Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Geoff Mohan

Keystone pipeline delay draws cheers, dismay

President Obama's decision Thursday to put off the decision of whether to permit the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico drew cheers from his environmentalist supporters but heightened criticism from opponents eager for jobs and fuel for the ailing U.S. economy.

The 1,700-mile pipeline would carry oil extracted from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, crossing plains states and the enormous Ogallala aquifer. It has been the target of increased protest and opposition from environmentalists and residents of those states, who complain that the corrosive oil poses a spill threat. In addition, extracting tar sands oil requires a great deal of energy, making the fuel's carbon footprint high, environmentalists say.

To be built, the pipeline requires approval of the U.S. State Department, which on Thursday announced it would study alternative routes, effectively delaying the permit process until after the presidential election next November.

Leading environmental groups said the pipeline proposal was effectively dead, while labor, energy and Republican factions decried the loss of an opportunity to boost supplies of oil and create jobs.

“The lobbying groups pushing for delay are using a whole raft of phony arguments, like air quality. They are ignoring the obvious: Every barrel of oil from Canada means one less from OPEC –- improving national security and reducing the risk of oil spills from tankers," said S. Fred Singer, a senior fellow for environment policy at the Heartland Institute, a conservative group that casts doubt on climate change.

"This will merely show voters that the Obama administration cares more about appeasing its environmental activist allies than doing what is right for our economy and our nation’s energy security," said James Taylor, another senior fellow at the policy group.

Courtney Hight, a former Obama White House staff member and co-director of the Energy Action Coalition, said the move encouraged the mostly young protesters who had pressed the administration to stand up to oil companies and meet its environmental promises made during the 2008 campaign.

"For the last three months, young voters have been calling on President Obama to stand up to Big Oil and deny the Keystone XL pipeline," the group said in a statement. "In this next round of review, young voters  will continue to hold the Obama administration accountable to their commitment to fully consider the climate and environmental justice concerns surrounding Keystone XL. This is a major step in President Obama fulfilling his campaign promises to end the tyranny of oil in the United States and usher in a clean energy economy." 

The Center for American Progress praised the State Department's new caution toward the pipeline.

"The State Department’s announcement that it will take the time to carefully examine alternative Keystone XL pipeline routes is essential to protect the Sand Hill region over the Ogallala Aquifer from pipeline leaks. The aquifer is life blood for farmers in eight states. Any analysis of alternative routes must ensure that the entire Ogallala is protected, as well as other vital water resources, particularly the Missouri and Mississippi river watersheds," the groups said in a statement.

"The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that we’ve been fighting for months has been effectively killed," said Bill McKibben, head of, an international climate group. "The president didn’t outright reject the Keystone XL pipeline permit, but a few minutes ago he sent the pipeline back for a thorough re-review that will delay it til 2013. Most analysts agree: The pipeline will never get built." 

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) blasted the decision as a job killer.

“By punting on this project,” Boehner said, “the president has made clear that campaign politics are driving U.S. policy decisions at the expense of American jobs.”

TransCanada, the pipeline developer, appeared to hold out hope that the State Department would agree to a revised route.

“This project is too important to the U.S. economy, the Canadian economy and the national interest of the United States for it not to proceed,” said TransCanada President Russ Girling.


Obama proposes CO2 regulations

NOAA greenhouse gas index climbs

Keystone XL pipeline decisions to be probed by State Department

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: Protesters in front of the White House recently voiced opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Judge restricts release of emails among climate scientists

A county Circuit judge in Virginia has sided with the University of Virginia's effort to restrict the release of personal emails from one of its former faculty members.

The decision late Wednesday would allow the university to alter an agreement it had reached with the American Tradition Institute, which was seeking communications between Michael Mann, a physicist and climate scientist, and other scientists from 1999 to 2005, when Mann was employed by the university.

The American Tradition Institute, headquartered in Washington, D.C., and Colorado, is a nonprofit policy research and education group that has close ties to energy interests that have opposed climate legislation, including the Koch Brothers.

Mann, now a professor at Penn State University, is best known for his contributions to the so-called hockey stick graph that has been at the center of warnings that Earth's temperature rise has been precipitous and historically unprecedented. It has been used as one of thousands of data analyses that have led the vast majority of climate scientists to conclude that man's emission of greenhouse gases is trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Mann was caught up in a controversy in 2009 related to stolen emails that global-warming skeptics alleged showed an attempt to squelch dissenting views and manipulate data to exaggerate the hockey-stick graph. Mann and others have subsequently been cleared by several high-level scientific panels in England and the U.S.

Those investigations have not satisfied conservative groups that cast doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change. They were seeking, through a public-records request, emails among Mann and other scientists. The emails requested by the group are identical to those identified in a subpoena from Virginia Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli that was rejected by a different judge last year.

Academics have viewed the subpoena and records request as having a potentially chilling effect on academic freedoms at public institutions such as the University of Virginia. But those seeking the information counter that the public has a right to know what goes on inside the universities its taxes fund.

Prince William County Circuit Court Judge Gaylord Finch also granted Mann standing in the records case.

The judge ordered the university and ATI to choose an independent third party by Dec. 20 to evaluate which correspondence should be disclosed and which should be protected.


Another 'climategate' inquiry clears professors

After three strikes, is the 'climategate' scandal out?

British climate researcher had high scientific standards, review finds

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: Michael E. Mann, a Penn State University professor at the center of a dispute over the release of emails sent while he taught at the University of Virginia. Credit: Penn State University


'Snowtober' fits U.N. climate change predictions


While the Northeast is still reeling from a surprise October snowstorm that has left more than a million people without power for days, the United Nations is about to release its latest document on adaptation to climate change.

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is expected conclude that there is a high probability that man-made greenhouse gases already are causing extreme weather that has cost governments, insurers, businesses and individuals billions of dollars. And it is certain to predict that costs due to extreme weather will rise and some areas of the world will become more perilous places to live.

Federal climate scientists have labeled 2011 as one of the worst in American history for extreme weather, with punishing blizzards, epic flooding, devastating drought and a heat wave that has broiled a huge swath of the country. Weather related losses amounted to more than $35 billion even before the Nor'easter shellacked the East Coast.

Among the more costly events in the U.S. this year was the flooding of the Mississippi River and tributaries due to rapid melting of the Rocky Mountain snowpack and early spring rains. That event, which prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to open a Mississippi River spillway and flood more than 4,000 acres in Louisiana, caused billion of dollars in direct damage.

April also spawned 875 tornado reports nationwide, well above the 30-year average for the month of 135. The "super outbreak," as climatologists dubbed it, killed 327 people.

Drought in Texas has caused more than $5.4 billion in damage to the cattle industry alone, driving up beef prices, while wildfires consumed 2 million acres. A heat wave throughout much of the country caused 29 states to issue heat advisories in July. Nationwide, the hot spell was blamed for scores of deaths.

The "Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation" will be released Nov. 18. It builds on the climate change panel's previous assessments of the Earth's climate, and is intended to help governments and policymakers boost preparedness for extreme weather events.


Burning oil from BP spill produced carbon plumes

Climate skeptic admits he was wrong to doubt temperature data

Forest biofuel projects could increase West Coast carbon emissions

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: Children in New Smithville, Pa., make the best of a freak fall snowstorm that cut power to more than 3 million people from Virginia to Maine. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Fracking used more diesel fuel than estimated, lawmakers say


Three U.S. House members investigating the use of toxic substances in the fluids injected into natural gas wells have revised their estimate of the amount of diesel fuel used in the practice, known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking."

Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, joined Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) in sending a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency. The letter said two companies had erroneously reported usage of diesel fuel in fracking fluids, which are injected at high pressure into rock formations — usually shale — to create fissures that allow natural gas to be extracted. 

More than 32 million gallons of diesel were used from 2005 to 2009 by 12 companies employing fracking in states including Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, among others.

Oil service companies such as Halliburton have maintained that fracking does not affect drinking water, despite anecdotal evidence in places such as Wyoming that show methane and other chemicals in residential wells near fracking activities.

The amount of diesel under-reported was about 500,000 gallons, the lawmakers said in their letter to the EPA, which pressed the agency for better oversight and more uniform reporting requirements. 


Burning oil from BP spill produced carbon plumes

California adopts historic cap-and-trade regulations

Former Keystone pipeline lobbyist hired by Obama campaign

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: A natural gas well pad near Rifle, Colo., in the Rocky Mountains. Credit: David Zalubowski / Associated Press 

Oil pipeline protesters to greet Obama in San Francisco

President Obama may face a San Francisco protest against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline

When President Obama arrives Tuesday at San Francisco's W Hotel for a fundraiser, he may see some familiar faces from his 2008 campaign -- but they won't be friendly ones.

Several hundred former ardent supporters of the president are expected to attend a rally opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring Canadian tar sands oil through the U.S. heartland to the Gulf of Mexico. The State Department is expected to soon issue a decision on whether to permit the conduit.

The rally, organized by CREDO Action, is a bellwether for the reelection dissatisfaction Obama could face among those who voted for him based on his environmental promises, a number of which have crumbled since he took office -- including the demise of cap-and-trade legislation and the postponement of major air regulations.

“The Bay Area and Northern California were huge sources of grass-roots donations and energy for the Obama campaign in 2008," said CREDO Action campaign manager Elijah Zarlin, a former author of the Obama campaign's fundraising emails who is organizing the rally. "If he wants these people back strongly for him in 2012, he needs to hear us on this and seize this opportunity to lead. This is a great opportunity to deliver this important message directly to the president, and to his high-dollar donors who are in a unique position to talk to the president about this issue."

Rally attendees are planning to use the call of "Yes You Can," a twist on Obama's 2008 campaign motto, to suggest that the president can reject the Keystone application and fulfill his promise to end "the tyranny of oil," as he said during his first White House campaign.

There's no word yet on how close the protesters will be allowed to get to the president or his supporters, who will be paying $7,500 apiece to attend the dinner.

"The Keystone pipeline is a desperate attempt to maintain our disastrous reliance on fossil fuels that will be essentially 'game over' for climate, which is exactly what President Obama ran against in 2008,” said Becky Bond, political director of CREDO Action. "The corruption and conflict of interest that we've seen in the State Department's handling of the review process are exactly the type of insider, closed-door cronyism that President Obama said he would change."


California adopts historic cap-and-trade regulations

Australia moves closer to law establishing carbon tax

Climate skeptic admits he was wrong to doubt global-warming data

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: President Obama speaks at Greensville County High School in Emporia, Va., on Oct. 18, part of his three-day bus tour to promote his jobs legislation. Credit: Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images

Climate skeptic admits he was wrong to doubt global-warming data

MullerRemember when scientists who had cast doubt on global temperature studies boldly embarked on an effort to "reconsider" the evidence?

They have. And they conclude that their doubt was misplaced.

UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller and others were looking at the so-called urban heat island effect -- the notion that because more urban temperature stations are included in global temperature data sets than are rural ones, the global average temperature was being skewed upward because these sites tend to retain more heat. Hence, global warming trends are exaggerated.

Using data from such urban heat islands as Tokyo, they hypothesized, could introduce "a severe warming bias in global averages using urban stations."

In fact, the data trend was "opposite in sign to that expected if the urban heat island effect was adding anomalous warming to the record. The small size, and its negative sign, supports the key conclusion of prior groups that urban warming does not unduly bias estimates of recent global temperature change."

Researchers conclude that "[t]he trend analysis also supports the view that the spurious contribution of urban heating to the global average, if present, is not a strong effect; this agrees with the conclusions in the literature that we cited previously."

The literature they cite is the basis for the conclusion that Earth has been warming in an unnatural way during the period of human industrialization.

The paper, made available Thursday, amounts to the second time that Muller et al have had to back away from a key plank of climate skeptics' argument that Earth is simply on a natural temperature path and man-made greenhouse gases are not warming the atmosphere.

Several months ago, when called before a congressional panel that likewise has been skeptical of climate research, Muller acknowledged that his team was finding no smoking gun to indict climate scientists.

At the time, Muller told the House Science Committee that the work of the three principal groups that have analyzed the temperature trends underlying climate science is "excellent .... We see a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups."


Federal biofuel mandate flawed, report finds

Australia moves closer to law establishing carbon tax

'MythBusters' asks: Are motorcycles greener than cars?

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller.

Gov. Jerry Brown signs ban on chemical BPA in baby bottles


Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill banning the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA, from baby bottles and toddlers' drinking cups.

The bill, the Toxin-Free Infants and Toddlers Act (AB 1319), had passed the Senate in August.

The legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) and Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina Del Ray) would ban BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups made or sold after July 1, 2013. It would also require manufacturers to use the least toxic alternative to BPA in those products. Similar efforts have failed in recent years.

Supporters have urged California to follow the lead of other states and nations in restricting BPA, which has been linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and sexual dysfunction in people and cancer in mice.

Opponents argued that the bill could open companies to lawsuits if the chemical is found in baby products after the ban takes effect.


Dirty money: BPA on dollar bills

Bisphenol A: Should there be laws?

Bisphenol A and its potential health risks

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: Bisphenol A is found in many plastic baby bottles and other food containers. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Mattel drops paper company linked to Indonesia deforestation

It's official: Barbie has broken up with Asia Pulp and Paper.

Responding to a campaign by Greenpeace, toy giant Mattel, maker of the famed Barbie doll line, announced Wednesday that it will stop buying paper and packaging that the environmental group has linked to rain forest destruction in Indonesia.

The El Segundo company said it will tell suppliers to avoid wood fiber from companies “that are known to be involved in deforestation.” Among those companies, Greenpeace said in a statement, is Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) group. 

“The rain forests of Indonesia should be for species like the Sumatran tiger, not for throwaway toy packaging," Bustar Maitar, head of Greenpeace’s campaign to save the forests in Indonesia, said in the statement  "That’s why it is such good news that Mattel has developed a new paper buying policy."

The group urged Asia Pulp & Paper to follow in the path of its sister company, Golden Agri-Resources, which “has already committed to clean up its act and has won back lucrative contracts."

Greenpeace has pledged to push other companies, such as Disney and Hasbro, to take similar action to protect rain forests. 

Mattel's move comes after Greenpeace tested packaging from the company's toys, packaged in Indonesia, and found the cardboard contained significant amounts of timber from Indonesian rain forests. The group used Mattel's advertising campaign that featured a "reunion" between Barbie and Ken to draw attention to the packaging, sending an activist dressed as Ken and another as Barbie, who drove a pink skip loader to the company's corporate office in June. They hung a banner from the building that read: “Barbie: It’s Over. I don’t date girls that are into deforestation.”

Mattel’s new policy also includes safeguards against buying wood fiber from tree plantations established in areas where natural forests once stood, a practice that is driving deforestation, Greenpeace said.  

The toy maker also said it intends to increase the amount of recycled paper it uses, and to increase the use of wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

"Mattel is committed to advancing the use of sustainably-sourced paper and wood fiber in our packaging and products," a statement on the company's website said. "Mattel will strive to implement these fundamental principles to guide our efforts and maximize, to the extent feasible, the use of post-consumer recycled content and sustainable fiber."

The company also said it will "maximize post-consumer recycled content where possible, while maintaining packaging and product integrity and compliance with applicable laws and regulations."

It pledged to use only fiber whose source is known and traceable, and which is harvested "in compliance with applicable laws and regulations" locally, nationally and internationally, and in accordance with "international guidelines and treaties to protect the rights of indigenous peoples."

The company said it will establish specific goals and report on its progress publicly.

[Updated, 11:38 a.m.: A statement from Asia Pulp & Paper said the company “applauds Mattel’s commitments to recycling, wood legality, protection of High Conservation Value Forest, respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and robust auditing and certification procedures." 

The company added that it "supports all credible industry certification, however, we strongly urge companies to not limit their procurement policies to one standard, in this case FSC, which discriminates against products from Indonesia and other developing markets. APP supports policies that protect both the environment and the vital income which developing countries receive from the pulp & paper industries.”]

[Updated, 11:55: Mattel spokesperson Jules Andres said the company this summer directed its suppliers "to not source paper and pulp from Asia Pulp & Paper. She said Mattel's new policy "directs our printers not to contract with controvesial sources," and that Mattel considers Asia Pulp & Paper "a controversial source."]

Indonesia has one of the fastest rates of forest destruction in the world. The Indonesian government estimates that nearly 2.5 million acres of rain forest is being lost every year, according to Greenpeace.  

Indonesia’s rain forest, the largest in the world after those in the Amazon and the Congo, is home to orangutans, tigers, elephants, clouded leopards and scores of other endangered plants and animals. In the last half-century, about 40% of the country’s forests have been cleared, mainly for palm oil plantations and pulp and paper operations.

Despite a partial moratorium announced last month, Indonesian government plans suggest, by some accounts, that nearly half of the remaining natural forest could be cut in the next two decades.


US forest rules face controversial overhaul

Chiapas to California: preserving forests for dollars

Proposed law threatens to cripple Amazon rain forest protection

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: Environmental activist Elise Nabor in a Barbie outfit, driving her "Barbiedozer" is stopped by an El Segundo police officer a half block away from the Mattel building in El Segundo, during a June protest. Credit: Mark Boster

Federal biofuel mandate flawed, report finds

Ethanol fuel use

A National Research Council report Tuesday said a federal requirement to add some 16 billion gallons of cellulose-based ethanol to the nation's fuel supply by 2022 won't be met unless innovative technologies are developed or policies changed.

The report also calls into question the ecologic and economic calculations behind Congress' backing of commodity-crop ethanol (mainly corn), particularly if production involves clearing land to grow crops dedicated to fuel.

In 2005, Congress enacted the Renewable Fuel Standard, as part of the Energy Policy Act and amended it in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

The amended standard, known as RSF2, mandated that by 2022 the consumption volume of the renewable fuels should consist of:

15 billion gallons of conventional biofuels, mainly corn-grain ethanol;

16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels produced from wood, grasses, or non-edible plant parts, such as from corn stalks and wheat straw.

4 billion gallons of advanced renewable biofuels, other than ethanol derived from cornstarch, that achieve a life-cycle greenhouse gas threshold of at least 50%.

1 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel fuel.

Continue reading »

Texas fire: Chemical plant processes toxics, produces pesticide

A fire broke out Monday morning at the Magnablend chemical plant in Waxahachie, Texas

The Magnablend chemical plant in Waxahatchie, Texas, where a raging fire broke out this morning, processes tons of toxics, and uses large amounts of anhydrous ammonia, which is caustic, hazardous and can cause breathing problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's risk management plan.

The plant, about 30 miles south of Dallas, also is listed as a pesticide producer, and mixes or produces chemicals used in agriculture and the petroleum industry, including fluids for hydraulic fracturing (the most common of which are benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene).

Nearby facilities include two other agricultural chemical plants.

Here is a list of chemicals released or transferred at the plant, in pounds, by year, according to the EPA:

COPPER COMPOUNDS                 5  
CERTAIN GLYCOL ETHERS               250 250  
ZINC COMPOUNDS 5 5         800 35 250  
FORMIC ACID                 250  
METHANOL 40 40 45 45 45 45 2,412 1,680    
ETHYLENE GLYCOL 1 1 1       8,700 5 505  
DAZOMET                 250  

The plant is located in the Upper Trinity watershed, which has reported contaminants in fish tissue, including chlordane, a chemical formerly used in pesticides, and PCBs, according to the EPA.

More information on the Magnablend chemical plant in Texas.

BPA ban passes California state Senate

Pesticide exposure linked to prostate cancer

High levels of toxic PBDE found in pregnant California women

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: The Magnablend chemical plant in Waxahachie, Texas. Credit:


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