America and Asia.

Methane-related projects accounted for 41 percent of offset credits while forestry programs were tied to 24 percent of credits and renewable energy to 17 percent.

“Survey respondents were highly positive about the prospects for the global voluntary markets and collectively believe transactions will increase to approximately 400 MtCO2e in 2012, 800 MtCO2e in 2015, and 1,200 MtCO2e in 2020,” the report concluded. “Whether this growth will actually be achieved remains to be seen; it does demonstrate a strong sense of optimism for future activity in the voluntary marketplace.”

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In my new Green State column on Grist, I write about how an environmental justice group in Texas is using a greenhouse gas analyzer from Silicon Valley’s Picarro to detect pollution from natural gas fracking operations in two communities near Dallas:

If you had been driving through North Texas this week you might have seen a white Dodge Sprinter van circling some of the natural gas wells and compression stations that have sprung up around the Barnett Shale belt like boom-time subdivisions.

Drillers tap natural gas by splitting shale through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that injects fluids laced with chemicals into the rock formations. The proliferation of shale gas drilling northeast of Dallas has ignited an uproar among residents, some of whom fear that fracking could be poisoning ground water and polluting the air with carcinogens. But the industry won’t disclose all the chemicals it uses and Texas environmental authorities won’t compel them to do so.

Which brings us back to our mystery van. Inside was a desktop computer-sized analyzer connected to a translucent tube that snaked out the roof of the van. The analyzer is made by a Silicon Valley company called Picarro and it provides real-time measurements of methane and other greenhouse gas emissions. By correlating the data with wind patterns, Picarro scientists can pinpoint the source of emissions. Oil and gas operations emit methane, which can also indicate the presence of benzene and other carcinogens, according to Picarro scientists.

This is an image created by a mashup of the methane concentrations recorded by the Picarro analyzer in Flower Mound, Texas, overlaid on a Google map.
A Picarro employee had driven the van to Texas from California at the request of Wilma Subra, a Louisiana scientist, environmental justice activist and MacArthur genius grant recipient. Picarro’s director of research and development, Chris Rella, flew to Texas and joined Subra and activists from Earthworks’ Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project on the hunt for fugitive emissions in the towns of DISH and Flower Mound.

DISH — the name is capitalized because in 2005 the town changed its name in exchange for free satellite television from the DISH Network — is home to about 200 people and a dozen compression stations that push natural gas from wells into pipelines. As the Picarro van drove around DISH, concentrations of methane spiked from background concentrations of 1.8 parts per million to 20 parts per million near the compression stations. As the analyzer recorded the spikes they were automatically plotted on a Google map.

Twenty miles to the southeast in the Dallas exurb of Flower Mound, methane concentrations near natural gas wells literally went off the analyzer’s chart, topping 40 parts per million, says Subra and Picarro executives.

“I see this as very, very beneficial to the environmental justice movement,” says Subra. “It gives you real-time data and you can potentially identify the source as opposed to having to collect air samples and then have them analyzed. You can see the plume on the map and how close houses are to the compressor stations.”

You can read the rest of the column here.

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In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about a survey of U.S. utility industry executives and insiders conducted by Black & Veatch:

American utility industry executives see nuclear energy as the most promising carbon-free power source, are skeptical of climate change science, and are uncertain about the future, according to a report to be issued Thursday by Black & Veatch, the engineering and consulting giant.

The survey of 329 executives, managers and engineers, which Black & Veatch shared with The New York Times, comes as the utility industry faces slow growth in energy consumption and a two-year fall in capital spending, the first such decline since the Great Depression.

“The industry is facing a lot of demands to spend more money to fix up an aging infrastructure, build smart grids and deal with cyber security while cutting carbon emissions,” said Bill Kemp, a Black & Veatch vice president, in an interview. “In the near term, we’ll have a difficult economic environment and a slow sales growth as regulators are reluctant to push through large rate increases while voters are still in pain.”

The stalled emissions trading legislation in Congress has added to the confusion about the future shape of the electricity market, Black & Veatch found. Despite a high-profile campaign by some utility executives to support an emissions trading market, more than 70 percent of the industry insiders surveyed oppose the current legislation and 52 percent said the United States cannot afford the proposal to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

More than 75 percent think there is a future for coal-fired power plants.

In fact, 44 percent of those surveyed don’t believe global warming is caused by human activity, according to the report, while 7 percent don’t believe the planet is warming.

“Utility respondents generally appear to be less certain of the threat of global warming than the general public and scientific community, as well as many political and policy leaders,” the report’s authors wrote.

“Utility professionals also seem to be quite disturbed about the direction of the global warming movement,” they added, “and the likelihood that their organizations will be facing what many of them seem to view as draconian changes in the short term.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Picarro

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about California’s move to deploy the world’s first statewide greenhouse gas monitoring network:

SAN FRANCISCO — California is preparing to introduce the first statewide system of monitoring devices to detect global-warming emissions, installing them on towers throughout the state.

The monitoring network, which is expected to grow, will initially focus on pinpointing the sources and concentrations of methane, a potent contributor to climate change. The California plan is an early example of the kind of system that may be needed in many places as countries develop plans to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases.

“This is the first time that this is being done anywhere in the world that we know of,” said Jorn Dinh Herner, a scientist with the California Air Resources Board.

While monitoring stations around the globe already detect carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, they are deliberately placed in remote locations and are generally intended to measure average global concentrations of greenhouse gases rather than local emissions.

The California network, by contrast, is meant to help the state find specific sources of emissions, as well as to verify the state’s overall compliance with a plan it adopted to limit greenhouse gases.

The air resources board has bought seven portable analyzers made by Picarro, a company in Silicon Valley that also supplies the machines to the federal government and academic scientists.

By this summer, the analyzers will be deployed on towers in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, home to large agricultural operations and oil fields, and on Mount Wilson, outside Los Angeles. Data will also be collected from Picarro machines maintained by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on the coast and from several monitoring stations operated by other agencies.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In Tuesday’s New York Times, I write about California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to ban renewable energy production in two proposed national monuments in the Mojave Desert:

AMBOY, Calif. — Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation in Congress on Monday to protect a million acres of the Mojave Desert in California by scuttling some 13 big solar plants and wind farms planned for the region.

But before the bill to create two new Mojave national monuments has even had its first hearing, the California Democrat has largely achieved her aim. Regardless of the legislation’s fate, her opposition means that few if any power plants are likely to be built in the monument area, a complication in California’s effort to achieve its aggressive goals for renewable energy.

Developers of the projects have already postponed several proposals or abandoned them entirely. The California agency charged with planning a renewable energy transmission grid has rerouted proposed power lines to avoid the monument.

“The very existence of the monument proposal has certainly chilled development within its boundaries,” said Karen Douglas, chairwoman of the California Energy Commission.

For Mrs. Feinstein, creation of the Mojave national monuments would make good on a promise by the government a decade ago to protect desert land donated by an environmental group that had acquired the property from the Catellus Development Corporation.

“The Catellus lands were purchased with nearly $45 million in private funds and $18 million in federal funds and donated to the federal government for the purpose of conservation, and that commitment must be upheld. Period,” Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement.

The federal government made a competing commitment in 2005, though, when President George W. Bush ordered that renewable energy production be accelerated on public lands, including the Catellus holdings. The Obama administration is trying to balance conservation demands with its goal of radically increasing solar and wind generation by identifying areas suitable for large-scale projects across the West.

Mrs. Feinstein heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Interior Department, giving her substantial clout over that agency, which manages the government’s landholdings. Her intervention in the Mojave means it will be more difficult for California utilities to achieve a goal, set by the state, of obtaining a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020; projects in the monument area could have supplied a substantial portion of that power.

“This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmentalist and a partner with a venture capital firm that invested in a solar developer called BrightSource Energy. In September, BrightSource canceled a large project in the monument area.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In my new Green State column on Grist, I write about the latest political machinations in Australia that derailed carbon cap-and-trade legislation at the 11th hour and sets the stage for a national election fought largely over climate change:

As I boarded my flight back to California in Brisbane, Australia, last Wednesday, I received an email alert that the Australian Senate had just defeated the Labor government’s climate change legislation. Only days earlier victory seemed all but assured, allowing Australia to go to Copenhagen with an iron-clad, albeit weak, agreement in hand to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, which per capita are among the highest in the world.

Then in the course of 24 hours the conservative opposition Liberal Party sacked its leader—who had pledged to pass the government’s cap-and-trade legislation—and replaced him with a one-time global warming denier and quickly voted down the government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

The defeat gives Prime Minister Rudd the trigger for an early election that would largely be fought over climate change. (If Parliament twice rejects a government bill, the prime minister can ask that the legislature be dissolved and a snap election called.)

In August, after the Senate first rejected the center-left government’s cap-and-trade legislation, I wrote in Grist that the defeat reflected the peculiarities of the Australian political system rather than the viability of a cap-and-trade system.

I’m not so sure any more after watching the latest reversal unfold during a visit to the Lucky Country.

Just as Australia is the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the environmental affects of climate change, a national election waged over cap-and-trade will offer a preview of voters’ willingness to pull the lever for action on climate change.

You can read the rest of the column here.

image: courtesy cinephobia via Flickr

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IMG_0021
photo: Todd Woody

Ford executives brought a battery-powered Focus sedan to San Francisco on Thursday (along with a plug-in hybrid Escape). It was clear from the presentation by Nancy Gioia, Ford’s director of global electrification, that the automaker is aiming for a mass market and is spending a great deal of effort on helping create an entire electric car infrastructure. As I wrote in The New York Times on Friday:

At a press event in San Francisco on Thursday, Ford showed off a prototype of what might be called the Model T of the automaker’s electric car strategy: the battery-powered Focus sedan.

“This is about affordable transportation for the masses — this is not about a small niche,” said Nancy Gioia, Ford’s director of global electrification.

To keep costs down, the Focus and plug-in electric hybrids will be built — in small numbers at first — on what the company calls its global “C” platform, which produces two million cars a year.

“The assembly line in Michigan will produce the battery-electric Focus and also, with minor modifications, the gas Focus,” Ms. Gioia said. “We can change production as the market shifts.”

The Focus will hit the market in 2011 followed the next year by a plug-in electric Escape sport-utility vehicle, which Ford also showed off in San Francisco. Ms. Gioia said she expects electric and plug-in hybrids will account for 10 to 25 percent of the market by 2020.

You can read the rest of the story here.

But the cars seemed almost beside the point as Ford executives focused on their strategy to work with utilities and other groups to create open standards for electric cars and ensure that a charging infrastructure is in place when buyers hit showrooms.

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Rack Welding

photo: Skyline Solar

Silicon Valley startup Skyline Solar has joined other green energy companies beating a path to Detroit to take advantage of the down-and-out auto industry’s manufacturing might. As I write in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday:

Skyline Solar, a Silicon Valley start-up, has become the latest green energy company to tap the struggling auto industry’s manufacturing muscle.

The company announced today that components for its solar power plants were being made in a Troy, Mich., car factory operated by Cosma International, a division of auto manufacturing giant Magna International.

The same machines that stamp out doors, hoods and other car body parts are now making long metal arrays that hold Skyline’s photovoltaic panels.

“It’s literally just carving out a piece of an existing facility and putting through a product that for all intents and purposes could be a new make and model of the next family sedan,” said Bob MacDonald, Skyline’s chief executive.  “Every time there’s a new model year for a Ford Mustang, they have a tool and die set they put into this press. So you just have a different tool and die in there that forms a new shape for Skyline.”

The bottom line, said MacDonald, is that Skyline has slashed its capital costs by taking advantage of Cosma’s existing manufacturing capability. He said Skyline of Mountain View, Calif., has contracts in place for small-scale solar farms. He said he could not divulge the details of those contracts but noted that Skyline has begun to receive shipments of arrays from Michigan.

It’s also a good deal for Cosma, whose parent company has agreed to acquire Opel from General Motors.

“Renewable energy trends and forecast data suggest significant growth potential for this market — we expect to participate in this growth potential,” Tracy Fuerst, a Magna spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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