Scientists used satellite images and gravity measurements to peer more closely than ever before at the torturous drip-drip-drip from the world’s glaciers. What they discovered is not really much of a surprise: Ice Age glaciers have been methodically chiseled away by the warming effects of fossil fuel burning.
Global warming and black carbon are working fast: Glaciers outside of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are collectively losing an estimated 571 trillion pounds worth of ice annually, the researchers reported in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science.
Glaciers? Icesheets? Potatoes, potatoes, you say. Here’s the difference: The world’s ice sheets cover vast swaths in Greenland and Antarctica. Meanwhile, glaciers are rivers and lakes of slow-moving ice. You can find them at high altitudes in alpine regions around the world, and you’ll find them in lower elevations (including on and around ice sheets) as you approach the poles.
Although these glaciers contain just 1 percent of land ice reserves, they contribute about as much to the rising seas as the melting ice sheets. The individual contributions of glaciers to the rising seas may be relatively small, but the cumulative impacts of their melts are substantial.
The researchers concluded that melting glaciers are causing the oceans to surge by 0.03 inches yearly, which works out to 30 percent of the total annual rise in recorded sea levels.
From a press release by NASA, which provided the data to the researchers from its Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) and Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE):
Current estimates predict all the glaciers in the world contain enough water to raise sea level by as much as 24 inches (about 60 centimeters). In comparison, the entire Greenland ice sheet has the potential to contribute about 20 feet (about 6 meters) to sea level rise and the Antarctic ice sheet just less than 200 feet (about 60 meters).
“Because the global glacier ice mass is relatively small in comparison with the huge ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica, people tend to not worry about it,” said study co-author Tad Pfeffer, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “But it’s like a little bucket with a huge hole in the bottom: it may not last for very long, just a century or two, but while there’s ice in those glaciers, it’s a major contributor to sea level rise.”
The largest glacial losses during the study period from 2003 to 2009 were recorded from Arctic Canada, Alaska, coastal Greenland, the southern Andes, and high-mountain Asia. That’s pretty much all the major glacial regions, the exception being in Antarctica, where loss was minor.
So, there’s some good news for Antarcticans: Glacial melt is not as bad there as everywhere else.
As with all great parties, I heard Friday night’s bike fiesta before I found it. Pedaling my old-school aluminum Trek road bike up one of Baltimore’s main drags — in a black bow tie, ruffled shirt, and cummerbund, naturally — I suddenly caught Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” blasting from a nearby park. And then, up the hill a little further, I saw the 20-, 30-, and, yes, 40-something couples in retro tuxes, chiffon and satin gowns, with flowers in their lapels and corsages on their wrists, posing for pictures next to decorated bicycles.
There were even women with tiaras atop their helmets. One friend managed to dangle a sparkling disco ball off the front of her handlebars — lit by her bicycle light once we started riding and the sun went down. Close to 1,000 people in all. Not everyone, but most, dressed to the nines for that once-in-a-lifetime occasion.
Welcome to Bike Party: Bike Prom edition, part of a burgeoning movement nationwide that is putting the fun into bicycling activism.
Last April, the traditional, anarchy-inspired Critical Mass rides here evolved (how long can something be both traditional and anarchist?) into the newer, safer, more traffic-friendly — and happier — last-Friday-of-every-month Baltimore Bike Party. Critical Mass rides, for the unfamiliar, date back two decades and have taken place in cities all over the world. They are historically political, punk, and confrontational in manner.
Bike Party, by contrast, is gentle, ’60s-style protest/celebration. It’s theater, activism, bicycling, and social gathering all at once. Or, as I overheard one woman tell a girlfriend on a ride: “It’s like everything I love rolled into one … and it’s going out on Friday night to a great party.”
The rides are basically inclusive, 12-mile, recreational-speed cruises around Baltimore’s core downtown neighborhoods, including many neglected by the city and bypassed by other events. As a bonus, there’s always an awesome, eclectic soundtrack. Organizers launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year to pay for a kickin’ all-directional sound system that gets pulled along on a bike trailer in the middle of the action.
And, of course, there’s after-Bike-Party parties each month at a local bar. The monthly route gets shared with police, who occasionally help block traffic, but otherwise, it’s all very informal.
The Bike Party concept was apparently first launched in San José, Calif., where Baltimore organizer Tim Barnett, a Maryland Zoo zoologist by trade, says he got the idea to create a similar version in his adopted hometown.
Barnett, who was active in Baltimore’s Critical Mass rides, says he stumbled across San José Bike Party on the web while trying to find ways to attract more riders. He’d learned through social media outreach that Baltimore bicyclists wanted something more organized than the “leaderless” Critical Mass rides. And, he figured out, it needed to be fun — joyful even — if people were going to forego Friday night happy hour and participate.
“One thing people always said was, ‘I want to come [to the Critical Mass ride], but, you know, I’ve got this other thing to do,’” says Barnett, who doesn’t drive a car and says his motivation in organizing Bike Party is to help make bicycling a more acceptable, practical form of transportation in the city. “I wanted this ride to be the thing people did on their Friday nights.”
San José Bike Party volunteer Katie Heaney told the San José State University college newspaper that the group has been garnering more people each month since its formation in 2007. Many of the original riders of the group, she said, filtered through other bike party groups, such as Critical Mass in San Francisco and Midnite Ridazz in Los Angeles. On Facebook, the San José Bike Party now has nearly 14,000 “friends.” In March, they organized a Jedi-themed Star Wars ride, and late last year, attracted 3,500 riders to their fifth anniversary ride.
In 2011, San Francisco created its own popular Bike Party, followed by nearby East Bay and Peninsula Bike Parties in northern California. (There’s also Fresno Bike Party, Salinas Bike Party, etc.) Traverse City, Mich., and Philadelphia also recently gave birth to monthly Bike Party projects, as did Washington, D.C. A glance around the internet uncovered a Johnson City, Tenn., Bike Party, whose motto — “The Revolution Will Not be Motorized” — you gotta love. And, get this, there’s also Bike Party Seoul and Bike Party Changwon in South Korea, and Bike Party Sao Paulo in Brazil, too.
The Washington, D.C., Bike Party still has yet to capture the city’s imagination like Baltimore Bike Party has, perhaps unexpectedly to those who know the city only through The Wire. (The monthly rides in D.C., held since last July, attract about 400 riders a month.) But Baltimore Bike Party is merging bicycle commuters, recreational cyclists, and bike advoates, as well as the art and green communities, into a moving monthly parade that’s also moving city officials to pay attention to the burgeoning alternative transportation community here.
April’s ride, for example, was also associated with Baltimore Green Week, which hosted daily events in the week around Earth Day, including several bike rides. Next month, Barnett said, Bike Party will partner with the Station North Arts & Entertainment District on their May Final Fridays event. And in June, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is expected to join Bike Party as it partners with the west side Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District.
The pure, mad joy of bicycling in costume with adventurous friends, literally filling a dozen blocks of Baltimore streets on a Friday night, is almost impossible to capture in words and photos. However, the absolute best part of any Baltimore Bike Party is the reaction along the route. More taxi, truck, delivery, and automobile drivers honk and toot in support than you’d think. But better are the diverse group of kids, teenagers, and adults in every neighborhood, east to west, north to south, who leave their rowhouses, come off their porches, step out of the corner bars and restaurants, stop whatever they’re doing to high-five Bike Party bicyclists, and shout encouragement — and often, shoot cellphone pictures and videos.
Young kids sprint and roller-skate on sidewalks to keep pace. Older kids jump on their BMX bikes and join in. Families wave from their windows. And some of these streets half-consist of boarded up, vacant houses. From one little boy with his sisters and mom during Bike Prom: “They wearin’ prom dresses! They’re SO beautiful.”
It’s also interesting to listen to Baltimore Bike Party riders themselves as they pedal. The bicycling culture in Charm City and the Bike Party — a year old — seems to be growing so fast now that it’s almost hard to grasp at times.
I actually heard another guy at a rest stop say, “I’ve been waiting for a bike ride like this my whole life.” He was probably in his mid-20s, but still.
I heard another cyclist ask, out loud, “How is it possible that this is the most fun thing I’ve ever done?”
I figure that sentiment has to bode well for the future of bicycling in Baltimore. Elsewhere, too.
It’s clear to those who’ve been paying attention that our current economic behaviors are on a collision course with the earth’s limits. We are now using resources and generating wastes at rates 40 percent higher each year than can be sustained. If every country on earth were to consume at U.S. levels, we’d need five planets.
Part of the problem is our current metric for societal success: Gross Domestic Product, or the market value of goods and services produced in a given year. The United States has the largest GDP of any country in the world, and orthodox economists would argue that our massive GDP makes the U.S. the most successful country in the world. But the facts tell a different story:
The United States has the widest rich-poor gap of any rich nation, with the top 1 percent of earners garnering more than 20 percent of our annual income.
Rates of poverty in the U.S. are the highest among wealthy countries, and more than double the average in Europe.
Americans spend at least twice as much on health care per capita as citizens of any other country, yet U.S. life expectancy ranks 51st in the world.
Americans are more likely to report experiencing stress than are people of 144 other nations.
Americans consume nearly two-thirds of the world’s antidepressants.
More than a third of Americans over 45 report being chronically lonely, up from 20 percent in 2000.
The United States ranks 11th in “life satisfaction,” according to a Gallup-Healthways poll, but well below Denmark, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands.
The United States is the only wealthy country without national policies for paid sick leave, paid maternity leave, paid holidays, and paid vacations.
Yet sadly, the American economic model is becoming more dominant, even in Europe. We are sacrificing our health, happiness, social connections, leisure time, and the environment in the blind pursuit of growth. We can’t go on like this.
Fortunately, there are some hopeful signs of change.
A new direction
In 2011, the United Nations passed a resolution recognizing that GDP “is an insufficient guide for safeguarding the well-being of people or our future.” Instead, the U.N. urged governments across the globe to start measuring happiness and well-being “with a view to guiding public policy.”
The U.N. was responding to a global trend toward replacing the singular goal of material well-being with comprehensive measures of well-being or happiness. Countries including Australia, Canada, Ireland, Japan, and the United Kingdom are now starting to measure the happiness of their citizens. These subjective studies could bring more balance to policymaking, helping us understand where people perceive themselves to be hurting and thriving.
We at The Happiness Initiative have been using a survey called the Gross National Happiness Index to measure overall life satisfaction as well as 10 “domains” of well-being. The survey was developed by a team at San Francisco State University and inspired by the government of Bhutan, which has made the happiness of its citizens its top goal since its king declared 40 years ago that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” Here are the components of happiness we’re aiming to measure:
Overall satisfaction with life: prevalence of positive and negative emotions
Material well-being: income, financial security, level of debt, employment security, quality of housing
Environment: quality of water, air, soil, forest cover, biodiversity, access to green areas and transportation
Governance: involvement, responsibility, honesty in government
Community vitality: relationships, sense of belonging, safety, volunteerism
Cultural vitality: spectatorship and participation in cultural and sports events
Education and learning: participation in formal and informal education
Physical health: health policies and self-rated health
Time balance: balance of time between leisure and work, enjoyment of life activities
Psychological well-being: optimism, self-esteem, sense of competence
One of the best ways to encourage growth is through our energy industry. Of course solar and wind energy should be a part of our energy portfolio. But God also blessed America with abundant coal, oil and natural gas. Instead of wasting more taxpayer money on so-called “clean energy” companies like Solyndra, let’s open up more federal lands for safe and responsible exploration. And let’s reform our energy regulations so that they’re reasonable and based on common sense.
Now that’s Rubio’s gone all establishment, the Tea Party turned to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to deliver its SOTU rebuttal. This line toward the top of the speech might have seemed promising:
The path we are on is not sustainable, but few in Congress or in this Administration seem to recognize that their actions are endangering the prosperity of this great nation.
But he didn’t mean that kind of sustainable.
Paul did not directly address energy or climate change, but he tossed off lots of anti-regulation, anti-tax, anti-gubmint lines:
With my five-year budget, millions of jobs would be created by cutting the corporate income tax in half, by creating a flat personal income tax of 17%, and by cutting the regulations that are strangling American businesses. …
We will stand up against excessive government power wherever we see it. …
America has much greatness left in her. We will begin to thrive again when we begin to believe in ourselves again, when we regain our respect for our founding documents, when we balance our budget, when we understand that capitalism and free markets and free individuals are what creates our nation’s prosperity.
As Grist reported earlier this week, the USDA released a massive report on climate change and U.S. agriculture. The report may represent the agency’s most decisive move to force farmers to face reality. The short version: Climate change is real, it’s here to stay, and farmers need to start adapting before the biggest effects hit.
And while this may not come as news to Grist readers, it’s worth highlighting the significance of this report. Big farm lobbying groups have been some of the most vocal critics of government action to address climate change, as well as of the very idea of anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) climate change. A 2011 survey of Iowa farmers [PDF] found that while 68 percent believed the climate was changing, only 10 percent agree that it’s caused primarily by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Many an article on the extreme weather in farm country contain quotes like this one from American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman:
“We are used to dealing with extreme weather variation,” he says, pointing out that his Texas farm has seen 20 inches of rain in a single day, in the middle of a drought. “We’ve learned to roll with those extremes. If it gets a little more extreme down the road, we can deal with it.”
The USDA would like you to look at a picture, Mr. Stallman.*
That’s what will happen to summer temperatures by the end of the century if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions. Note that farm country will get hit particularly hard — average temps will rise by about 10 degrees F. When you combine that with the increase in extreme weather events that the USDA assures farmers are baked in to the climate cake at this point, it becomes harder and harder to assume you can just “roll with it.” So sayeth the USDA:
Given the projected effects of climate change, some U.S. agricultural systems will have to undergo more transformative changes to remain productive and profitable.
Exhibit A: the ongoing Midwestern drought. That qualifies as some pretty extreme weather. How did farmers roll with it? For many, it was by plowing under failed crops and filing insurance claims — costing taxpayers around $16 billion (and rising). But relying on heavily government-subsidized insurance to bail out farmers year after year isn’t feasible.
And while Congress isn’t helping matters much with its desire to expand farm policies that reinforce the climate-unfriendly status quo, its old-school approach isn’t too surprising. In fact, the USDA report makes an explicit nod towards climate denial among farmers as one of the main obstacles to building a more climate-friendly agriculture. As the report states:
Social adaptation barriers represent a significant challenge to climate change adaptation in U.S. agriculture. The perception of the need for adaptation is influenced by access to finance, political norms and values, and culture and religious ideologies.
In other words, many farmers don’t see climate change as a problem and thus aren’t amenable to changing how and what they farm. In fact, another troubling result from the Iowa farm survey found nearly half of Iowa farmers believe that crop insurance should be the main tool to aid farmers in a changing climate. And their hostility to government attempts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions remains as high as ever — only a third support the idea (another third are uncertain on greenhouse gas regulation). And these farmers’ top choice for their own “adaptation” strategy — that biotechnology companies will provide climate-proof seeds. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that Monsanto and its ilk can deliver.
Presuming farmers can be convinced or otherwise incentivized to adapt more aggressively, the USDA report doesn’t actually provide much of a blueprint. Interestingly, the existing programs the report highlights as most climate friendly (especially in terms of soil and water conservation) are also the ones that Congress seems most intent on cutting, i.e. the federal agricultural conservation programs.
And while the report makes a nod toward the potential for technology to provide seeds and pesticides adapted to facing a more hostile climate, it also suggests that the expansion of sustainable agricultural techniques (crop rotations, biological diversification, building soil health, and so on) are key.
The report also points out some less discussed risks to agriculture from rising temperatures. Many crops have what are known as “plant chilling requirements.” If winters get too warm, plants stop flowering, even if the growing season itself isn’t too hot or dry yet. The USDA cites evidence that California winters may become too warm for fruit and nut growing as soon as the middle of this century. Uh oh?
But perhaps the biggest climate gotcha in the report is the suggestion that a warming climate could spell doom for industrial agriculture’s reliance on livestock factory farms, aka CAFOs. It turns out that as the climate warms it’s going to get harder and harder to keep these massive facilities full of animals cool enough. And if farmers have to spend a fortune air conditioning their barns during brutal summers, CAFOs may soon become uneconomical.
The USDA wants farmers to know it’s time to get real on climate. The question now is if they’ll listen.
*AFB officials did not respond to my request for a comment on the USDA report.
Coca-Cola is on the offensive with its new ad campaign entitled “It’s not our fault you’re fat” “Coming Together.” A two-minute web ad kicks off a marketing blitz designed to help address the problem of obesity … a problem caused in no small part by the company’s products. Apparently, the solution involves drinking a soda and going for a run. I hope Michelle Obama is taking notes. Watch:
Was that so hard? And you all thought obesity was a far-reaching, intractable issue with enormous social costs and no easy answers. Sillies!!
This is not about changing the products but about confusing the public … They are downplaying the serious health effects of drinking too much soda and making it sound like balancing soda consumption with exercise is the only issue, when there are plenty of other reasons not to consume too much of these kinds of products.
It’s not just the public health advocates who are skeptical about the new campaign. Even the advertising trade press is unimpressed. AdWeekcalled the ad “shameless,” “insidious,” and “surprisingly ham-fisted.” Meanwhile a marketing blog at the advertising trade publication MediaPost titled its review of the ad “Critics Jeer Coke’s Entrance into Obesity Discussion.”
But a bad reception from the business press isn’t likely to change Coke’s strategy. At this particular cultural moment, beverage companies are back on their heels and likely tired of being blamed for the obesity epidemic (with good reason, many public health experts would argue).
And maybe with its deep pockets and broad reach, Coke will pull off this whole “not-our-fault” strategy. That would be be good news for their food industry brethren who could soon find themselves in a similar situation. I’m thinking in particular of fast-food companies, who have certainly taken their lumps, but so far have managed to avoid the same kind of intense blame and government backlash for the obesity epidemic that soda companies now experience.
The reason is simple. Sure, too much fast food can make you fat — but the product itself is, in fact, food. It contains protein, carbs, even the odd vegetable. Say what you will about fast food, but those three items are necessary parts of the human diet; not so with soda.
But now comes new research just published in the medical journal Thorax which found a link between frequent fast-food consumption and the prevalence and severity of allergic conditions like asthma, eczema, and rhinitis in kids and teens. These results are preliminary, but if they hold up, fast food would appear to be a major contributing factor to the current “allergy epidemic” among kids across the globe.
Researchers analyzed data collected on the dietary habits of approximately 500,000 kids and teens worldwide. Teens who ate fast food three or more times a week saw their risk of severe asthma increase 39 percent; for younger children, that risk increased 27 percent. Both groups who ate that much fast food displayed increased severity of eczema and rhinitis.
These results persisted after researchers controlled for many “confounding” variables, including exercise, television watching, maternal education, and current maternal smoking. And while this finding remains a correlation, the scientists felt that the nature of the relationship, including the way it was consistent across the different age groups they studied, suggested it was likely a causal relationship. Nevertheless, as they say, further study is required!
Even so, if Coca-Cola’s campaign lays the template for successful Big-Food countermeasures, perhaps fast food has less to worry about than this research implies. I can see the ad campaign from Burger King already: “Breathe Easy. You Can Still Eat That Whopper.”
One of the more fascinating and underreported stories in U.S. energy right now is the budding movement toward localism. In the case of energy, this doesn’t necessarily (or exclusively) mean producing energy locally; few towns or cities could generate sufficient power for themselves within city limits. It just means asserting more local control over energy provision and use. Often that means buying cleaner power than large, bloated, risk-averse utilities are able to provide, and using it more intelligently.
There are two ways a town or city can opt out of being served by big utilities. The first is, it can buy and sell power directly while using the utility’s lines. That’s what Chicago is doing. As I wrote last year, Illinois recently passed a “community aggregation” law that allows cities and towns to opt out of the power purchases made by the state’s big utilities and instead procure their own power directly from providers. Dozens of towns and municipalities have jumped at this approach, including Chicago, which late last year put out a “Request for Qualifications” [PDF] seeking power that is clean and coal-free, with a strong focus on reducing consumer energy use via efficiency, demand response, and other consumer-side measures. That’s close to a million new customers for innovative low-carbon energy, with an aggressive schedule for moving forward.
The second way is for a city to form its own, publicly owned municipal utility. That’s what Boulder, Colo., is investigating. The impetus is the climate action plan the city passed in 2002, committing it to reducing its emissions in line with Kyoto targets. In 2006, the city imposed a carbon tax and just last year extended the tax by five years. Nonetheless, the city is falling short of its targets, in large part because it gets its electricity from the big private utility Xcel, which gets 60 percent of its power from coal (as of 2011). The idea behind forming a municipal utility would be to buy more renewable energy and have more direct control over pricing, distribution, and demand-side programs.
Of course Xcel says that forming its own utility will be far too expensive for Boulder. It’s basically come down to a battle of consultants:
A preliminary Boulder analysis put the cost of buying Xcel’s assets and creating a new municipal utility at about $223 million. An Xcel consultant, Utilipoint, placed the cost at more than $1.2 billion.
I can’t say what would happen, or how much it would cost, if Boulder went municipal like Sacramento. But I’d sure like to see. In fact, I’d like to see tons more ambition and experimentation at the local level in the U.S. We need more “laboratories of energy democracy” (to coin a phrase).
One effect of the big ideological sorting of America is that progressive Americans who take climate change seriously and want to do something about it are clustering together. Concentrated pockets of opposition to clean energy hurt legislation at a national level, but concentrated pockets of support can enable ambitious local action like Chicago’s and Boulder’s. If there is ever to be any serious movement on climate at the federal level, it will likely come as a result of upward pressure from local efforts like this.
Why all the focus on green liberalism? We all know that if everybody dimmed their lights for 20 minutes every day all the whales would sing and dance, but … everybody isn’t going to do that. In fact, many people have at the core of their identity a deep hatred of environmentalism. So do we bring them on board? Go over their head and change the law? And how?
Hugs and kisses, Kevin H. Phoenix, Ariz.
A. Dearest Kevin,
You raise enough questions to fill a year’s worth of columns. But I am going to tackle them in the next few paragraphs, because I like a good end-of-year challenge. After that I am going to take a week off, knit myself some new snowshoes, and think about vermillion, violet … anything but green.
I appreciate the hugs and kisses, and I assume you are hyperbolizing in your letter to make a point. But two of your phrases give me pause: “green liberalism” and “deep hatred.” We live in a world that has become far too bifurcated, where we are filed in little boxes and stare suspiciously at each other through the cracks. If we can’t all get along, we can at least try to understand each other a little better. Herewith, Umbra’s Four-Point Guide to Combating Either-Or Thinking.
Green is not a synonym for liberal. For too long the notion of being green has been associated with being liberal. Well. Would you like to meet my friends at ConservAmerica? Or Green Evangelicals? Or the Energy and Enterprise Initiative? How about the U.S. Army? Let us shrug off the baggage associated with terminology, taking a cue from the founder of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform: “I don’t consider myself an environmentalist. I just consider myself an American who cares about energy and cares about the environment and cares about the future of this country.”
Turning off the lights won’t save the world … but it will help. You’re right, turning off the lights won’t save the world. Even though my job here is to help you and my other dear readers figure out how to make your lives greener, one step at a time, I think we all know it will take more than that. We need a combination of forces to make lasting change, including legislation, incentives for businesses, and international cooperation. But the choices we make each day are one part of that equation. Keep turning off the lights, drive less, buy local, or buy nothing — your actions add up, and they do matter.
Civility is still a possibility. When we find ourselves facing intractable opponents of green (they despise chartreuse especially!), do we “go over their heads”? Well, yes, it is statistically impossible to get everyone on board. But let us also practice civility, and remember that thinking people do change their minds. Why just this year, a prominent climate skeptic announced his conversion in The New York Times. And one of our readers told us Grist helped him “change the minds of a few Fox News watchers.” A recent study declared that those looking to sway non-believers on environmental topics can do so by appealing to concerns about “purity and sanctity” — you can find more tips in Grist’s series “How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic.”
It takes a village to raise a ruckus. Systemic change is hard. Very hard. And it requires a lot of people speaking up, sometimes for a long time. If we look around, we can see examples of public pressure leading to policy shifts. In our very present and painful moment, the gun control debate seems to be accelerating in part because of public pressure, although of course we don’t know what, if anything, will result. This year also saw great gains for gay marriage, progress that has been decades in the making. In the not-too-distant past, it took the Civil Rights Act to end segregation in public institutions. In all these cases, the public had an important role to play. I am fond of the story Bill Moyers tells, in which President Johnson asked Martin Luther King, Jr. to keep organizing protests. “Make it possible,” Johnson said, “for me to do the right thing.” Similarly, President Obama recently said to those speaking up on gun control, “You’ve started something, and now I’m asking you to keep at it.”
The same is true of climate change. Listen to what former Republican governor Jon Huntsman told Grist this year: “Well, [the climate debate] hasn’t translated into any kind of action within the political community because you don’t have people on a broad basis who are pushing us because they feel it’s urgent.”
So here’s to pushing for change in the new year, on the causes that matter to you most. Here’s to speaking up when speaking up is required. Here’s to living boldly and thoughtfully and lovingly, and trying to respect other people even when they are acting like dingbats. Here’s to smarter cities, cleaner energy, healthier and tastier food, and sensible responses to the climate threat.
And as always, dear readers, here’s to you — your questions are inspiring, vexing, and never-ending, and you make my life richer every day.
It looks like Keystone pipeline protesters are having an impact — though not the one they intend. Thanks in part to anti-pipeline activism, oil in North America is increasingly being shipped by train. So far this trend has been little noticed by the environmental community, but it’s big news in the rail world. From Railway Age:
“Railroads are booming, and [the reason] is oil,” reports the well-known and highly respected stock market news and financial analysis website Seeking Alpha. “Railroad stocks are ready to leap on booming oil transportation.”
The boom started in January, when President Obama denied approval for pipeline operator TransCanada’s proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada’s oil sands to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. …
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) says rail deliveries of oil and petroleum rose almost 40% in this year’s first half. BNSF, the biggest railway mover of crude in the U.S., posted an increase of 60% in carloads of crude oil and petroleum products during that period.
Rail transport of crude in North America has jumped by about 360,000 barrels a day in the past year — the equivalent of adding a “major” pipeline, according to Steven Paget, an analyst at FirstEnergy Capital Corp. in Calgary. Those shipments have soared as community protests slow new pipelines and oil finds occur outside the current pipe network.
As the Edmonton Journal explains, “Railways have been carrying oil for a century and were the only way to move crude before major pipelines were developed beginning in the 1940s,” but after pipeline networks were developed, the rail option became too expensive and fell out of favor until just recently.
“Environmental and first nations opposition have created numerous hurdles for the pipeline industry, whose leaders are re-thinking how they can convince a skeptical public to accept their projects,” reports the Toronto Globe and Mail. In the meantime, “companies scramble to find new ways to market, largely by loading oil onto rail cars that are now carrying hundreds of thousands of barrels a day across the continent.”
Rail lines already crisscross North America and rail companies are already permitted to carry oil. “Unlike pipelines, that means no public hearings and no environmental protests,” reports the Edmonton Journal.
This shift back to trains isn’t being driven only by protests against pipelines — lots of powerful factors are at play. U.S. oil production is on the upswing thanks to fracking, and Canadian oil production is too thanks to both fracking and tar-sands mining. That means there’s increased competition for pipeline capacity — where it exists. And lots of the fracked oil is coming from areas that aren’t currently served by pipelines and might not have big enough reserves to make pipeline construction worthwhile.
“All of the crude oil export pipelines [from Canada to the U.S.] are pretty much full, running at maximum capacity,” Enbridge VP Vern Yu said last week.
That Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway train was the first of what will ultimately become weekly trains bringing oil to Tacoma from the new oil fields opened up by hydraulic fracturing technology in the country’s northern Great Plains. …
Because of the sudden rise in production in the Bakken and Three Forks shale formations in the Dakotas and Montana — production has more than quadrupled in five years — the usual means of transporting oil, pipelines, have not kept up to the demand.
Railroads are filling the gap in crude oil transport capacity, creating long trains typically numbering over 100 cars to carry that crude oil to refineries. Train transport is more expensive than pipeline movements …, but it takes only months to get the crude oil trains rolling versus years to build new pipelines.
Some industry watchers say the price difference is diminishing: “The cost of rail versus pipe isn’t hugely significant these days, especially now with the increased regulations and delays on pipelining,” Crescent Point Energy Corp. CEO Scott Saxberg told the Globe and Mail. “We see it being in the $2 a barrel range.”
Plus rail can be easier and quicker: “One of the advantages with rail is that it can go anywhere,” David Tyerman, an analyst with Canaccord Genuity Inc. in Toronto, told Businessweek. “Speed to market is also an advantage for rail, so there would probably be a market even if there was more pipeline capacity.”
Oil and rail companies are particularly interested in getting crude to coastal ports and overseas markets. Some firms “have begun examining exports to Europe through Atlantic Canada ports accessible by rail,” reports the Globe and Mail. The proposed rail line from Alberta to Alaska, mentioned above, is aimed at getting oil to Asia. And two companies want to export oil from a proposed rail-to-ship facility in Aberdeen, Wash., to Asian markets.
Environmental and community activists, in addition to fighting the Keystone and Gateway pipelines, have recently ramped up efforts to stop the export of coal from coastal terminals. Now they may need to broaden their focus to include oil-by-train schemes and rail-to-ship terminals. A couple of groups in the Aberdeen area already have.
“We didn’t like the coal trains at [a proposed] one a day. Are we going to like the oil trains better at two a day? I don’t think so,” Arnie Martin of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society told the Aberdeen Daily World.
But green groups are going to have to get moving if they want to slow this juggernaut. The North American oil industry is booming, and oil companies will do anything it takes to get that crude to market.