our climate ‘madness’

November 19, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan aftermath in the Philippines

Images of Haiyan’s destruction (above) are dreadfully similar to those of Hiroshima (below).//Haiyan photo from european pressphoto agency

Today and every day, our burning of fossil fuels traps excess energy in our atmosphere equal to that of 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Or 16,700 Hiroshimas every hour, 278 Hiroshimas every minute.

One of those energy bombs hit the Philippines this month in the form of Supertyphoon Haiyan.

Hiroshima atomic bomb damageNo wonder, then, that photos of Haiyan’s devastation look eerily similar to those from Hiroshima. No wonder the mayor of one town said, “It was like a nuclear bomb struck us.”

Our energy imbalance is the mismatch between the solar heat the Earth absorbs and what it radiates back to space, NASA scientist James Hansen has explained. The Earth’s atmosphere is out of balance, overloaded with heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels. So, global temperatures continue to rise and our climate continues to change, creating warmer and more acidic oceans, superstorms like Haiyan, “rare and violent” tornadoes, “freak torrential” rainstorms, persistent drought, melting glaciers, disrupted seasons. 

For a second year, a deadly typhoon shattered the Philippines just as U.N. talks on a global climate treaty were opening, this year in Warsaw. For a second year, Yeb Saño, now the chief climate negotiator for the Philippines, pleaded with the world to “stop this madness” of the climate crisis, of climate inaction. He also announced that he would start fasting: “[I]n solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home and with my brother, who has not had food for the last three days, with all due respect, Mr. President, and I mean no disrespect for your kind hospitality, I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate. This means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this [meeting], until a meaningful outcome is in sight.”

Ted Glick, national campaign coordinator for Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in an article published last week in Grist.org that he has joined the fast. “I woke up on Tuesday to find my mind and heart focusing on the Philippines and on Yeb Saño’s action. I was pleased to learn that [Climate Action Network] International had taken this initiative in support, and I’ve decided to join their fast in solidarity with him, eating no solid food and consuming only liquids for as long as his fast continues. Others may want to join and fast for a day, a few days or until the end of the climate conference,” said Glick, who participated in the Walk for Our Grandchildren (WFOG) over the summer. (Glick also forwarded a YouTube video of Saño’s address edited with scenes from the Philippines.)

Soon other WFOG participants had joined, for a day or longer, including walk organizer Steve Norris, Deborah Woolley in Seattle, Jenny Lisak, whose organic farm lies near fracking operations in Pennsylvania, and Jerry Stewart, who will participate in the Great Climate March from Los Angeles to the nation’s capital starting in March.

The damage from this Category 5 “hellstorm,” the strongest to make landfall ever recorded, is “unprecedented, unthinkable and horrific,” Saño said last week. Bodies are rotting in the streets and people are desperate for food, water and shelter. He didn’t know the fate of some of his relatives, and his brother was weary, hungry and “picking up bodies with his own hands.” At times tearful, he urged swift action on climate change during the talks, which end Friday

Repeating his pleas from last year’s climate talks in Doha, he said: “ ‘If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?’ … What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. Mr. President, we can stop this madness right here in Warsaw. … We need an emergency climate pathway.”

He urged “drastic action” to “ensure that we prevent a future where supertyphoons become a way of life …  We refuse to accept that running away from storms, evacuating our families, suffering the devastation and misery, counting our dead become a way of life. We simply refuse to.”

He also said he feels drawn to join climate activists “who peacefully confront those historically responsible for the current state of our climate, these selfless people who fight coal, expose themselves to freezing temperatures or block oil pipelines. In fact, we are seeing increasing frustration, and thus more increased civil disobedience. … To the youth here who constantly remind us that their future is in peril, to the climate heroes who risk their life, reputation and personal liberties to stop drilling in polar regions and to those communities standing up to unsustainable and climate-disrupting sources of energy, we stand with them. … We cannot solve climate change when we seek to spew more emissions.”

Exactly. We can’t solve climate change if we raze old-growth forests and boil out the tar sands oil and pipe it around the world. We can’t solve climate change if we drill for oil deep under the ocean floor or in the Arctic. We can’t solve climate change if Dominion gets permission to spew more emissions from a facility at Cove Point and export liquefied fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale to Asia. We can’t solve climate change if we frack with freshwater mixed with toxic chemicals for gas under Maryland’s western counties. 

We have been dismal caretakers of our planet in countless ways. Climate change and its close cousins, pollution and habitat loss, along with overfishing, have us on the verge of the sixth mass extinction. (Already, 90 percent of large fish species are effectively extinct.) We are decimating our only home, our life-support system. Our oceans are filling up with bits of plastic, derived from natural gas, while oxygen-supplying phytoplankton has dropped 40 percent since 1950.  The World Meteorological Organization says 2013 is on track to become among the warmest since records began in 1850. “All of the warmest years have been since 1998, and this year once again continues the underlying, long-term trend,”  said Michel Jarraud, the group’s secretary-general. “The coldest years now are warmer than the hottest years before 1998.” Concentrations of greenhouse gases “reached new highs in 2012, and we expect them to reach unprecedented levels yet again in 2013. This means that we are committed to a warmer future,” he said. By warmer, he means disastrous.

As Saño says, time to stop the madness.

–elisabeth hoffman


typhoon haiyan

Super Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines as a Category 5 storm, killed thousands and caused widespread destruction, is not unrelated to fracking, the TPP, KXL, Cove Point, compressor statons and climate change.//NOAA photo

But wait. There’s more.

If the Myersville compressor station is connected to exporting LNG from Cove Point is connected to more fracking is connected to a poisoned planet is connected to climate change is connected to all of us having to take on the extra job of making governments do their job, then this whole fracking mess is connected to the Trans Pacific Partnership. At least, I think it is. Hard to know because the whole thing is top secret. top secret image

The Trans Pacific Partnership is a wide-ranging deal among the United States and 11 other nations bordering the Pacific that would break down the few remaining barriers to free trade, mostly by undermining environmental and health regulations and labor protections. President Obama missed recent talks in Asia about the TPP because of the government shutdown, but Secretary of State John Kerry went in his stead. The TPP is high on Obama’s agenda, and his goal is to have it completed by the end of the year.

“It’s not really about trade, it’s not really free or about freedom and there’s not much agreement about it … so it’s a misnomer,” Lacey Kohlmoos from Public Citizen said.  Over the summer, Kohlmoos, along with Leslie Morrison from Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Ilana Solomon from Sierra Club spoke at several town halls about the TPP. “It’s designed to break down all trade barriers, but what is a trade barrier has changed definition,” Kohlmoos said. The TPP is a “corporate tool of unprecedented power.”

What is known about the TPP has been leaked. Of its 29 chapters, only five are about trade. “The other 24 chapters either handcuff our domestic governments, limiting food safety, environmental standards, financial regulation, energy and climate policy, or [establish] new powers for corporations,” Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said on a recent Democracy Now! segment.

A few legislators who asked to review the treaty have been allowed to look at specific chapters but can’t take an aide, take notes, make copies, make a phone call or talk about it. The text is to be released four years after the agreement takes effect — or if talks collapse. Corporations, including Halliburton, Chevron, the Gas Technology Institute, General Electric, Monsanto and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, have a seat at the negotiating table, but environmental, labor and health groups do not. More than 600 corporate advisers have been working on the TPP for the last four years.

“It’s NAFTA on steroids,” Kohlmoos said.

halliburton rule image

The Halliburton loophole, corporate Wild West
on display.

It also sounds like the Halliburton loophole for the world, with corporations making all the rules. The Halliburton loophole, you will recall, was then-VP Dick Cheney’s escape hatch for drilling companies. In secret meetings with energy executives, he exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The TPP could also be called capitalism on steroids. Or, in activist and commentator Dennis Trainor Jr.’s words, a corporate coup. Economist Dean Baker has said on Democracy Now! that the TPP would “create a regulatory structure that is much more favorable to corporate interests than they would be able to get through the domestic political process in the United States and in the other countries in the pact.”

For example, any corporation that thinks its “rights” have been violated  — meaning, its profits have been diminished — by a new environmental or health regulation could sue the country involved. The judges in these so-called courts would be corporate lawyers, making corporations the plaintiff and the judge. We know how that will turn out.

The TPP “empowers individual corporations to directly sue governments—not in our courts, but in extrajudicial tribunals where three corporate attorneys act as ‘judges,’ and these guys rotate between being the judge and being the guys suing the government for the corporation,” Wallach said. “They’re empowered to give unlimited cash damages from us, the taxpayers, to these corporations for any government action— a regulatory issue, environment, health, safety — that undermines the investor’s expected future profits.”

Similar rules in effect under NAFTA already have led to one lawsuit over fracking. Under NAFTA, Lone Pine Resources, based in Calgary but incorporated in Delaware, sued Canada in fall 2012, seeking $250 million in damages, after Quebec imposed a five-year moratorium on fracking in the St. Lawrence Valley until more studies could be completed. Lone Pine claimed Canada had violated its “right to mine” for oil and gas and expropriated its profits.

And now the connection to fracking is clear. If corporations can sue for lost profits whenever governments try to protect people and the environment, if corporations have a “right to frack” and a “right to export” liquefied natural gas (LNG), such as at Dominion’s Cove Point facility, decisions will never be made in the public interest. In fact, exports would automatically be deemed in the public interest, Solomon of Sierra Club said. It would become “illegal to put any limits on exports.”

“We’d be required to conform our domestic laws to terms in TPP,” Kohlmoos said. “It really undermines our democracy.”

The countries involved are the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan — and other nations have expressed interest, including China.

Note that Dominion, via its proposed export facility at Cove Point, has contracts to supply LNG to Japan, one of the countries in the agreement. The United States doesn’t already have free trade agreements with Japan or India, but if the agreement goes through, Dominion wouldn’t need additional permission to send LNG to Japan.

Once the TPP is finalized, President Obama plans to ask to fast-track this treaty through Congress, meaning lawmakers could not amend or filibuster and would have to vote up or down within 60 days.

“Fast Track is not in effect,” Wallach said. “Fast Track is an extraordinary delegation of Congress’s authority. … So, we have to make sure that Congress actually maintains its constitutional authority to make sure that before this agreement can be signed, it actually works for us. … President Obama has asked for Fast Track, but it only happens if Congress gives it to him.”

That’s where we come in. Ask your U.S. senators and congressional representatives for their position on the TPP and express your concerns. The following are excerpts of emails about the TPP from three area lawmakers. (Several of us at HoCo Climate Change have received the same emails.)

Sen. Ben Cardin wrote:

I will not support any multilateral trade agreement that does not have robust protections for workers, consumers, and the environment, both in the United States and for our trading partners.  … [A]s a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade agreements, I look forward to extensive hearings on the TPP once the agreement is transmitted to the Senate.

Rep. Elijah Cummings:

Please know that I share your concerns regarding the commitments contemplated in the TPP that may affect patent and copyright law, food safety practices, environmental stewardship, health care, telecommunications, and the Internet, among other issues. I am also concerned by the limited consultation with Congress that has occurred during the drafting of this agreement. Given these concerns, I have joined many of my colleagues in a letter to be sent to the President urging broader consideration.

Rep. John Sarbanes:

You will be pleased to know that I joined a number of my colleagues in sending a letter encouraging greater transparency and oversight in the TPP negotiation process.  I strongly believe that U. S. trade agreements should address labor rights, human rights, and environmental protection.  … Unfortunately, our trade policies have long assumed that ‘free trade’ is the same as ‘fair trade.’ That assumption has touched off a race to the bottom where American jobs are shipped overseas to countries with non-existent labor standards and thread-bare environmental protections. 

To borrow from John Muir, when we try to look at anything by itself — whether fracking, the Myersville compressor station, the Cove Point LNG export facility, the TPP, the KXL pipeline, climate change and devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan — we find it all hitched together and “hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

So, bumpy ride ahead.

For more info on the TPP, Bill Moyers has a great interview with Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism and Dean Baker of CEPR about the TPP.

Other websites opposing the secret TPP are here, here and here.

— elisabeth hoffman


whose job is it?

November 4, 2013


Certain fossil fuel companies’ view of our communities.
//Map of Marcellus Shale ‘play’ from U.S. Energy Information Administration

Ann Nau, Myersville mother and compressor station opponent, recently pleaded with state officials to deny the air quality permit needed to proceed with the project. “I live here. My daughter lives here,” she said, reaching over to the 11-year-old sitting with her at the fire station hall. She said she wanted to protect her daughter.

“You’re a parent. That’s your job,” said Bill Paul of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the agency charged with reviewing Dominion Transmission’s air quality permit application.

Wrong. That’s not her job.

The job description of parent can’t possibly be to cordon off a child from volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, formaldehyde, loud noises, blowdowns, explosions and climate change. That is the job of local, state and federal governments. Ann Nau’s job shouldn’t have to be — but has become — trying to make governments do their job. So far, governments are woefully underperforming.

MDE’s Paul, who took great pains to explain to anxious Myersville residents what is involved in an MDE review, nevertheless suggested strongly that the permit for the compressor station for fracked gas moving through the state would be approved. (Even though Myersville doesn’t even have natural gas piped into the town.) His “best guess,” he said, is “you’re not going to see a significant difference” in air quality from the compressor station. Which is less than comforting in light of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study released over the summer that found that Maryland has the highest rate of deaths from air pollution in the nation, and Frederick, right next to Myersville, is among the worst cities in the state.

benzedrine and webs

A spider on amphetamines built a wacky web like the one we would encounter.//New Scientist magazine

Turns out this compressor station is only one blot on our landscape. Zoom out, and the magnitude of the threat comes into focus. Politicians and industry seem united in heralding this age of gas in the name of “clean” energy, “energy independence” and jobs. But these claims don’t add up, and the byproduct will be poisoned water, dirty air, chewed-up land, risk of explosions, volatile prices and industrial zoning in a backyard near you. Over the horizon and waiting to ensnare us all is a spider’s web of pipelines and compressor stations for fracked gas, with a huge export plant for liquefied natural gas (LNG) at its hub. That maligns spiders, but this particular spider is on amphetamines.

Parents and non-parents alike, we are in the battle of our lives and our energy future. Here’s the industry plan:

Exporting LNG: Dominion Cove Point wants to transform its sleepy import facility in Lusby, Calvert County, into a $3.8 billion monster export plant for LNG that it would ship in large tankers to customers in India and Japan. Dominion wants to be able to export 1 billion cubic feet of LNG daily for 25 years. With global average temperatures warmer than in tens of thousands of years and ice caps already melting, we don’t have that kind of time.

The U.S. Department of Energy has given preliminary approval for the Cove Point plant and three other export facilities; 22 others await approval. But many other reviews are required, including from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and, in Maryland, the Public Service Commission.

At Cove Point, the gas would be turned into a bubbling liquid when supercooled to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit. This process requires a lot of energy, which is a tipoff to the first thing wrong with this idea. Dominion will need two natural gas-fueled, 65-watt generators just to transform the gas into a liquid. The gas consumed in this way won’t heat homes or fuel any businesses; it will just transform the gas from one state into another. As many as 220 huge tanker vessels that run on dirty, molasses-like bunker fuel (known for coating and killing seabirds and marine animals in accidents) will lumber into and out of Cove Point, taking the LNG to distant ports where it will have to be turned back into a gas, another energy-intensive process.

LNG, to remain a boiling liquid, periodically vents methane — the heat-trapping, greenhouse gas that is the main component of natural gas and that is 86 times more powerful than CO2 over 20 years (and 34 times more powerful over 100 years). So climate-disrupting methane leaks are normal, indeed necessary.

In the “unlikely event” that the pressure-relief systems fail, the resulting explosion has a name: BLEVE. FERC has asked Dominion to “provide mitigation to prevent a boiling-liquid-expanding-vapor explosion (BLEVE) or provide an analysis for distance to a potentially harmful radiant heat level from a fireball.” Because of the existing import facility, Lusby already is divided into evacuation Zones 1 through 4, and its high school is a mass care site.

Gas flaring, another typical procedure, killed 7,500 songbirds one foggy night at a New Brunswick, Canada, LNG facility.

In addition, chemicals would be stored on site, traffic would increase, wetlands would be lost, tankers would be terrorist targets and, perhaps most notably, wells would be fracked all over the Marcellus Shale.

Accelerated fracking: Natural gas is so cheap that drillers are walking away from leases. But if industry can get higher prices by exporting the gas, the pressure to frack will escalate, including in Maryland, where a moratorium is in place and health and economic studies are under way. I remember Iraq War protest signs that said: How did our oil get under their soil? Now, Asia’s gas will be under our soil. And our communities, our water and land are, in company parlance, the “overburden” in the way of this buried resource.

Despite a PR campaign designed to have us all “think about it,” fracked gas is not the solution to our energy or climate crisis. Shifting our economy to fracked gas benefits the fossil fuel industry while destroying communities and the climate that sustains all life.

To blast the gas from harder-than-marble shale requires explosive pressure and millions of gallons of fresh water laden with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals and silica sand. The gas emerges with the toxic wastewater plus radium, strontium and brine roused from inside the Earth. That radioactive waste, with the “fingerprint” of the Marcellus Shale, is showing up in streams – aka, homes of fish, turtles and other creatures — that provide drinking water for Pittsburgh.

And the fracking wastewater is impossible to clean. And the companies aren’t paying royalties or are subtracting the cost of business from royalties; and dangerous benzene levels are near drilling sites; and fissures filled with methane and the secret toxic chemicals can link with other fissures, eventually reaching aquifers. And leaks of climate-destroying methane at the drilling site continue at undetermined rates. Leakage rates are low (1 percent) in an industry-funded and controlled study but 6.2 to 11.7 percent in a study published in Geophysical Research Letters in August. Unless that leakage rate is under 2 percent, natural gas is worse for the climate than coal. Methane also leaks from pipelines and compressor stations. States so far are overlooking damage from collective pollution. And gathering lines are unregulated, and regulators are a dying breed.

More fracked gas means more of these pipelines, more explosions (such as this one in Oklahoma), more leaking methane, more gathering lines and more compressor stations, which brings us back to Myersville.

Dominion’s shiny maps on display in Myersville included a marker for Cove Point. Would the Myersville compressor station transport fracked gas to the LNG export facility, residents wanted to know? No, the Dominion salesmen said. Well, maybe, they corrected themselves. The gas, they said, is for Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) and Washington Gas Energy Services (WGE) customers. But BGE and WGE can do whatever they want with the gas.

Myersville is only the beginning. It is part of a next generation of fossil fuel extraction. When the easy fossil fuels dwindled, we should have shifted to renewables, but we didn’t. We opted instead for extremes to get another fossil fuels fix—from tar sands to mountaintop removal of coal to drilling under the oceans to fracking to incinerators. At every turn, we have left sacrificed communities, people and other species forced to live with poisoned land, air and water.

We have a chance to stop this machinery, to keep our communities safe and create many new jobs, but we will need all hands on deck. Here’s the plan:

  • Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) has a nine-city Crossroads Tour about Cove Point. The final event is in Columbia on Tuesday, Dec. 3, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., at the East Columbia branch of the library. Sign up here.
  • CCAN also is pressuring Gov. Martin O’Malley to insist on an Environmental Impact Statement, instead of the weaker Environmental Assessment. You can sign a petition here.

In the June 2012 issue of the journal Nature, researchers said the Earth was headed for calamitous changes and mass extinctions. At a recent forum in Howard County, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist talking about the effect on agriculture of climate change said, “I have a lot of colleagues who have been losing sleep for a lot of years.” While scientists are losing sleep, too many of the rest of us have been sleepwalking.

Naomi Klein recently wrote that scientists, recognizing our climate peril, see resistance movements as our only hope. Those movements are all around us, from Destiny Watford’s student-led Free Your Voice campaign to stop an incinerator in Curtis Bay in Maryland, to Marcellus Outreach Butler’s latest Protect Our Children campaign in Pennsylvania, to Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community‘s work on the compressor station, to CitizenShale’s efforts to look with eyes wide open at fracking in western Maryland, to CCAN’s leadership on Cove Point that has industry taking out full-page ads in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. James Marriott, who wrote The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, also senses a change. At a fall event in Baltimore to talk about his book, he said the pipelines laid in the 1960s met with no resistance but opposition is growing to pipelines, fracking, tar sands, LNG terminals. “We must retreat from the destruction of the biosphere,” he said, “retreat from carbon fuels and make a different future.”

We will have to make governments do their job, instead of letting corporations write the regulations and carry on business as usual. Or come up with another plan.

As 1960s activist Mario Salvio said: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.” (With thanks to Shireen Parsons, who has been handing out that versatile quote for 50 years. I met her on the Walk for Our Grandchildren and the action against Environmental Resource Management’s undue influence on review of the Keystone XL pipeline.)

Update on the compressor station: Myersville had another escape route blocked recently, when the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland said local zoning laws are preempted by the federal Natural Gas Act. Missing the point, Dan Donovan, Dominion’s project director for media relations, prattled on about ambience, according to a Frederick newspaper: “The design calls for a green roof and tan siding, and cupolas on the roof to make it appear more rural, or countryside, than industrial.” What the building looks like is the least of Myersville’s worries.

elisabeth hoffman