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Climate Negotiators In Peru ‘Did The Bare Minimum,’ One Critic Says

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — International negotiators in Peru agreed early Sunday on some essential building blocks for a global accord to address climate change, most notably an unprecedented agreement that all countries commit to cutting heat-trapping emissions.

But the contentious marathon discussions convened by the United Nations left so many issues undecided or watered down that many participants cautioned that time might run out to craft a pact over the next year that would deliver the emissions cuts needed to avert the worst damage scientists expect from climate change.

“Against the backdrop of extreme weather in the Philippines and potentially the hottest year ever recorded, governments at the U.N. climate talks in Lima opted for a half-baked plan to cut emissions,” said Samantha Smith, leader of the World Wildlife Fund’s global climate and energy initiative.

The talks aim to develop the framework for an international accord to curtail heat-trapping emissions from 2020 onward and to help poorer nations in particular adapt to changes already taking place. The final agreement is due to be signed in Paris next December.

Britain’s climate change secretary, Ed Davey, told the BBC that the deal was “a really important step,” although he added: “I am not going to say it will be a walk in the park in Paris.”

Two decades of international talks have done little to rein in growing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Still, the Lima conference gained fresh momentum when the two top emitters, China and the United States, made a joint announcement last month of ambitious plans to address their pollutants. The European Union also pledged deep cuts.

That momentum quickly dissipated in Lima, however, as the talks snagged on historically divisive issues of responsibility for cutting emissions. Industrialized nations such as the U.S. pumped most of the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as they built their vast economies over the last century, and developing countries argue that as a result, richer states should take on the full burden of making emissions cuts. But over the last few decades, emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil have joined the United States at the top of emitter lists as their economies boomed, raising questions about how much they should do to address their greenhouse gases.

For the first time, all nations agreed to deliver plans by March 31 on their individual emissions cuts, a small but meaningful compromise in the decades-long debate between richer and poorer countries.

But countries failed to agree on the ground rules for the emissions-reduction pledges, leaving it unclear what kind of information each nation would provide and whether it would be comparable. An assessment of whether the pledges would be enough to cut emissions to levels that would avert the worst global temperature increases was put off until November, just one month before the talks for a final accord in Paris.

“The negotiators did the bare minimum they could do,” said Nathaniel Keohane, vice president for international climate at the Environmental Defense Fund. “If that’s the pattern going forward into the next year of talks, then negotiators will have to shape up.”

Diplomats from the approximately 190 countries at the talks also approved a draft document of the key issues to be included in the final Paris agreement. In a sign of how low the bar was for success in Lima, the document only enumerates the issues the final agreement will cover, including transparency of emissions cuts and financing efforts to help developing countries. None was resolved.

But the fact that the document was not rejected after two weeks of talks and can be negotiated further is considered progress.

Over the next year, diplomats will attempt to hammer out the many outstanding thorny issues. The next major meeting on the road to Paris is set for June in Bonn, Germany, when a draft text of the Paris pact is expected to be unveiled.

AFP Photo/Cris Bouroncle

Diluted Climate Deal Commits Nations To Emission Cuts, But Discord Remains

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — After late-night wrangling at United Nations talks in Lima, Peru, negotiators early Sunday reached a watered-down deal that sets the stage for a global climate agreement in Paris next year.

The deal was adopted hours after a previous draft was rejected by developing countries who accused rich nations of shirking their responsibilities to fight global warming and pay for its effects.

Peru’s environment minister presented a fourth draft just before midnight and said he hoped it would satisfy all parties, giving a sharply reduced body of remaining delegates an hour to review it.

“As a text it’s not perfect, but it includes the positions of the parties,” said the minister, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who was the conference chairman and had spent all afternoon and evening meeting separately with delegations.

The main goal for the two-week session in Lima was relatively modest: agree on what information should go into the pledges that countries submit for a global climate pact expected to be adopted next year in Paris.

But even that became complicated as several developing nations rebelled against a draft decision they said blurred the distinction between what rich and poor countries can be expected to do.

The final draft apparently alleviated those concerns with language saying countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities” to deal with global warming.

It also restored language demanded by small island states at risk of being flooded by rising seas, mentioning a “loss and damage” mechanism agreed upon in last year’s talks in Poland.

“We need a permanent arrangement to help the poorest of the world,” Ian Fry, negotiator for the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu, said at a midday session.

However, it weakened language on the content of the pledges, saying they “may” instead of “shall” include quantifiable information showing how countries intend to meet their emissions targets.

Also, top carbon polluter China and other major developing countries opposed plans for a review process that would allow the pledges to be compared against one another before Paris.

The new draft mentioned only that all pledges would be reviewed a month ahead Paris to assess their combined effect on climate change.

Though negotiating tactics always play a role, virtually all disputes in the U.N. talks reflect a wider issue of how to divide the burden of fixing the planetary warming that scientists say results from human activity, primarily the burning of oil, coal and natural gas.

The momentum from last month’s joint U.S.-China deal on emissions targets faded quickly in Lima as rifts reopened over who should do what to fight the problem.

Historically, Western nations are the biggest emitters. Currently, most carbon dioxide emissions are coming from developing countries as they grow their economies and lift millions of people out of poverty.

During a brief stop in Lima on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said fixing the problem was “everyone’s responsibility, because it’s the net amount of carbon that matters, not each country’s share.”

According to the U.N.’s scientific panel on climate change, the world can pump out no more than about 1 trillion tons of carbon to have a likely chance of avoiding dangerous levels of warming. It already has spent more than half of that carbon budget as emissions continue to rise, driven by growth in China and other emerging economies.

Scientific reports say climate impacts are already happening and include rising sea levels, intensifying heat waves and shifts in weather patterns causing floods in some areas and droughts in others.

AFP Photo/Patrik Stollarz

In Global Climate Talks, Some Major Polluters Drag Their Feet

By Neela Banerjee and Shashank Bengali, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Recent commitments by the world’s major polluters to cut emissions have added fresh momentum to international climate talks, but foot-dragging persists among the next tier of polluters, including India, Brazil, Canada and Australia.

Representatives of nearly 200 countries are meeting in Peru, and by the weekend, they must produce building blocks for a global accord to cut heat-trapping emissions and help poorer nations cope with damage from an already-hotter planet. The final agreement is supposed to be signed in Paris a year from now.

Two decades of international talks have done little to rein in growing emissions, but the two top emitters, China and the United States, made a joint announcement last month of ambitious plans to address their pollutants. The European Union also pledged deep cuts.

But in some countries, including developing nations such as India and Brazil and less populous but developed nations such as Canada and Australia, domestic political and economic exigencies have made leaders reluctant to take bold steps to battle climate change. Unless some of them shift their stance over the next few days and through the next year of talks, an agreement that produces meaningful emissions reductions could prove elusive.

When “countries don’t come in as ambitiously as they should, momentum is one fallout,” Dale Marshall, of the Canadian group Environmental Defence, said from Lima, Peru. “We have one year left before Paris and that’s not much in terms of climate talks, and it helps when you have countries that push them forward.

“There’s also a substantive fallout. There are a number of issues that have to be addressed so that Paris will have all the elements of a deal ready to go.”

The U.S.-China climate deal raised hope that India, the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, would commit to reducing its emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept into power in May largely on promises to revitalize India’s slowing economic growth, has emphasized industrial development over environmental protection.

India is in the midst of a major economic expansion driven mainly by burning coal, which provides more than 60 percent of the country’s electricity. Major new coal plants are coming online rapidly as India tries to bring power to the 400 million people — one-third of its population — who lack it and the hundreds of millions more who have only spotty access.

Indian officials have signaled that their emissions will rise and they won’t be forced into making cuts that they contend would hamper economic growth. Last week, before arriving in Lima, Indian Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said: “Poverty needs to be eradicated immediately. Poor people have aspirations. We must fulfill them. We must give them energy access.”

Modi has announced plans to boost renewable energy, chiefly solar power, and to modernize India’s inefficient electrical grid, which experts say could reduce emissions from burning coal by 30 percent. But analysts say India’s vulnerability to climate change — with disastrous flooding and erratic monsoon rains in recent years — gives Modi reason to pursue low-carbon policies.

“It’s inevitable that India has to emit more, but it has to be in a much more controlled, efficient manner,” said Krishnan Pallassana, head of the India office of the Climate Group, a British-based advocacy organization. “If we do that, we will be in a better position not only in terms of climate negotiations but also in showing the way for other developing economies.”

Like India and other developing countries, Brazil took the position that richer nations such as the United States should cut their emissions, given how much they had pumped into the atmosphere, while less developed states should do nothing. But China’s willingness to act also increased pressure on Brazil to step up.

For several years, Brazil’s emissions fell as it reduced deforestation, which involved cutting down vast swaths of the Amazon basin and burning the underbrush to clear the land for agriculture. But its emissions rose again in 2013, as deforestation increased once more.

Brazil, for the time being, is hewing to its historic position that developing countries need to do little to decrease emissions and rich countries should make mandatory cuts, which puts it at odds with the U.S. But if it pushes too hard, Brazil risks becoming the culprit for stalled talks — a label no country wants.

Countries such as India, Brazil and Australia play a key role as a bridge between the biggest polluters and poorer countries such as those in Africa, said Erwin Jackson, deputy chief executive of the Climate Institute, an Australian environmental group.

Poor nations have emitted the least greenhouse gases historically but stand to suffer the most from climate change and can be skeptical of the biggest polluters. Nations in between can serve as conduits between the two sides, but not if they are reluctant to reduce their own emissions.

Australia is among the world’s highest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases, at four times the global average. Since coming to power 14 months ago, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has oriented the economy toward more coal mining and exports and rolled back efforts to reduce emissions.

Australia plans to cut emissions by 12 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, an even more modest target than the U.S. goal of 17 percent. Abbott had refused to donate to an international climate fund that would help developing countries prepare for climate change. As more countries gave money, including a U.S. pledge of $3 billion, Abbott reversed himself this week by offering $200 million — but with strings attached.

Canada has been a reliable ally for Australia over the last year, as it too stepped back from aggressive climate action.

Historically, Canada was ahead of the U.S. in addressing climate change. But the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, the landmark accord under which some developed countries agreed to cut emissions drastically.

Canada, like Australia, has hitched its economic future to fossil fuel growth, especially development of unconventional natural gas and oil sands. But the oil and gas sector has fast become the single biggest emitter in Canada, and despite numerous pledges, the Harper government has not proposed rules to curtail its greenhouse gases.

Like the U.S., Canada pledged to cut emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. But unlike the U.S., Canada will miss the target. Canada recently pledged $300 million to the Green Climate Fund, “which was something in a sea of a lot of nothing,” Marshall said.
___

(Banerjee of the Tribune Washington Bureau reported from Washington and Bengali of the Los Angeles Times from Mumbai, India.)

Photo: Robert S. Donovan via Flickr

Peru Climate Change Talks Slowed By Clashes Of Rich And Poor Nations

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — International climate talks in Lima, Peru, are entering their final week, with few hints of whether a newfound optimism that marked the start of negotiations will translate into an agreement that would rein in climate change.

Convened by the United Nations, the talks aim to craft the framework for an international accord to curtail heat-trapping emissions and adapt to changes already occurring on the planet. The final agreement is due to be signed in Paris next December.

Despite more than 20 years of discussions about what nations must do to contend with climate change, the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are higher than ever, as negotiations have continued to snag on the contradictory priorities of different countries.

The latest round in the discussions began last week with fresh momentum, in large part thanks to steps the U.S. took last month, including a major deal with China to curb emissions and a $3 billion commitment to help developing nations fight climate change.

Yet over the days since the Lima conference began Dec. 1, clashes have flared between developed and developing countries over issues such as whether emissions cuts should be mandatory and how much money rich countries should provide to help poor nations cope with damage from climate change.

Many conflicts stem from countries hewing to familiar hard-line bargaining positions. The question remains whether the brinkmanship will give way to an agreement by the end of the week on key issues, the most pressing of which is ground rules on emission-reduction pledges that countries are to make early next year.

“It’s disappointing that countries can’t rise above these petty differences, but it’s not surprising,” Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said from Lima. “Everything always comes down to the wire. (Cabinet-level) ministers have the chance to rise above this when they arrive this week because this is their chance to create their legacy on climate change.”

The window is closing fast for countries to cut greenhouse gases enough to avert the greatest global temperature increases and natural disasters associated with them, climate scientists and organizations such as the World Bank warn. The current round of talks would shape efforts to address climate change after 2020. A 2009 agreement reached in Copenhagen delivered voluntary commitments from some nations, including the United States, to take steps before 2020.

A Paris agreement is not expected to curtail heat-trapping emissions in one stroke. But the ambitious plans announced by the U.S. and China over the last month have fostered cautious hope that this time nations will reach a series of accords that can put the world on a path to curtailing emissions sooner rather than later.

There are several broad areas of negotiation in Lima in which about 200 countries are participating, including the legal force any agreement might have and how long a deal would last. Most need to be sorted out by the Paris meeting, though it would not be unusual for countries to delay decisions until the last minute or even until after 2015. Decisions are reached through consensus, but they do not have to be unanimous.

The Lima meeting, however, is meant to decide at least one basic issue: what the emissions-reduction pledges from countries should look like. Countries are to announce their plans during the first three months of 2015. The three largest emitters, which account for 50 percent of greenhouse gases, have already put forward three options. The U.S. announced that by 2025, it would reduce greenhouse gases at least 26 percent from 2005 levels. The European Union pledged to cut emissions 40 percent by 2030, based on 1990 levels. China, the world’s biggest polluter, said it would cap carbon emissions by around 2030, earlier than previously announced.

A Lima agreement probably would give countries flexibility on the rate of emissions reductions and the deadline year, said Nathaniel Keohane, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund’s international climate program. Negotiators are determining the basic information that countries must provide when they make pledges: the target year, the base year from which reductions would be measured and whether they would be economy-wide or made by certain industries.

Yet efforts to make sure the steps taken to meet the pledge goals can be independently verified are already hitting roadblocks, Keohane said.

“In an ideal world, there would be sufficient and comprehensive information on how you intend to do the accounting on pledges and to make sure there’s no double-counting,” he said. But a few major developing countries, led by Brazil, Bolivia and Saudi Arabia, are complicating discussions. This could involve routine bargaining tactics, Keohane said, but it could also be a step toward “slowing things down, and I’m leaning toward the latter.”

Poorer nations are struggling to nail down significant, steady funding from industrialized countries to help them cope with the damage from climate change and to develop their economies without relying on fuels such as coal. Research has shown that the poorest countries that emitted the least greenhouse gases, such as those in Africa, stand to suffer the most damage from climate change.

Developed countries, including the U.S., have balked at new funding commitments after 2020. Yet without agreement on funding for poor countries by December 2015, any hope of a larger agreement in Paris would crumble.

Over the years, participants at U.N. climate talks estimated that $75 billion to $100 billion annually in public and private funding was needed to help poor countries cope with climate change. But on Friday, the U.N. Environment Program issued a report saying that even if emissions were drastically reduced, “the cost of adapting to climate change in developing countries is likely to reach two to three times” the previous estimates by 2050.

It’s unlikely that the financing question will be sorted out at the end of the Lima conference. The main criteria for success at the fractious talks seem to be some kind of agreement on a basic checklist of pledge information and the avoidance of high drama, such as a walk-out by participating states.

“They usually meet the bare minimum they have to do,” Keohane said.

AFP Photo/Sebastian CastaÑeda

U.S. Sees Voluntary Emissions Cuts As Key To A Climate Change Accord

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The United States is championing a new international approach to cutting greenhouse gases that offers the best chance of prompting countries to take action to avert the worst effects of global warming, the nation’s chief climate negotiator said Monday.

The comments by the State Department’s Todd Stern came as United Nations negotiations began in Peru to develop the framework for an international accord to curtail heat-trapping emissions and adapt to changes already occurring on the planet. The final agreement is expected to be signed in Paris next December.

Despite more than 20 years of international discussions about addressing climate change, the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are higher than ever. Efforts have stumbled, in part, over the stringency and feasibility of emissions cuts. In the past, big polluters such as the United States were mandated by a U.N. accord to make deep cuts, a top-down approach that Congress rejected.

This time, the U.S. is backing a bottom-up plan that lets each country determine the emissions cuts it will make, Stern said. Still, countries would have to accept other binding conditions, such as a schedule for announcing planned cuts, and uniform and transparent reporting standards. Further, countries would have to agree to no backsliding: Emissions targets set every five or ten years would have to be increasingly more ambitious.

Though a plan for voluntary cuts sounded “counterintuitive” to making progress on emissions, Stern pointed out that past approaches did not work.

“The reality of it is that no one was able to come up with a different way of going about it,” Stern said in a meeting with reporters. “You could assign every country a particular reduction that on paper looks like a perfect result and then you can’t get agreement on it. This is a way to get everyone in. It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s a strong start that would get better and better.”

There are no sanctions against countries that do not offer emissions cuts or fail to abide by them. But the effect of global warming is growing clearer, and countries that previously sat on the sidelines, most notably China, have begun to act. The hope is that a kind of international peer pressure will lead states to cut emissions.

Scientists warn that the window is closing on the measures nations can take to slow the increase in average global temperatures and avert the worst effects of global warming.

The talks in Peru could benefit from fresh momentum, in large part as a result of steps the U.S. has taken over the last month. In early November, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping jointly announced ambitious plans to limit heat-trapping emissions by 2030 by their countries, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters.

Days later, Obama pledged $3 billion to an international climate fund aimed at helping developing countries prepare for and slow the effects of global warming. The money would go to the U.N. Green Climate Fund, an integral part of the international effort to craft an agreement to address climate change.

The fund, created in 2011, asks industrialized countries and their private sectors, which account for most of the greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere over the last century, to help developing countries shift to low-carbon fuel and adapt to the effects of climate change. Research has shown that the poorest countries that emitted the least greenhouse gases, such as those in Africa, stand to suffer the most damage from global warming.

The announcement with China and the climate fund pledge were challenged by Obama’s Republican critics on Capitol Hill, who have pledged to make it a priority to roll back his measures on the environment when they assume the majority in Congress next year.

Stern said the president’s budget proposal, due in February, would ask Congress for $3 billion over four years to fulfill the climate fund pledge.

The commitment is meant to follow a $2 billion pledge President George W. Bush made in 2008 to a Climate Investment Fund.

“Funding for climate change is always challenging, and I expect it will continue to be,” Stern said, “but it’s also something that has gotten done at the end of the day on a bipartisan basis. There will be very, very strong support coming from the White House for it.”

AFP Photo/Sebastian CastaÑeda

How Realistic Are The U.S.-China Climate Change Goals?

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — The newly announced landmark plans by the U.S. and China to limit their greenhouse gas emissions left open the question of how realistic the targets are. The plans feature a number of ambitious goals for each nation, but they face serious challenges. A look at the status of the climate change fight in the two countries, the new goals, and the feasibility of achieving them:

Question: What are the U.S. goals?

Answer: The U.S. plans to double its pace of emissions reduction to meet a targeted decline of 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

Q: How feasible is it for the U.S. to achieve that target, from a technical standpoint?

A: The Obama administration has said that the building blocks are in place to achieve the reductions the president promised. Central to the effort is the plan to cut emissions over the next 16 years from power plants, the single biggest source of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, by 30 percent from 2005 levels.

The administration is also reducing emissions from cars and light trucks and plans to add limits for heavy trucks. The Environmental Protection Agency is also expected to roll out measures in the coming weeks to address methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. It is working to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, gases used as coolants in consumer goods and propellants in aerosols. The EPA could also move to cut greenhouse gases from oil refineries.

Q: What are the major political obstacles?

A: Republicans, who will take control of Congress in January, are expected to fight those steps, and the energy industry is suing to block new rules.

Administration officials say they will not have to turn to Congress, but can instead tighten rules already proposed. They could require, for instance, a 40 percent — rather than 30 percent — reduction in power plant emissions by 2030, analysts say. New measures that would help the U.S. hit its emissions reduction goal by 2025 are poised to draw an even more virulent political backlash, because they would affect industries beyond the power sector, such as oil and gas and manufacturing.

Such ambitious goals also are “going to be really tough to meet without new laws,” which would require congressional action, said Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Q: What are the Chinese goals?

A: China plans to shift its economy away from coal-fired power generation and create a network of zero-emission plants, including nuclear and renewables, that is larger than the entire U.S. electrical grid.

Q: What are the major obstacles?

A: At first glance, it appears that China, as an authoritarian state, has the tools to make industries and localities comply with new rules. But its efforts to get local leaders to follow through on imperatives such as pollution reduction and fair labor practices have made spotty progress, suggesting that emissions cuts might also prove tough to enforce, said Mary E. Gallagher, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

China’s impetus for addressing carbon pollution stems from its own domestic realities, analysts say. Besides corruption, air pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels is the single biggest domestic issue the government faces, Gallagher said.

Cutting fossil fuel use to address climate change would also clean the air. But the government has had a hard time getting localities and the industries with which they are allied to act on anything besides economic growth, in part because promotion in Communist Party ranks is tied to economic output. Companies have pollution-control equipment but often keep it idle because of the expense and extra work, Gallagher said.

“In the U.S., the trick is to get the laws passed but then you can assure their effective implementation,” Gallagher said. “In China, they will pass laws but they could fail with implementation. Our two political systems have bottlenecks at different places.”

Another challenge is the scale of the alternative-energy infrastructure China plans to build within a relatively short period.

Q: How will it be confirmed that China is actually trying to cut emissions?

A: An accountability standard has yet to be put in place, but it is part of international talks to draft a climate change plan in Paris next year. The Chinese about-face on climate caught many people off guard and gave rise to speculation, especially among conservatives, that its pledge is empty and that Obama was duped.

Yet China’s plan to hit a peak in its greenhouse gas pollution within 15 years and then curtail it afterward is an enormous step. Where that peak will be, however, is unclear, though important. Will China’s pollution be 15 percent above 2005 levels when it finally scales back? Or will it be more like 40 percent?

Q: Will the deal put the planet on track to avoid the worst consequences of global warming?

A: In a word, no. To avert the worst disasters, global average temperatures must be kept from rising by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from the average temperatures in pre-industrial times 150 years ago.

The American and Chinese initiatives, even when taken with a recent European Union announcement to cut its emissions by 40 percent by 2030, are not enough in and of themselves. Other big emitters, most notably India and Russia, must make similarly ambitious cuts.

Further, so much warming has been baked into the atmosphere through more than two decades of squabbling over emissions cuts that much deeper reductions would need to occur fast. In the case of the U.S., that would amount to a 70 percent cut in emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, an all-but-impossible goal over the next 15 years.

But Wednesday’s announcement is “a down payment” on meeting the 2-degree goal, the first of many steps needed to rein in emissions, said Alden Meyer, director of strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Photo: Mikael Miettinen via Flickr

U.S. Considers Climate Change Plan That Would Mandate Emission Cuts

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The United States is considering a proposal to combat climate change that would require countries to offer plans for curtailing greenhouse gas emissions on a certain schedule but would leave it to individual nations to determine how deep their cuts would be, said Todd Stern, the nation’s chief climate negotiator.

Speaking at Yale University on Tuesday, Stern gave the clearest indication so far of what the U.S. position will be regarding a road map toward an international agreement on greenhouse gas reductions. His comments suggested that the U.S. would back the plan, first put forth by New Zealand, when international negotiators meet in Lima, Peru, in December to try to establish parameters for an eventual agreement. Negotiators are aiming to sign that deal next year in Paris.

“If we were to conclude a new climate agreement in Paris along the lines of what I just outlined, would we have accomplished much? I think the answer is unequivocally yes,” Stern said. “We would have for the first time established a stable, durable, rules-based agreement with legal force that is more ambitious than ever before, even if not yet ambitious enough — an agreement that is applicable to all in a genuine and not just a formalistic manner.”

Despite more than 20 years of international discussions about addressing climate change, the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are higher than ever. Scientists warn that the window is closing on measures that nations could take to slow the rise in average global temperatures and avert the worst effects of global warming.

International agreements to cut emissions have historically snagged on the idea that developed countries such as the United States should do more to cut emissions than emerging nations, because developed states were the ones that pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for a century as they built their economies. But the biggest emitter is now China and India is No. 3, with the U.S. sandwiched between.

The New Zealand plan would take into account that not all countries could cut emissions by the same levels, but would mandate that all countries make some cuts. There would be a “legally binding obligation to submit a schedule and various legally binding provisions for accounting, reporting, review and periodic updates,” Stern said, so that other countries, scientists, environmentalists and the broader public could keep track of a nation’s progress.

The idea has already run into resistance, Stern acknowledged, but he argued that it would be the most viable way forward. If the international community insists that countries agree to be legally bound to cuts, many major emitters would balk, including the United States, where a gridlocked Congress has been unable to act on climate change. Further, countries would “lowball” the cuts they would make for fear of being unable to meet higher, binding goals, Stern said.

One sign of the plan’s viability might come when President Barack Obama visits China next month. The U.S. and China have been working “very closely and very intensively” on climate issues, Stern said. Chinese support for the plan could give it considerable momentum going into the Lima talks.

Photo: Mikael Miettinen via Flickr

International Summit Just A First Step On Climate Change

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama and more than 100 other heads of state gather Tuesday in New York to spotlight the severity of global warming and the need to act on it, the scene will be more pep rally than policy negotiation.

The meeting is a launchpad for the work of crafting an international agreement that could reduce emissions enough to mute the predicted painful blows of climate change. Negotiators aim to adopt an agreement in Paris next year.

“The stakes are extremely high,” said Selwin Hart, director of the U.N. secretary-general’s Climate Change Support Team. “The science is demanding bold action be taken by all parties.”

That won’t happen in New York. The meeting isn’t a negotiation or talks. It isn’t even part of the official United Nations process to address climate change.

Rather, the New York summit has been cast as the forum where world leaders will describe in broad strokes what they plan to do to slash emissions. The specific targets for reductions for the near term and from 2020 onward are expected later, during the first half of next year.

Part of the reason for the high-wattage New York gathering is to promote the long and complex process as the U.N. tries to avoid the deadlock and wan results that marked the last time heads of state convened to address global warming, in Copenhagen in 2009.

“It’s vital for leaders to be engaged at least one year and several months before Paris so the political obstacles and pitfalls are avoided,” Hart said.

The U.N. also wants to capitalize on momentum that’s building toward real cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, analysts say, powered in great part by the United States. Criticized for leading from behind in other policy spheres, Obama has moved decisively in his second term to tackle climate change, bypassing an uncooperative Congress to attack the biggest domestic source of greenhouse gases: existing coal-fired power plants.

Globally, more places are embracing renewable energy. Major cities and corporations are cutting emissions and adapting to a climate that is already changing.

But challenges to meaningful cuts have already emerged. On Sunday, scientists announced that the world’s emissions had grown 2.3 percent last year to 39.8 billion tons — the highest level ever — largely because of China, the U.S. and India. The latest figures were published in the journals Nature Geoscience and Nature Climate Change.

Growth in renewable energy investments is expected to slow because of policy uncertainties in various countries, while the world’s appetite for coal is expected to stay robust, thanks to rising demand in Asia, according to the International Energy Agency. And carbon dioxide reached record levels in 2013, growing at the fastest rate in three decades, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

“There is momentum to be conveyed” for cutting emissions, said Rachel Kyte, the World Bank special envoy for climate change, “but I’m not Pollyanna about it. The question is: Will it be too little, too late?”

To avert widespread catastrophe, annual global average temperatures cannot rise more than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial temperatures, scientists say. Largely because of fossil fuel consumption, Earth’s average temperature has already risen about 1 degree Celsius since the late 19th century.

The Paris meeting, in December 2015, is supposed to yield a formal agreement among polluting nations, but it has to be an accord “that conforms to domestic political situations,” said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In light of Washington’s political gridlock, that would mean an agreement, rather than a more binding treaty, with emission reduction targets for each country that could be independently verified and subject to public comment, Schmidt said.

The track record that Obama will highlight in New York gives the U.S. a strong hand in urging other countries to act, climate negotiation experts said. His administration has moved to curtail carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles and power plants. The president has instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to address emissions of methane, a highly potent heat-trapping gas.

“There’s a lot of important work that’s going to get done in New York … and some of it will involve bringing along the international community in terms of coordinating in an effort to reduce the causes of climate change and of carbon pollution,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

American leadership on climate change gives policymakers in other nations the political cover to press for emissions cuts at home. “The United States’ recent domestic action has the potential to be a game-changer,” Hart said. “It represents a powerful national commitment.”

Still, after decades of stalling while emissions rose, the assurances that countries will float in New York and flesh out in Paris may not be drastic enough, said Alden Meyer, director of policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The question is, how close do we get to what’s needed, what more can be done after Paris and what’s the way to revisit targets?” Meyer said. “We’ll need multiple bites of the apple to get there.”

Photo: United Nations via Flickr

March In New York Focuses On Climate Change

By Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — Thousands of peaceful demonstrators, including Native Americans in traditional clothing, politicians and top environmental activists, descended on Manhattan Sunday to draw attention to climate change.

The People’s Climate March came before a United Nations Climate Summit scheduled to begin Tuesday, when 120 world leaders will meet to discuss strategies for achieving a new global climate treaty. The New York march was one of more than 2,000 such demonstrations that took place around the world Sunday, including in London, New Delhi and Melbourne, Australia, according to organizers.

The New York event included billionaire environmental activist and philanthropist Tom Steyer from California, U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), actor Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland.

Organizers had hoped to draw at least 100,000 people to the Manhattan demonstration, which Bill McKibben, chairman of the environmental group 350.org, described as “mildly chaotic but incredibly beautiful.”

Speaking by phone from the march, McKibben said he hoped the demonstrators’ numbers would help tilt the public debate toward action on curbing climate change.

“They have all the money, but I think we’re demonstrating today we have quite a few people,” McKibben said. “This is what happens when people organize. Things begin to shift.”

With the sky overcast and fog enveloping the tops of skyscrapers, many participants hadn’t approached the march’s starting line more than two hours after the parade began.

Several groups opposing the planned Keystone XL pipeline were among those to join the march, whose participants argue the pipeline could threaten important underground water resources and help to promote development of carbon-intense oil production in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada.

Stanley Sturgill, a retired coal miner from Kentucky who now suffers from black lung, a condition brought on by prolonged exposure to coal dust, was in the crowd.

“We have dug the coal that has generated the electricity to power this country but our people are paying a price for it,” he said. “We are here to tell our world leaders that we are at the front lines of this crisis.”

At 1 p.m., the marchers held a moment of silence to honor people affected by climate change. After the moment was over, the crowd let out a cheer.

“We are in the race of our lives against climate change. It already affects all of us — every person, in every country,” Fred Krupp, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.

“It is having an impact on our health, our safety, our economy, our food supply, and those impacts will surely grow exponentially if we do not reduce climate pollution dramatically, starting now. And yet today’s march made me more optimistic than ever that we can meet this challenge.”

Polls show increasing support in the United States for policies to combat climate change.

Two of every three registered voters in the U.S. think global warming is happening, and more than half of them are worried about it, according to a poll conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

Two-thirds of Americans say they support laws that would promote the use of renewable energy to wean the country from fossil fuels, and two-thirds also support setting limits on carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

AFP Photo/Andrew Burton

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Natural Gas Contaminated Drinking Water In Texas, Study Says

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Natural gas production near homes in a Texas subdivision contaminated residents’ well water, according to a study published Monday. The discovery was made in a community where the Environmental Protection Agency halted its own investigation two years ago.

In the course of a broader effort to determine the origins of high methane levels in drinking water aquifers near gas wells in Pennsylvania and Texas, scientists found that water in two homes in Parker County, Texas, changed over nine months from containing trace amounts of methane to having high levels.

The newly identified cases “caught this contamination in the act,” said Robert Jackson, a study co-author and professor of environmental science at Stanford University.

The discovery poses a challenge to a long-standing assertion by the oil and gas industry that the energy boom sweeping the country has not damaged water supplies. Other studies have found that water wells near natural gas production are at greater risk of containing methane than those farther away. But industry has contended that the methane found in water wells is naturally occurring and was there all along, prior to the start of gas production.

Each of 20 homes tested in Parker County has detectable methane in its well water because of many layers of oil and gas in the ground, the researchers said. Methane that enters homes through drinking water poses an explosion risk if it accumulates in rooms or spaces.

The two homes whose water had negligible amounts of methane in 2012 were tested again in August and November 2013, when they showed far higher levels, the study said. Further, the methane in the homeowners’ water no longer had the chemical makeup of the naturally occurring trace gas, according to the study. Instead, it had the same chemical fingerprint as natural gas deposits far below the aquifers, the scientists found.

“All the gas chemistry in the water changed so that it wasn’t just higher methane levels but higher methane from a totally different source,” said Thomas Darrah, assistant professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University and the study’s lead author.

Darrah and his colleagues concluded that the water contamination occurred when natural gas from a lower geological depth migrated higher into drinking water sources because of a faulty cement job around the well.

The researchers believe that in nearly all the cases, the water contamination occurred because poor casing or cementing around the gas wells allowed methane to leak out the sides and into aquifers. Said Darrah, “The good news is that most of the issues we have identified can potentially be avoided by future improvements in well integrity.”

The findings of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, spotlight the EPA’s controversial decision in 2012 to halt its investigation into possible well-water contamination in Parker County by the energy company Range Resources.

The EPA got involved in 2010 because Range Resources and Texas regulators failed to act immediately on homeowners’ complaints of possible drinking water contamination, according to a 2013 report by the EPA inspector general. When the EPA conducted its own tests of well water in some Parker County homes, it found such high levels of methane in the water supply of two homes that it posed a risk of explosion, the report said.

The Justice Department filed a complaint on behalf of the EPA against Range in January 2011 but withdrew it by March 2012. The EPA and Justice Department reversed course because the EPA worried about the costs and legal risks of the case, the inspector general’s report said. Texas authorities and Range deny that the company’s gas development had contaminated the residents’ water.

The two Parker County homes that showed new contamination are near wells drilled by Range in 2009 and sold in 2011 to Legend Natural Gas.

The new contamination was identified as part of a wider study that tested drinking water in 20 wells in the Barnett Shale in Texas and 113 wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale area.

In Texas, extremely high levels of methane were found in five homes, including the two whose contamination the researchers captured through their testing. In Pennsylvania, high levels of methane were found in 20 homes.

At least one house in Pennsylvania had high levels of methane that was there all along, unrelated to gas production. But for the other homes in the two states, the chemical fingerprint of the methane at high levels in drinking water was the same as natural gas in deeper formations, the study said. The second line of evidence, the chemical fingerprint of gases found with methane in the Texas and Pennsylvania, also indicated the methane came from lower depths, according to the study.

Photo: danielfoster437 via Flickr

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Fracking Workers Exposed To Dangerous Amounts Of Benzene, Study Says

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

Some workers at oil and gas sites where fracking occurs are routinely exposed to high levels of benzene, a colorless gas that can cause cancer, according to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.

The agency, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends that people limit their benzene exposure to an average of 0.1 of a part per million during their shift. But when NIOSH researchers measured the amount of airborne benzene that oil and gas workers were exposed to when they opened hatches atop tanks at well sites, 15 out of 17 samples were over that amount.

Workers must open these hatches to inspect the contents of these tanks, which could include oil, waste water or chemicals used in high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The real-time readings taken by researchers show that benzene levels at the wells “reached concentrations that, depending on the length of exposure, potentially pose health risks for workers,” the researchers reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene.

The study examined exposure risks for oil and gas workers during a phase of oil and gas extraction known as flowback. After a well is drilled in a tight geological formation such as shale and then hydraulically fractured to encourage the flow of hydrocarbons, fluids return up the well bore over the course of a month. The flowback contains fracking fluid, waste water, sand, oil and gas dissolved in water. The liquids are separated into constituent substances, including valuable fracking chemicals that can be reused, oil and gas that are stored in production tanks, and waste fluids that are held in flowback tanks.

Workers measure the volume of liquids in flowback and production tanks by opening top hatches and inserting so-called gauging sticks into flowback tanks. If the tanks are very deep, workers use hand-cranked gauging tapes to make their measurements.

Researchers visited six oil and gas sites in Colorado and Wyoming in the spring and summer of 2013, spending about two days at each site. They outfitted 16 workers at flowback tanks with small devices attached to their shirt collars that sampled the air throughout the day. The key measurements were taken when these workers were standing above the hatch.

Over the course of a 12-hour shift, workers open the hatches and stand above them one to four times per hour, breathing in the fumes for two to five minutes each time. This could add up to dangerous levels of exposure to various volatile organic compounds from the chemicals used in fracking, or from the hydrocarbons themselves.

Benzene, a component of crude oil, “is of major concern because it can be acutely toxic to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys at high concentrations,” the study authors wrote. As the CDC explains, benzene interferes with the normal workings of cells.

“It can cause bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can lead to anemia,” according to the CDC. “Also, it can damage the immune system by changing blood levels of antibodies and causing the loss of white blood cells.”

Although all but two of the samples recorded average daily benzene exposure above the NIOSH limit, the amounts were still below the far higher limit of 1 part per million set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The OSHA limit is “the only legally applicable limit,” said John Snawder, a NIOSH toxicologist who worked on the study. OSHA limits often tend to be higher than NIOSH standards, in part because of input from industry and other stakeholders.

About 562,000 people worked in the domestic oil and gas extraction sector in 2012, and nearly half of them worked for companies that perform fracking and flowback operations, the study said.

Little is known about the long-term effects of benzene exposure on oil and gas workers, said Dr. Robert Harrison, director of Occupational Health Services at the University of California, San Francisco. “With the rapid expansion of oil and gas production in the U.S.,” the risks posed by benzene are ones “that we would want to pay attention to,” he said.

NIOSH’s research on benzene is part of an ongoing project that it launched in 2005 to assess the scope and variety of chemical exposure risks for oil and gas workers at the extraction phase of industry. Much of the research on oil and gas development’s effects on worker health is from the 1980s and 1990s and doesn’t take into account new risks that workers might face amid an energy boom spreading through the country, driven by fracking.

“Industry has changed and is changing very rapidly,” Snawder said. “This is an updated base line of where we stand at this moment.”

The benzene study follows research NIOSH issued in 2012 indicating that workers were exposed to crystalline silica from sand used at fracking sites. Exposure to crystalline silica can lead to a deadly lung disease called silicosis, lung cancer and other respiratory ailments. OSHA is in the process of finalizing a new silica rule after years of delay, but its tougher standards are being fought by a range of industries.

Katie Brown, a spokeswoman with the trade group Energy In Depth, said that the oil and gas industry was committed to worker safety and had worked with NIOSH to allow them on well pads to test workers’ exposure risks.

The oil and gas sector also has fewer injuries than other industries, she said. “The number of nonfatal injuries and illnesses in the oil and gas industry has significantly declined while production has ramped up to unprecedented levels,” Brown said.

The oil and gas industry, however, has a fatality rate “of 27.5 per 100,000 workers (2003-2009) — more than seven times higher than the rate for all U.S. workers,” according to NIOSH. Most fatalities are the result of accidents.

“At least four workers have died since 2010 from what appears to be acute chemical exposures during flowback operations at well sites in the Williston Basin (North Dakota and Montana),” NIOSH reported on its blog.

The NIOSH scientists cautioned that the results of their new study were “preliminary,” given the small number of workers involved. But despite the limitations, they recommended comprehensive measures to address exposure to benzene, including the development of alternative tank gauging procedures to limit exposure and outfitting workers with respirators.

The breadth of the recommendations indicate how serious NIOSH believes the benzene threat to be, said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a health scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has spotlighted the environmental effects of fracking but is not opposed to it altogether.

“Their recommendations are pretty pointed,” Rotkin-Ellman said. “They aren’t saying we need to study this issue at 15 more places before making these recommendations. These measures are warranted based on these investigations. You read their recommendations, and they say, ‘Get these people out of the way of benzene.’ ”

Photo: Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons

Water Allocation An Issue At Fracking Locations Across U.S. And Globally

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Extracting natural gas for energy from shale rock deep underground requires lots of water, but much of the world’s shale gas is in regions where water is already scarce, including part of California, according to a study issued Tuesday.

The amount of recoverable natural gas from shale formations would increase global reserves by nearly half, the report from the World Resources Institute found. That’s a potentially enormous boost for the international economy and for reduction of greenhouse gases that cause climate change, as gas used for power generation burns more cleanly than coal.

But increased oil and gas development raises thorny questions about how to allocate water in areas where it’s limited.

Gas from shale formations, long inaccessible because of their geology, has been unlocked in recent years by high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves underground injection of millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals. The demand for water for fracking has already stoked tensions in the United States as the practice has spread to areas where water resources are limited, such as Texas and Colorado.

Worldwide, 38 percent of shale resources are located in regions “that are either arid or under high to extremely high levels of water stress,” including portions of China, the Middle East, Mexico and Pakistan, the study says.

The picture for the United States is more varied. East Coast shale gas deposits are in areas, such as the mid-Atlantic, that have historically had adequate amounts of water. But some of the most promising shale gas deposits in the West are in places where there is far greater competition for more limited water resources, especially from agriculture.

Ten gas deposits “sit atop aquifers that are being withdrawn at rates that far exceed their natural recharge rate,” the report found. They include California’s Monterey formation, which covers the southwest coastal region around Los Angeles and inland near Bakersfield, and others in the Rockies and Texas.

Overall, more than 35 percent of shale gas and oil resources in the U.S. are in areas that “are either arid or under high or extremely high baseline water stress,” according to the study. Limited water in areas with the promising gas deposits poses considerable challenges and risk to companies operating there, including increased regulation and costs and the possible loss of reputation, the study found.

Right now, the U.S. and Canada are the only countries fracking for shale gas, though many others are exploring the idea, said Paul Reig, an environmental scientist and the report’s lead author. China has the largest reserves of any country, but each of its six major shale deposits comes with challenges to water access from such factors as seasonal variability, population density and drought.

The report’s authors recommended that government officials and industry assess the risks fracking could pose to local water resources and that companies work to reduce their use of fresh water.

Reig said he found that companies were already working toward lessening their demand for fresh water, such as fracking with brackish water or treated wastewater.

Katie Brown, a spokeswoman for the industry group Energy in Depth, said that overall, oil and gas development has little impact on water resources. “Water use is important, but even in the most prolific oil and gas states, producers only account for a fraction of 1 percent of their state’s total water use,” she said.

But Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology, said looking at the oil and gas industry’s use of water by state or region is misleading. Because most fracking is done in a limited area, it “can use nearly 100 percent of local water supply,” he said. “Its environmental impacts can be devastating.”

Famiglietti said he expected that states would vary in their reactions to the report’s most worrisome findings. Gripped by drought and filled with popular resistance to fracking, California might pay closer attention to such studies.

“Are government and industry taking reports like this to heart? Only time will tell,” Famiglietti said. “Since the shales are viewed as a major pathway towards energy independence, their massive water requirements and threats to water quality are often overlooked.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Oil Companies Fracking Into Drinking Water Sources, New Research Shows

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Some companies are fracking for oil and gas at far shallower depths than widely believed, sometimes through underground sources of drinking water, according to research released Tuesday by Stanford University scientists.

Though researchers cautioned their study of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, employed at two Wyoming geological formations showed no direct evidence of water-supply contamination, their work is certain to roil the public health debate over the risks of the controversial oil and gas production process.

Fracking involves high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to crack geological formations and tap previously unreachable oil and gas reserves.
Fracking fluids contain a host of chemicals, including known carcinogens and neurotoxins.

Fears about possible water contamination and air pollution have fed resistance in communities around the country, threatening to slow the oil and gas boom made possible by fracking.

Fracking into underground drinking water sources is not prohibited by the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which exempted the practice from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But the industry has long held that it does not hydraulically fracture into underground sources of drinking water because oil and gas deposits sit far deeper than aquifers.

The study, however, found that energy companies used acid stimulation, a production method, and hydraulic fracturing in the Wind River and Fort Union geological formations that make up the Pavillion gas field and that contain both natural gas and sources of drinking water.

“Thousands of gallons of diesel fuel and millions of gallons of fluids containing numerous inorganic and organic additives were injected directly into these two formations during hundreds of stimulation events,” concluded Dominic DiGiulio and Robert Jackson of Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences in a presentation Tuesday at the American Chemical Society conference in San Francisco.

The scientists cautioned that their research, which is ongoing and has yet to be peer-reviewed, “does not say that drinking water has been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing.”

Rather, they point out that there is no way of knowing the effects of fracking into groundwater resources because regulators have not assessed the scope and impact of the activity.

“The extent and consequences of these activities are poorly documented, hindering assessments of potential resource damage and human exposure,” DiGiulio wrote.

Underground sources of drinking water, or USDWs, are a category of aquifers under the Safe Drinking Water Act that could provide water for human consumption.

“If the water isn’t being used now, it doesn’t mean it can’t be used in the future,” said DiGiulio, a Stanford research associate who recently retired from the Environmental Protection Agency. “That was the intent of identifying underground sources of drinking water: to safeguard them.”

The EPA documented in 2004 that fracking into drinking water sources had occurred when companies extracted natural gas from coal seams. But industry officials have long denied that the current oil and gas boom has resulted in fracking into drinking water sources because the hydrocarbon deposits are located in deeper geological formations.

“Thankfully, the formations where hydraulic fracturing actually is occurring … are isolated from USDWs by multiple layers and often billions of tons of impenetrable rock,” said Steve Everley, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, an industry group.

Industry officials had not seen the Stanford research.

DiGiulio and Jackson plotted the depths of fracked wells, as well as domestic drinking water wells in the Pavillion area. They found that companies used acid stimulation and hydraulic fracturing at depths of the deepest water wells near the Pavillion gas field, at 700 to 750 feet, far shallower than fracking was previously thought to occur in the area.

“It’s true that fracking often occurs miles below the surface,” said Jackson, professor of environment and energy at Stanford. “People don’t realize, though, that it’s sometimes happening less than a thousand feet underground in sources of drinking water.”

Companies say that fracking has never contaminated drinking water. The EPA launched three investigations over the last six years into possible drinking water contamination by oil and gas activity in Dimock, Pa.; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyo. After initially finding evidence of contamination at the three sites, the EPA shelved the investigations amid allegations by environmentalists and local residents that the regulator succumbed to political pressure.

Jackson said the Stanford study’s findings underscore the need for better monitoring of fracking at shallower depths. “You can’t test the consequences of an activity if you don’t know how common it is,” he said. “We think that any fracking within a thousand feet of the surface should be more clearly documented and face greater scrutiny.”

Photo: Maryland Sierra Club via Flickr

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Oil Drilling In North Dakota Raises Concerns About Radioactive Waste

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

ARNEGARD, N.D. — Every weekday, about a dozen large garbage trucks peel away from the oil boom that has spread through western North Dakota to bump along a gravel road to the McKenzie County landfill.

The trucks drive up to a scale flanked by something seldom found in rural dumps — two 8-foot-tall yellow panels that essentially form a giant Geiger counter.

Two or three times a day, the radiation detector blares like a squad car, because under tons of refuse someone has stashed yard-long filters clotted with radioactive dirt from drilling sites.

The “socks” are supposed to be shipped to out-of-state processing plants. But some oil field operators, hoping to save tens of thousands of dollars, dump the socks in fields, abandoned buildings, and landfills.

“It’s a game of cat-and-mouse now,” said Rick Schreiber, the landfill’s director. “They put the sock in a bag inside a bag inside a bag.”

Nearly 1,000 radioactive filters were found last year at the landfill, part of a growing tide of often toxic waste produced by the state’s oil and gas rush. Oil field waste includes drill cuttings — rock and earth that come up a well bore — along with drilling fluids and wastewater laced with chemicals used in fracking.

To many local and tribal officials, environmentalists, and some industry managers in North Dakota, the dumping of the socks and the proliferation of other waste shows the government falling short in safeguarding the environment against oil field pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency decided during the Reagan era to classify oil field waste as not hazardous, exempting it from tight controls and leaving it to be managed by widely varied state laws. Nationally, no one tracks how many millions of tons of waste the fossil fuel boom generates, or where it ends up.

The EPA exempts the waste, in part, because it considers state oversight adequate, despite what the agency calls “regulatory gaps in certain states.”

Most oil companies dump drilling waste into thousands of pits by their wells, but North Dakota, the second-largest oil-producing state behind Texas, does not test the pits’ contents or monitor nearby groundwater for contamination.

Rather than using instrumentation, North Dakota regulators visually inspect the on-site pits and “special waste” landfills to determine if the loads are wet or leaking.

“A lot of the stuff we deal with wouldn’t come here if it were designated as hazardous,” Schreiber said. “Hazardous waste has a manifest, it’s better tracked. Now, there’s no tracking, and it’s left to individual landfills like ours to deal with it.”

Indeed, Schreiber installed the radiation detectors on his own, not upon orders from the state.

The harshest reaction so far to North Dakota’s growing oil field waste has come from middle managers of several oil companies who formed a watchdog group, the Bakken Waste Watch Coalition, that has asked the regional office of the EPA to clamp down on the state.

“The waste is, in fact, toxic,” said one company manager, who like others in the group, requested anonymity for fear of losing his job. North Dakota “will see 12,000 more slop pits, some on top of known aquifers, in the next decade, seething with who-knows-what — then abandoned.”

Scott A. Radig, director of the state health department’s waste management division, countered that the EPA exemption is “working fine” in North Dakota.

“The huge majority of waste, if it had to be tested for hazardous characteristics, wouldn’t register as hazardous waste,” he said.

North Dakota has long produced oil, but the latest boom took off in 2006, when high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, tapped the northwestern Bakken shale formation.

Soon the deep green of durum wheat fields and shocking yellow of canola give way to rectangular lots of red scoria gravel studded with drilling rigs and horse head pumps. The area’s nearly 7,400 wells are the start of development that could bring another 40,000 wells in the next 20 years.

Last year, 1.75 million tons of oil field refuse went to special waste landfills, Radig said.

At least 80 percent of North Dakota’s oil companies dispose of millions more tons of drilling waste in pits near rigs, said Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, which oversees oil development. North Dakota does not have an environmental protection agency.

Studies including by the EPA show that oil field waste contains substances dangerous to human health, especially if they enter groundwater. Benzene, for instance, is a carcinogen.

Radium and barium, naturally occurring radioactive elements, are sometimes brought up by drilling, an especially acute problem in North Dakota. The levels of radioactivity are low but the volumes great, and their potential effect is unclear.

“They are exempt from being classified as a hazardous waste, but that doesn’t mean they are not hazardous,” said Bill Olson, a retired hydrologist who worked on New Mexico’s stricter 2008 oil field waste rules. (The administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, weakened the rules last year.) Sampling in New Mexico and elsewhere has shown pits leaking into groundwater.

North Dakota requires cuttings be dry before the plastic-lined pits are buried, to reduce the risk of leaching. Oil field refuse at special waste landfills must be dry, too, under an agreement between the health department and the EPA.

The health department told the EPA it would conduct visual inspections and a more rigorous test that entails running oil field waste through a small paper filter to detect liquids. But in practice, North Dakota seldom, if ever, tests oil field waste for wetness.

“The reason it isn’t necessary is that it’s pretty easy to look at waste and tell if it’s wet or not,” Radig said. “It’s like being able to tell the difference between dirt and mud.”

Blaine Nordwall, attorney for the Bakken Waste Watch Coalition, argues that the state should rely on the more stringent filter test. “The problem with visual inspections is that they produce no data or records,” he said. “You could have thousands of gallons of liquid under loads of dirt.”

The mineral resources department relies exclusively on visual inspections, too.

“Is visual inspection enough? I think so,” Helms said. “If a pit has a problem with water, the diesel fuel comes to the surface.”

AFP Photo/Karen Bleier

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Clinton Backs Away From More Questions About Benghazi

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton fended off questions Sunday on the deaths of American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, suggesting that no additional explanation she offered would satisfy her critics.

“There’s a difference between unanswered questions and unlistened to answers,” Clinton said on CBS Sunday Morning.

“There were a lot of confusing pieces of information flooding into us from the very first moment we heard about it,” Clinton said, referring to the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. “We did our best to sort it out.”

“I did my best to fully cooperate with the Congress. I respect the Congress’ oversight responsibility,” she added, but suggested that Republican critics have seized on discrepancies that arose from “the fog of war” and have improperly tried to use them as evidence of a coverup.

Clinton’s Sunday TV appearance came after a week of promotional interviews for her memoir, Hard Choices, in which she has occasionally seemed to stumble over easy questions. Most notably, she appeared tone-deaf to the plight of ordinary Americans struggling in the tepid economic recovery when she said she and President Bill Clinton had left the White House “dead broke” in 2000. The president ran up millions of dollars in legal fees during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Republican party chairman Reince Priebus pointed to those moments in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Clinton “went out of the gate with one gaffe after the next,” he said. “The Democrats have nobody behind Hillary Clinton. If she keeps free-falling, she is not going to be the nominee.”

Clinton avoided any renewed gaffes in her interview Sunday. Pressed about her presidential ambitions, she said: “I’m not yet … making the list like I do, the pros and cons. I’m just sort of living my life and seeing how it feels to me.”

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

Report: ‘Blow-Out Preventer’ That Led To Deepwater Horizon Disaster Still Commonly Used

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Design problems with a blow-out prevention system contributed to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster and the same equipment is still commonly used in drilling four years after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, according to a report issued Thursday by the federal Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

The board concluded that the “blow-out preventer” — a five-story-tall series of seals and valves that was supposed to shear the drill pipe and short-circuit the explosion — failed for reasons the oil industry did not anticipate and has not fully corrected.

Despite improved regulation of deep-water drilling since the disaster, the board found that problems persist in oil and gas companies’ offshore safety systems.

“This results in potential safety gaps in U.S. offshore operations and leaves open the possibility of another similar catastrophic accident,” said Cheryl MacKenzie, lead investigator of the safety board inquiry.

The blowout of BP’s Macondo well in April 2010 killed 11 men and spewed nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, making it the worst offshore oil disaster in United States history. Several federal commissions have investigated the missteps that occurred on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the days and hours leading up to the explosion, which investigators said had its roots in corporate mismanagement and inadequate government oversight of the oil industry.

The chemical safety board, which examines industrial accidents but lacks regulatory authority, focused its inquiry on the blow-out preventer and safety practices. The blow-out preventer, or BOP, sits on the ocean floor below the drilling rig. The drilling pipe from the platform runs through the blow-out preventer into the earth and toward the oil and gas deposits.

If oil or gas, which are under high pressure underground, accidentally come up the well bore and pipe, the blow-out preventer is supposed to cut off the flow higher up to the platform. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, the lower valves in the blow-out preventer closed, letting pressure continue to build, which eventually bent the drill pipe, the safety board study found.

The last line of defense, a “blind shear ram” device inside the blow-out preventer, could not cut the pipe effectively, and “actually punctured the buckled, off-center pipe, sending huge additional volumes of oil and gas surging toward the surface,” the safety board said.

Since the spill, at least one company, GE Oil and Gas, has designed a new blow-out preventer that can cut a similarly bent pipe, but many rigs continue to use the same equipment found at Deepwater Horizon, the report said.

“The failed design of the blow-out preventer has not been addressed, and many existing rigs rely on the same design that failed on Deepwater Horizon,” said Jaqueline Savitz, vice president of U.S. oceans at Oceana, an environmental group. “At the same time, measures that could truly prevent spills, or improve spill response, were passed over.”

The American Petroleum Institute and the Interior Department, which oversees offshore drilling, countered the report, asserting that considerable improvements had been made to offshore safety practices after the Gulf oil spill.

“There is nothing here that hasn’t already been exhaustively addressed by regulators and the industry,” said Brian Straessle, a spokesman for API, the industry’s largest trade group. “The report appears to omit significant facts and ignores the tremendous strides made to enhance the safety of offshore operations.”\

Photo: ideum via Flickr

Obama To Bypass Congress To Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will unveil a rule Monday intended to confront climate change by cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the nation’s greatest source of the heat-trapping gas.

Obama plans to bypass Congress and use his authority under the Clean Air Act to achieve greenhouse gas reductions. Power generation accounts for about 40 percent of such emissions.

The 3,000-page rule is expected to spark lawsuits, claims of job losses and charges by critics that Obama has launched a new “war on coal.”

In some coal-reliant states, however, power companies and regulators are expected to take a more pragmatic approach, planning for a future they assume will include carbon dioxide limits.

“Carbon policy is going to impact our business, and we have to be prepared for that,” said Robert C. Flexon, chief executive of Houston-based Dynegy. “It can be a threat or an opportunity. I’d rather make it an opportunity.”

Which approach prevails — a legal fight or a political compromise — will help determine how quickly the U.S. will begin to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

As it seeks to reduce pollution, the administration must ensure that electricity supplies remain reliable and consumer rates do not increase significantly.

Some potential approaches are on display in Illinois, which relies heavily on coal, including nine plants operated by Dynegy. Additional power comes from nuclear plants and renewable sources, especially wind.

Although some older coal-fired plants have closed, power executives, regulators and some environmentalists say many need to keep running for now, although at less capacity. The reduced output could be made up through energy efficiency and renewable power, they say.

“We’re pretty consistent with what you’re hearing from other states, that you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach, but a suite of tools instead to use to cut emissions,” said Lisa Bonnett, director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Much of the wrangling over the new rule will probably center on its stringency: What baseline will be used to determine how much states have to reduce their emissions?

Will states have different standards to meet depending on how much coal generation they have? Will states get credit for cuts they already have made to emissions?

The Obama administration wants the rule in place by the end of 2016, just before the president leaves office, but given the likelihood of legal challenges, when the cuts might take effect is unclear.

In the past, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has ordered individual power plants to cut specific pollutants by set amounts. But that doesn’t work for carbon dioxide because the technology that would allow coal plants to cut those emissions is not currently cost-effective.

Instead, the EPA is expected to propose a rule that sets overall pollution reduction targets for states and gives them considerable flexibility on how to meet those goals.

In effect, the rule would enact some features of the so-called cap-and-trade plan that passed the House early in Obama’s first term but died in the Senate.

States would have an overall ceiling on the amount of greenhouse gases their power plants could emit — the cap. They could allow utility companies to trade in the hope of finding efficient, low-cost ways to achieve those goals.

Many energy companies have a mix of plants that use different fuels, and some could run cleaner units powered by natural gas or wind and reduce the use of coal-fired generators.

AFP Photo/Patrik Stollarz

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