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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2005
Table of Contents
 
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Lay of the Land

Big Oil's March to the Sea | Hear No Evil | W Watch |
Clean Clique | Bold Strokes | As the World Warms |
D—ewww — d! | Invasional Meltdown | Updates | In Brief

Big Oil's March to the Sea
A new push for drilling could damage coastlines and marine life

Flush with victory after a one-vote win in the Senate that could open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the fossil-fuel industry and its friends in Congress are already working to carve up the coasts.

House Resources Committee chair Dick Pombo (R-Calif.) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) are leading the attack that could jettison a quarter-century-old congressional moratorium protecting most of the U.S. coastline from offshore oil and gas drilling. They have drafted or introduced bills that would allow acoustic surveying for oil and gas in the 200-mile U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (which includes the restricted areas), provide incentives for states to opt out of the moratorium, fast-track drilling leases in those waters, and give unilateral authority for energy development in U.S. waters to the Interior Department secretary.

Two decades ago, coastal residents rallied against offshore drilling. Today drilling proponents hope that soaring gas prices will blunt opposition. But a recent attempt to get a coastal state on record in support of the new drilling incentives was defeated in late March by a boisterous national campaign organized by the Virginia chapters of the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation.

The "seaweed activists" point out that, along with long-standing fears of air and water pollution and devastating oil spills from blowouts and pipe ruptures along some of the country's most coveted property, there are several new reasons to keep the coasts free of drill rigs. Recent studies suggest that human-caused ocean noise pollution — such as the explosive acoustic generators used in oil and gas surveying and the din of vessel traffic and construction around rig sites — can disturb, injure, or even kill whales and other marine mammals. Of particular concern is the effect of noise pollution on echolocation, the way many marine mammals "see" or read their environment, hunt for food, and communicate.

Offshore oil and gas development will also commit the United States to 30 to 50 years of additional carbon dependence at a time when fossil-fuel-driven climate change is being linked to rising sea levels, coral bleaching, intensified hurricane surges, and changes in oceanic circulation, chemistry, and productivity. Add marred shorelines and global environmental disruption, and the cost of oil dependence soars faster than fuel prices.
— David Helvarg


Hear No Evil
U.S. State Department muzzles anti-mercury campaigners

It's easier to clamp down on critics than on mercury emissions. The Bush administration has delayed a promised 70 percent reduction in mercury discharges from power plants until 2030. But it has already acted to silence environmentalist detractors of its foot-dragging approach.

At the February meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya, U.S. delegates derailed a European Union call for a binding treaty to curb mercury use, instead pushing through a plan for "voluntary partnerships" between governments, industries, and environmental groups. But in an indication of the likely practical dynamics of such partnerships, the United States refused to let environmental advocates address the conference.

"We were shocked," says Linda Greer, director of health programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "So was the chair of our meeting [Viveka Bohn of Sweden]. She was forced to tell us that if we spoke, we would all have to be thrown out of the room. It was totally embarrassing watching our government throw its weight around." UNEP rules state that nongovernmental organizations participate only at the pleasure of the governments — and the United States wasn't pleased.

Fortunately, Greer and her colleagues took every opportunity to lobby the delegates outside the official hall, particularly those from the developing world, where industrial use of mercury is still common. As a result, the parties agreed to develop national mercury action plans and to discourage industrialized nations from selling their surplus mercury.

"Right now it's perfectly legal to buy and sell mercury on the open market," says Greer. "But if the U.S. and Europe sell their surpluses abroad, it will just be used in some factory in India and end up in fish in a Manhattan grocery store."
— Paul Rauber


WWatch
Keeping Tabs on Washington

FISH AND TAXIDERMY SERVICE Before he was appointed acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Matthew J. Hogan had plenty of experience in preserving rare species — as trophy heads on a wall. Hogan was formerly the chief lobbyist for the Safari Club International, whose wealthy members compete in collect-'em-all hunting contests like the Africa Big Five (leopard, elephant, lion, rhinoceros, and buffalo) and Big Cats of the World. In past years, Safari Club members have frequently tangled with the Fish and Wildlife Service when they tried to import trophies of endangered species from other countries. Now they'll have a friend at the very top.

FUDGE FACTOR AT YUCCA MOUNTAIN The juggernaut to designate a leaky Nevada mountain as the nation's high-level nuclear-waste depository hit a speed bump when scientists working on the project were discovered to have "fudged" data. "I've made up the dates and names," one boasted in an e-mail. "If they need more proof I will be happy to make up more stuff." At issue is how quickly radioactive material would seep into Nevada's groundwater; excluding the studies based on doctored data, the U.S. Energy Department has zero scientific backing for its contention that the project would be safe.
— P.R.


Clean Clique
The new trend in cars is green

After the November election, a popular e-mail circulated by disappointed Democrats outlined new U.S. boundaries, with the blue-leaning coastal states seceding to join our northern neighbor in the "United States of Canada." To Detroit automakers, that liberal fantasy is starting to look a lot like reality.

This spring, Canada and Washington State got tough with manufacturers, ensuring that cars sold within their boundaries will be significantly cleaner in the next ten years. Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski (D) told the New York Times in April that he wanted his state to follow suit. With seven eastern states having already adopted California's stricter limits on toxic and smog-causing emissions, this growing green bloc represents one-third of the North American auto market.

California began enacting air-quality laws before the federal Clean Air Act passed, and states can choose to meet those standards instead of the feds'. With the bill signed by Governor Christine Gregoire (D) in May, Washington became the Ūrst to move toward adopting California's greenhouse-gas restrictions as well as its tailpipe-emission limits. This climate-friendly aspect of California's regulations, which requires cars sold in the state to be more fuel-efŪcient, is being challenged in court by auto dealers and manufacturers.

The situation is less combative in Canada, where the government inked a deal with General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from new vehicles by 5.3 million tons annually by the end of 2010. Ottawa will monitor their progress yearly. "There was a real willingness on the part of industry to work voluntarily," says Fabian Allard with Canada's department of natural resources. "I think they recognized that the alternative wasn't a very good one."
— J.H.


Bold Strokes

Illustration by Debbie DresherCreation Care
Greenness is next to godliness in the Church of England. At a meeting of its General Synod in February, the leadership voted to "make care for creation, and repentance for its exploitation, fundamental" to the church's "faith, practice, and mission." The motion also praised the British government for its stance on global warming and committed the synod to "lead by example" in making the lifestyle changes necessary to achieve sustainability. Practical suggestions for congregations include offering bike-friendly facilities, selling fair-trade products at church fundraisers, and using organic bread and wine for Holy Communion.

Flying the Ecofriendly Skies
In other news from across the pond, Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced a plan to help mitigate the environmental impact of air travel by civil servants on official business. In April, the government began calculating the amount of globe-warming carbon dioxide emitted during each flight and offsetting a commensurate amount of CO2 by investing money in clean-energy projects in developing countries. Officials are lobbying UK airlines to offer a similar option to the public at the time of booking, so eco-conscious travelers can pay up to make up for their jet-setting ways.
— Jennifer Hattam


As the World Warms
Signs of a changing planet

Climate change, not just fire suppression or overgrown forests, may be a major cause of the huge wildfires that have been ravaging western forests. Research conducted by scientists from the Universities of New Mexico and Arizona, and published in the November 4, 2004, issue of Nature, shows a strong correlation between large fires and warm periods over the past 7,000 years. If global warming continues apace, study coauthor Grant A. Meyer told the Los Angeles Times, "we can simply expect larger, more severe fires."

Officials at a Swiss ski resort are pulling a Christo — by wrapping a shrinking glacier. They hope to slow the melting by covering part of the Gurschen glacier, which is receding five yards a year, with 32,000 square feet of insulating PVC foil during the summer. According to University of Zurich researchers, the country's glaciers lost nearly a fifth of their surface area in just 15 years, between 1985 and 2000.

The polar bear may soon have company atop the already dwindling arctic food chain. Sightings of grizzlies in northern reaches where they were never seen before may indicate that warmer temperatures are allowing the brown bears to expand their range, geologist Jonathan Doupé of the University of Alberta told ABC News.

The planet is drier than it was in the '70s — and we're not talking about the decline of the three-martini lunch. The National Center for Atmospheric Research recently found that drought afflicts more than twice as much land as it did just 30 years ago, from between 3.8 and 5.7 billion acres in the early 1970s to as much as 11 billion in 2002. Rising temperatures are a key factor in the change. In the United States, drought in Arizona cost cattle-related industries almost $3 billion in 2002 alone.

Shorter, warmer winters have increased elk survival rates in Yellowstone National Park, but what's good for the antlered animals is not so good for bears, coyotes, eagles, and ravens. Fewer elk carcasses mean less for these scavengers to eat. A recent study shows that the reintroduction of gray wolves, which kill elk regardless of the weather, has halted the "boom-bust cycle" and made a steady supply of carrion available year-round. The researchers concluded that intact ecosystems are better able to adapt to climate change.

Last year the insurance industry paid out a record $44 billion in losses caused by natural disasters — many linked to global warming. Four "extreme" or "catastrophic" hurricanes hit the Caribbean, and Japan suffered ten tropical cyclones. Thomas Loster, a research director with leading insurer Munich Re, was unequivocal about the climate change connection: "We don't need more evidence, and we need to start acting now."
— J.H.


D — ewww — d!
"Injected" sewage grosses out Florida surfers and beachgoers

The staph and sea-lice infections brought the issue home for surfers, but the dolphin deaths and contaminated drinking water are making sewage an issue for all Floridians.

One billion gallons of partially treated, nitrogen-rich sewage are pumped underground in Florida each day, and evidence is mounting that it's not staying put. Begun as an emergency measure 20 years ago to stop the dumping of waste directly into the ocean, sewage-injection wells have morphed into a statewide crisis.

To protect shallow groundwater supplies, effluent is usually injected 1,000 feet or more below the surface. Officials insist that a "containing layer" of sedimentary deposits in Florida's limestone bedrock is enough to keep injected sewage in check, so environmental assessments are not required.

But researchers have found that contaminants can migrate laterally through the porous bedrock into water supplies and the ocean. Tom Warnke, who founded the Palm Beach chapter of the surfer-activist group Surfrider Foundation in 1997, calls Florida's underground geology "a superhighway for sewer water." (Less delicately, a Surfer magazine writer noted that "Florida's limestone is doing little to keep your s — t out of your lineup.")

In a suit filed in February, the Sierra Club charged that the state has known for a decade that wastewater wells in Miami-Dade County were leaking trillions of gallons of contaminants into water supplies. And last December, Surfrider and Wetlands Alert announced plans to take the feds to court, arguing that agencies have failed to assess the effect of wastewater discharged in areas adjacent to coastal Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Activists are determined not to let Florida bury the issue under a conŪning layer of bureaucracy.
— R.M.

ON THE WEB For more information, go to surfrider.org.


Invasional Meltdown
Exotic species can transform an ecosystem

More than half a century ago, the unprepossessing eastern gem clam sneaked into Northern California's Bodega Bay, probably via shipments of oysters from the East Coast. The tiny bivalve did no obvious harm to its new environment, carving out a small niche for itself among the larger, better-adapted Nutricola clams native to the bay. That is, until the European green crab entered the picture about a decade ago, likely snuggled in among the seaweed in bait boxes.

Green crabs, it turns out, have a taste for Nutricola and quickly cleaned them out, says Ted Grosholz, an ecologist at the University of California at Davis. With the native clams gone, he found, the dormant eastern gem clam population exploded, becoming the dominant species in much of the bay. "In most coastal areas, only 10 percent of new species actually cause ecological damage," says Grosholz. "But that 90 percent can change as the result of new introductions; what had been a benign species can suddenly become a management problem."

The tangled webs we weave when we carelessly transport species from one ecosystem to another are most apparent in enclosed systems like islands. About 70 years ago, yellow crazy ants somehow made their way to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Like the eastern gem clams in Bodega Bay, they initially caused little trouble. Then in the 1990s, possibly because of a secondary invasion with a different genotype, the ants started forming huge, non-competing supercolonies, sometimes covering several square miles, and quickly wiped out a quarter of the island's red crabs and other invertebrates.

Without the crabs to eat seeds and leaf litter, dense undergrowth sprang up, radically altering the previously open rainforest. The ants also provoked a boom in scale insects, which feed on tree sap and produce a sugary substance called honeydew. The ants feed on the honeydew and in return protect the scale insects against predators and even transport them to noninfested plants. Trees stricken by scale insects sicken and die, opening gaps in the forest canopy and further altering the island ecosystem. Biologists have coined a new term for such complicated and widespread damage caused by exotic species: "invasional meltdown."

The yellow crazy ant assault on Christmas Island was brought under control in 2003 with applications of the insecticide Fipronil in doses low enough not to harm birds, reptiles, or mammals, but high enough to reduce crazy ant numbers by 99 percent. This approach is, on the surface, harsher than the use of "bio-controls" — that is, fighting an invader by importing a predator known to keep it in check elsewhere. That cure, however, often proves worse than the disease.

In 1936, for example, the giant African land snail was brought to Hawaii as a garden oddity. The eight-inch snail was soon consuming native plants as well as creating a hazard to trafŪc and pedestrians. (The snail is so tough that the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recommends destroying it by boiling it, putting it in a deep freeze for three days, or immersing it in alcohol for 24 hours.) So in the 1950s, 14 varieties of predatory snails were deliberately introduced to combat it. None did notable damage to the African giant, but the rosy wolfsnail (originally from the southeastern United States) became Ūrmly established as an invasive exotic in its own right. It began feeding on Hawaii's beautiful and increasingly rare native tree snails and may have played a role in the extinction of dozens of species.

"Once a species is established," warns Grosholz of UC Davis, "it becomes awfully hard to get rid of." Or as RenŽe Wissink, an ecologist at Canada's Fundy National Park, writes: "Introductions, like extinctions, are forever."
— P.R.


Updates

The Elephants in the Room
Maybe a few highly respected Republicans can knock some sense into the Bush administration about fuel efficiency. In March, Robert C. McFarlane, Ronald Reagan's national security advisor, and Frank Gaffney, Reagan's assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, were among 26 former top officials who signed a letter to George W. Bush arguing that U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a national security threat. (See "Ways & Means," May/June.)

Treeless Rule
Ignoring the written comments of 4 million Americans, the Bush administration in May finally repealed the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. This Clinton-era regulation protected more than 58 million acres of undeveloped national forest lands, but now state governors have to petition the feds for protection. (See "Lay of the Land," November/December 2001, page 20.)

Terror Targets
A new National Academy of Sciences report warns that fuel-storage pools at nuclear power plants in 31 states may be vulnerable to terrorist attacks that could unleash intense fires and deadly radiation. According to the panel of nuclear experts, neither the government nor the nuclear industry "adequately understands the vulnerabilities and consequences of such an event." (See "Dangerous Liaisons," May/June.)


In Brief

In March, a federal judge ruled that the EPA must regulate ballast water carried by ships entering U.S. waters. The move reverses a Clean Water Act exemption that kept the effluent from being labeled a pollutant. (See "Lay of the Land," July/August 2003, page 12.)...In March, a Montana federal district judge voided U.S. Fish and Wildlife approval of the Rock Creek silver mine near the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness area in northwestern Montana. (See "In the Rockies' Wild Heart," March/April 2004.)...At the FutureFashion runway show during New York's Fashion Week in February, all clothes presented were made with earth-friendly fibers such as corn, bamboo, and organic cotton. (See "Profile," January/February.)


Illustration by Debbie Dreschler.

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