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.