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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Joe Romm: Jonathan Chait Is Wrong: The Keystone XL Fight Is An Excellent Strategy And Tactic


by Joe Romm, Climate Progress, October 31, 2013

I am generally a fan of progressive pundit Jonathan Chait. But his latest New York magazine column, “The Keystone Fight Is a Huge Environmentalist Mistake,” misses the mark.
Chait attacks Bill McKibben and the environmental movement for the decision to (supposedly) focus on Keystone rather than EPA regulations for power plants. His analysis suffers from several flaws:
  • It assumes the environmental movement can do only one thing at a time.
  • It assumes stopping Keystone has no strategic value.
  • It assumes movement building has no intrinsic value (strategic or tactical).
  • It assumes EPA regs are a stand-alone slam dunk — one that will achieve its ends without a protracted fight requiring a vibrant grassroots movement.
To make a sweeping analogy, dismissing the Keystone fight simply because stopping Keystone won’t save the climate by itself, would be like dismissing the civil rights movement’s use of protests or boycotts or civil disobedience. Each individual action failed to achieve civil rights and yet somehow the movement triumphed.
I think a great deal about strategy (and tactics) — I am, after all, an INTJ and that’s what we do. But I don’t tend to write explicitly about strategy because, well, that is bad strategy! Ironically, for that very reason, most discussions of strategy are written by non-strategists!
I’ll reply to Chait at length because the environmental movement seems to get beaten up for whatever it does these days (see here and here), and it can be quite disempowering to repeatedly be told that all of your strategies and tactics are flawed. So perhaps there can be a strategic value in talking about strategy, after all.
For the sake of clarity, “A strategy is a larger, overall plan that can comprise several tactics, which are smaller, focused, less impactful plans that are part of the over all plan.” That said, a very successful tactic can most certainly achieve a strategic end, like, for instance, the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956).
Chait begins by quoting McKibben out of context:
“To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement,” environmental activist Bill McKibben writes in the Huffington Post, “Keystone looks like a last chance.” It may be a last chance for the movement McKibben has helped lead — he has spent several years organizing activists to single-mindedly fight against approval of the Keystone pipeline — but Keystone is at best marginally relevant to the cause of stopping global warming. The whole crusade increasingly looks like a bizarre misallocation of political attention.
My view, which I laid out in a long feature story last spring, is that the central environmental issue of Obama’s presidency is not Keystone at all but using the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate existing power plants. That’s a tool Obama has that can bring American greenhouse gas emissions in line with international standards, and thus open the door to lead an international climate treaty in 2015. The amount of carbon emissions at stake in the EPA fight dwarf the stakes of the Keystone decision.
Again, Chait seems to think that the environmental movement is a one trick pony that can’t fight against Keystone while fighting for EPA regs. In fact, it can do both — heck, it can do both AND fight each and every coal plant AND fight coal export terminals, all at the same time!
But by quoting McKibben out of context, Chait makes it seem that it’s McKibben who believes “Keystone looks like a last chance” — for the movement. But that’s not McKibben’s point at all. Here is the full quote in context:
If the president were to become the first world leader to block a big energy project on the grounds of its effects on climate, it might help dramatically reset the international negotiations that he allowed to go aground at Copenhagen in 2009 — the biggest foreign policy failure of his first term.
But that cascade of “ifs” depends on Obama showing that he can actually stand up to the oil industry. To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement, Keystone looks like a last chance.
Keystone isn’t the last chance for the environmental movement — it’s the last chance for Obama to show that he can stand up to the oil industry! I checked with McKibben just to make sure I was reading him correctly.
McKibben describes one strategic value of Keystone here — catalyzing a climate treaty. I tend to put it the reverse way: How precisely could John Kerry [and Obama] lobby other countries to join an international climate treaty after enabling the accelerated exploitation of the tar sands?
Keystone is a gateway to a huge pool of carbon-intensive fuel most of which must be left in the ground — along with most of the world’s coal and unconventional oil and gas – if humanity is to avoid multiple devastating impacts that may be beyond adaptation.
Chait quotes from Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker story from September that James “Hansen’s dire warning about Canada’s unconventional oil deposits was based on the assumption that every ounce of oil in the sands would be burned. (Only a small fraction of the total estimated reserves is recoverable, and doing so will take decades.)” Chait then adds:
Oh! So developing the Canadian tar sands isn’t Game Over, or anything close to Game Over? While framed in the story as a minor detail, this seems like an enormously damning fact. In much the same way that conservative Republicans initially decided to shut down the government on the mistaken belief that doing so would defund Obamacare, and had to stick with their strategy once they had rallied millions of followers to the cause, environmental activists appeared to have built a strategy upon what was at best a rickety factual premise.
Fighting the Keystone XL pipeline is analogous to the GOP government shut-down strategy? Seriously? Funding Obamacare is the moral equivalent of burning one of the dirtiest pools of carbon in the world?
Charles Pierce replies in a blog post for Esquire, “Not everything is a tactic:
I hope neither Lizza nor Chait is going to sleep at night believing that the extraction industries are going to be satisfied with the fact that “only a small fraction of the total estimated reserves is recoverable,” because I guarantee you, those same industries are perfectly willing to shred Canada to get at the presently “unrecoverable” stuff. Tar sands are the next stage of carbon-based fuels and there shouldn’t be a next stage of carbon-based fuels. The comparison with the Republicans who shut down the government is self-evidently ludicrous and unworthy of rebuttal.
Let me underscore Pierce’s point that “not everything is a tactic.” Contrary to what Chait says, Keystone is well worth stopping as an end in itself just for the multiple climate impacts from tar sands exploitation alone:
As a study I discussed last year makes clear, if the U.S. and Canada use only the proven reserves of the tar sands — 170 billion barrels, which we could do this century if production is merely quadrupled — we would blow out any chance of the U.S. and Canada contributing our share to the 2 °C target. Or a 3 °C target.
It is simply the morally right thing to do to oppose KXL — and frankly no other justification beyond that is needed, especially since the President can stop Keystone by himself.
That said, “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory,” as Sun Tzu wrote in The Art Of War. Arguably the biggest critique of the environmental movement is that it stopped being a movement. If the only choice for people is to support a climate bill or screw in compact fluorescent light bulbs, then how precisely do you sustain a movement for the times when you need them?
We most certainly need a movement to avert catastrophic climate change. That’s why you must have fights for things at a level or scale below national legislation (or federal regulation). Certainly the civil rights movement understood that.
To quote the master strategist’s strategic masterpiece, “The Art of War,” again:
“Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.”
Well, if you keep your grassroots movement in nothing but salt water, it will die, too.
Although 30+ million Americans are alarmed about climate change and another 70+ million are concerned, there was until Keystone no grassroots climate movement to speak of. Is it possible we are going to avert catastrophic climate change without a climate movement, without their being a political cost for opposing climate action? It’s true that imposing such a political cost requires more than just an energized issue public, but it is hard to achieve that cost without one.
Indeed, the ultimate success of EPA regulations likely depends on a grassroots movement. Chait misses that key point when he writes:
The other accident at work here is one of timing. The Keystone movement developed in 2011, when environmentalists needed a cause to replace the failed cap-and-trade bill. It was only immediately following the 2012 election that the NRDC laid out a plan by which the EPA could effectively tackle existing power plants, the last big repository of unregulated emissions. The road map to solving climate change is far from certain: It involves writing a regulatory scheme to reign in existing power plants, surviving a legal challenge, and then, having credibly committed the U.S. to meeting Copenhagen standards, wrangling India, China, and others into a workable international treaty.
That plan is far from certain. But Keystone won’t affect the outcome much one way or the other. If Obama pulls off the EPA plan, then the U.S. can hit its emissions target even if it builds the pipeline. If he doesn’t, it won’t hit the target, even if it kills the pipeline.
I’m afraid Chait has not sketched out the full roadmap. He left out two key bridges. [And let's just let slide the incorrect notion that the Keystone movement developed in part because people were unaware of what EPA regs might do -- KXL was at the time a much more imminent presidential decision.]
First, if you think Republican governors are working hard to block Obamacare, imagine how hard they are going to work to block EPA state implementation plans (SIPs) that shut down actual coal plants. [This, by the way, is why I'd trade a reasonable carbon tax for those regulations.] A large fraction of the states with the most coal plants are run by Republicans. If they choose to delay/fight/obstruct action, they can certainly drag it out for many years. I for one would much rather go into this fight with an unrusty sword — a vibrant grassroots movement.
Second, while Obama’s initial EPA regulations are certainly critical for meeting the 2020 emissions target, that target was already too weak to put the US on the 2 °C path — and we will need considerably deeper cuts for a 2030 target and even deeper cuts for 2040 and beyond.
Obama — or, rather, the next president and the one after that and the one after that — will need to put on the table increasingly aggressive emission reductions plans, ones that will inevitably extend beyond power plants and require new federal legislation. Again, it is hard to see how we could sustain that effort without some sort of energized climate movement.
The fight for a livable climate has just begun. We’ll need a lot of swords to win it.

Shell announces return to Arctic in 2014 despite mishaps

WASHINGTON — Shell officials on Thursday said the oil company plans to make another, dramatically scaled-back bid to find crude in Arctic waters, following a headline-grabbing 2012 season that left the firm with air pollution fines and embarrassing equipment failures.
But first, the company is preparing to scrap the floating Kulluk conical drilling unit, which ran aground near an Alaskan island on Dec. 31 after a five-day fight to tow the vessel through a fierce storm. Shell has contracted Transocean’s semi-submersible drilling unit Polar Pioneer to replace the Kulluk as soon as early 2014, while final assessments are made on whether it is cost effective to repair the damaged drilling unit in an Asian shipyard.
Simon Henry, Shell’s chief financial officer, said the company was bracing for a fourth quarter impairment of “a few hundred million dollars” if the Kulluk’s repair costs exceed the benefits of rehabilitating the 30-year-old vessel.
The disclosure, which came during a call with reporters to discuss Royal Dutch Shell’s third-quarter earnings, ends months of speculation about whether the firm would be ready to return to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska once ice clears next summer.
The company has devoted nearly $5 billion and eight years of work into a new generation of Arctic oil exploration, decades after floating rigs drilled the last offshore wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The project is the largest single exploration prospect in the Shell group, but Henry stressed it has multibillion-barrel potential.
“It is very important to get the drill bit into the reservoir,” Henry told reporters. “What do we have? Is there oil there?”
Shell was forced to constrain its 2012 operations to “top-hole” drilling of the initial 1,500 feet of its Arctic wells, after its unique oil spill containment system was damaged during a deployment drill and could not get to the area in time.
Scaling back
Henry said Shell would soon file a broad Chukchi Sea drilling blueprint with federal regulators at the Interior Department. The company will not seek to resume drilling in 2014 in the shallower Beaufort Sea, where the floating Kulluk had operated last year.
“We have not yet confirmed if we drill in 2014,” said Simon Henry, Shell’s chief financial officer. “Clearly, we would like to drill as soon as possible, so we are putting the building blocks in place. There remains a permitting and regulatory process through which we need to go, before we can confirm a decision to actually drill in 2014.”
Shell in February decided it would abandon work in U.S. Arctic waters in 2013, while repairs on two drilling rigs were underway. Shell’s self-described “pause” in Arctic drilling also would give the company time to stand up an emergency oil spill containment system and leave room for federal regulators to draft specific standards for oil and gas development in the region.
Major hurdles
But there are major hurdles for Shell to restart its Arctic drilling operations in 2014, even on a much more limited scale.
The company still has not fulfilled regulators’ request for a third-party audit of Shell’s management systems.
Its Chukchi Sea exploration plan will be subjected to environmental reviews and public comment, a process that can stretch for months. Drilling permits for specific wells also may be needed.
And the company will have to stand up an armada of vessels — more than 20 were put into the region in 2012 — to support its operations.
Finally, even if the 29-year-old Polar Pioneer is ready to replace the Kulluk in 2014, it would have to win approvals to function as a backup drilling rig that is ready to bore a relief well in case of an emergency in the Chukchi Sea. Federal regulators at the Interior Department have insisted that Arctic operators have a relief drilling rig at the ready nearby, since the area is 1,000 miles from the nearest major port in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Environmental scrutiny
The work also will come against the backdrop of intense public scrutiny. Environmentalists had raised concerns about Arctic drilling and the risks of oil spills in the remote region long before Shell’s 2012 mishaps exposed the United States to images of a beached rig battered by crashing waves.
In March, the Interior Department issued a report blaming Shell for not sufficiently overseeing and managing a web of contractors and said the company had prompted “serious questions regarding its ability to operate safely and responsibly in the challenging and unpredictable conditions” offshore in Alaska.
“Shell’s focus appeared to be on compliance with prescriptive safety and environmental regulations required for approvals and authorizations, rather than on a holistic approach to managing and monitoring risks identified during operational planning,” the high-level Interior Department review concluded.
Interior Department officials are drafting a formal proposal of minimum standards for oil and gas activity in U.S. Arctic waters, partly with an eye on codifying some of the voluntary steps taken by Shell, as Arctic activity accelerates.
Michael LeVine, Pacific Senior Counsel with the conservation group Oceana, said it would be irresponsible to move forward in the Arctic Ocean, after Shell’s 2012 drilling proved companies are ill prepared for the harsh conditions in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
“Shell appears to be throwing good money after bad,” LeVine said. “If companies refuse to learn from their mistakes and make more responsible choices, the government must step in and say ‘enough is enough.’”
“The continued pressure to drill despite all evidence showing it cannot be done safely will lead only to controversy and risk for our ocean resources,” LeVine added.
Arctic rush
An estimated jackpot of 412 billion barrels of oil equivalent lurking in the Arctic is prompting a new oil rush at the top of the globe.
Shell has taken the lead in pursuing Arctic drilling in U.S. waters, decades after the last sustained drilling in the region. ConocoPhillips and Statoil also hold drilling leases in the U.S. Arctic. Outside the United States, ExxonMobil, Cairn Energy and Gazprom are all pursuing ventures in foreign Arctic waters.
But with a new oil and gas drilling boom onshore in North America, some energy experts and financial analysts have cast doubt on the merits of risky, expensive drilling into the U.S. Arctic frontier. Those concerns may be particularly acute for Shell, which has weathered questions from investors about its long-term investments and capital spending.
But Henry stressed the potential prize lying beneath Shell’s Arctic leases, ranking it in the same category as its Libra oil discovery in Brazil and its recent investment decisions on heavy oil projects in Canada.
“Both of those are multi-billion-barrel opportunities for Shell,” with investments and production spanning decades, Henry said. “Alaska fits into that category.”
Series of mishaps
Shell has described the mishaps during its 2012 Arctic drilling as primarily transportation and logistical challenges. They included the brief drifting of the drillship Noble Discoverer near Dutch Harbor, a fire in its rig stack and propulsion problems pulling into Seward.
The most high-profile setback came on Dec. 31, when Shell’s Kulluk rig collided with the rocky shore of Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak City, Alaska, following a five-day bid to tow the unpropelled vessel to safe harbor amid 70-mph winds and waves that climbed four-stories high. The rig was later pulled to sheltered Kiliuda Bay, sent to Dutch Harbor for further examination and then shipped to an Asian port for potential repairs.
In September, Shell agreed to pay the federal government $1.1 million in fines to settle claims it violated air pollution permits by sending excess nitrogen oxide out of its ships while drilling in the region last year.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Obama: We had the climate change rally back in the summer. This is the healthcare rally.

Conservation and Science Leaders Demand Protection of Wild Bumblebees

by Kaye Spector, EcoWatch, October 29, 2013

Conservation and science leaders renewed their call today demanding the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture protect bumblebees in light of numerous threats contributing to population declines.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate ConservationNatural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Defenders of Wildlife and entomology professor Dr. Robbin Thorp asked agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack to take action on a petition to regulate the movement of commercial bumblebees to help control the spread of parasites and pathogens to wild bumblebees—at least one species of which may already have been driven to extinction.
Leading conservation and science voices asked the U.S. secretary of agriculture to take action on a petition to regulate the movement of commercial bumble bees to help control the spread of parasites and pathogens to wild bumblebees. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Scientist and conservation leaders want the U.S. Agriculture Department to create rules prohibiting the movement of bumblebees outside their native ranges and regulate interstate movement of bumblebee pollinators within their native ranges. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
To prevent the spread of disease to wild populations of agriculturally significant bee pollinators, petitioners asked U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to use its authority to regulate commercial bumblebees. Specifically, the petitioners want APHIS to create rules prohibiting the movement of bumblebees outside their native ranges and regulate interstate movement of bumblebee pollinators within their native ranges by requiring permits that show the bumblebees are disease-free before being transported.
The letter comes nearly four years after an initial petition for rulemaking, which asked the APHIS to regulate the movement of commercial bumblebees to help control the spread of parasites to wild bees. The agency has not responded, despite dramatic declines in several native bee populations across the country. Researchers believe that pathogens transmitted by commercial bumblebees are likely part of the problem, prompting the call for agency intervention to help stem native bumblebee losses and avert the associated impacts on the U.S. food system.
“It has been almost four years since we filed our petition asking that APHIS regulate the movement of commercial bumblebees,” said Sarina Jepsen, endangered species program director at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “Several species of bumblebees are in steep decline and it is urgent that APHIS take action soon to protect these important pollinators.”
Bumblebee pollination is essential to the reproduction of many crops and native flowering plants, and pathogens of bumblebees can act as indirect plant pests that pose a significant threat to agriculture and native ecosystems.
“Without immediate agency intervention we will likely continue to see a dramatic decline in bumblebee pollinators with perilous and potentially irreversible consequences,” Giulia Good Stefani, attorney with NRDC said. “One-third of the food on our plates depends on pollinators. A failure to protect our bumblebees has direct implications for the health of the ecosystems that depend on them and for the security of our food supply.”
The unregulated interstate movement of bumblebees outside their native ranges may already have introduced diseases that have led to the rapid endangerment of four formerly common bee pollinators and the possible extinction of a fifth bumblebee. The last reported sighting of a Franklin’s bee (Bombus franklini) was in August 2006, and, without regulation, the western bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis), the rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), the yellow-banded bumblebee (Bombus terricola), and the American bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus) are each in danger of disappearing throughout significant portions of their distribution ranges.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

Falling Colors: The Long Agony of Trees

by Tom Lewis, The Daily Impact, October 30, 2013

Spectacular? Not Really. The fall foliage season is increasingly pastel, washed out, as on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains pictured here. The culprit is that visible, constant pall of pollution. (National Park Service Photo)
Spectacular? Not Really. The fall foliage season is increasingly pastel, washed out, as on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains pictured here. The culprit is that visible, constant pall of pollution. (National Park Service Photo)
A long-time friend of, and commenter on, The Daily Impact, Gail Zawacki, has for years maintained a lonely vigil on behalf of trees. On her blog. Wit’s End, she chronicles the massive, mortal harm being done to trees all over the world by air pollution. They are, in fact, slowly dying, a fact that should be most strikingly obvious to everyone in the fall, when by the tens of thousands we drive our emissions-rich cars long distances to see the fall colors. Which, increasingly, aren’t there any more. In part because of the emissions from our cars. Yet no one (except Gail) seems able to see the sick trees for the pale forest.
Here’s a sampling of explanations offered by writers, broadcasters and bloggers throughout the Northeastern United States this year for the pathetic showing of the fall leaves:
  • “The deep reds didn’t appear this year, I think it was the lack of a killer frost.” — Vermont
  • “I was surprised how the the colors of the foliage on the Blue Ridge and in many areas of the [Shenandoah] Valley are fairly dull in color. Maybe it was the abnormally dry period before the deluge.” — Virginia
  • “A hard frost early in the season tends to turn the leaves brown,” says an AccuWeather meteorologist. “On the other hand, [you don’t want it to be] too warm; you want a bit of frost that tends to bring out the brighter colors.”
  • “The other factor besides dry was the cicadas which chomped branches and nutrients back in June.” — Virginia
  • “It does seem that maybe our extended dry stretch was a bit too much then mix that with the rainy stretch and you’ve got some issues.” — Virginia
  • “The best fall color for an area occurs during the shortening days of autumn when days are bright, sunny and cool, when nights are cool but not below freezing, and when there has been ideal rainfall.” — Maryland
So, to sum up then, the problem of the washed-out colors is caused by frost, or lack of frost; rain, or lack of rain, or too much rain, or too little rain for too long followed by too much; or cicadas.
The problem and its cause matter. Set aside for the moment the enormous wound to the living web of life that sustains us all that this represents. It should matter even to industrialists; the U.S. Forest Service estimates that fiery foliage generates $8 billion in tourism revenue annually for New England alone. Foliage season is so important to Vermont that the state employs a leaf forecaster. States throughout the eastern United States avidly harvest tourist dollars every fall foliage season. So they should want to know why the colors are washing out.
Gail Zawacki is trying to tell them:
“The trees are dying from air pollution. It’s a global issue. Trees absorb ozone through their leaves when they photosynthesize and it damages the stomates, because ozone is a highly reactive gas and especially toxic to vegetation. You can’t see ozone, but the background level is inexorably increasing in the lower atmosphere, as more and more precursors are emitted and travel around the world. When plants are injured from repeated, cumulative exposure they lose natural immunity to insects, disease and fungus. It’s a huge problem well known to scientists and agronomists, but they don’t like to publicize it because the only way to deal with it is to drastically curtail fuel emissions and agricultural chemicals.”
Industry is like Aesop’s scorpion, who stings to death the frog carrying him across a stream, thus ensuring his own death, because, he explains with his last breath, “It’s my nature.”