Zinke says 30 percent of Interior ‘crew’ are not ‘loyal to the flag,’ as he promotes oil drilling and logging on public lands

The Associated Press reports: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Monday that nearly one-third of employees at his department are not loyal to him and President Donald Trump, adding that he is working to change the department’s regulatory culture to be more business friendly.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, said he knew when he took over the 70,000-employee department in March that, “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”

In a speech to an oil industry group, Zinke compared Interior to a pirate ship that captures “a prized ship at sea and only the captain and the first mate row over” to finish the mission.

“We do have good people” at Interior, he said, “but the direction has to be clear and you’ve got to hold people accountable.”

Zinke’s comments echo complaints by some White House allies that a permanent, “deep state” in Washington has sabotaged Trump’s efforts to remake the government.

Zinke did not go that far, but he lamented a government culture that prizes analysis over action, saying: “There’s too many ways in the present process for someone who doesn’t want to get (a regulatory action) done to put it a holding pattern.”

To remedy that, Zinke said he is pursuing a major reorganization that would push much of the agency’s decision-making outside Washington and move several agencies, including the Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management, to undetermined Western states.

The moves follow military strategy, Zinke said: “Push your generals where the fight is.”

While details remain largely under wraps, Zinke said he was excited.

“It’s going to be huge,” he said in a speech to the National Petroleum Council, an advisory committee that includes leaders of the oil and gas industry. “I really can’t change the culture without changing the structure.”

Besides moving employees, Zinke said he wants to speed up permits for oil drilling, logging and other energy development that now can take years. [Continue reading…]

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Who’s the world’s leading eco-vandal? It’s Angela Merkel

George Monbiot writes: Which living person has done most to destroy the natural world and the future wellbeing of humanity? Donald Trump will soon be the correct answer, when the full force of his havoc has been felt. But for now I would place another name in the frame: Angela Merkel.

What? Have I lost my mind? Angela Merkel, the “climate chancellor”? The person who, as German environment minister, brokered the first UN climate agreement, through sheer force of will? The chancellor who persuaded the G7 leaders to promise to phase out fossil fuels by the end of this century? The architect of Germany’s Energiewende – its famous energy transition? Yes, the very same.

Unlike Trump, she has no malicious intent. She did not set out to destroy the agreements she helped to create. But the Earth’s systems do not respond to mission statements or speeches or targets. They respond to hard fact. What counts, and should be judged, as she seeks a fourth term as German chancellor in the elections on Sunday, is what is done, not what is said. On this metric, her performance has been a planetary disaster.

Merkel has a fatal weakness: a weakness for the lobbying power of German industry. Whenever a crucial issue needs to be resolved, she weighs her ethics against political advantage, and chooses the advantage. This, in large part, is why Europe now chokes in a fug of diesel fumes.

The EU decision to replace petrol engines with diesel, though driven by German car manufacturers, predates her premiership. It was a classic European fudge, a means of averting systemic change while creating an impression of action, based on the claim (which now turns out to be false) that diesel engines produce less carbon dioxide than petrol. But once she became chancellor, Merkel used every conceivable tactic, fair and foul, to preserve this deadly cop-out. [Continue reading…]

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In the Caribbean, colonialism and inequality mean hurricanes hit harder

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A satellite image of Hurricane Irma spiraling through the Caribbean.
NOAA/AP

By Levi Gahman, The University of the West Indies: St. Augustine Campus and Gabrielle Thongs, The University of the West Indies: St. Augustine Campus

Hurricane Maria, the 15th tropical depression this season, is now battering the Caribbean, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in the region.

The devastation in Dominica is “mind-boggling,” wrote the country’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, on Facebook just after midnight on September 19. The next day, in Puerto Rico, NPR reported via member station WRTU in San Juan that “Most of the island is without power…or water.”

Among the Caribbean islands impacted by both deadly storms are Puerto Rico, St Kitts, Tortola and Barbuda.

In this region, disaster damages are frequently amplified by needlessly protracted and incomplete recoveries. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan rolled roughshod through the Caribbean with wind speeds of 160 mph. The region’s economy took more than three years to recover. Grenada’s surplus of US$17 million became a deficit of $54 million, thanks to decreased revenue and the outlays for rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Nor were the effects of a 7 magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010 limited to killing some 150,000 people. United Nations peacekeepers sent in to help left the country grappling, to this day, with a fatal cholera outbreak.

A tent city in post-earthquake Haiti.
Fred W. Baker III/Wikimedia Commons

These are not isolated instances of random bad luck. As University of the West Indies geographers who study risk perception and political ecology, we recognize the deep, human-induced roots of climate change, inequality and the underdevelopment of former colonies – all of which increase the Caribbean’s vulnerability to disaster.

[Read more…]

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Tool-wielding macaques are wiping out shellfish populations

Nathaniel Scharping reports: The advent of tools was a big deal for humanity. It made it far easier to manipulate our environment and mold the planet to serve our own interests—from the folsom point to the iPhone X.

Some animals use tools too, like the macaques of Thailand, who have figured out that their favorite shellfish snacks are much easier to eat if they bash them open with rocks first. They’ve become proficient shellfish smashers, so much so that the macaques are actually threatening the existence of oysters and snails an a small island there. It’s a tale of technology gone wrong — only this time, humans aren’t the villains.

Researchers from Thailand, Europe and Australia looked at two groups of long-tailed macaques on separate islands off the Thai coast. The two locations, both alike in shellfish populations, differed only in the number of macaques there. Koram is host to around 80 primates, while NomSao has but nine. Both groups have figured out how to use rocks to break open shellfish armor, behavior that has been observed among other groups of macaques in Thailand.

On Koram, though, the abundance of tool-wielding macaques has led to a crisis of sorts. In a paper published last week in the journal eLife, the researchers estimate that a single individual on the island slurps down 47 shellfish a day, mostly oysters. For the mere 26 macaques that the researchers studied, that works out to 441,000 a year. Looking at periwinkles, a small sea snail, the researchers estimated that the monkeys could eat the entire island’s population in just a year. On NomSao, the much smaller group eats only about an eighth of the available periwinkle population. [Continue reading…]

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Interior Dept report recommends cuts or changes to seven national land monuments

The Wall Street Journal reports: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended cutbacks or other changes to nearly half the geographic national monuments he recently reviewed at the request of President Donald Trump, according to a report sent to the White House and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The report recommends reducing the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante preserves in Utah, and reopening hundreds of thousands of square miles of protected oceans in both the Pacific and Atlantic to commercial fishing—in actions numerous environmental groups would likely fight to block.

Those are the findings in a report the secretary sent to Mr. Trump in August. The details of the report weren’t released at the time.

Officials at the Interior Department referred requests for comment to the White House, which declined to comment.

“The Trump administration does not comment on leaked documents, especially internal drafts which are still under review by the president and relevant agencies,” White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said in a statement Sunday.

Besides Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the list of land monuments recommended for downsizing or otherwise made less restrictive—including by allowing traditional activities including ranching and logging—are Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou; Nevada’s Gold Butte; Maine’s Katahdin; and New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte. The ocean preserves Mr. Zinke wants reopened to commercial fishing include Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off the Massachusetts coast and both Rose Atoll and the Pacific Remote Islands.

Mr. Zinke recommended no changes to 17 other national monuments that the president included in the review, which he ordered after complaining some of his predecessors had locked up too much land and water in the preserves that can be created by presidents or Congress under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Most of the monuments that Mr. Zinke reviewed were created by two of Mr. Trump’s Democratic predecessors, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. [Continue reading…]

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This season, Western wildfires are close by and running free

The New York Times reports: Some fires suddenly exploded in size. One in Montana doubled in 24 hours, charring 78 square miles overnight — an area bigger than Brooklyn. Already burning fires started new ones, shooting embers like artillery barrages, including one that apparently jumped several miles across the Columbia River into Washington from Oregon, breaching a natural firebreak that long seemed impregnable.

Extreme fire behavior — difficult to predict and dangerous to fight — has been the watchword of the 2017 season across the West. More large, uncontrolled wildfires were burning in 10 Western states in early September than at any comparable time since 2006.

And those fires have leaned in, menacing more lives and property, by their size and their proximity, than in any recent season. Two firefighters died in Montana, and dozens of buildings and homes have been destroyed in California. About 150 hikers had to be rescued in Oregon when a fire encircled them. Evacuation orders — residents told to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice — reached to within 15 miles of downtown Portland. One of the largest fires ever recorded in Los Angeles County roared down from a canyon near Burbank, leapt a highway and forced hundreds of residents, from Burbank into Los Angeles itself, from their homes. [Continue reading…]

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The stunning underwater picture this photographer wishes ‘didn’t exist’

Lindsey Bever writes: The powerful and poignant image shows a tiny sea horse holding tightly onto a pink, plastic cotton swab in blue-green waters around Indonesia.

California nature photographer Justin Hofman snapped the picture late last year off the coast of Sumbawa, an Indonesian island in the Lesser Sunda Islands chain. The 33-year-old, from Monterey, Calif., said a colleague pointed out the pocket-size sea creature, which he estimated to be about 1.5 inches tall — so small, in fact, that Hofman said he almost didn’t reach for his camera.

“The wind started to pick up and the sea horse started to drift. It first grabbed onto a piece of sea grass,” Hofman said Thursday in a phone interview.

Hofman started shooting.

“Eventually more and more trash and debris started to move through,” he said, adding that the critter lost its grip, then latched onto a white, wispy piece of a plastic bag. “The next thing it grabbed was a Q-Tip.”

Hofman said he wishes the picture “didn’t exist” — but it does; and now, he said, he feels responsible “to make sure it gets to as many eyes as possible.” [Continue reading…]

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Will rebuilding after Harvey and Irma make more flooding inevitable?

Elizabeth Kolbert writes: The aim of the National Flood Insurance Program, which was created by Congress, in 1968, in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy, is to provide “affordable insurance to property owners.” The program offers what amounts to subsidized coverage, and according to its critics, and also to some of its supporters, the N.F.I.P. has had the perverse effect of encouraging rebuilding in areas where homes and businesses probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place.

Many homes enrolled in the program have been flooded and repaired more than once. These are known as “repetitive-loss properties.” Then there are homes that have been flooded and repaired at least four times. These are known as “severe repetitive-loss properties.” Into this latter category falls a Mississippi house valued at sixty-nine thousand dollars. The house has flooded thirty-four times, resulting in a total of six hundred and sixty-three thousand dollars in claims.

“It’s basically lather, rinse, repeat,” Steve Ellis, the vice-president of the non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, recently told Politico. [Continue reading…]

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A $150 billion misfire: How disaster models got Irma wrong

Bloomberg reports: Twenty miles may have made a $150 billion difference.

Estimates for the damage Hurricane Irma would inflict on Florida kept mounting as it made its devastating sweep across the Caribbean. It was poised to be the costliest U.S. storm on record. Then something called the Bermuda High intervened and tripped it up.

“We got very lucky,” said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan. If Irma had passed 20 miles west of Marco Island instead of striking it on Sunday, “the damage would have been astronomical.” A track like that would have placed the powerful, eastern eye wall of Irma on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

By one estimate, the total cost dropped to about $50 billion Monday from $200 billion over the weekend. The state escaped the worst because Irma’s eye shifted away from the biggest population center of Miami-Dade County.

The credit goes to the Bermuda High, which acts like a sort of traffic cop for the tropical North Atlantic Ocean. The circular system hovering over Bermuda jostled Irma onto northern Cuba Saturday, where being over land sapped it of some power, and then around the tip of the Florida peninsula, cutting down on storm surge damage on both coasts of the state. [Continue reading…]

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Why poor planning leads to floods in Chennai and Houston

Nityanand Jayaraman writes: The recent floods in Houston and Mumbai, and the December 2015 floods in Chennai are previews of what a disaster could look like when climate change and ill-advised land-use change collide.

All three cities are economic powerhouses in their own right. All three have prioritised unbridled growth and urbanisation over caution and better sense. All have paid a heavy price for their choices.

None seems to have learnt any lessons beyond perhaps treating disastrous flooding as the new normal. This failure to learn may have more to do with who suffers and who gains from the choices made rather than an inability to learn.

To cope with increasing population – nearly two million extra residents added since 2000 – Houston has spread concrete over coastal prairie that used to absorb the rain, according to the Economist magazine. Media investigations reveal that since 2010, Harris Country has allowed more than 8,600 buildings to be constructed on a century-old floodplain.

In India, Chennai’s story is particularly telling about how governments beholden to an unhelpful growth logic actively make a bad situation worse. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Floodwaters in two Houston neighborhoods have been contaminated with bacteria and toxins that can make people sick, testing organized by The New York Times has found. Residents will need to take precautions to return safely to their homes, public health experts said.

It is not clear how far the toxic waters have spread. But Fire Chief Samuel Peña of Houston said over the weekend that there had been breaches at numerous waste treatment plants. The Environmental Protection Agency said on Monday that 40 of 1,219 such plants in the area were not working.

The results of The Times’s testing were troubling. Water flowing down Briarhills Parkway in the Houston Energy Corridor contained Escherichia coli, a measure of fecal contamination, at a level more than four times that considered safe.

In the Clayton Homes public housing development downtown, along the Buffalo Bayou, scientists found what they considered astonishingly high levels of E. coli in standing water in one family’s living room — levels 135 times those considered safe — as well as elevated levels of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals in sediment from the floodwaters in the kitchen. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports from Gustavia, St. Barthélemy: The pace is frantic. Residents with shovels clean the streets. Dump trucks laden with the stumps of storm-ravaged trees rumble back and forth along narrow streets. Construction crews clear downed telephone poles and debris from houses and businesses in a race to restore the lifeblood of this small Caribbean island — tourism.

Those who live on St. Barthélemy — working in its restaurants, building its homes, fishing its seas — know there is nothing without it. And Hurricane Irma, which plowed through this part of the Caribbean, killing more than two dozen people and seriously damaging or destroying the majority of structures on some islands, also struck a devastating blow to the industry so many rely on.

“We don’t have a choice,” said Jordan Laplace, a fisherman whose family has lived on the island for generations. “Tourism is the only way to live. We don’t have anything else.”

The storm leveled hotels, eroded beaches and turned marinas into graveyards for scuttled yachts. Islands that were hit are still trying to assess the hurricane’s economic impact, wondering how and even if they will be able to restore the islands to the former magnets they were before Irma. [Continue reading…]

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Requiem for the Sunshine State

Dexter Filkins writes: If you grow up in Florida, you watch the natural world around you disappear. It’s just a fact you live with. The verdant, miles-long stretch of dune and palm, rustling to the beat of the waves? Paved over. The brackish stream that flows from ocean to intercoastal, giving life to manatees, alligators, and tarpon? Turned into a parking lot. The swath of live oak trees, the Spanish moss clinging to their branches like the mists from a Faulkner novel? It’s an apartment complex called Whispering Pines.

It doesn’t matter when you moved to Florida. Ever since the nineteen-sixties, the stream of people pouring into the state has been relentless: an average of eight hundred newcomers a day. All of them need places to live. Where I grew up, in Cape Canaveral, the destruction of nature happened so fast that it was often disorienting; passing a stretch of woods for perhaps the eight-hundredth time, I would stare at the backhoes and cranes and wonder what had occupied that space only a week before. On a few occasions, my teen-age friends and I got so angry that we scaled the fences of construction sites and moved the survey points that were marking the spot for the next foundation—the next pour of cement. We failed, of course, to stop what the builders were building, or even to slow it down. The joke among us was that every housing development in Florida was named to memorialize the ecosystem it replaced: Crystal Cove, Mahogany Bay, The Bluffs. For about a year, I lived in an apartment complex, paved from end to end, called “In the Pines.”

It’s useful to remember this now, as Hurricane Irma lays waste to much of Florida: the destruction of the state has been unfolding for decades, and, for the most part, it wasn’t done by nature. It was done by us. [Continue reading…]

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Hurricane Irma is literally sucking the water away from shorelines

Angela Fritz writes: As a meteorologist, there are things you learn in textbooks that you may never see in person. You know they happen theoretically, but the chances of seeing the most extraordinary weather phenomena are slim to none.

This is one of those things — a hurricane strong enough to change the shape of an ocean.

Twitter user @Kaydi_K shared this video Saturday afternoon, and I knew right away that even though it looked as though it couldn’t be possible, it was absolutely legit.

“I am in disbelief right now…” she wrote. “This is Long Island, Bahamas and the ocean water is missing!!!” [Continue reading…]

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Company Town captures ‘quiet tragedy’ of community polluted by big business

 

The Guardian reports: The documentary Company Town opened in New York City on Friday night, for a short run at Cinema Village on East 12th Street. Introducing a sold-out screening, New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman said co-directors Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian had captured one of the “quiet tragedies that are taking place all across America all the time”.

The film tells the story of Crossett, Arkansas, a small town dominated by a huge Georgia-Pacific paper mill owned by the Koch brothers, Charles and David, hugely influential Republican donors with a deeply contentious – activists would say appalling – record on the environment. People who live in Crossett blame the mill for the heedless dumping of cancer-causing chemicals they say pollutes drinking water and shortens already straitened lives.

“This is a story that never gets told,” Schneiderman said, “and it takes tremendous commitment to get to the quiet tragedies that are taking place all across America all the time.

“The environmental movement really has not done as good a job perhaps as we should have done carrying the essential message that people who are poor and without power are always on the front lines of pollution and environmental justice.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s war on science

In an editorial, the New York Times says: The news was hard to digest until one realized it was part of a much larger and increasingly disturbing pattern in the Trump administration. On Aug. 18, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine received an order from the Interior Department that it stop work on what seemed a useful and overdue study of the health risks of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

The $1 million study had been requested by two West Virginia health agencies following multiple studies suggesting increased rates of birth defects, cancer and other health problems among people living near big surface coal-mining operations in Appalachia. The order to shut it down came just hours before the scientists were scheduled to meet with affected residents of Kentucky.

The Interior Department said the project was put on hold as a result of an agencywide budgetary review of grants and projects costing more than $100,000.

This was not persuasive to anyone who had been paying attention. From Day 1, the White House and its lackeys in certain federal agencies have been waging what amounts to a war on science, appointing people with few scientific credentials to key positions, defunding programs that could lead to a cleaner and safer environment and a healthier population, and, most ominously, censoring scientific inquiry that could inform the public and government policy. [Continue reading…]

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In a summer of wildfires and hurricanes, my son asks ‘why is everything going wrong?’

Naomi Klein writes: The news from the natural world these days is mostly about water, and understandably so.

We hear about the record-setting amounts of water that Hurricane Harvey dumped on Houston and other Gulf cities and towns, mixing with petrochemicals to pollute and poison on an unfathomable scale. We hear too about the epic floods that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people from Bangladesh to Nigeria (though we don’t hear enough). And we are witnessing, yet again, the fearsome force of water and wind as Hurricane Irma — one of the most powerful storms ever recorded — leaves devastation behind in the Caribbean, with Florida now in its sights.

Yet for large parts of North America, Europe, and Africa, this summer has not been about water at all. In fact it has been about its absence; it’s been about land so dry and heat so oppressive that forested mountains exploded into smoke like volcanoes. It’s been about fires fierce enough to jump the Columbia River; fast enough to light up the outskirts of Los Angeles like an invading army; and pervasive enough to threaten natural treasures, like the tallest and most ancient sequoia trees and Glacier National Park.

For millions of people from California to Greenland, Oregon to Portugal, British Columbia to Montana, Siberia to South Africa, the summer of 2017 has been the summer of fire. And more than anything else, it’s been the summer of ubiquitous, inescapable smoke. [Continue reading…]

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The world is facing a global sand crisis

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Sand for use in hydraulic fracturing operations at a processing plant in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin in 2011.
AP Photo/Steve Karnowski), Author provided

By Aurora Torres, German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research; Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Michigan State University; Jodi Brandt, Boise State University, and Kristen Lear, University of Georgia

When people picture sand spread across idyllic beaches and endless deserts, they understandably think of it as an infinite resource. But as we discuss in a just-published perspective in the journal Science, over-exploitation of global supplies of sand is damaging the environment, endangering communities, causing shortages and promoting violent conflict.

Skyrocketing demand, combined with unfettered mining to meet it, is creating the perfect recipe for shortages. Plentiful evidence strongly suggests that sand is becoming increasingly scarce in many regions. For example, in Vietnam domestic demand for sand exceeds the country’s total reserves. If this mismatch continues, the country may run out of construction sand by 2020, according to recent statements from the country’s Ministry of Construction.

This problem is rarely mentioned in scientific discussions and has not been systemically studied. Media attention drew us to this issue. While scientists are making a great effort to quantify how infrastructure systems such as roads and buildings affect the habitats that surround them, the impacts of extracting construction minerals such as sand and gravel to build those structures have been overlooked. Two years ago we created a working group designed to provide an integrated perspective on global sand use.

In our view, it is essential to understand what happens at the places where sand is mined, where it is used and many impacted points in between in order to craft workable policies. We are analyzing those questions through a systems integration approach that allows us to better understand socioeconomic and environmental interactions over distances and time. Based on what we have already learned, we believe it is time to develop international conventions to regulate sand mining, use and trade.

[Read more…]

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EPA now requires political aide’s sign-off for agency awards, grant applications

The Washington Post reports: The Environmental Protection Agency has taken the unusual step of putting a political operative in charge of vetting the hundreds of millions of dollars in grants the EPA distributes annually, assigning final funding decisions to a former Trump campaign aide with little environmental policy experience.

In this role, John Konkus reviews every award the agency gives out, along with every grant solicitation before it is issued. According to both career and political employees, Konkus has told staff that he is on the lookout for “the double C-word” — climate change — and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations.

Konkus, who officially works in the EPA’s public affairs office, has canceled close to $2 million competitively awarded to universities and nonprofit organizations. Although his review has primarily affected Obama administration priorities, it is the heavily Republican state of Alaska that has undergone the most scrutiny so far. [Continue reading…]

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After Harvey, Trump administration reconsiders flood rules it just rolled back

The Washington Post reports: A couple of weeks ago President Trump scrapped Obama-era rules, intended to reduce the risks posed by flooding, that established new construction standards for roads, housing and other infrastructure projects that receive federal dollars.

Trump derided these restrictions, which were written in response to growing concerns over the impact of climate change, and other federal rules as useless red tape holding back the economy.

“This overregulated permitting process is a massive, self­inflicted wound on our country — it’s disgraceful — denying our people much-needed investments in their community,” he said in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York during an event to tout his infrastructure policies.

But now, in the wake of the massive flooding and destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey along the Gulf Coast, the Trump administration is considering whether to issue similar requirements to build higher in flood-prone areas as the government prepares to spend billions of dollars in response to the storm.

This potential policy shift underscores the extent to which the reality of this week’s storm has collided with Trump officials’ push to upend President Barack Obama’s policies and represents a striking acknowledgment by an administration skeptical of climate change that the government must factor changing weather into some of its major infrastructure policies. [Continue reading…]

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