While We Were Away: Circa 2012-13

They say time waits for no man. The news, of course, waits for no one either. An apt idea for today as we review of some of the environmental goings-on during our holiday break.

Carbon, climate and cliffs

Even as the last bits of temperature data were being recorded and analyzed, predictions surfaced late last year that 2012 will be the hottest year in record on the these United States. And yesterday came this.

Temperature Anomaly 2012

The U.S. map above shows the where 2012 temperatures differed from the 1981–2010 average. “Shades of red indicate temperatures up to 8° Fahrenheit warmer than average.” (Source: NOAA)

But high temps were hardly the only news on the climate front.

While a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience reported that West Antarctica “is experiencing nearly twice as much warming as previously thought,” a University of Tennessee study predicted that not only “heat waves will become more severe in most regions of the eastern United States,” but also “that both the Northeast and Southeast will see a drastic increase in precipitation.”

On January 1, California’s carbon-trading system kicked off, becoming the country’s “first legally-binding emissions cap-and-trade scheme.” It sets “a state-wide limit on total emissions of 162.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and … emission allowances on around 350 companies generating more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.”

After Quebec’s decision to “harmonize” its carbon market with California’s, the price of carbon rose to $13.75 per metric ton, up from the $10.09 price set at the state’s first auction in November. It’s now trading at about $15. (Read more here.)

Meanwhile, from across the pond come reports of one country’s plummeting greenhouse gas emissions. Which country? Ireland, one of the few with a carbon tax. How much of the lowered emissions are due to the tax versus other factors, such as the country’s recent economic nosedive and austerity measures, is open for debate.

Back in the good old USA, amid the push and pull to avoid the fiscal cliff, the production tax credit for wind energy got a one-year extension.

The One-Two Disaster Punch

Superstorm Sandy continues to be super — as in, this time it was super tough to get a vote on aid to communities severely damaged by the storm.

Though it was a hard slog to get the House to vote, vote they finally did — and they passed the bill on Sandy aid, 354-67, but it was only a partial relief package. The $9.7 billion dollars approved by Congress last week (the Senate passed it by unanimous consent) will cover flood insurance claims. Period. A vote on the larger aid package is expected next week, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie can update his comparison of the number of days it took Congress to pass relief funding for Katrina in 2005 (10) to the number of days it’s taking Congress to act on full Sandy relief (“66 days and counting” at the time of his Tweet, now 73 and counting).

Also related to the subject of disasters, we learned this over the break: “Some 67 percent of overall losses and 90 percent of insured losses [globally] happened in the United States. By comparison, on average U.S. losses are 32 percent of overall losses and 57 percent of insured losses.”

What happened? Disasters, of course. Sandy caused more economic damage in 2012 than any other disaster around the globe last year; the massive drought in the Midwest, the country’s worst since the 1930s, caused widespread damage as well.

And the drought continues despite a lot of wet…

Remember the storms that blanketed much of the country as 2012 faded away? (Reminders here, here, here and here.) They were a doozy, so much so that, according to the AccuWeather, the first day of 2013 hit a high mark for the white stuff with “the widest coverage of snow the U.S. has seen on January 1 in the past ten years.” In all, on January 1, 2013, 67 percent of the contiguous United States was coated in white.

All that snow has had a silver lining — in the form of some respite to several of the country’s big drought-affected regions. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor’s latest update, both rain and snow weather systems helped shrink the percentage of U.S. land experiencing moderate or worse drought to 51.44. The biggest beneficiary? Probably the Southeast.

But is all this recent precipitation enough to restore the necessary moisture levels? Almost certainly not. U.S. farmers (see here and here) will be keeping a worried and watchful eye on the sky this winter, as considerably more snow and rain will be needed to ready the soil for spring planting.

(On a related note, Australia is also having a rough time with climate-driven disasters.)

BP Oil Spill

Big news: On Thursday, Transocean got its bill for the giant spill it contributed to, and it’s big: the drilling company will pay the largest civilian penalty for a violation of the Clean Water Act. As reported in the New York Times, “The driller [Transocean] whose floating Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew out in 2010, causing a massive oil spill, has agreed to settle civil and criminal claims with the federal government for $1.4 billion.”

Meanwhile on the BP front, the New York Times reports: “A federal judge gave final approval on Friday to BP’s settlement with people who lost money and property in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. … BP has estimated that it will pay $7.8 billion to settle more than 100,000 claims in the class-action litigation. “

Both Transocean and BP will be party to a multistate civil trial set to begin in February, as will the oil services company Halliburton, which continues to deny any culpability in the disaster.

Key Changes in Obama’s Environment and Science Team

Lisa P. Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency since 2009, announced that she will be stepping down as EPA administrator. She was the first African American to lead the agency. The New York Times has an interesting assessment of her tenure.

Also leaving is Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And amid rumors of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s leaving are rumors of his possible replacement.

The folks President Obama taps to fill these positions should say a lot about his environmental plans for his second term. Interestingly, his choice for Secretary of State — “climate hawk” John Kerry — might say something too. Should Kerry eventually become Hillary Clinton’s replacement, his decision on the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline will indicate for many in the environmental camp whether that “hawk” description fits. (More here, $ub req’d.)

On the Fracking Front

Matt Damon’s new film Promised Land opened last Friday. I haven’t seen it yet, but I am pretty sure it does not paint fracking or gas drilling companies in a good light.

Meanwhile, the Nicholas School’s Rob Jackson appeared on “CBS Sunday Morning” over the New Year weekend talking about fracking and sharing what a research team from Duke found after testing wells in Pennsylvania: “What we did find was much higher likelihood that you would have gas in your water, methane, ethane, and propane, the things that are in the natural gas itself.” And the takeaway? As he told CBS: “These are things that you don’t want in people’s drinking water, and you don’t want sloshing around the environment.”

On a related front — preliminary data reported at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union suggest that methane leakage from gas drilling in Utah may be even higher than what has been reported for other regions of the country.

As a bit of counterpoint, a leaked analysis by the New York State Health Department concluded that fracking could be conducted safely.

On December 21, EPA released its own fracking progress report, and received praise from the gas industry ($ub req’ed) for making “course corrections, including the formation of technical roundtables that include industry expertise.” (See also here.)

Genetically Engineered Salmon Edge Closer to the Plate

Recent moves by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put genetically modified salmon, which grow twice as fast as farmed salmon, closer to consumers.

The government says that AquAdvantage salmon are not expected to “have a significant impact … on the U.S. environment.” Previously, the FDA determined that the modified fish were safe to eat.

A final decision on the fish will be made after the agency allows 60 days for public comment. (Additional info here [pdf] and here [pdf].)

EPA Takes Clean Air Up a Notch

In December, EPA took steps to make our air a little cleaner.

On Dec. 14, the agency tightened the annual health standard for “harmful fine particle pollution (PM2.5), including soot” from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 12 micrograms per cubic meter. A week later, EPA finalized the long-delayed Boiler MACT rules. Slated to go into effect in 2016 or later, these air standards set limits for industrial boilersand commercial incinerators on emissions of mercury, acid gases and heavy metals.

And that’s probably enough of looking back. Did we miss anything? … On to 2013.

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