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Our Daily Planet: A Methane Win, OK Wind Catcher, Fossils at Bear's Ears, Drowning Coast, Noise Harms Wildlife, EPA EJ Study, Saving Iceland's Whales
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Monday, February 26th, 2018

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Methane is flared from a Bakken Field well site in North Dakota in 2014. Photo: Jeff Peischl of NOAA

Judge Sets Back Trump Methane Gas Rule Reversal 

States and environmental groups won the latest round on clean air in a California court late last week when a judge there ordered an Obama-era rule controlling methane gas emissions to be re-instated.  The court said, "BLM’s reasoning behind the Suspension Rule is untethered to evidence contradicting the reasons for implementing the Waste Prevention Rule, and so plaintiffs are likely to prevail on the merits. They have shown irreparable injury caused by the waste of publicly owned natural gas, increased air pollution and associated health impacts, and exacerbated climate impacts..."  Environmental groups and states were buoyed by the victory -- but further battles lie ahead.  As we reported in ODP on February 14, the BLM recently released a broader proposal for a permanent rollback of most of the rule's provisions, which could be finalized in April.

This is the latest in series of temporary setbacks for the Interior Department on this rule, including:
  • January 16, 2017: Wyoming District Court denies industry trade groups and several states request for preliminary injunction, to prevent the rule from going into effect.
  • May 10, 2017: The effort to kill the methane rule via Congressional Review Act fails with bipartisan support, 51 to 49.
  • October 4, 2017: California court overturns the Interior Department's decision to unilaterally suspend many of the most important protections of the methane waste rule without providing any opportunity for public comment.
Why This Matters:  The Obama rule is aimed at reducing leaks of natural gas or methane that occurs when wellheads on federal lands vent and flare during oil production. The Obama administration said that venting of methane cost taxpayers over $330 million a year in lost revenues from natural gas.  BLM estimated in 2016 that the Obama rule would prevent as much as 180,000 tons of methane emissions annually, about the equivalent of taking 950,000 cars off the road.  States and environmentalists may have won this battle, but it will ultimately be hard to win the war to prevent methane gas pollution.  


Jonathan Blair/ Getty Images 
Ancient Fossil Trove Discovered at Bears Ears Right Where Trump Removed Protections

One of the world's richest troves of Triassic-period fossils has been discovered in an area of Bears Ears National Monument that just lost its protected status, the Washington Post reported. In December President Trump signed and order decreasing the size of the national monument by 85 percent.

Grist added that "The remains of three large, intact phytosaurs — crocodile-like creatures that covered the globe 200 million years ago — were found by a team of 14 researchers excavating a rich fossil bed in Utah called the Chinle Formation." Rob Gay who led the team of researchers called the discovery the “largest and most complete bone bed in the state of Utah, and one of, if not the largest, anywhere in the United States.”

Why This Matters: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante were designated as protected areas in large part because of their value as paleontological sites. Grand Staircase's Kaiparowits Plateau is considered one of the most important examples of the Mesozoic Era and since its protection in 2016 by President Obama has yielded to the discovery of 27 new species not previously known to science. The Tropic Shale there which is a 94-million-year-old swath of rock contains commercially viable deposits of shale gas and development there could destroy priceless fossils that could give scientists insight into extinctions and other geochemical indicators.

Another problem that arises when these areas lose federal protection is that they are prime targets for looters. Gay's team noted that a team of looters made off with a phytosaur skull before President Obama gave Grand Escalante protection in 2016. Ultimately these fossils and the clues they hold about our planet belong to all of us--we deserve to have these places protected so we can learn more about our history. 

 Climate Change

Vanishing Wetlands Near the Mouth of the Mississippi River   Photo: William Widmer  New York Times
The Times of NY and NOLA Go Deep Into the Bayou Together

The NY Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune teamed up for a special pull-out section that appeared in both papers yesterday on the subject of Louisiana's vanishing coast.  The publications wanted to bring special attention to the impact of climate change on land loss in one of the nation's "most vulnerable and vital regions."  The NY Times brought its reporting, video, photography (see above) and design staffs, while the Times-Pic had the local expertise and contacts.  The result is a powerful piece of journalism.  

This special collaboration features three articles.  One tells the story of a small town mayor fighting to keep the town vibrant and growing even as the seas rise around it.  The second describes how the city of New Orleans was fortified after Hurricane Katrina thanks to $20B of new infrastructure -- the billion dollar question is whether it will be enough.  The third of the stories explains how an invasive insect that probably came from China or Japan is destroying a native grass called roseau cane, which is essential to maintaining wetlands there. This trilogy of stories shows how the regions is dealing with a desperate race against time -- a race that is bound to be repeated in countless low lying areas around the world.  

Why This Matters:  At ODP we believe these are exactly the stories that need to be given a wider audience so that the American public can have a greater awareness of climate change and the environment more generally.  These two outstanding publications working in combination provide a more compelling portrait of the region's challenges than either could have done on its own.  But even so, it took support from the Society of Environmental Journalists through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation to make it possible.  We need more reporting like this.  We recommend you read all three stories and be sure to watch the embedded videos.  
NY Times Video - Louisiana's Drowning Coast


Photo: GE Creative via Enid News & Eagle
Wind Catcher Catching On in Oklahoma Thanks to Walmart

The largest wind farm in the U.S. got one step closer to breaking ground last week.  The 2,000 megawatt  Wind Catcher facility will generate power from 800 General Electric 2.5 megawatt turbines. The project also involves building a 360-mile extra high-voltage 765-kilovolt power line to connect two new substations, one located at the wind facility and a second near Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Oklahoma's panhandle has some of the best wind in America but is hundreds of miles from larger cities and communities that can benefit from low-cost, clean energy. The project expected to cost $4.5 billion and bring wind power by the end of 2020 to more than 1.1 million energy customers in the South Central U.S. It will also provide up to 4,400 indirect jobs during construction and 80 permanent jobs once the project is operational. Oklahoma schools will see about $300 million in tax revenues. 

The project had been held up by challenges from state public utility commissions, but Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO), a subsidiary of major utility American Electric Power, announced late last week a settlement with various parties, including Walmart, allowing the project to move forward.  

Why This Matters:  Large customers can drive change in the energy markets, which is good for both the environment and the economy.  Case in point -- Walmart.  "Walmart has a goal to be supplied by 100 percent renewable energy, and sourcing from wind energy projects—like the Wind Catcher project—is a core component in the mix," said Mark Vanderhelm, vice president of energy for Walmart. "The energy procured from this project represents an important leap forward on our renewable energy journey." So we say (like Rogers and Hammerstein) let the wind come sweeping down the plain - and capture it in Oklahoma for a clean energy future.   


Largest urban oil field in the US is by 300 homes in Los Angeles. Photo: Citizens of the Planet/Getty Images
Communities of Color Overwhelmingly Affected By Air Pollution

EPA scientists recently published a study demonstrating that non-white communities in almost every state are more likely to be exposed to dangerous levels of air pollutions compared to white communities. According to Think Progress' coverage, the study "focused on pollutants from refineries and factories that measure less than 2.5 microns across — roughly 30 times smaller than the diameter of a strand of human hair. Those particles are especially dangerous because they are small enough to travel deep into human lungs and can even enter the bloodstream. Pollutants 2.5 microns or less have been shown to contribute to respiratory issues like asthma, cardiovascular issues like heart attacks, and premature death."

African-Americans faced the highest impact, experiencing a 54 percent higher health burden compared to the overall population. African Americans are exposed to 1.54 times more fine particle pollution than the overall population and communities living below the poverty line are exposed to it 1.35 times more. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has worked to roll back several environmental regulations and provisions linked to decreasing air pollution and particulate matter such as making changes to the Clean Air Act and repealing the Clean Power Plan.

Why This Matters: Refineries and highly-polluting coal-fired power plants are notoriously concentrated near communities of color and are making people (who often don't have the means to move elsewhere) really sick. For instance, African American children are burdened by 138,000 asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days each year. While the oil and gas industry places the blame for this on "genetics" they're denying that they place their toxic operations near communities that have the fewest resources to stand up to them. 

The EPA report noted that racism and economic inequality are the biggest drivers of the disparity between pollution levels in white and non-white communities--not any existing justification that industry likes to throw around. That's why environmental justice is such an important component for the environmental community to support--clean air should be a right provided to all Americans, not just ones who are white or call a certain zip code home. 

How to Help: There are many organizations working on environmental justice throughout America but WE Act is one of the oldest and most recognized. They organize grassroots action all across the country and help local efforts get off the ground. In addition to accepting donations, they can help connect you to causes in your area or help connect your cause to a broader network of activism. 

Additionally, ask your elected officials what their stance is on EJ issues. As the EPA study demonstrated, almost every region in America is affected by air pollution inequality but not all politicians address the issue. Especially in light of the Trump administration's effort to scrap EJ programs within the EPA, this is an important question to ask. From school board members to your senator, push your leaders to take a stance and take action. 


North Atlantic Nations Meet To Discuss Regional Protection for Endangered Whales

Icelandic, European and U.S. scientists and decision makers met late last week to chart a course for more effective whale conservation. This meeting, a first of its kind in the region, was something of a breakthrough because, in recent years, Iceland had rekindled its commercial whaling program, much to the dismay of the U.S. and European nations.  Ironically, the participants in last week's session met at the Whales of Iceland Exhibition in Reykjavik, beneath a giant replica of a fin whale, a species whose existence is literally hanging in the balance. ​

Iceland continues to hunt minke whales (46 whales in 2016 - the largest number in years) for local restaurants serving the meat to tourists. In addition, from 2006-2016, Icelandic whalers killed over 700 endangered fin whales and illegally shipped over 7,200 metric tons of fin whale products to Japan. In 2015 alone 155 endangered fin whales were killed—the highest number of fin whale deaths since the global commercial whaling moratorium took effect in 1986. But in 2016, they suspended their fin whale hunt and it has not been resumed.  

Why This Matters:  Iceland has a sterling reputation for its conservation-oriented fisheries management policies.  But when it comes to conserving whales, the government has gone rogue -- frustratingly beholden to its fishing industry, which sees whales as just big fish. By conducting a commercial hunt for whales, they are badly out of step with their U.S. and European allies -- and acting in contravention of the global treaty banning the international sale of endangered species products, such as whale meat.  But maybe this is finally changing. As the International Fund For Animal Welfare's Patrick Ramage put it, "[h]opefully they'll choose a better world for animals and people."

To Go Deeper on Iceland's Whaling:  You can watch this documentary called Breach.  But, warning -- there are some graphic scenes.  



Photo: Dave Keeling
Human Noise Pollution Stresses Wildlife

A newly released study looked at 492 protected areas in the U.S. and discovered that 62 percent of the parks, wilderness areas, and green spaces were twice as loud as normal. About 21 percent were 10 times as loud. Researcher Nathan Kleist of SUNY Brockport and his colleagues studied the effect that noise had on birds in San Juan Basin of northern New Mexico. While much of the area is owned by the Bureau of Land Management and is uninhabited, the piñon and juniper flats are dotted with gas-extraction wells. After three years his research "reported in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that mountain bluebirds avoided the noisy areas, and flycatchers also kept their distance, though they were a little more tolerant. Western bluebirds, however, seemed fine with increased noise levels and nested everywhere on the sites. But that doesn't mean they were unaffected. Nestlings in high-noise areas had smaller body sizes and reduced feather growth."

Kleist told EcoWatch that "Noise might not be good for wildlife or humans. It reduces the value of habitats like parks," he said. "To make them as valuable and useful as possible to wildlife, we need to consider the impact of noise."

Why This Matters: According to the EPA "Noise pollution adversely affects the lives of millions of people. Studies have shown that there are direct links between noise and health." Science is beginning to understand that the same applies to animals as well. One study across 22 US national parks found that man-made noise on average was audible more than 28% of the time. Noise pollution is also a problem in our oceans and interferes with the vocal behavior of whales and dolphins and causes them stress--including the Northern Right Whale which is one of the most endangered large whale species. Even crustaceans have been known to exhibit anti-predator behaviors as result of anthropogenic noise in the oceans!  Conservation policy is going to have to take the noise we emit into account to better safeguard our wildlife. 
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