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Building a Thin Green Line Along the West Coast

From California to British Columbia, environmentalists are gearing up for an epic fight against fossil fuel infrastructure

Despite a string of victories in the last few years limiting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure on the West Coast, Donald Trump’s presidency shows it was never going to be easy to defeat the oil and gas industry.

In two months, Trump has moved to revive the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipeline routes that had been blocked by the Obama administration, expedite environmental reviews for infrastructure projects, and reverse fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. He is expected to reverse environmental regulation policies established under President Obama, including the Clean Power Plan, and will not likely adhere to the commitments of the Paris Climate Agreement.

photo of fossil fuel protestPhoto courtesy of Backbone Campaign Activists came together in Seattle last year to demand climate action. The West Coast is likely to play a vital role in determining the fate of the fossil fuel industry.

Republicans in Congress have followed suit, voting to kill two regulations passed in the waning days of the Obama administration: the Stream Buffer Rule, which prohibits coal companies from dumping toxic waste into an estimated 6,100 miles of streams; and a Bureau of Land Management rule that directs energy companies to capture natural gas from drilling operations on public lands rather than allowing them to burn or vent it into the atmosphere, where it’s heat-trapping potential is 84 times that of carbon dioxide.

For now, the situation is “scary,” says Mia Reback, a climate justice organizer with 350 PDX in Portland, Oregon. At the same time, she said, Trump has sparked “a groundswell of people coming into the climate justice movement who are looking to strategically and thoughtfully take action to create political change.” At her organization alone, orientation attendance has increased tenfold since the election.

All along the West Coast, environmentalists are gearing up for an epic fight. Advocates of a clean energy economy talk of building a “thin green line” from California to British Columbia to protect and improve on gains against the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure so that the production, use, and export of oil, coal, and natural gas steadily decline.

The fronts in this war are multiplying—along pipelines and rail lines, in the courts and media, through finance and all levels of government—even as an emboldened fossil fuel industry tries to roll back gains for climate justice and revive …more

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Awe and Wonder for Sale

Our public lands, now under siege, offer space for quiet reflection, contemplation, and renewed faith in our agency

After three days wandering off trail along the Continental Divide, we reached the beating heart of wild America. Before us: the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, an elk’s bugle from the point farthest from a paved road in the lower-48. Less than halfway into our weeklong, eighty-mile journey through northwest Wyoming, we’d already encountered more wildlife than we had seen in years of backcountry travel.

photo of yellowstone riverPhoto by Tim Lumley The Yellowstone River as it winds through Wyoming. Public lands are where many westerners live life to the fullest.

It was our layover day, time to climb to the sacred source of the Yellowstone and trade our fifty-plus pound packs for something a little lighter. I’d dreamed of this moment. The previous night’s thunderstorm — the type that makes you wonder if you’ll live to see another day — had left me sleepless and on edge.

Blue skies beckoned beyond our frost-covered tent. We struck out with high hopes across wide-open terrain. It wasn’t long before the tables turned. At a saddle before our final push, a brown giant peered down at us, only a hundred yards upslope. Our hearts pounded. Hump distinctly visible, the bear woofed, turned, and ambled out of sight. It was the fourth grizzly of the trip. We scanned for additional critters. Should we continue?

*          *          *

Many Americans would wonder what my wife and I were doing on that remote mountainside, dozens of miles from pavement, no one to call for help. But here in the West — and everywhere public lands are found — we feel the pull of empty spaces on the map. In the wild, our terror is our joy. Our isolation is our freedom. Refugees from modern civilization, we search for spiritual renewal, exercising our God-given quads in pursuit of our inalienable rights. For some, an experience like this might happen once-in-a-lifetime. For others, it’s a weekly ritual.

Our American birthright is 640-million acres of public land that belong to you and me. On April 15 — tax day — we make a mortgage payment on this land. Every time we fill a glass of water, cast a fly, or bask in alpine splendor, we reap the rewards of ownership.

As Westerners, public lands are where many of us live life to the fullest. Republican or Democrat, if we are lucky enough to enjoy these corners of wild America, our prized memories often harken …more

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Coal in ‘Freefall’ as New Power Plant Construction Dives by Two-Thirds

Report says move to cleaner energy in China and India is discouraging the building of coal-fired units

The amount of new coal power being built around the world fell by nearly two-thirds last year, prompting campaigners to claim the polluting fossil fuel was in freefall.

The dramatic decline in new coal-fired units was overwhelmingly due to policy shifts in China and India and subsequent declining investment prospects, according to a report by Greenpeace, the US-based Sierra Club, and research network CoalSwarm.

photo of oman solarPhoto by Coal Power Plant According to a new report, new coal power plant construction starts declined dramatically last year largely due to policy shifts in China and India.

The report said the amount of new capacity starting construction was down 62 percent in 2016 on the year before, and work was frozen at more than a hundred sites in China and India. In January, China’s energy regulator halted work on a further 100 new coal-fired projects, suggesting the trend was not going away.

Researchers for the groups said a record amount of coal power station capacity was also retired globally last year, mostly in the US and EU, including Scotland closing its last one.

One of the reasons for the fall in new plants was that too much capacity had been built in recent years, particularly in China.

Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies at the IEEFA, a pro-green energy thinktank, said the falling demand for coal power in China and India and plans to curtail new power stations shows that the world has overestimated the need for the fossil fuel.

The report, which tracked power stations through publicly available information, company reports, and satellite imagery, said 65GW of new coal-fired units had started construction between January 2016 and January 2017, down 62 percent on the 170GW the year before. Most coal power stations are around 1GW or greater in capacity.

Lauri Myllyvirta, a Beijing-based energy analyst at Greenpeace and author of the report, said the fall in China was largely down to government policy to clean up air pollution and encourage clean energy. That policy shows no sign of stopping — at the weekend, Beijing ordered its last coal-fired power plant to close in a bid to improve the capital’s air quality.

Myllyvirta said that in India the decline was down to slower-than-expected growth in energy demand, and renewable energy projects being installed rapidly.

Paul Massara, the former chief executive of RWE Npower …more

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Oman’s Search for Renewable Energy Sources

In a region better known for oil, the Middle Eastern nation is beginning to look for alternatives

Perched over the Strait of Hormuz and above the 17 million oil barrels that sail through it each day, the Sultanate of Oman is something of a regional outlier. Nestled among a cluster of hydrocarbon-producing heavyweights, Oman might appear unlikely as a burgeoning champion of renewable energy. Yet the Middle Eastern nation is embarking on a search for new sources to fuel the country’s future energy needs.

photo of oman solarPhoto by GlassPoint Solar Workers make progress on a solar project in Oman. The Middle Eastern nation may be turning a corner when in comes to renewable energy .

For decades, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — have financed ambitious programs for urban development and modernization via enormous oil and gas revenues. Collectively, these states possess roughly a third of proven global oil reserves. They are also six of the thirteen worst per capita CO2 emitters in the world, each producing more carbon dioxide per person than the United Kingdom, Russia, or China.

Oman cannot, however, rely on the same fossil fuel resources as its opulent neighbours. For starters, Oman’s oil stocks pale in comparison to the GCC giants: it would take 50 Oman’s to eclipse Saudi Arabia’s cache of existing crude stocks. Oil reserves in Oman are generally more difficult to access, more expensive to exploit, and are also likely to run dry within 40 years (while emirates like Abu Dhabi are expected to be able to produce for another century).

Oman’s gas policy is also unsustainable. Gas accounts for 97.5 percent of the country’s fuel used for power generation. Despite possessing vast quantities of natural gas, domestic needs regularly outstrip production. As a result, the government is forced to import billions of cubic meters of gas from Qatar each year to cover a national deficit.

Additionally, the country’s growing population, which is both youthful and well educated, is driving demand for new housing developments and increased living standards. This is placing greater strain on the national power grid and leading to widespread blackouts. Indeed, in 2014, the power system in Oman’s second largest city of Salalah — serving roughly 350,000 people — experienced a total system blackout for almost five hours. Similar blackouts occur more regularly in regional areas reliant on diesel generators, which account for the remaining 2.5 percent of fuel used for electricity production. To meet expected demand, the system that …more

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US Needs to Massively Scale Up Forest Protection to Tackle Climate Change

Logging reduces potential forest sink by over a third, hampering critical action to curb global warming, says new report

Of the many sources of carbon emissions the United States must reduce in order to thwart climate change, the most surprising may be its forests. According to a new report out today, logging in US forests reduces the potential forest carbon sink by over a third, preventing critical action on climate change.

If the US is serious about solving the climate crisis and providing communities a safety net against extreme weather events, it needs to scale-up its forest protection substantially, says the report, The Great American Stand: US Forests and the Climate Emergency, released by the conservation group Dogwood Alliance on the International Day of Forests.

a red pine plantation at sunsetPhoto by Nicholas A. Tonelli Red Pine Plantation in Monroe County, Pennsylvania.The US is allowed to count tree plantations as "forests" that sequester carbon. But the report argues that such plantations shouldn't counted as long-term carbon storage as the trees on it will eventually be logged.

Understanding the scope of CO2 emissions from deforestation and forest degradation requires a long view.

The report estimates that 60 percent of the carbon emitted from logging between 1700-1935 has yet to be recovered from the atmosphere. This makes planting trees today to mitigate current emissions from fossil fuels problematic — trees planted today cannot be viewed as offsetting fossil fuel emissions when the US has yet to offset carbon emissions from past logging, the report says.

“We need to reduce emissions from logging in the US and massively scale up the amount of carbon stored in our forests in the next 20 to 30 years,” to reach negative emissions and curb the worst effects of climate change, says Danna Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Dogwood Alliance and co-author of the report.

The US is the largest producer and consumer of wood products in the world. From 2000 to 2012, forests in the Southeastern US experienced four times the rate of disturbance from logging as South American rainforests. And yet, the logging industry still boasts that US forests sequester 11 to 13 percent of US carbon emissions each year. “We hear this all the time… as if this is something to be proud of,” laments Smith. Considering that the global average for carbon sequestration by forests is 25 percent, it is apparent that the US has a lot of catching up to do.

Currently, logging in the US is reducing the capacity of US forests to store carbon by …more

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Grizzlies in Jeopardy

Proposal to remove Yellowstone bears from Endangered Species Act is premature

The Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to delist grizzlies from the protection of the Endangered Species Act in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The basic rationale for delisting is that the geographical distribution of bears has increased, particularly in areas south and east of Yellowstone Park, as well as population growth.

photo of Grizzly bear in YellowstonePhoto by USFWS Mountain-PrairieDelisting grizzlies in Montana and Wyoming would put the Yellowstone bear population at risk due to declining availability of food sources.

But there is a debate about whether this is enough to justify delisting, and more worrisome, is whether the bear’s continued population growth is really ensured.

At best, there may be 700 grizzlies in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. While this may seem like a large number, consider that grizzlies are a tournament species. That is, a few large, dominant males, do the bulk of all breeding — hence reducing the overall genetic diversity in the population.

Many geneticists believe a viable population of 2500 to 5000 bears is necessary for the long-term survival of the species. This can only be accomplished if the Yellowstone bears’ numbers increase and are eventually connected to other bear populations further north as part of a larger metapopulation.

There has been increasing mortality of female grizzlies in recent years for reasons that may be related to climate change — to be discussed in a minute. But higher mortality of females is critical since they are the source of new bears in the population.

The major argument against delisting has to do with a significant decline in Yellowstone grizzly food sources.

Whitebark pine, which has nutritious seeds, and which bears, particularly female bears, relied upon, have declined significantly due to bark beetles. The increase in bark beetle mortality in whitebark pine is attributed to global warming. As temperatures continue to rise we can only imagine even greater mortality in whitebark pine populations and loss of a major food source for grizzlies.

A second loss has been cutthroat trout. Bears used to feed upon spawning trout in tributaries to Yellowstone Lake, much as coastal brown bear feed on salmon. Lake trout, which prey upon cutthroat, were introduced into Yellowstone Lake and caused a major decline in cutthroat trout populations to the point where few to no bears feed on spawning trout any longer.

A third loss is meat. In the past, elk numbers were higher, and many elk died in winter due to starvation. This provided bears, …more

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When Building Sustainable Societies, There’s No Better Guide than the Human Scale

We need to fashion communities such that individuals become neighbors and lovers instead of just acquaintances and ciphers

It can be fairly objected that every age has its crises and so far the ingenuity of the human brain or the capacity of human society has been able to solve, or appear to solve, most of them. No matter how problems have grown in the past they have not interfered with the sort of growth that has characterized Western civilization in the modern period. But that lesson from the past disguises one important fact of the present: our crises now proceed, like the very growth of our systems, exponentially.

da vinci's vetruvian man sketchPhoto Wikimedia CommonsLeonardo da Vinci's The Vitruvian Man sketch was his exploration of the theories about human proportions set forth by ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. “Human scale” was originally an architectural term, used to describe the components of a building in relation to the people who use it.

“During the past two centuries,” in the words of M. King Hubbert, the prescient geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey, “we have known nothing but exponential growth, and we have evolved what amounts to an exponential growth culture, a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of non-growth.”

Obviously the solutions to these crises, even when they are identified and tried, have done nothing to diminish the impact of exponential growth, and indeed the solutions turn out to be problems, or generate unforeseen problems, as often as not. That is why it is necessary to turn in a totally different direction with a totally different mindset and expectation—a way, as I will show you, to the human scale.

It is now obvious that the way we have been going, particularly for the last 25 years, has plunged us into multiple environmental and social crises, and going on in that direction invites, if it does not guarantee, civilization’s collapse within the next 25. That is no exaggeration: as Pope Francis said in his June 2015 encyclical, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”

So to save our planet and its civilizations we must move in an opposite direction, we must work toward the decentralization of institutions, the devolution of power, and the dismantling of all large-scale systems that have created or perpetuated the current crises. In their place, smaller, more controllable, more efficient, more sensitive, people-sized units, rooted in local environments and guided by local citizens. That is the human-scale alternative.


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