Climate Change Blog 18 - Facts on the Ground; Climate Change Impact on Food Chain; Election Results and Climate Change; Washington DC

By Carl Howard posted 11-08-2018 11:29 AM


Climate Change Blog 18

Facts on the Ground:

Violent thunderstorms, small tornadoes that blew roofs off homes and winds equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane lashed Italy from Piedmont to Sicily in late October, killing at least nine people with many injured and firefighters and other rescue workers scrambling to respond to emergency calls.

In Venice, ferocious winds drove the high tide to more than 61 inches above average sea level, one of the highest levels ever recorded, flooding much of the city. It was the highest flood there in a decade. Pedestrians used raised walkways throughout the city, while others waded through thigh-high water. Tourists swam in historic Saint Mark’s Square in front of the city’s cathedral.

An editorial in the Venice daily Il Gazzettino asked about the Moses Project, the divisive, unfinished, multibillion-dollar system of floodgates that has been under construction for years. Venice was built in a lagoon and has always been vulnerable to flooding. The system of barriers is supposed to offer some protection as global warming and rising seas worsen the threat.

While Italy was flooded, Germany was in historic drought. Its major rivers, the Danube, the Elbe and the Rhine, were not navigable for large ships and all navigation was slowed due to record low water levels. Fish and aquatic life died in warm, shallow, oxygen-starved water. The lack of water was due in part from lack of rain and in part from lack of snow-melt from glaciers and snow-packs which are at reduced levels as well. Farming losses are in the billions. Climate models suggest this is to be a frequent occurrence (McKibben’s “Eaarth”, see Blog 3; all Blogs are available via NYSBA.Org, Quick links, Blogs).

Also in late October, Typhoon Yutu struck the American territory of the Northern Mariana Islands tearing through Saipan and Tinian and destroying more than 100 homes. The eye of the storm passed over Tinian with wind speeds of 180 m.p.h.  the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane. Meteorologists said Yutu could be the strongest storm to strike the US this year.

Edwin K. Propst, a representative in the commonwealth’s legislature, said he spent a sleepless night at home with his family on Saipan: “Last night, it was like a freight train and a 747 were racing, and you’re right in between them.” As the storm ripped the shutters off his home and broke windows, he retreated to a back room. After sunrise, he ventured out to survey the damage. “I visited several constituents who lost it all,” he said. “Their homes, their valuables, their prized possessions.”

Trump declared an emergency in the Northern Mariana Islands and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Blog 19 will address FEMA) to begin disaster relief efforts.

Mr. Propst said he has not seen a storm this bad in decades and would not be surprised if electricity did not return to Saipan for months. “We really need help,” he said. “Our island has been flattened. It’s one of the worst typhoons we’ve seen in a very, very long time.”

Nine bodies were recovered from a landslide in the town of Natonin, which buried a government building. Fourteen people were rescued and nine were still missing. In the nearby town of Banaue, which was also hit by a landslide, volunteers retrieved the bodies of four people, two of them children.

Yutu was the 18th typhoon of the season to hit the Philippines, which endures 20 or so every year. It came one month after Typhoon Mangkhut dumped heavy rains causing landslides that killed at least 150 people. Mangkhut was the most powerful storm to hit the archipelago since 2013 when Typhoon Haiyan killed thousands. Such storms are predicted to become increasingly fierce and deadly.


Climate Change Impact on Food Chain – One Example

The purple urchin is devouring the kelp forests off Northern California’s coast. The underwater forests — huge, sprawling tangles of brown seaweed — are in many ways just as important to the oceans as trees are to the land. Like trees, they absorb carbon emissions and provide critical habitat and food for a wide range of species. But climate change has triggered a 60-fold explosion of purple urchins and the kelp forests have declined by 93%.

The extent of the danger is extensive. Kelp forests exist along the cooler coastlines of every continent except Antarctica. They are threatened both from warming oceans and from changes induced by warmer water.

Maine’s forests of sugar kelp, a source of the sweetener mannitol, have also suffered declines from warming water. And in Tasmania, kelp forests also have succumbed to a purple urchin outbreak.

This story of disappearing kelp demonstrates how an interwoven food system breaks down and threatens people’s livelihoods. Red urchins, larger than purple urchins, are commercially viable because people eat their gonads. The delicacy is known to sushi-lovers as uni. But the growing purple urchin population outcompetes the red urchins for kelp. Without kelp, red urchins starve.

The value of Northern California’s commercial red urchin fishery has declined from $3.6 million in 2013 to less than $600,000 in 2016. Many harvesters have given up. Those still working are taking bigger risks, going out farther to dive in deeper waters for their catch. Whereas they used to dive 10 to 50 feet, now it’s 70 to 110 feet. Diving that deep is more dangerous and divers have drowned and suffered the effects of decompression sickness, which can be deadly.

The trouble began with the starfish. Sunflower starfish, whose appendages can span more than three feet, normally eat purple urchins, helping to limit their numbers. But in 2013, the starfish began dying, probably due to a virus aided by warmer waters.

Sea otters, another predator of purple urchins, were hunted to near extinction in Northern California by 19th-century fur traders. Their numbers have not rebounded.

Around the same time as the starfish dye-off, a mass of warm water appeared hundreds of miles off Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. By 2014 that warm water had moved toward land, stretching from Southeastern Alaska down to Mexico.

The marine heat wave was hotter than anything humans had recorded dating back to the late 1800s. Researchers and locals called it “the Blob.” It would last into 2016. Studies linked it to climate change. Over 90% of the heat trapped on Earth due to global warming has been absorbed by the ocean, increasing its temperature and altering the delicate balance of marine life.

The Blob also slowed the process of upwelling in which cooler waters and nutrients move from deeper in the ocean up to the surface. That choked off a critical supply of nourishment for the kelp.

A warmer ocean is not as productive as the normally cooler ocean. It can’t hold as much oxygen. The combination of higher temperatures and less nutrients led to the kelp die-off.

In the absence of predators and with dwindling food supplies, the purple urchins have gone on a rampage. Farther south on California’s coast near Monterey, purple urchins are eating southern sea palm. The reef is covered with brittle stars, which would have been eaten by sunflower starfish. Purple urchins are devastating the reefs, removing all algae (kelp and other seaweeds are algae.)

Scientists say the impacts underwater this year have been more devastating than anything they’ve seen in the past. The remaining red urchins have begun adapting. While they are normally vegetarian, at deeper depths they are turning carnivorous and eating barnacles to the astonishment of scientists.

This year, for the first time, California state fishery managers closed the region’s recreational red abalone fisheries for the entire season. The abalone, edible sea snails that are a prized delicacy, also depend on kelp for food. The state is likely to close the abalone fisheries for the next two seasons as well. A 2013 report found that more than 31,000 people visited the fisheries each year, contributing $44 million to the sparsely populated communities nearby. Without abalone, the restaurants, campgrounds, hotels and businesses that depend on those visitors are struggling.

Locals worry that rockfish — like sculpin, rock cod and red snapper — may be next. They spawn in kelp forests. Worldwide, 100 species of rockfish rely on kelp. Adding to the challenges, a new blob of warmer water formed this year in the Northeast Pacific Ocean, though it has not reached the California coast. Yet.

Recall from Blog 1 that Food and Sustenance from Ocean/Water is one of the foundational blocks supporting human civilization. Disruptions to marine ecosystems is a profound harm to this fundamental block.

Election Results and Climate Change

-Governor Jay Inslee (D-WA) has now failed three times to pass the nation’s first tax on planet-warming CO2 emissions. Voters in Washington State rejected Initiative 1631. Its rejection may well prove that carbon taxes are not politically viable in the United States.

The measure proposed a tax of $15/ton of CO2 in Washington starting in 2020, with the cost increasing $2 a year after that, until the state meets certain emissions targets.

Opponents of the measure included BP America , Phillips 66 and Marathon Oil Corp unit Andeavor. All three own refineries in the state. The industrial conglomerate Koch Industries, spent $28 million in the fight, the most money ever spent to combat a ballot initiative in the state. Opponents said it would have cost an average household $440 in the first year.

Big Oil raised double the $15.2 million spent on supporting the initiative by an alliance of green groups and billionaire activists including Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg.

The big-ticket battle reflected the stakes of climate regulation. The oil industry worries new curbs on carbon emissions will cut profits, while environmentalists worry that a failure to halt global warming will harm the planet.

Washington is the nation's fifth biggest fuel-producing state with five refineries. Those facilities last year produced about 5.6 million metric tons of CO2, an amount that would have yielded the state $83 million.


-In New Mexico, voters elected the Democrat, Stephanie Garcia Richard for public lands commissioner. The State Land Office is responsible for managing about 13 million mineral acres and 9 million surface acres that are leased for uses such as grazing and oil and gas drilling. The leases generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually for the state. The money is invested through the multibillion-dollar Land Grant Permanent Fund, with proceeds benefiting public schools, universities, hospitals and other state institutions.

At stake was a job with the authority to regulate the emissions of methane, a powerful planet-warming greenhouse gas that leaks from oil and gas operations and is more than 25 times as potent as CO2 in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Methane leaks from oil and gas operations in and around the state have created the nation’s largest methane cloud, about the size of Delaware, over the state’s Four Corners region.

Ms. Richard vowed to crack down on leaks of methane. She defeated a former commissioner, Patrick Lyons (R), who had the backing of the oil industry, including a $2 million contribution by Chevron to the political action committee supporting his campaign.


-In Arizona voters defeated Proposition 127 which would have required state utility companies to get half of the power it sells to customers from renewable sources by 2030.  Arizona Public Service strongly opposed the measure citing a possible sharp increase in energy prices to consumers if it passed. Under current state requirements, utilities must get 15% of their power from a renewable source by 2025.

But Nevada overwhelmingly passed a renewable energy initiative putting the state one step closer toward mandating a higher amount of wind and solar be used in its energy portfolio. The campaign to pass Question 6 won by a near 20-point margin, 59% to 40%.

The ballot initiative calls for electric utilities to acquire half of their electricity from renewable sources — such as wind, solar and hydroelectric — by 2030. The proposed mandate is a major step up from its current renewable portfolio standard of 25% renewables by 2025.

Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmental activist from California, devoted nearly $6 million to back Question 6 through his NextGen Climate Action organization.

However, state regulators will not begin enforcing stricter energy mandates. Under Nevada law, constitutional amendments require passage by voters in two consecutive elections — meaning Question 6 will need to win again in 2020 to become law.

The initiative is expected to face more resistance in 2020. NV Energy was largely quiet this year but the utility company likely will spend millions to defeat it over the next two years.

Conversely, Steyer’s investment in Nevada was minimal compared to the money he spent elsewhere in the country — more than $21 million through NextGen in  the Arizona initiative. Steyer likely will spend more in the second round.

Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., have Renewable Portfolio Standards, although only a few — California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey and Vermont — are as ambitious as Nevada’s.

Some policy experts say the mandates for more renewable power will drive down the cost, leading to a market-driven spread of cleaner energy. This has been the experience in states where such mandates exist.


-Voters in three Colorado communities, Boulder, Lafayette and Fort Collins, voted to suspend or ban hydraulic fracturing. But a fourth community, Broomfield, about 12 miles east of Boulder, narrowly rejected a fracking moratorium. 78% of Boulder residents voted to suspend fracking within city limits for five years, while a similar measure won 56% in Fort Collins. In Lafayette, voters permanently banned fracking within the city with 59% of the vote. Broomfield defeated the measure by 13 votes out of more than 20,500 cast.

In Colorado, the boom in fracking has led to a surge in oil and natural gas production and millions of dollars in new tax revenue. It has also raised fears that the process has poisoned residents’ water.

The temporary bans do not go as far as the outright bans on fracking in Maryland, New York and Vermont, but oil and gas companies fear that the Colorado movement could spread to other states.


Washington DC:

Trump proposed a pro-ethanol perk aimed at soothing corn and soybean farmers made anxious by his decision to impose tariffs on China which began a trade dispute with a major buyer of American agricultural products.

The plan — which will include lifting a federal ban on summer sales of higher ethanol blends of gasoline, something the industry has long sought — will be critical to assuaging farmers in Iowa and elsewhere who worry about the falling prices of corn and soybeans.

“There is anxiety about the president’s program on putting on tariffs,” said Senator Grassley (R, IA) though he noted the administration’s successful renegotiation of a trade deal between the United States, Canada and Mexico has allayed some of those concerns.

Still, he said that for farmers, the ethanol announcement “would be a big boost not only because of the anxiety of tariffs but because we’re having another record corn crop and that naturally drives down prices.” Grassley has long pushed to allow the sale of higher ethanol blend gasoline in summer months. The restrictions have been in place due to concerns that burning ethanol in hot weather contributes to smog.

Trump plans to lift the ban that generally runs from June through September on selling gasoline that is blended with 15% ethanol. He has criticized the anti-smog measure, which was imposed in 2011, as “ridiculous.”

Trump will direct EPA to write a rule allowing the blended fuel to be sold year-round. The rule, which will have a public comment period, will be fast-tracked to be finalized before next summer’s driving season.

Trump will also move to make it easier for the oil industry to comply with federal rules requiring it to either blend ethanol into its products or buy credits. Still, the oil industry vehemently opposes lifting the summertime ban because it could weaken the industry’s market share and stands strongly against the plan.

The American Petroleum Institute, the country’s largest oil and gas lobbying group, called lifting the summertime ban “ill-advised.” A bipartisan group of 20 oil-state senators wrote a letter to Trump arguing that a “one-sided approach” to the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires that refiners blend increasing amounts of ethanol and other biofuels into the nation’s gasoline and diesel supply, is “misguided.”

The tension between farmers and the oil industry over ethanol has been a running theme throughout Trump’s administration. Former EPA Administrator Pruitt clashed with Sen. Grassley and other corn-state Republicans for granting small oil refineries waivers from the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Pruitt resigned in July amid ethics scandals, but the loss of support among key Midwest Republicans likely hastened his departure.


Mercury Rule:

The Trump administration has completed a legal proposal to dramatically weaken the regulation of mercury, a toxic chemical emitted from coal-burning power plants. Mercury is known to damage the nervous systems of children and fetuses. This sets the stage for the possible full repeal of the rule later.

The move is the latest, and one of the most significant, in the Trump administration’s rollbacks of Obama-era health and environmental regulations on polluting industries, particularly coal. The weakening of the mercury rule would represent a major victory for the coal industry.

The rollback would also be a victory for Administrator Wheeler’s former boss, Robert E. Murray, the chief executive of the Murray Energy Corporation, one of the nation’s largest coal companies. Mr. Murray, who was a major donor to Trump’s inauguration fund, personally requested the rollback of the mercury rule soon after Trump took office, in a written “wish list” he handed to Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

The proposal would also be a victory to the former clients of William Wehrum, EPA’s top air official and the chief author of the plan. Mr. Wehrum worked for years as a lawyer for companies that run coal-fired power plants which have long sought this change.

The proposal also highlights a key environmental opinion of then Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The coal industry sued to roll back the mercury regulation and in 2014 lost its case in the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Judge Kavanaugh wrote the dissenting opinion expressing concerns about the rule’s cost to industry. Should the legal battle over the proposed regulatory rollback reach the Supreme Court, Justice Kavanaugh is expected to side with the coal industry.

Specifically, the new proposal would repeal a 2011 EPA finding that when the federal government regulates toxic pollution such as mercury from coal-fired power plants, it must also, when considering the cost to industry of that rule, calculate the additional health benefits of reducing other pollutants as a side effect of implementing the regulation. Under the mercury program, the economic benefits of those health effects, known as “co-benefits,” helped to legally and economically justify the cost to industry of the regulation.

When power plants comply with the rule and install emissions reducing technology, they create the co-benefits of reducing soot and nitrogen oxide, pollutants linked to asthma and lung disease.

The Obama administration estimated that the cost to the electric utility industry was $9.6 billion/yr to install mercury control technology, making it the most expensive clean air regulation ever put forth by the federal government. It found that reducing mercury produces $6 million annually in health benefits. It further justified the regulation by citing an additional $80 billion in co-benefits from reducing soot and nitrogen oxide emissions.

The Trump proposal directs EPA to disregard the co-benefits when considering the economic impact of a regulation. Needless to say, should the proposal become final, it would mean that the mercury rule would, on paper, appear to have far greater economic costs when ignoring the health benefits. The Trump administration would then be legally justified in weakening the rule and later eliminating it.

In a decision that echoed Judge Kavanaugh’s dissent, the Supreme Court blocked the Obama-era mercury rule, ordering EPA to conduct a new cost analysis. The Obama administration did so and reinstated the rule in 2016.

Murray Energy then sued to block it, and last year EPA successfully petitioned the DC Circuit Court of Appeals to delay oral argument as the Trump administration sought to rewrite the rule entirely. Stay tuned.


-In other EPA news, it dissolved its Office of the Science Advisor, a senior post that was created to counsel the Administrator on the scientific research underpinning health and environmental regulations.

The science adviser works across agency programs to ensure that the highest quality science is integrated into EPA policies and decisions. The move is the latest among several steps taken by Trump that have diminished the role of science while the administration pursues an agenda of rolling back regulations.

Similarly, EPA placed the head of its Office of Children’s Health, Dr. Ruth Etzel, on administrative leave, while declining to give a reason for the move noting only that it was not disciplinary. As the head of an office that regularly pushed to tighten regulations on pollution, which can affect children more powerfully than adults, Dr. Etzel had often clashed with Trump appointees who sought to loosen pollution rules.

After dissolving the office of the scientific adviser, Mr. Wheeler plans to merge the position into an office that reports to EPA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science, a demotion that would put at least two more managerial layers between EPA’s chief scientist and its top decision maker. Everything from research on chemicals and health, to peer-review testing to data analysis likely will be affected.

EPA’s previous administrator, Scott Pruitt, in April proposed a regulation that would limit the types of scientific research that EPA officials could consider when writing new public health policies, a change that could weaken EPA’s ability to protect public health.

Last year, Pruitt altered two major scientific panels that advise EPA on writing public health rules, restricting academic researchers from joining the boards while appointing several scientists who work for industries regulated by EPA.

-Carl Howard, Co-chair, Global Climate Change Committee
The views expressed above are my own.
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