Thursday, December 20, 2012

Targets of climate scientist Mann's libel case seek dismissal

The legal arguments have begun in a court fight that pits renowned climatologist Michael Mann, whose work has been instrumental in establishing a historic basis for the scientific consensus that humanity is altering Earth's climate, against two conservative institutions.

Some of the defendants sued for libel by Mann in October have asked a District of Columbia local court to dismiss his lawsuit.

In papers filed Dec. 14, lawyers for the Competitive Enterprise Institute and one of its writers, Rand Simberg, argued that Mann cannot prove his claims.

They also asked the District of Columbia Superior Court to throw out Mann's case on the basis of a local ordinance that forbids the use of litigation as a tool to discourage political attacks.

Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at The Pennsylvania State University, alleges that CEI and Simberg libeled him by publishing a blog post that compared Mann to convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky. The blog post was later edited.

Libel is the doctrine of law that allows individuals to obtain financial compensation from the publisher of false statements that damage the individual's reputation. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution places limits on the circumstances under which such lawsuits can proceed and the conditions that have to be proven for the plaintiff to prevail.

Mann also sued National Review, a conservative magazine that re-published Simberg's blog post and added some additional commentary of its own. National Review columnist Mark Steyn wrote that Mann's work on the so-called "hockey stick" graph is a deceptive and accused his employer, The Pennsylvania State University, of hiding that behavior.

Mann's research leading to a conclusion that Earth's average atmospheric temperatures have risen dramatically over the past 50 or so years has been determined by at least eight separate investigations to be scientifically valid.

Despite the acknowledged scientific credibility of his work studying the history of Earth's climate, Robert Nagel, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, believes Mann will have a hard time winning his libel case.

"The way the [U.S. Supreme] Court has divided up constitutional protections for defamatory statements, that means the plaintiff would probably have to prove knowing or reckless disregard for the truth," Nagel said. "That’s very hard to do. Even if he convinces the court that he is private figure, that he didn’t interject himself into the debate, he would have to show negligence. Those are difficult burdens to meet. Some of what he’s claiming about may be viewed by a court as either not statements of fact or not literal statements, something akin to a parody or an exaggeration."

The lawyers for CEI and Simberg argued that very point in the motions filed last week.

Nagel, who has written for National Review in the past, said that he is sympathetic to concerns that attacks like those published on and The Corner might have the effect of undermining public understanding of scientific knowledge.

"I doubt that those concerns are overblown," he said. "In fact, I think that scientists complaints in that regard are not a whole lot different from wider concerns that exist in terms of, say, political dialogue."

However, Nagel explained, that outcome may not be avoidable given a high bar to libel lawsuits constructed by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago in a case called New York Times v. Sullivan.

"The concern that we’re getting more false information out there, more sloppy reporting, just sort of worse information, I think it’s probably true that the modern changes in defamation law has had that effect in lots of areas," he said.

Nagel pointed out that he was not, in making that observation, referring specifically to the truth or falsity of the specific comments published by CEI and National Review.

Mann will have an opportunity to respond to the defendants' motion for an order dismissing the climatologist's lawsuit before the court rules.

His lawyer declined a request for an interview.

This graph, which resembles a hockey stick, shows a dramatic rise in Earth's average temperature since the middle of the 20th century. Courtesy Wikimedia.

NOTE: A slightly different version of this story appears on the website.

Monday, December 17, 2012

112th Congress might be first since 1966 to shun wilderness bills

The 112th Congress could become the first since 1966 to designate no acres anywhere in the United States for protection under the Wilderness Act.

There are currently 27 pending bills that would designate wilderness in 13 states, including five measures that would protect public land in California as wilderness, four that would designate additional wilderness in Colorado, four that would protect additional wilderness in New Mexico, and three that would add more acres in Oregon to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

“Some of the bills that are being held up are wilderness-only bills," David Moulton, the senior director for legislative affairs at the Wilderness Society, said. "Most of them are bills that combine wilderness with the protection of other uses."

Moulton explained that bills designating new wilderness are bottled up in the House Natural Resources Committee.

"Right now, the sitting chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, is so ideologically opposed to adding any wilderness to the preservation system that he refuses to allow bills through his committee," Moulton said. "So bills that have been proposed to protect wild areas in states represented by Republicans, where there’s broad support and [the bill is] introduced by a Republican, are going to the House Natural Resources Committee and dying there."

Hastings, 71, issued a statement in Nov. 2011 that indicated skepticism about additional wilderness legislation, arguing that enough has already been set aside.

"The federal government already owns more lands than it can afford to properly manage," Hastings said. "We must make thoughtful and careful land-use decisions that reflect our country’s current economic situation, keep our lands healthy, and exemplify the importance of ensuring public access to public lands for multi-use purposes.”

The prospects for wilderness designations by means of a large bill that wraps many smaller proposals into one probably aren't any greater than they are for the individual wilderness bills, at least if Hastings' views carry the day in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

In Jan. 2011 Hastings told the Seattle Times that the House Republican majority would not pass so-called omnibus land conservation bills.

Even if there were a reasonable chance for an omnibus bill to move through the House of Representatives before adjournment near the end of December, the Senate may find it difficult to find the time to take up such expansive legislation.

The chamber, like the House of Representatives, is intensely engaged in efforts to resolve the federal government's fiscal crisis.

"All I can say is that the Senate is an infinitely flexible place, so anything can happen," Bill Wicker, a spokesperson for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said. "But, at the same time, lame duck is a very challenging environment for all legislation."

Wicker was using the phrase commonly applied to the period in which the members of the Senate and House of Representatives meet that occurs between an election and the start of the next Congress.

The outlook is not uniformly bad for public lands legislation. A measure that would re-designate Pinnacles National Monument in California as a national park passed the House unanimously.

The House version of the bill does not designate any new wilderness. Instead, it would re-name the existing Pinnacles wilderness to honor a pioneer family from the area.

"Since all the land is already under the control of the National Park Service, it doesn’t add any costs," Adam Russell, a spokesperson for the bill's sponsor, U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said.

A companion bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that remains pending in the Senate would add an additional 3,000 acres of wilderness within the new national park.

Photo of Pinnacles National Monument courtesy Wikimedia.

Note: A version of this story also appears at

Friday, December 14, 2012

House Natural Resources Committee GOP membership set for 113th Congress

Four new faces, and an old one, will join the Republican majority on the House Natural Resources Committee when the 113th Congress opens next month.

Newly-elected U.S. Representatives Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Steve Daines of Montana, Doug LaMalfa of California, Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, and Chris Stewart of Utah will join the panel.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., will also re-join the committee after an absence during the current Congress.

It is not likely that any of the new members of the committee will change its existing orientation toward support of more lenient regulation of energy extraction activities. A look at the websites of all five of the newly-chosen GOP members indicates at least some degree of sympathy to that viewpoint.

The panel's chairman will continue to be Rep. Richard N. "Doc" Hastings, R-Wash.

The Democratic minority on the Natural Resources Committee in the new Congress may also include some new faces. However, a spokesman for the committee's Democratic members said the question of who will represent the party on the committee when it convenes in January is not yet determined.

It is not likely, however, that current ranking minority member Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., will be displaced from that slot.

The Natural Resources Committee will include 26 Republicans and 21 Democrats when the new Congress convenes next month.

Senate's majority Democrats name new members to committee on energy, natural resources

The U.S. Senate's majority Democrats have named two incoming members to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), in a statement released Wednesday, said that the Democratic Steering Committee for the chamber had assigned Sens.-elect Martin T. Heinrich of New Mexico and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii to the panel.

Heinrich, 41, defeated Republican Heather Wilson in November for the seat now held by Sen. Jeff Bingaman. A two-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Heinrich formerly served as New Mexico's natural resources trustee and a member of the Albuquerque city council.

While in the U.S. House of Representatives Heinrich served on the Natural Resources and Armed Services Committees.

Bingaman, 69, was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1982. He will retire from the chamber next month after serving for the past six years as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Hirono will replace Sen. Daniel Akaka when the 113th Congress convenes on Jan. 3, 2013. A member of the House of Representatives since Jan. 2007, Hirono is a triple pioneer in the Senate. She is the first Asian-American female ever elected to the body and, once sworn in, will be the first senator born in Japan and the first senator who is a Buddhist.

Hirono, 65, was Hawaii's lieutenant governor between 1995-2003. During her three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives she did not serve on any committee with jurisdiction over environmental and natural resources policy matters.

Akaka, 88, is leaving the Senate after more than 22 years of service in the chamber. He also served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977-1990. Akaka served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Other Democratic members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during the 113th Congress will be (in order of seniority) Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Mark Udall of Colorado, Al Franken of Minnesota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Wyden will take the gavel from Bingaman when the new Congress convenes.

The Senate's Republican caucus has not yet announced committee assignments for the 113th Congress.

Oregonian: Federal inter-agency committee supports grizzly hunting

A federal inter-agency committee tasked with planning the recovery of the grizzly bear said Thursday that it believes hunting of the species should be permitted once it is removed from the list of threatened and endangered species.

The Oregonian (Portland) has the story.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Montana judge halts wolverine trapping

A judge in Montana has blocked the trapping of wolverines in the Treasure State after environmentalists argued that allowing it would further imperil a species already at risk from climate change.

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock issued an temporary restraining order against the state's wildlife management agency until a hearing on the merits of the lawsuit is held Jan. 10, 2013.

"There's a state law that says the state wildlife agency has to take action to prevent candidate species from being harmed," Matthew Bishop, a lawyer for Western Environmental Law Center who represents the environmentalists, said. "We're arguing that, by allowing trapping, they're making the situation worse, not better."

Bishop was referring to the wolverine's status as a species eligible for inclusion on the federal list of threatened and endangered species, but not included due to administrative concerns.

"The warranted piece of that is the science, the precluded part is more of an administrative decision that 'we're too busy,'" Bishop said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to classify Gulo gulo luscus as a candidate species was announced in Dec. 2010.

A federal judge in Montana has ordered FWS to announce by Friday when it will decide whether to list the wolverine under the ESA. The order sets a Jan. 18, 2013 deadline.

Leith Edgar, a spokesperson for FWS' regional office in Lakewood, Colo., said that he is not currently aware of any reason that the agency would miss the January decision deadline.

There are 300 or fewer wolverines in the entire nation, according to FWS, while about 400 breeding pairs are needed to assure continued genetic viability.

"No one knows how many wolverines there are in Montana," Bishop said. He explained that his clients are concerned that the state of Montana is authorizing trapping without any understanding of how the decision will affect the species.

"The state doesn't have any population data or any surveys to monitor the wolverine," he said.

One 2009 study indicated that there may be as few as 35 breeding wolverine individuals in the region that includes Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

Dr. Kevin McKelvey, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service at its Rocky Mountain Research Station, explained that counting wolverines in the wild is a difficult logistical and financial challenge.

"It would be probably several million bucks to do it," he said.

 McKelvey said that an alternative approach to counting individuals that involves assessing the extent of habitat available to the species is not likely to be a reliable method of obtaining an accurate census.

"I wouldn’t do that myself because those numbers tend to be really errant," he said. " One problem is the area might be different from what you thought it was. Another one is they’re not everywhere where there’s habitat."

George Pauley, the wildlife management section chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, rejected a request for FWP data on wolverine numbers in the state and declined to comment on the method by which the agency counts them.

Aside from the species' population numbers, several studies indicate that the animal will be significantly affected as climate change proceeds. A 2010 paper showed that, as the snow upon which wolverines depend for dens melts earlier in the spring, the extent of the species' range will decline throughout the contiguous United States. The study projected that the animal would lose about a quarter of its range by mid-century.

Another study from 2011 indicates that climate change will cause fragmentation of the wolverine's populations and reduce available habitat by as much as two-thirds by the latter part of the century.

The problem, according to McKelvey, is that,while it's clear that ongoing climate change may harm the species, researchers have a difficult time figuring out the appropriate baseline against which to measure current climate change impacts on the wolverine.

"Thirty or fifty years out, significant declines in snow pack in these areas and, presumably, a decline in wolverines is likely," he explained. "The issue is muddled by the fact that we either wiped out, or came close to wiping out, wolverines in the lower 48 [states] by about 1930. Since that time, their population has generally expanded and, as far as we can tell, it’s still expanding."

Given the uncertainty about the extent of the population of wolverines in Montana, the impact of trapping on the species is not easy to determine.

“I really do think our game management agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and folks like that who have to make those calls, there's still uncertainty out there," McKelvey said. 

The Treasure State had set an annual trapping quota of five wolverines, according to a FWP webpage. The season was to run until Feb. 15.

Montana is the only U.S. state that permits hunters to trap wolverines.

Environmentalists filed the lawsuit in October after a previous petition aimed at convincing FWP to hold off on a trapping season failed.

Photo courtesy National Park Service.

NOTE: This story also appears on the website. Here is a link to it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Costa Rica bans sport-hunting

The Republic of Costa Rica, long known as a haven for biodiversity, has banned the hunting of animals for sport.

Reuters has the story.

Lawsuits challenging Wyoming wolf management pile up

Another lawsuit attacking the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's decision to grant Wyoming essentially unrestricted discretion in the way it manages the state's gray wolf population has been filed.

The complaint was filed Friday in federal court in Washington, D.C. by the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals. It follows a lawsuit filed Nov. 26 by a coalition of environmental groups in the U.S. district court in Denver and another case, also filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, by four prominent national environmental advocacy organizations.

"The agency's decision to strip Wyoming wolves of federal protection is biologically reckless and contrary to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act," Jonathan Loworn, an in-house lawyer for HSUS, said in a statement. "Wyoming's regressive wolf management plan is reminiscent of a time when bounties paid by state and federal governments triggered mass killings that nearly exterminated wolves from the lower 48 states."

FWS announced on Aug. 31 that gray wolf populations in Wyoming had fully recovered. The agency removed all gray wolves in the state from the list of endangered and threatened species and approved a management plan that commits Wyoming to maintaining 150 individuals and 15 breeding pairs within its borders.

Environmentalists were harshly critical of the agency's decision, predicting that it could lead to the extirpation of the wolf in Wyoming.

"Wyoming's anti-wolf policies take the state backward, to the days when wolf massacres nearly wiped out wolves in the lower 48 states," Jenny Harbine, an attorney at Earthjustice, a public interest law firm that frequently represents environmental and animal welfare advocacy organizations, said in a statement. "Our nation rejected such predator extermination efforts when we adopted the Endangered Species Act."

Harbine was referring to policies that overtly encouraged the mass slaughter of wolves and extirpated them from all of the nation except Alaska and parts of Minnesota.

The northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf was included on the list of threatened and endangered species in 1974.

FWS' decision to remove the gray wolf population in Wyoming from that list, and to delegate management authority to the state, followed the removal of gray wolf populations in Idaho and Montana from the list of endangered and threatened species via a "rider" to a budget bill enacted by Congress in 2011.

That legislation followed a court decision that negated a Bush administration effort to remove ESA protection from gray wolves in the northern Rockies.

website maintained by the state's Department of Game & Fish says that there were more than 300 wolves in the state at the time its management plan went into effect. At least 50 of those wolves have been killed since then.

They include one female who was the leader of a pack that frequented Yellowstone National Park's Lamar Valley and a common sight to tourists. She was killed by a hunter outside of the national park on Thursday.

U.S. Department of Justice lawyers have asked the federal district courts in Denver and Washington, D.C. to transfer the first two challenges to FWS' decision to approve Wyoming's wolf management plan to a federal court in Cheyenne.

Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; photo by Tracy Brooks.

Monday, December 10, 2012

NOAA: 2012 is hottest year in American history

The year is not yet over, but already the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration is calling it the hottest in U.S. history.

In its most recent State of the Climate report, released today, NOAA's National Climactic Data Center said that December temperatures around the nation would have to average more than 1.0 degrees Fahrenheit less than the historic norm to change that outcome:
The January-November period was the warmest first 11 months of any year on record for the contiguous United States. The national temperature of 57.1°F was 3.3°F above the 20th century average, and 1.0°F above the previous record warm January-November of 1934. During the 11-month period, 18 states were record warm and an additional 24 states were top ten warm.
The report indicates that, for the U.S. as a whole, the average November temperature was more than two degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average. Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming experienced a November that was among the ten warmest on record in those states.

By contrast, NCDC said, much of the eastern and southern U.S., and the Ohio River valley, experienced a cooler-than-average November.

The month was also unusually dry. The national precipitation average was slightly more than half the historic norm, while the percentage of the contiguous United States in drought increased from October.

NCDC said that Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming have had the driest years in those states' histories.

By contrast, the Pacific Northwest, New England, and the Gulf coast region have had more precipitation than average this year.

NCDC also said that the 12-month period that ended Nov. 30 was the warmest on record in the contiguous United States for all 12-month periods that have run from Dec. 31-Nov. 30. The period was also the sixth-warmest on record of all 12-month periods in U.S. recorded weather history.

Bureau of Reclamation to study Missouri-Colorado pipeline

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will issue a report this week that calls for construction of a pipeline to carry water from the Missouri River to the Colorado River.

The proposal would involve transferring more than half a million acre feet per year.

The New York Times has a report. The Denver Post first broke the story last week.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Energy agency report says US greenhouse gas emissions to be higher in 2040

A new report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicates that current efforts to lower greenhouse gas pollution in the country aren't likely to lead to a significantly lighter American impact on the planet's atmosphere.

The report, which was released this week, says that emissions of carbon dioxide will rise, relative to the current year, by 2040 after falling off slightly this decade.

However, the EIA projects that the share of U.S. energy production from coal - a principal source of carbon dioxide pollution - will continue to fall, as will the relatively small percentage of energy production from oil.

Nuclear power's portion of the national energy mix is predicted to be stagnant, while use of natural gas is expected to expand by tens of millions of metric tons per year. The net result is an increase in industrial energy consumption resulting in carbon dioxide emissions.

The contribution of transportation-related emission sources will decline by 94 million metric tons per year by 2035, the report says. EIA points to tougher fuel efficiency standards imposed recently by the Obama administration as the cause of the projected decline.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Worldwide carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase, new research shows

The world's emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide are continuing to rise and the pace of increase was greater in 2011 than in 2010.

New research released Sunday indicates that nations released about 9.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide last year, with the greenhouse gas reaching the highest level of concentration in the atmosphere on record.

The rate of increase in carbon dioxide emissions each year has averaged 3.1 percent between 2000-2011, according to the annual report released by the Global Carbon Project.

That pace of growth, if maintained throughout this century, would lead to an average surface air and water temperature increase worldwide of more than five degrees Celsius by the year 2100.

A temperature increase of that magnitude would far exceed the limit of a two degree Celsius increase agreed to by the planet's nations at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

"Each year of increased emissions makes a two degree target harder to achieve," Glen Peters, the lead author of the study and a senior research fellow at Norway's Center for International Climate and Environmental Research. "The only feasible way to keep below two degrees is global reductions in emissions and this can only happen if the top emitters in the developed and developing world have deep and sustained mitigation."

That is not occurring, at least in the developing world. Sunday's report indicates that carbon dioxide emissions in China and India continue to increase at a rapid pace.

Chinese carbon dioxide pollution of the atmosphere rose by 9.9 percent in 2011, a slight decrease from the 10.4 percent rate of increase in 2010, while India's contribution to the atmosphere's build-up of carbon dioxide increased by 7.5 percent last year.

Overall, developing countries contributed 58 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2011. That's a huge increase from 1990, when they contributed only 35 percent.

China was responsible for 28 percent of the planet's carbon dioxide emissions last year, with sources in India  contributing seven percent.

Emissions in the United States and the European Community are still rising, but at a slower pace. The U.S. accounted for 16 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions in 2011, with the EC's contribution at 11 percent.

An additional 2.6 percent increase in worldwide emissions is expected this year, with carbon dioxide emissions reaching a level 58 percent higher than they were in 1990.

"Limiting global climate change and all of its consequences is going to require aggressive actions to limit the use of fossil fuels," Gregg H. Marland, a research professor at Appalachian State University's Research Institute for Environment, Energy, and Economics and one of the scientists involved in the ongoing research documented in the paper released Sunday, said in a statement.

The paper appears in Nature Climate Change.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Interior department opens U.S. Atlantic coast for windmills

The Atlantic coast, or at least parts of it, will soon be dotted with windmills.

The Obama administration launched Friday an effort to lease more than a quarter of a million acres in federal waters off Virginia, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts for wind energy production. It is the U.S. government's first-ever lease of rights to use the outer continental shelf as a site for production of renewable energy.

Interior secretary Ken Salazar explained that the lease, which will affect about 278,000 acres, is part of the administration's commitment to an "all of the above" energy strategy.

"Wind energy along the Atlantic holds enormous potential, and today we are moving closer to tapping into this massive domestic energy resource to create jobs, increase our energy security, and strengthen our nation's competitiveness in this new energy frontier," Salazar said in a statement.

The 432 square miles covered by the leases are expected to produce a fraction of the power potential of wind along the eastern seaboard. According to a 2010 report produced by the environmental advocacy organization Oceana, wind power generated off the Atlantic coast could supply almost half of the electricity needed by 11 states in the region.

The economic benefits may be substantial, too. The Oceana report projected that production of the same quantity of power as is generated by wind in Europe would cost about $36 billion less than reliance on fossil fuels while generating between 133,000 and 212,000 jobs.

The U.S. government is not as sanguine about the advantages of wind energy, but nevertheless predicts significant benefits.

The major obstacle to increasing electricity production from wind energy is high capital costs. In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a wind power facility's levelized cost of electricity is higher than that of a plant that burns fossil fuels.

The capital costs are higher for an offshore wind energy production plant than for a similar facility built on land.

Friday's auction covers an area of about 164,750 acres off the Massachusetts and Rhode Island coasts and another area of about 112,800 acres.

The areas leased off the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island are about ten miles out to sea and are expected to produce enough electricity for 700,000 homes, The area leased off the Virginia coast, which will be developed about 23 nautical miles away from the shore, is expected to generate a similar amount of power.

The U.S. was, as of 2009, the world's leading producer of wind energy. However, the country produced only two percent of its electricity from that source during 2009, making it a distant follower of Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and Germany. Each of those nations obtained at least seven percent of their domestic electricity needs from wind turbines.

Legislation enacted in 2005 authorizes the Interior department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to lease offshore waters for renewable energy production.

The Interior department will award the leases in 2013.

California holds first U.S. auction of carbon dioxide emission rights

California took another step forward in its innovative program to mitigate emission of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere earlier this month as it held the first-ever sale of carbon dioxide pollution permits in the nation.

The auction, which occurred Nov. 14 in Sacramento, resulted in a modest price for the right to pollute the air.

According to data released by the state's Air Resources Board, bidders will pay $10.09 for each metric ton of the greenhouse gas they emit. The minimum bid was $10.

California's leading air pollution regulator said she is pleased with the results, notwithstanding the relatively low price paid by the 71 participants.

"The auction was a success and an important milestone for California as a leader in the global clean tech market," Mary D. Nichols, chairwoman of the agency, said in a statement. "By putting a price on carbon, we can break our unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels and move at full speed toward a clean energy future. That means new jobs, cleaner water and air - and a working model for other states, and the nation, to use as we gear up to fight climate change and make our economy more competitive and resilient."

The sale of the carbon allowances for 2013 generated only a little more than $233 million and not much of that money will be kept by the state.

"Some of the allowances are consigned with us from the utilities," Dave Clegern, a spokesperson for the agency, said. "The money that comes from that goes back to the utilities, in a form worked out by the [Public Utilities Commission], as a buffer for ratepayers. The rest goes into the California Air Pollution Reduction Fund."

The California Legislative Analyst's Office has said that it expects state coffers to swell by an average of billions of dollars per year as the auction program reaches more and more of the polluters in the nation's most populous state.

Whether or not that estimate is accurate, it is likely that the price of the required pollution permit will rise as the state's groundbreaking AB 32, a wide-ranging 2006 law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the nation's most populous state, ratchets down the ceiling on facility emissions.

The likely downward impact on California's future accumulation of greenhouse gases excites the environmental advocacy community, notwithstanding the financial return the first effort generated.

"We had the benefit of learning from others like the European Union and have been able to put together a really great program that creates a market incentive for innovation and reducing carbon," Emily Rayna, a spokesperson for Environmental Defense Fund, said. "This is an exciting time in California."

The state's business community does not seem to be so thrilled. The California Chamber of Commerce sued the state on the day before the auction in an effort to prevent repetitions of the event. The litigation did not seek to enjoin the Nov. 14 auction but does argue that requiring companies who must comply with air pollution limits to pay for permission to pollute is an unauthorized tax or an illegal fee.

Rayna said that environmental advocacy organizations are not worried about the Chamber of Commerce's move.

"We don't anticipate that further auctions will be stopped because of this lawsuit," she said.

Those future auctions will occur on a regular basis during the next eight years. The next one is scheduled for Feb. 2013.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Salazar orders trigger of wilderness protection at Point Reyes National Seashore

A scenic estuary within California's Point Reyes National Seashore that is thought to be the site of 16th century explorer Francis Drake's landing in North America, and the locus for a long controversy over commercial oyster harvesting operations within the preserve, is set to become part of a designated wilderness area.

Interior secretary Ken Salazar announced Thursday that he has directed the National Park Service to decline  a renewal of Drakes Bay Oyster Company's long-term operating lease. The company, which has been harvesting oysters since 1972, will no longer be authorized to do so.

The decision triggers 1976 legislation that designates Drakes Estero as protected wilderness and ends commercial activities on about 1,000 acres of federal land and waters.

I believe it is the right decision for Point Reyes National Seashore and for future generations who will enjoy this treasured landscape," Salazar said.

Drakes Estero is known for its large seal population, as well as its status as California's most plentiful source of oysters. Environmentalists and supporters of the oyster farm have engaged in a long-running battle about the commercial harvesting of that resource within the preserve.

In 2009 Congress enacted legislation granting Salazar discretion to decide whether to renew permission to operate there for another ten years or to terminate the existing authorization.

The oyster harvesting operation began in 1938, according to a recent NPS environmental impact statement that examined the potential consequences of allowing it to continue. In 1972, ten years after Point Reyes National Seashore was established, NPS entered into a forty-year lease with Drakes Bay Oyster Company's corporate predecessor. That lease, called a "reservation of use and occupancy," expires today along with a required permit.

Salazar's memorandum to NPS director Jon Jarvis noted that continued commercial use of resources within the national seashore violates agency policy and would be inconsistent with Congress' decision to restore wilderness qualities to Drakes Estero. 

Drakes Bay Oyster Company will have 90 days in which to remove its property from the preserve. The government will provide employees with job re-training and relocation assistance.

Drakes Estero Wilderness is the only marine wilderness on the nation's west coast outside of Alaska. The designation of the area as part of the federal wilderness preservation system applies to about 8 square miles of the 31 square mile-size watershed.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Feds to review status of Preble's meadow jumping mouse

A tiny Rocky mountain region rodent's status as a species protected by the Endangered Species Act will be reviewed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, raising hopes among developers that a barrier to land use will be removed.

In a notice published Monday in the Federal Register, the agency said it would examiner whether Zapus 
hudsonius preblei would continue to be considered threatened.

FWS is re-visiting the question whether to strip the species of protection on the basis of two de-listing petitions filed nine years ago.

The petitions to remove the mouse from the list of federally protected species were filed in 2003 by the state of Wyoming and an organization known as Coloradans for Water Conservation and Development.

Environmentalists are likely to object to any attempt to remove any or all of the species' populations from beneath the federal shield.

"There is no new information to support de-listing in Wyoming," Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email message.

CBD is the organization that initially requested listing of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse in 1994.

Preble's meadow jumping mice are endemic from southeastern Wyoming south through Colorado's Front Range area. According to information posted on a FWS website, the animal depends on riparian corridors and densely-packed and undisturbed nearby grasslands for habitat. A nocturnal animal, the mouse does not range more than a hundred yards from the perimeter of a stream floodplain.

The Preble's meadow jumping mouse was originally added to the list of threatened and endangered species in May 1998.

The agency has previously attempted to eliminate the Preble's meadow jumping mouse from the list of endangered and threatened speices. In July 2008 FWS de-listed the mouse in Wyoming. A federal judge voided that decision in July 2011 and that animal was put back on the roster of safeguarded species the next month.

FWS will combine a periodic review of the species' status mandated by the same court order with its process of deciding again whether the 2003 de-listing petitions are meritorious.

Image courtesy Colorado Natural Heritage Program (a project of Colorado State University).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bipartisan group of senators asks Obama for action on Keystone pipeline

A group of U.S. senators from both parties is pressuring President Obama to grant permission for construction of the massive Keystone XL pipeline to begin.

The legislators wrote to Obama on Nov. 16, requesting a meeting at which they would press the case for the 1,897 kilometer-long project.

Obama declined to grant the necessary permits last January, citing threats to ecological conditions in and near Nebraska's Sand Hills.

The pipeline's developers have since agreed to re-route the project, which would enable the transportation of bitumen and synthetic crude oil from Alberta to a variety of U.S. destinations.

It would also provide a means for moving oil from North Dakota's booming Bakken formation to refineries.

Environmentalists oppose the pipeline project on grounds that it might threaten the Ogallala aquifer and lock in U.S. reliance on fossil fuels as the nation's primary energy source. 

The Canadian government authorized construction of the portion of the pipeline that will run within that country in 2007.

Canada's natural resources ministry has criticized U.S. delays of the pipeline project, arguing that the fossil fuel use it facilitates would equal only about 0.1 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

The section of the pipeline that would meet the coast at the Gulf of Mexico is under construction because that part of the project does not require a permit.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reach record high in 2011

A new report indicates that the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere has now reached record levels, rising 40 percent since the start of the industrial revolution.

The report by the World Meteorological Association, which was released Tuesday, said that global carbon dioxide emissions have risen from 280 parts per million in 1750 to 390.9 parts per million in 2011.

The year 1750 was chosen as the benchmark against to measure increases in greenhouse gas concentrations because it was shortly before humanity began widespread burning of coal and oil as energy sources.

"These billions of tonnes of additional carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will remain there for centuries, causing our planet to warm further and impacting on all aspects of life on earth,” WMO secretary general Michel Jarraud said in a statement accompanying the report. “Future emissions will only compound the situation.”

The report also indicates that, since 1990, there has been a 30 percent increase in the radiative forcing impact of greenhouse gas emissions.

The term "radiative forcing" means the extent to which greenhouse gases have caused the planet's climate to warm.

Jarraud explained that the absorption of carbon dioxide by Earth's oceans and plants, which has moderated the warming effect of the gas, may not continue at historic rates.

"Until now, carbon sinks have absorbed nearly half of the carbon dioxide humans emitted in the atmosphere, but this will not necessarily continue in the future," he said. "We have already seen that the oceans are becoming more acidic as a result of the carbon dioxide uptake, with potential repercussions for the underwater food chain and coral reefs.”

Carbon dioxide,while the greenhouse gas with the most significant heat-trapping impact, is not the only warming pollutant that continues to accumulate in the atmosphere. The WMA report shows that the concentration of methane hit 1,813 parts per billion in 2011, while the concentration of nitrous oxide rose to 324.2 parts per billion.

A separate report released on Sunday, this one by the World Bank, warned of temperature increases by as much as 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2060 if the world's nations cannot achieve a substantial lessening of greenhouse gas emissions.

"Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today," World Bank group president Jim Yong Kim said in a statement accompanying the report. "Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest."

 Graphic courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

U.S., Mexican governments reach Colorado River agreement

A new agreement between the United States and Mexico holds the promise of an end to conflicts over the Colorado River that have flared on and off for nearly seventy years, while also opening the door for a return of water to the long-suffering Colorado River delta.

For decades Mexico and the seven U.S. states within the Colorado River's watershed - Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming - have bickered over how much water must be allowed to flow south past the international border near Yuma, Ariz, and a 1944 treaty requires that 1,500 acre feet of flow per year flow to Mexico.

During many years the amount of that flow that reaches the river's delta has amounted, at most, to brine. The U.S. has had no treaty obligation to deliver water to Mexico for purposes of sustaining the river delta and, as a result, the river's water ceases flowing about 60 miles short of the delta. Over time, this shortage of replenishing flows has caused the delta to substantially shrunk from its historic two million-acre size.

The deal, which was finalized Tuesday in San Diego, will make restoration of the delta environment an authorized purpose of water deliveries across the international border. It commits the U.S., Mexico, and a coalition of environmental groups to annual deliveries of 5,000 acre feet each to the delta.

It will also provide the seven states within the river's drainage basin with more supply certainty during times of drought. Mexico agreed to share surpluses and shortages of water with the U.S. states, a historic change from the terms of allocation that has governed the river for the last 68 years.

During years in which drought conditions prevail in the portion of the river's watershed in the United States, Mexico will forego delivery of some of the water to which it would otherwise be entitled. By contrast, during surplus years, Mexico will be able to store water in Lake Mead.

The U.S. government will also help Mexico finance repairs and improvements to its water delivery system.

Formally known as Minute 319 to the 1944 treaty between the two nations, the agreement will run through 2017. It takes effect immediately.

Map of Colorado River basin courtesy Wikimedia.

Great Lakes show impacts of climate change

The Great Lakes are experiencing near-record low water levels and a precipitous loss of winter ice cover. National Geographic has an excellent story on these impacts of climate change.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Revised critical habitat designation for northern spotted owl released

 The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officially threw in the towel today on earlier efforts to scale back habitat protections for the endangered northern spotted owl.

The federal agency primarily responsible for administering the Endangered Species Act designated 9.6 million acres in northern California, Oregon, and Washington as critical habitat under the law.

"We applied the best available science to identify the remaining habitat essential to the spotted owl’s recovery – and to ensure that our recovery partners have the clarity and flexibility they need to make effective land management decisions,” Robyn Thorson, FWS' Pacific Region Director, said in a statement

The designation includes 9.29 million acres administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the U.S. Department of Interior. 

An addition 291,570 acres of state-owned land is also included.

Environmental organizations applauded the new designation, but expressed concern that it did not include any privately-owned land within its reach.

"In restoring extensive protections on federal lands, today’s decision, protecting millions of acres of habitat for the spotted owl, marks the end of a dark chapter in the Endangered Species Act’s implementation when politics were allowed to blot out science,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “It is, however, deeply disappointing that the Obama administration has elected to exclude all private and most state lands, which are absolutely essential to the recovery of the spotted owl and dozens of other wildlife species.”

The George W. Bush administration had attempted to scale back critical habitat protections for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). It sought to eliminate about 1.5 million acres of the species' original 1992 critical habitat designation of about 7 million acres.

A 2008 report by the Interior department's inspector general concluded that the the agency's then-deputy assistant secretary in charge of wildlife management had unlawfully intervened in the process leading to that decision.

In 2010 a federal court rejected the Bush administration's changes to the northern spotted owl's critical habitat designation.

The northern spotted owl is a noctural avian species. It depends on old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest for habitat and is threatened primarily by timber extraction from those lands

The new critical habitat designation continues to permit logging in the species' habitat, a situation that drew criticism from a leading owl expert. 

"Independent scientific peer reviews have been crystal clear on owl recovery being tied to protection of old forest habitat especially as competition with the more aggressive barred owl increases and climate change further stresses spotted owl populations,” Dominick DellaSala, a biologist at Geos Institute in Ashland, Ore., and a member of FWS' 2006-2008 northern spotted owl recovery team, said. 

The species was listed as threatened in 1990 after a long and contentious court battle and one of the few successful efforts to invoke the ESA's "God squad" provision allowing a panel of federal officials to override the law's protections.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia.



Fish & Wildlife Service announces annual list of candidate species

The principal federal agency responsible for administering the Endangered Species Act announced Tuesday its annual list of species eligible for listing and included the smallest number of candidates in more than a decade.

According to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service news release, there are now 192 species of plants and animals that meet the criteria for protection as a threatened or endangered species under federal law.

The 2012 list contains two new additions - the Peñasco least chipmunk (Tamius minimus atristriatus) and the Cumberland arrow darter (Etheostoma sagitta sagitta).

The Peñasco least chipmunk is native to two mountain ranges in New Mexico. It lives in Ponderosa pine forests and is now known only in a small area near Sierra Blanca. The animal's survival is threatened by the near-total elimination of the Ponderosa pine forest upon which it relies.

The Cumberland arrow darter is a fish of about 116 millimeters in length. It's range includes the upper basin of its namesake river in Tennessee and Kentucky. The fish relies on small pools, or adjacent areas, that have cobble-filled bottoms. This habitat is easily damaged by water pollution, a common result of coal mining in the area; loss of stream-side plants; channelization; and deforestation in the watershed.    

Three species that were on last year's list have been removed. They include the elongate mud meadow springsnail, Christ’s paintbrush, and bog asphodel.

FWS is obligated by the terms of an agreement to settle litigation challenging its compliance with the ESA's candidate species provisions to eliminate a backlog of listing decisions by 2017.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Concern rises over killing of Yellowstone wolves

The apparent targeting of seven wolves from Yellowstone National Park packs as they roamed outside the park boundaries is raising concern that liberal hunting rules in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho are putting the National Park Service's effort to restore wolves to the Yellowstone ecosystem at risk.

National Parks Traveler has the story.

Dolphin killings in Gulf of Mexico prompt NOAA alert

A recent wave of dolphin killings by humans has prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue an alert to law enforcement authorities and environmental regulators in the Gulf coast region.

Outside magazine has the story.

October temperatures fifth-highest on record

October 2012 has gone down in the record books as a notably warm month, continuing a trend that has now lasted several years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climactic Data Center recently announced that the average world-wide temperature for the month made it the fifth-warmest October since records were first kept in 1880.

According to the report, all or part of seven continents experienced temperatures that were higher than average. These include northern Africa, most of Australia, western and far eastern Asia, most of Europe, northeastern and southwestern North America, and central South America.

The combined average temperature over the planet's land and ocean surfaces was 58.23 degrees Fahrenheit (14.63 degrees Celsius), which was 1.13 degrees Fahrenheit (0.63 degrees Celsius) warmer than the twentieth century average. The margin of error associated with the calculation is 0.22 degrees Fahrenheit (0.12 degrees Celsius).

Not all regions of the world experienced a warmer-than-average month. In the United Kingdom, for example, temperatures averaged 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.3 degrees Celsius) below the 1981-2010 mean. It was the coldest October since 2003 in the British Isles.

Southern Africa, central Asia, other parts of western and northern Europe, and northwestern and central North America also experienced lower than average temperatures during October.

The month was the 332nd consecutive month, and the 36th consecutive October, with an average temperature above land and sea surfaces that exceeded the twentieth century average.

The last October in which temperatures were below the twentieth century norm occurred in 1976.

This image shows temperature variations from the twentieth century average. Courtesy NOAA National Climactic Data Center.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Obama urges action on climate change, makes no specific promises about federal mitigation efforts, during first post-election press conference

President Barack Obama spoke bluntly about the reality of climate change during his first post-election press conference yesterday, asserting that it is time for Congress to put in place new policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The president, who was re-elected Nov. 6 with a huge electoral college majority and a nearly three percentage point edge in the popular vote, did not specify any particular actions he would take. 

"I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions," Obama said during the media event at the White House Wednesday. "And as a consequence, I think we've got an obligation to future generations to do something about it."

Obama pointed out that his administration has taken actions on its own to lower greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, specifically mentioning efforts to increase use of renewable energy and recent regulations that raise the mininum fuel economy that must be achieved by motor vehicles.

He also said that he would begin an intensive effort to seek out advice about how best to proceed to achieve lower emissions in the future, promising a "wide-ranging conversation" with other elected officials, scientists, and engineers.

The Obama administration has not indicated that it will ask Congress to enact an emissions tax or fee. However, a report in The Hill magazine published earlier this week included an interview with an administration official who said that Obama might be open to it as part of a more wide-ranging revision of the federal tax code.

John M. Reilly, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the co-director of that institution's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, said that the view among academic experts is that a tax on greenhouse gas emissions would be an effective response to climate change.

"Our work estimated that such a tax, starting at $20 per ton of CO2 and rising at 4 percent real per year, would reduce U.S. emissions by about 14 percent below 2006 levels by 2010 and by 20 percent by 2050," Reilly said in an e-mail message. 

He also pointed out that the tax might take a big chunk out of the federal budget deficit, raising as much as $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.

The president himself said during his press conference Wednesday that he did not think a tax on carbon dioxide emissions is politically feasible.

New York Gov. Cuomo says his state will begin efforts to mitigate climate change

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is out with a detailed statement outlining specific steps the Empire State will take to mitigate the effects of climate change.

New York, along with sister state New Jersey, was hit hard by tropical storm Sandy in October. Cuomo, a Democrat thought to be among his party's leading contenders for the presidential nomination in 2016, has argued that the severity of the storm may be linked to ongoing human-caused global warming.

"We will not allow the national paralysis over climate change to stop us from pursuing the necessary path for the future," Cuomo wrote in his op-ed.

The editorial column appears in today's edition of the New York Daily News.

Reuters: Plea bargain in BP oil spill case could come today

Reuters reports this morning that a plea deal could come as soon as today in the criminal case arising from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The report said that BP itself is expected to plead guilty to criminal charges arising from the incident and pay a record fine.

BP, in a press release issued today, confirmed that it is in discussions with federal authorities. The company's statement also said that any deal with the U.S. Department of Justice would have no impact on any federal or state efforts to invoke civil penalty provisions of environmental laws or private lawsuits not already settled.

A plea deal may also cover allegations that BP violated criminal provisions of federal securities law, according to the BP statement.

Reuters also reports that two BP employees may be indicted in connection with the incident, which was the largest oil spill accident in history. Eleven people were killed, while 17 more were injured, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded.  

UPDATE (10:00 AM MST) - BP said this morning that it will plead guilty to 14 criminal charges and pay a record $4.5 billion in fines and fees.

"All of us at BP deeply regret the tragic loss of life caused by the by Deepwater Horizon accident as well as the impact of the spill on the Gulf Coast region," Bob Dudley, BP's Group Chief Executive, said in a statement. "We apologize for our role in the accident, and as today's resolution with the U.S. government further reflects, we have accepted responsibility for our actions."

BP will pay $4 billion for violation of U.S. environmental laws over the next five years. It will also pay $525 million to resolve criminal allegations under federal securities laws.

The company will also take an additional $3.85 billion charge against income. That follows a $38.1 billion hit against the company's bottom line already experienced since the Deepwater Horizon incident.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Roadless rule fight ends

The long fight over a far-reaching federal regulation aimed at preserving roadless areas of the national forests ended Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court decided it would not review an appeals court decision upholding it.

The court's decision means that the rule can go into effect more than ten years after it was finalized by the Clinton administration.

"The Roadless Rule is now indisputably the law of the land," Jamie Williams, the president of the Wilderness Society, said in a statement.

Getting to that point required battles in two federal courts of appeal and the hostility of the George W. Bush administration, which declined to defend it in one appeals court, tried to replace it with a rule that would establish protections on the basis of state preferences, and exempted the nation's largest temperate forest - Alaska's Tongass National Forest - entirely from the rule.

The Bush administration also managed to secure exemptions from the rule for Idaho and Colorado.

Roadless areas are considered to be biologically important because they allow for the preservation of cold-water fish habitat and the sustained connection between a variety of habitats for native wildlife populations.

Areas of forest not sliced up by roads are also more resistant to wildfire and provide refuge for species impacted by human activities elsewhere and by global climate change.

The Forest Service first initiated efforts to protect them during the 1920s, when it set aside "primitive areas", and by the 1960s federal law recognized their ecological significance when Congress enacted the Wilderness Act.

That landmark law required the Forest Service to protect roadless areas pending Congressional decisions about which of the areas to designate as wilderness, and in the 1970s the agency completed an evaluation of its acreage that qualified.

The Clinton administration imposed a moratorium on additional road-building in the national forest roadless areas in 1999 and then, just before leaving office in Jan. 2011 and after a lengthy process that involved the most extensive public involvement process in U.S. history, finalized the regulation to protect them.

Two federal appeals courts later upheld the validity of the Roadless Rule against attacks from motorized recreation advocates, grazing, mining, and timber interests, and a small number of municipalities, counties, and states.

Critics argued that the regulation intruded on Congress' exclusive authority to designate wilderness areas.

The Roadless Rule affects 58.5 million acres of the 193 million-acre national forest system.
There are more than 380,000 miles of roads, mostly built to support timber extraction activities, in the national forests.

The regulation does not require closure of existing roads, does not prevent off-road vehicle use in the national forests, and does not affect opportunities to conduct mining operations in the national forests. It also does not prevent holders of grazing permits from allowing their livestock to roam on federal government-owned forests.

The Supreme Court's orders denying review came in Colorado Mining Association v. U.S. 
 Department of Agriculture, No. 11-1384 and Wyoming v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, No. 11-1378.