Tag Archives: #EPA

Stone Cold Facts

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Switzerland just experienced its coldest winter in thirty years; back in October, several meteorologists predicted this winter would be Europe’s coldest in a century. From my vantage point on the Franco-Swiss border, where temperatures didn’t get above freezing and were further chilled by a strong northerly wind, I can testify that January was desperately cold for our region. These are some local effects of a warmer Arctic, a slower jet stream, and the resulting stationary cold fronts.

But how do we know all this? Because we’ve been keeping meteorological records for decades and have further records based a variety of environmental investigations. While a few decades worth of temperature recordings might not be much along the vast time line of the planet, they do give us insights into directions, movements, influence. Without these records, we are cut adrift into speculation.

Record-keeping of environmental data is how we can move beyond the snapshots of the time in which we live to gain an overview of our world as it evolves, of our impact on it.

Tsunami stone. Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

Tsunami stone.
Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

And so it was with dismay that I read of various environmental agencies and national parks being muzzled as one of the first orders of business under the new U.S. administration. From the Environmental Protection Agency to every national park to NASA to the Department of Agriculture, public access to public science was restricted, while government scientists were prohibited from communicating with the very taxpayers for whom they work. A memo announced that all studies, papers, publications and grants would be reviewed for approval by the incoming administration. It’s possible this is just a prelude to massive de-funding.

Offhand, I would guess that this is an outgrowth of the new administration’s less-than-enthusiastic support of the science behind climate change, and that a blanket gag order is one way to control a large, ongoing conversation between scientists and the public. Without regular record-keeping, otherwise known as data gathering, we are blinded.

For data to be politicized for immediate or short-term goals is to put society in peril of running headlong in the wrong direction. As an example, the new administration has also just removed regulations that restricted the dumping of coal mining waste into rivers and streams; without regular monitoring of water quality and access to this data, who will know in eighteen months how water quality has fared?

Record keeping is how we humans remember. Whether through oral history, parchment paper, printed studies or virtual data memory, this is how we find our way forward by knowing what came before. Our collective access is greater than ever before, provided it’s not suppressed for ideological and commercial expediency.

 tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location. Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Stone tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location.
Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Back in 2011, the great Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami swept across the Sendai province of Japan like a scythe. It was the largest earthquake ever measured in Japan, and the fourth largest in the world since record-keeping began in 1900. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, a nuclear reactor in Fukushima was compromised and released large amounts of radioactivity into the environment.

Yet there was data that warned of building below certain elevations. After all, Japan is a land of earthquakes and tsunamis. Hundreds of tsunami stones, some dating back 600 years, warn inhabitants to build on high land and not below. In the boom years following WWII, this data, this knowledge, was forgotten or ignored and the stones relegated to historical curiosities as towns, oil refinieries and nuclear reactors were built right up to the coast line. It was commercially and politically viable, and modern society thought that higher sea walls would outweigh inconvenient ancient data.

Data and remembering are more than history, more than signposts to be pointed wherever the political wind is blowing. Some of the gag orders on U.S. agencies were lifted following public outcry, not that these agencies will necessarily be spared cutbacks. But this kind of information is the result of input by countless contributors from around the world, from those who develop data gathering methods to scientists and community volunteers who collect data in the field to those who interpret it. This knowledge shouldn’t be subject to national borders, much less capricious limitations.

The environment doesn’t recognize or respect national borders, nor does climate change. Records and this kind of information are our collective global right and legacy.

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don't worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. Uphill. So run! Run uphill! Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don’t worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. So run! Run uphill!
Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

 

The Shape of Absence

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Absence of information has the curious characteristic of being innocuous as long as it goes unnoticed, and undeniably intriguing once it becomes apparent. Once you notice something is missing, you can’t stop looking at the hole where it should be and wondering what should actually be there.

For example, a recent report published by the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shows just how little data is publicly available on the subject of oil and gas company spills and other violations in the United States.

RIP Great Auk: After John Gould (1873/ 2014),  from the series Frameworks of Absence, a collection of historic prints and publications printed at the time in history when the depicted species became extinct, with the extinct species cut out of the image. Artist: Brandon Ballengée

RIP Great Auk: After John Gould
(1873/ 2014)
From the series Frameworks of Absence, a collection of historic prints and publications printed at the time in history when the depicted species became extinct, with the extinct species cut out of the image.
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

I noticed this some time ago when I posted comments on the large 2013 Tesoro oil spill in North Dakota that took over a week to report to the press (and which is still in the clean-up process, 18 months and $20 million later).

I looked for data on oil spills across the 36 U.S. states with active oil and gas installations, but information was difficult to find. I attributed that difficulty to my own lack of time and online savvy, but as it turns out, the reason runs deeper.

Neither state nor federal regulatory agencies provide this data in any consistent form, and if corporations have extensive monitoring and data on spills, they are keeping it to themselves for the most part.

RIP Sloane’s Urania Butterfly: After W.F. Kirby (1897/ 2014) Frameworks of Absence Artist: Brandon Ballengée

RIP Sloane’s Urania Butterfly: After W.F. Kirby
(1897/ 2014)
Frameworks of Absence
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

According to the NRDC study, many violations are never reported at all. It should be added that many violations aren’t considered report-worthy because of lax standards and enforcement found in many states.

What happens when no consistent records are kept?

There can be no true accountability of the impact of oil and gas industry operations and activities on the communities and environments in which they conduct business. Noncompliance with safety standards and construction requirements becomes difficult to enforce due to the lack of a track record. The same goes for on-site worker safety regulations and compliance.

Companies with an (invisible) history of violations can skirt notice and supervision. The true boundaries of pollution and damage can be minimized or even denied.

The NRDC report makes for interesting reading and now I can’t stop looking at the empty space where all the information should be.

'RIP Audubon's Bighorn Sheep' (18492014) Frameworks of Absence Artist: Brandon Ballengée

‘RIP Audubon’s Bighorn Sheep’ (1849/2014)
Frameworks of Absence
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

 

Sticky Solutions

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Map: HuffingtonPost

Canadian tar sand oil has been touted, along with natural gas, as one of the primary means of gaining energy independence in North America. I was dismayed when I heard this, not because I don’t want North America to be energy independent, but because this independence will come at the price of continued use of fossil-based fuels, as well as making vast infrastructure investments into a fuel system most agree is both outdated and dangerous.

The billions spent exploiting tar sands for oil are billions that won’t be spent on increased development of renewables and supporting infrastructures.

James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who alerted the world to the dangers of global warming almost 30 years ago, has warned that conventional oil, gas and coal reserves already have a level of carbon stored in them which would, if burned, cause further dangerous levels of global warming.

In a speech before the Environmental Audit Committee in May, he said, “The potential amount of carbon in these unconventional resources is huge. If we introduce the tar shale and the tar sands as a source and exploit those resources to a significant extent, then the problem (of climate change) becomes unsolvable (without) geo-engineering.”

Engineering is exactly what many supporters of fossil fuels are counting on – technological solutions to global weather systems. My question is, if the companies can’t even engineer safe and reliable oil exploitation and delivery systems, where do they gain their confidence in the ability of humans to engineer climate systems or safe biosphere havens?

Due to an old US law, the diluted bitumen extracted from Alberta tar sands is not classified as oil. For oil companies and pipeline operators (including the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline under discussion), the exploitation of tar sands oil will come without the cost of paying the regulation-stipulated 8-cents-per-barrel contribution into the US federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which helps pay for spill clean-ups.

There have already been a number of tar sands oil spills. Included here are a few that were discovered:

13 oil spills in 30 days Source: tcktcktck.com

From NPR: “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  has come out in support of higher standards for pipelines carrying tar sands oil because the oil is more aggressive to pipelines than conventional crude, making leaks and spills more likely.  Michigan State University professor Stephen Hamilton thinks more regulation is needed because of the many ways that a tar sands spill can be more harmful to the environment and people than a conventional oil spill. Another example he cited is that tar sands oil is a lot stickier than conventional crude, so everything it touches, even rocks, cannot be cleaned and needs to be thrown away.

“The consequences and the costs of the cleanup, once it gets into surface water systems as we’ve seen in the case of the Kalamazoo River, are incredibly high,” he says. “And, you know, we’ll never get it all out.”

The presidential decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is currently under consideration, and is due in the summer or fall of this year.

If you haven’t already seen it, here’s what a land-based, casual oil spill looks like: