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Archive for the ‘global warming’ 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 on Grist.

Eric Pooley came to San Francisco last Tuesday to talk about his new book, The Climate War, at the offices of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The book, subtitled “True Believers, Power Brokers and the Fight to Save the Earth,” is a riveting tale of the battle to pass climate change legislation in the United States. Pooley, deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the former editor of Fortune magazine, embedded himself with key combatants in the climate war, including Fred Krupp, EDF’s president. (Read a review by Grist’s David Roberts here.)

It is, of course, a book without an ending as efforts to enact a cap on greenhouse gas emissions start to resemble a not-so-funny legislative version of Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day.”

The timing of Pooley’s Tuesday talk was appropriate, as that day a new front in the climate war opened up on the West Coast when an initiative to suspend California’s landmark global warming law qualified for the Nov. 2 ballot.

The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, popularly known by its legislative moniker, AB 32, requires California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. One of the options to do that is to implement a statewide cap-and-trade market to limit emissions by carbon polluters such as oil refiners.

Two Texas oil companies, Valero and Tesoro, are largely funding the anti-AB 32 ballot measure, which the California secretary of state in a bit of cosmic irony has designated Proposition 23 — a reversal of 32, get it?

Prop 23 would put AB 32 on hold until the unemployment rate falls to 5.5 percent for four straight quarters, which is as likely in California as the legislature delivering the state budget on time four years in a row.

It promises to be an epic battle of the Old Economy vs. the New Economy — Silicon Valley green tech startups, venture capitalists, and big corporations with a stake in the nascent renewable energy economy versus the old industrial giants with the most to lose from the new green order.

“If you look at investment in clean energy, China is now investing $9 billion a month with centralized control of the energy economy the likes of which we can’t equal,” Pooley told EDFers gathered on the 28th floor of a downtown San Francisco tower. “A price on carbon would change the rules of the road and take capital off the sidelines and put it to work building clean energy infrastructure and jobs here in this country. It could happen in California first as so many things have happened in California first.”

“But I really worry about this proposition,” he added. “It’s going to be tough to defeat.”

Pooley noted that the passage of AB 32 in 2006 helped put pressure on the federal government and an administration resolutely opposed to cap and trade. Suspension of AB 32 would take away a big playing card in the climate change poker game.

While the environment may be as Californian as the beach, redwood trees, and plastic surgery, the fight over Prop 23 makes environmentalists nervous, especially in a state with a sky-high unemployment rate.

Pooley asked Derek Walker, director of EDF’s California Climate Initiative, to handicap the electoral odds.

“When I’m asked that question, I would have said a year ago there’s no chance we’ll have a Republican senator from Massachusetts anytime soon,” Walker said. “But I think that all other things being equal, Californians have a very strong ethic for conservation and if there’s enough evidence of the green economy growing in California there’s a compelling case.”

As Pooley noted, “Nobody has done more than California to step up on this issue. There’s never going to be a perfect moment to do this. As if we all can wait for the golden day when all is in order and embrace the future. History does not work that way. Progress does not work that way. We have to rise up to meet the future or we’ll cede it to somebody else.”

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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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photo: Picarro

I follow up my story in Wednesday’s New York Times about California’s move to build the first statewide greenhouse gas monitoring network with a look at why such programs may be necessary to prevent a meltdown in the carbon markets:

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about California’s move to set up what is believed to be the world’s first statewide greenhouse gas monitoring network.

The Silicon Valley company Picarro manufacturers greenhouse gas measurement devices.
The first objective of the network, which will place analyzers around the state to measure methane in the atmosphere, will be to determine if actual emissions match estimates.

The California Air Resources Board assembles those estimates, called inventories, from computer models that rely on data such as how many grams of methane is burned per gallon of gasoline multiplied by the number of gallons sold in the state.

Such models, which follow protocols established by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are used worldwide. And while monitoring stations scattered around the world measure average global greenhouse gas concentrations, they don’t identify how much methane is being released in, say, California’s Central Valley, where methane emissions from livestock are assumed to be plentiful.

The recent Copenhagen climate change talks faltered in part over the issue of how to verify emissions. And the integrity of emissions trading schemes will depend on ensuring that companies don’t game the market by deliberately or inadvertently under-reporting how much carbon they’re putting into the atmosphere.

“If the markets are not matching reality, we will find out at some point and the markets will then adjust with a huge shock,” said Pieter Tans, a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Colorado.

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 The New York Times on Thursday, I write about how California regulators are helping revive a once-thriving solar hot water market:

California regulators on Thursday approved a $350 million program to subsidize the installation of solar water heaters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The program will allocate $250 million for the replacement of hot water heaters fueled by natural gas and $100.8 million for those powered by electricity.

Solar hot water systems typically consist of a storage tank and a rooftop array that collects heat from the sun to warm the water.

Customers of California’s three big investor-owned utilities will receive rebates of up to $1,500, or about 30 percent of the cost of replacing a residential natural-gas hot water heater with a solar system. Owners of multi-family commercial buildings are eligible for up to $500,000 in incentives.

The California Public Utilities Commission reserved 60 percent of the funds to install solar hot water systems on those buildings, with the balance going to single-family homes.

Homeowners with electric hot water heaters can receive up to $1,010 to install a solar hot water system and owners of commercial buildings will get up to $250,000. Only about 10 percent of hot water systems in California are electric, according to the utilities commission.

The program’s goal is to replace 585 therms of natural gas -– the equivalent of installing 200,000 solar hot water systems — and 150 megawatts of electricity by 2017. Incentives decrease over the eight-year life of the program.

“Today’s decision will increase consumer confidence and understanding of solar water heating technology and its benefits,” Michael R. Peevey, president of the utilities commission, said in a statement.

You can read the story 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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Image: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Next month the United States Department of Energy will release a study finding that China contains huge underground repositories that could be used to store 100 years of carbon emissions. As I write in The New York Times on Thursday:

China has vast underground repositories that could store more than a century’s worth of carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities, according to a report to be released by the United States Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The study, conducted with scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, found that the geologic formations are in close to a large percentage of the country’s power plants.

That could permit “the continued use of cheap, domestic coal within China while supporting CO2 emissions reductions via the capture and geologic storage of the associated CO2,” according to an eight-page summary of the study.

The full report will be released in November.

“A lot of the policy dialogue and technical discussions have this really sharp dichotomy — either you use coal and bad things happen to the environment, or you forgo coal and bad things happen to the economy,” James Dooley, a scientist at the laboratory and an author of the report, said in an interview. “We’re trying to say maybe there’s a third way here.”

Such technology, which remains untried on a commercial scale, comes with high costs, because capturing and storing carbon emissions consumes significant amounts of energy and water. The potential environmental impact of putting billions of tons of carbon dioxide underground also remains unknown.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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2009 Solar Decathlon

photo: Stefano Paltera/DOE

In my new Green State column on Grist (I’m stealing the above headline from Grist executive editor Russ Walker), I take a look at the state of green tech venture investing gleaned from a recent seminar at the University of California, Berkeley:

Silicon Valley is by nature an optimistic place. After all, inventing the carbon-free future and making boatloads of money along the way is fun. And even though California is slouching toward apocalyptic collapse these days, there’s always another innovation wave to ride.

So it’s always interesting to get a more-or-less unvarnished assessment of the state of green tech, as happened last week when a group of regulators, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs gathered at the University of California, Berkeley’s business school. They were there for the Cleantech Institute, one of those pricey, closed-door seminars for executives and government officials. (I was present to “facilitate.”)

The good news: Speakers reported that investors are starting to turn on the taps again when it comes to funding green tech startups.

But don’t expect a return to the halcyon days of 2008 when $4 billion poured into all manner of green technology companies. In the wake of the “Great Recession,” VCs are reassessing their investment strategies as it becomes clear that the success of their portfolios will be influenced to a large degree by government policy and incentives.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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