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Our Daily Planet: Trump Cabinet Standouts — Scott Pruitt Wages a War on Scientists, Meanwhile Ryan Zinke Impersonates One
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

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Suisun Marsh, California   Photo: John Decker, Undark

One Fish, Two Fish - The Story of the Nearly Extinct Delta Smelt

In January, the LA Times proclaimed that because of "fifty years of failed water policy," the delta smelt, a small fish endemic to the California Bay Delta region, was nearing extinction, after the annual Cal Fish and Game survey of smelt turned up only 2 smelts, the lowest number ever, in 4 months of trawling.  On Tuesday,  Undark published an article that takes a hard look at the tortured history of the state and federal government's unsuccessful efforts to save the smelt, and the Endangered Species Act itself.  

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is credited for preventing the extinction of more than 200 species since its passage in 1973, including dramatic recoveries of certain species like the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, and the gray wolf. But the delta smelt is not among them.  In most cases, the smelt scientists argue that the ESA functions as a sort of emergency room for life forms on the brink, offering protection only after species have suffered a catastrophic loss of population numbers and habitat. By then, without drastic measures, it is difficult to reverse the decline.  The scientist charged with restoring the smelt recommend strengthening the ESA by incorporating the latest science regarding protecting and managing whole ecosystems, rather than a single species at a time.  The delta smelt, they argue, is an example of how without protecting the entire ecosystem, even with endangered species status, the species at risk could never recover from the various changes to its habitat caused by development.  

In the meantime, the Governor of California continues to push for further drastic changes to the Bay Delta water system in the form of a $17B water diversion project, called the California Water Fix, that will send river water from the northern part of the state to southern California through two massive tunnels.  The Brown Administration argues that the tunnels will be beneficial for the Delta Smelt because it will divert them from the older water system of pumps where they have previously been caught and died.  But many, including conservationists, oppose the project.

Why This Matters: Congress is looking to weaken the Endangered Species Act, and so is the Interior Department.  Calling attention to its failures right now is not exactly helpful to the cause of endangered species, even if well-intentioned.  A large majority of the public supports protecting endangered wildlife.  Hopefully, one day in the not so distant future, this public support will translate into Congressional action to create a stronger and more up-to-date ESA that protects entire ecosystems. Until then, species like the smelt may be SOL.



Photo: Rex Ziak
Deforestation's Damaging Double Whammy 

A new study in Nature Climate Change demonstrates that the average hottest day of the year in Europe, North America and Asia has been made significantly more intense as a result of deforestation since the start of the Industrial Revolution. As Carbon Brief reported, the study considered the dual impact that deforestation has on the climate: first, that clearing forests releases CO2 into the atmosphere where it contributes to rising global temperatures; and second, the large impact it can have on physical processes in the local climate – which can have a net warming or cooling effect more widely.

Forests serve as carbon sinks, sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere and serving as an offset to the emissions we produce. Intact forests also help stabilize local weather and again help offset some climate-related fluctuations. This process works when forests absorb water from the soil through their roots and later release it into the air as moisture, which has a cooling effect on the air above. When trees are cut down, this cooling effect disappears.

Dr. Quentin Lejeune, lead author of the study, told Carbon Brief that "During the industrial period, many areas over the mid-latitudes – especially in North America, the current Eastern Europe and Russia – experienced high rates of deforestation. We found that this led to significant local increases in daytime temperature during hot days."

Why This Matters: The findings of the study suggest that restoring forest cover (“reforestation”) and planting new forests (“afforestation”) could help to shield against further increases in hottest day temperatures. Scientists increasingly suggest that forest conservation and reforestation initiatives should be included in public policy that seeks to mitigate climate change. 


GE's HUGE Turbines Boost Renewable Industry and Jobs in U.K.

The world's largest wind turbines, each one capable of powering 16,000 homes, are being tested now off the coast of the United Kingdom.  How big are they, you ask?  The 12-megawatt Haliade-X, developed by GE Renewable Energy, stands 853 feet tall, or about three times the height of the Flat Iron building in New York City. Its massive rotor diameter of 722 feet is roughly the tower height of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge above water. A 750-megawatt wind farm configuration could produce enough power for up to 1 million homes.

This new turbine, being tested in conjunction with the U.K. government's clean energy accelerator, ORE Catapult, will be even larger than MHI Vestas' 9-megawatt turbines at Vattenfall's offshore wind farm off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland. One rotation of those turbines is sufficient to power the average UK home for an entire day, the developers boasted.  These MHI turbines recently made headlines because they have gone into operation in coastal waters adjacent to Donald Trump's Scottish golf course.  This is the wind
farm that then President-elect Trump complained about to Nigel Farage, who led the Brexit campaign, and in his first meeting with the U.K. government representatives after the election encouraged Farage and his entourage to fight them.

Why This Matters:  Instead of doubling down on coal and fossil fuels,  the U.S. should be like the U.K. and building more wind power capacity. It's GE -- a U.S. company -- that is developing this fantastic new technology -- but they are doing it with the U.K. government rather than ours. The U.K. is becoming a global leader in renewables, including offshore wind, with arguably more government support available than any other country in the world.  This will boost their supplies of homegrown clean energy while at the same time growing new jobs and opportunities in the U.K.  Coal played a key role in the political unrest in the U.K. in the 80's but they are clearly over it.


EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt today signed a proposed rule to stamp out "secret science" at the agency. Photo: EPA
Pruitt's War on "Secret" Science

In the name of transparency, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed a proposed rule that requires that the agency, when making rules, uses only studies that are based on science that is "transparent or reproducible."  That sounds like a good idea, right?  Not so much.  In fact, the proposal is aimed at disallowing the use of "dose response" studies that typically look at the reaction of a human subject to increasing levels of a particular pollutant or other substance.  These studies are based on experiments with humans and the underlying data is confidential in order to protect the identity of participants.  Without the promise of anonymity, people are unlikely to participate in such studies. 

For example, the new rule would ban the agency from using air quality studies that have linked pollution and health issues when drafting rules restricting air pollution.  These are the same tactics used by the tobacco companies in the 1990's to restrict the EPA's use of studies that showed the harm of second-hand smoke. Scientists expressed grave concerns.  "They are ordering EPA employees to put on blinders and only see the science that they want them to see," said Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

This comes at a time when Republican Senators are beginning to question Administrator Pruitt's continued ethical lapses.  The New York Times reported last night that Senator James Inhofe, said Tuesday that he would like to see an investigation into the ethical allegations against his protégé, Mr. Pruitt.  If any prove true, Inhofe said, they could “have an effect” on Mr. Pruitt’s job.

Why This  Matters:  In practice, scientists predict that this "transparency" policy may prove to be unworkable. It would drastically limit the kinds of studies available to regulators crafting the agency’s air and water regulations, because many of these studies rely on sensitive medical records that cannot be made public, or may be owned by private institutions not keen on publishing proprietary information.  So while this emphasis on transparency sounds good, it is not what it seems.  


Understanding the Messy Business of Recycling

Recycling is good for the planet but unfortunately a confusing topic for a lot of Americans. Questions like, what can and can't you recycle, does it all end up in the trash, and can cities afford to recycle, arise when people attempt to make decisions about what to do with their trash. It's a lot to know and understand but fortunately, NatGeo's Brian Clark Howard wrote a piece in The Washington Post titled "Five Myths About Recycling" that answers some of these questions. We'll sum up his answers but check out the entire piece for good background knowledge. 

Myth 1: Recycling uses more energy than making something new
False. According to the EPA, recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy needed to make new ones from raw materials. Recycling steel and tin cans saves 60 to 74 percent, recycling paper saves about 60 percent, and recycling plastic and glass saves about one-third of the energy compared with making those products from virgin materials. 

Myth 2: Items must be meticulously sorted for recycling
Since most municipalities use single-stream recycling systems separating waste isn't as important. While cleaner materials reduce odors and speed up the process, recycling processing technology has gotten a lot more advanced. 

Myth 3: Products made from recycled content are lower quality
This may have been true in the early days but numerous studies have shown that paper with recycled content now meets high-performance standards. Glass, plastic and metal containers with recycled content have been approved for use with food products by the FDA.

Myth 4: Recyclables just end up in the trash
Generally, this is not true. While market demand for recycled materials can fluctuate and have some effect, the biggest reason recyclables end up in landfills is that they are contaminated by consumers. Better consumer awareness could help a lot. 

Myth 5: Recycling should pay for itself
Cities can't control the market for recyclables, e.g. when oil prices are low it's easier to make virgin plastic rather than source it from recycled sources. Some municipalities can make money while others struggle to do so. Hopefully, new business models being developed can help incentivize recycling and help cities fund their programs. 

Why This Matters: As our friends at Recycle Across America explain, there's a recycling crisis across America as recycling plants increasingly shut down in large part due to the buyers of our recyclables demanding increasing standards of purity. Contaminated recyclables are making it harder to sell these products to buyers who recycle them for us in other plastic products. Better awareness is key and it can help reduce our use of resources and most importantly our generation of new plastics.

One Cool Thing: Toy company Hasbro has teamed up with TerraCycle to create a new toy recycling program. The free recycling program invites users to print out a free shipping label to use on boxes of “well-loved” toys and games, which they can then send to TerraCycle for repurposing. Items will be recycled into materials that can be used in the construction of playgrounds, park benches, and more.

 Climate Change

Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
One Funny Thing: Commander Z Gets Called Out

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is making headlines once again, this time not for confusing federal rules or cuts to public lands but on the questionable things he's said in public. Over the weekend comedian John Oliver made fun of his repeated claims that he's a geologist (he's not).  For a laugh, watch the segment above.

Additionally, last week E&E News combed through the archives of Zinke's "Commander Z," a radio show, which was steeped in inflammatory claims and other "whoppers" alleged against the Obama administration's personnel and policies.

Here's just one example from Zinke the "geologist":

"The big [influence on climate] is the temperature in the ocean. What we're really seeing is we're in a down-side, we're in a period of cooling, and as the ocean does cool, we're going to see a reduction in carbon in the atmosphere ... no matter how much we emit.....So taking out our coal plants isn't going to have any effect whatsoever, virtually nothing."  -Ryan Zinke 

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