Tag Archives: climate change

Last stand: Nebraska land owners still could derail Keystone XL pipeline

When President Donald Trump handed TransCanada Pipeline Co. a permit for its Keystone XL pipeline last month, he said the company could now build the long-delayed and divisive project “with efficiency and with speed.” But Trump and the firm will have to get through Nebraska farmer Art Tanderup first, along with about 90 other landowners in the path of the pipeline.

They are mostly farmers and ranchers, making a last stand against the pipeline — the fate of which now rests with an obscure state regulatory board, the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

The group is fine-tuning an economic argument it hopes will resonate better in this politically conservative state than the environmental concerns that dominated the successful push to block Keystone under former President Barack Obama.

Backed by conservation groups, the Nebraska opponents plan to cast the project as a threat to prime farming and grazing lands — vital to Nebraska’s economy — and a foreign company’s attempt to seize American private property.

They contend the pipeline will provide mainly temporary jobs that will vanish once construction ends, and limited tax revenues that will decline over time.

They face a considerable challenge. Supporters of the pipeline as economic development include Republican Governor, Pete Ricketts, most of the state’s senators, its labor unions and chamber of commerce.

“It’s depressing to start again after Obama rejected the pipeline two years ago, but we need keep our coalition energized and strong,” said Tanderup, who grows rye, corn and soybeans on his 160-acre property.

Now Tanderup and others are gearing up for another round of battle – on a decidedly more local stage, but with potentially international impact on energy firms and consumers.

The latest Keystone XL showdown underscores the increasingly well-organized and diverse resistance to pipelines nationwide, which now stretches well beyond the environmental movement.

Last year, North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux, a Native American tribe, galvanized national opposition to the Energy Transfer Partners Dakota Access Pipeline. Another ETP pipeline in Louisiana has drawn protests from flood protection advocates and commercial fishermen.

The Keystone XL pipeline would cut through Tanderup’s family farm, near the two-story farmhouse built in the 1920s by his wife Helen’s grandfather.

The Tanderups have plastered the walls with aerial photos of three “#NoKXL” crop art installations they staged from 2014 to 2016. Faded signs around the farm still advertise the concert Willie Nelson and Neil Young played here in 2014 to raise money for the protests.

The stakes for the energy industry are high as the Keystone XL combatants focus on Nebraska, especially for Canadian producers that have struggled for decades to move more of that nation’s landlocked oil reserves to market. Keystone offers a path to get heavy crude from the Canada oil sands to refiners on the U.S. Gulf Coast equipped to handle it.

TransCanada has route approval in all of the U.S. states the line will cross except Nebraska, where the company says it has been unable to negotiate easements with landowners on about 9 percent of the 300-mile crossing.

So the dispute now falls to Nebraska’s five-member utility commission, an elected board with independent authority over TransCanada’s proposed route.

The commission has scheduled a public hearing in May, along with a week of testimony by pipeline supporters and opponents in August. Members face a deadline set by state law to take a vote by November.

“TENS OF THOUSANDS” OF JOBS

TransCanada has said on its website that the pipeline would create “tens of thousands” of jobs and tens of millions in tax dollars for the three states it would cross — Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

TransCanada declined to comment in response to Reuters inquiries seeking a more precise number and description of the jobs, including the proportion of them that are temporary — for construction — versus permanent.

Trump has been more specific, saying the project would create 28,000 U.S. jobs. But a 2014 State Department study predicted just 3,900 construction jobs and 35 permanent jobs.

Asked about the discrepancy, White House spokeswoman Kelly Love did not explain where Trump came up with his 28,000 figure, but pointed out that the State Department study also estimates that the pipeline would indirectly create thousands of additional jobs.

The study indicates those jobs would be temporary, including some 16,100 at firms with contracts for goods and services during construction, and another 26,000, depending on how workers from the original jobs spend their wages.

TransCanada estimates that state taxes on the pipeline and pumping stations would total $55.6 million across the three states during the first year.

The firm will pay property taxes on the pumping stations along the route, but not the land. It would pay a different — and lower — “personal property” tax on the pipeline itself, said Brian Jorde, a partner in the Omaha-based law firm Domina Law Group, which represents the opposition.

The personal property taxes, he said, would decline over a seven-year period and eventually disappear.

TRUMP: ‘I’ll CALL NEBRASKA’

The Nebraska utilities commission faces tremendous political pressure from well beyond the state it regulates.

“The commissioners know it is game time, and everybody is looking,” said Jane Kleeb, Nebraska’s Democratic party chair and head of the conservation group Bold Alliance, which is coordinating resistance from the landowners, Native American tribes and environmental groups.

The alliance plans to target the commissioners and their electoral districts with town halls, letter-writing campaigns, and billboards.

During the televised ceremony where Trump awarded the federal permit for the pipeline, he promised to weigh in on the Nebraska debate.

“Nebraska? I’ll call Nebraska,” he said after TransCanada Chief Executive Russell Girling said the company faced opposition there.

Love, the White House spokeswoman, said she did not know if Trump had called Nebraska officials.

The commission members — one Democrat and four Republicans — have ties to a wide range of conflicting interests in the debate, making it difficult to predict their decision.

According to state filings, one of the commissioners, Democrat Crystal Rhoades, is a member of the Sierra Club — an environmental group opposing the pipeline.

Another, Republican Rod Johnson, has a long history of campaign donations from oil and gas firms.

The others are Republicans with ties to the farming and ranching sectors – including one member that raises cattle in an area near where the pipeline would cross.

All five members declined requests for comment.

PREPPING THE WITNESSES

TransCanada has been trying since 2008 to build the 1,100-mile line — from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would connect to a network feeding the Midwest and Gulf Coast refining regions. The firm had its federal permit application rejected in 2015 by the Obama administration.

Opponents want the pipeline, if not rejected outright, to be re-routed well away from Nebraska’s Sandhills region, named for its sandy soil, which overlies one of the largest freshwater aquifers in the United States.

The Ogallala aquifer supplies large-scale crop irrigation and cattle-watering operations.

“It all comes down to water,” said Terry Steskal, whose family farm lies in the pipeline’s path.

Steskal dug his boot into the ground on his property, kicking up sand to demonstrate his biggest concern about the pipeline. If the pipeline leaks, oil can easily seep through the region’s porous soil into the water, which lies near the surface.

TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said the company has a good environmental record with its existing Keystone pipeline network in Nebraska, which runs east of the proposed Keystone XL.

The company, however, has reported at least two big pipeline spills in other states since 2011, including some 400 barrels of oil spilled in South Dakota last year.

The Domina Law Group is helping the opposition by preparing the landowners, including the Tanderups and Steskals, for the August hearings, much as they would prepare witnesses for trial.

If the route is approved, Jorde said the firm plans to file legal challenges, potentially challenging TransCanada’s right to use eminent domain law to seize property.

Eminent domain allows for the government to expropriate private land in the public interest. But Jorde said he thinks TransCanada would struggle to meet that threshold in Nebraska.

“Some temporary jobs and some taxes is not enough to win the public interest argument,” he said.

Various anti-pipeline signs line the walls of the machine shed of Art and Helen Tanderup, who are against the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that would cut through the farm where they live near Neligh, Nebraska, U.S. April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Lane Hickenbottom

Sturgeon Bay holds seeds for the world

If a repeat of the Great Potato Famine was to strike or climate change so altered the Earth that water became scarce, potato seeds from the U.S. Genebank on the outskirts of Sturgeon Bay could provide the solution to a looming food crisis.

While that seems far-fetched or outlandish, it’s not.

A potato fungus about 15 years ago threatened crops around the nation. Potato seeds from Sturgeon Bay were among the tools used to avert a potato crisis. The fungus, called late blight, was a variation of the disease that caused the Great Potato Famine leading to failed crops and starvation in Ireland and parts of Europe from 1845 to 1852. It also caused mass migration to the United States.

Geneplasm, or potato seeds, from the Sturgeon Bay facility were used to develop a potato immune to the new form of late blight, said John Bamberg, a plant geneticist with the USDA/Agriculture Research Service and project leader of the U.S. Genebank. The genebank is located at the Peninsular Agricultural Research Station along State 42.

“For years we knew that there was a Mexican species that was resistant to late blight, and researchers had been working on it using seeds from our genebank,” Bamberg said.

When it was discovered that the new form of late blight was resistant to sprays used to control the fungus, researchers went into action to develop a potato variant based on the Mexican plant that was immune.

“A lot of people don’t know about the important work being done right here in Sturgeon Bay,” Bamberg said.

In the greenhouses at the U.S. Potato Genebank along State 42, lush green tendrils of potato plants reach toward the grow lights. The mature plants sprout pods the size of walnuts that yield valuable pin-head-size seeds.

These seeds hold the clues for scientists seeking answers to a wide range of topics, including higher yield, drought-resistant and pesticide-free potatoes. The world’s largest collection of potato seeds and cultivars are housed at the U.S. Potato Genebank, representing more than 5,000 potato varieties and species.

Potatoes can grow almost anywhere, need less water than most food sources and are packed with nutrients, antioxidants and minerals, Bamberg said. Researchers around the world are working to develop new potato strains to feed burgeoning populations in areas where the soil is poor and the climate is cold, hot or dry.

“In a world where the climate is changing, potatoes are an adaptable crop,” Bamberg said.

Potatoes are a super-food, Bamberg said. There are not many food sources as easy to cultivate, with the same tastiness and provide similar nutrient and mineral benefits as potatoes, he said.

Recently scientists at a facility in Peru that partners with the Sturgeon Bay site completed experiments where they successfully grew potatoes in a climate similar to Mars. In the popular 2015 movie, “The Martian,” an astronaut stranded on Mars survives by growing potatoes.

Growing potatoes in an adverse climate like Mars demonstrates the potential for potato crops, Bamberg said.

“It’s similar to climate change where what you used to grow, you can’t anymore, so maybe potatoes are the answer,” he said. “Potatoes are already an important food crop, and as the climate is changing, there’s a need to meet the new challenges in growing the crop.”

They also are the most widely grown and consumed vegetable in the nation with a value of $4.3 billion and exports totaling more than $1 billion. In the world, potatoes rank behind wheat, rice and corn in consumption.

China is quickly surpassing the United States in potato production and India is not far behind, Bamberg said.

Vast varieties of potatoes, many developed with geneplasm from Sturgeon Bay, are being cultivated across Asia, India and into Southeast Asia.

“These countries have large populations, and they need to feed their people,” he said.

The genebank’s goal is to help researchers and breeders innovate improvements in the potato crops, said Tina Wagner, a lab technician who maintains the facility’s collection.

Through genetics, the opportunities to develop potato crops with certain traits is significant. The genebank specializes in providing to researchers the seeds or germplasm that have traits a scientist requires to develop certain characteristics in a potato, Wagner said.

“We have a job to do, and one of those things is filling the orders,” Wagner said.

While the majority of the research is U.S. based, Wagner has shipped geneplasm to far flung places such as the University of Inner Mongolia.

“There’s a lot of research going on all over the world,” she said.

The Sturgeon Bay genebank was founded in 1948 by Wisconsin potato growers who saw the value in a centralized location to store seeds and house research to develop better potato stock.

Every year Bamburg and other researchers scour the sites where wild potatoes grow in the Western Hemisphere. While the wild potato originated in the region along the intersection of Peru and Bolivia, new wild varieties continue to be found in the southwestern section of the United States.

Wild potatoes, many of which are inedible, carry a treasure-trove of genetic diversity for potentially useful traits to develop new varieties of potatoes, Bamberg said.

“It’s those genes from the wild potatoes. You never know what you could find,” he said.

Potato gene research has found properties in wild potatoes that could affect cancer, diabetes and obesity. There also might be benefits in potatoes to minimize the effect of lead poisoning on children, he said.

“The research being done using geneplasm from Sturgeon Bay isn’t just about growing a better potato. It’s also about helping the world,” Bamberg said.

 

Canada glacier melt rerouted in rare case of ‘river piracy’

Scientists have witnessed the first modern case of what they call “river piracy” and they blame global warming. Most of the water gushing from a large glacier in northwest Canada last year suddenly switched from one river to another.

That changed the Slims River from a 10-foot (3 meters) deep, raging river to something so shallow that it barely was above a scientist’s high top sneakers at midstream. The melt from the Yukon’s Kaskawulsh glacier now flows mostly into the Alsek River and ends up in the Pacific Ocean instead of the Arctic’s Bering Sea.

It seemed to all happen in about one day — last May 26 — based on river gauge data, said Dan Shugar, a University of Washington Tacoma professor who studies how land changes. A 100-foot (30-meter) tall canyon formed at the end of the glacier, rerouting the melting water, Shugar and his colleagues wrote in a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience .

The term “river piracy” is usually used to describe events that take a long time to occur, such as tens of thousands of years, and had not been seen in modern times, especially not this quickly, said study co-author Jim Best of the University of Illinois. It’s different from something like the Mississippi River changing course at its delta and it involves more than one river and occurs at the beginning of a waterway, not the end.

The scientists had been to the edge of the Kaskawulsh glacier in 2013. Then the Slims River was “swift, cold and deep” and flowing fast enough that it could be dangerous to wade through, Shugar said. They returned last year to find the river shallow and as still as a lake, while the Alsek, was deeper and flowing faster.

“We were really surprised when we got there and there was basically no water in the river,” Shugar said of the Slims. “We could walk across it and we wouldn’t get our shirts wet. It was like a snake-shaped lake rather than a river.”

What had been a river delta at the edge of the Slims River had changed into a place full of “afternoon dust storms with this fine dust getting into your nose and your mouth,” Best said.

The lack of water in the Slims wasn’t because of changes in rainfall, Shugar said. They know that because it’s a river fed mostly by glacial melt, not rain, and the Alsek increased in amounts similar to what disappeared from the Slims.

The Kaskawulsh glacier covers about 9,650 square miles (25,000 square kilometers), about the size of Vermont. The front of the glacier has retreated nearly 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers) since 1899, Shugar said.

The scientists calculate that there is only a 1 in 200 chance that the retreating glacier and river piracy is completely natural without man-made global warming. They used weather and ice observations and a computer simulation that models how likely the glacier retreat would be with current conditions and without heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Several outside scientists praised the study as significant and sensible.

“This is an interesting study and reconfirms that climate change has large, widespread and sometimes surprising impacts,” Pennsylvania State University glacier expert Richard Alley, who wasn’t part of the study, said in an email.

Jane Goodall: Magic of nature revealed in ‘Born in China’

The magic of nature and its wildlife often takes great patience for the humans who want to revel in it. Disneynature’s new film, Born in China, is a perfect example of that.

The documentary is a little over an hour but it was shot over three years.

Dame Jane Goodall, an ambassador for Disneynature, said the imagery was breathtaking and shows the personality of the multiple species captured.

“These photographers wait year in and year out and so they’re able to show the characters of these animals,” she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “And people say, ‘Oh, Disneynature gives animals a character.’ No, the animals have their own character.”

The film also shows another side of China. Viewers see a snow leopard hunt in terrain unfit for most mammals, a mother giant panda with her cub, and raucous golden monkeys jumping on high forest trees, sending the branches crashing to the ground as they chase and play.

“(People) think of Beijing and Shanghai and glitz and all the rest of it,” Goodall said, “but China is huge and vast and some of these landscapes that are captured in this film are truly spectacular.”

The documentary, Disneynature’s seventh theatrical release, is out April 21, the day before Earth Day. John Krasinski narrates but Goodall has done her part to promote the ambitious project, directed by Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan.

A portion of tickets sales from the film’s opening weekend will benefit the World Wildlife Fund.

Goodall, 83, has studied chimpanzees for 55 years in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. She has worked for decades on conservation and animal welfare issues. China, she said, should be commended for its work protecting pandas and snow leopards.

Of President Donald Trump’s administration, Goodall said: “I think any administration that is cutting back on protecting the natural world is very disturbing. The same thing’s happening in the U.K. and many other parts of Europe. And of course in Africa, it’s a little bit different, but there’s African presidents who welcome big corporations coming in from outside and they’re sort of selling their natural resources in return for roads or hospitals, and all of this is pretty grim for the future.”

Yet Goodall remains hopeful, especially when it comes to kids. The Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots Program, which encourages young people to become stewards in their communities, now operates in 98 countries, for instance.

“The passion and the energy of young people,” she said, “once they understand the problems, they’re empowered to take action.”

On the Web

nature.disney.com 

Congressman promotes a Charles Darwin Day to fight science skepticism

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes has taken on the role of promoting a Charles Darwin Day in the House of Representatives, saying he believes it’s the type of legislation his southwestern Connecticut constituents want him to pursue at a time when skepticism surrounds science.

“I represent one of the most educated districts in the country. And so, I think my constituents expect this of me,” said Himes, who took over proposing the perennial long-shot legislation commemorating the birth date of Charles Darwin from former New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt, a research physicist who is now chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Himes said he has championed the legislation for several years because “science and truth remarkably always need advocacy against the forces of nostalgia and fear and irrationality.” That message, he said, is especially important now in light of statements from President Donald Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, who has alarmed scientists by saying he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming.

“At the end of the day, policy has to be guided by facts and truth,” Himes said.

The legislation comes as lawmakers in at least three states, South Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma, have weighed bills this year allowing teachers to decide how much skepticism to work into lessons on contentious scientific issues such as evolution and climate change. Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee have enacted similar laws, according to Glenn Branch, deputy director of the California-based National Center for Science Education.

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, proposed a similar bill in the Senate this year. Such proposals, however, don’t get very far. Branch said the legislation is typically defeated in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology by Republicans who don’t call a hearing on the bill.

The bill is unlikely to ever pass Congress, given that Darwin, who developed the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection, was British.

But Holt praises Himes, a former investment banker, for taking on the legislation, which only expresses the House’s support in designating Feb. 12 as Darwin Day, recognizing him as “a worthy symbol of scientific advancement on which to focus and around which to build a global celebration of science and humanity intended to promote a common bond among all of Earth’s people.”

Himes’ proposal comes at a time when when efforts by the Trump administration to silence scientists and stifle their research have inspired a global a global protest that will come together on Earth Day as the first-ever March for Science.

Scientists will march on Washington April 22 and in more than 280 satellite marches around the globe. They’ll be rallying under the banner “Science, not Silence.”

Darwin, who was a religious person, didn’t let personal bias interfere with him looking at evidence, Holt said. That’s a stance worth celebrating at a time when ideology and opinion are crowding out evidence, he said.

“Of course, the Darwin Day legislation is more symbolic than practical, but there’s an important lesson there that public issues should be informed by the best publicly available scientific evidence,” Holt said. “It’s really to Jim’s credit that he’s speaking up for this. It’s harder for a non-scientist to do that.”

Himes has taken other pro-science stances recently, including signing a congressional letter in December to Trump, urging the president to appoint a “universally respected scientist” to the position of assistant to the president for science and technology within his first 100 days in office — an appointment that has not yet been made. The president has not responded.

Himes drew some criticism during his last re-election campaign for proposing the legislation. His Republican opponent, former Rep. John Shaban, called it a political stunt and a waste of time and resources.

“Indeed, I believe in both evolution and that we must pursue balanced polices to address global climate change, but passive-aggressive resolutions do little to advance the cause,” Shaban wrote on his campaign website.

For decades, there have been efforts to recognize Darwin and his theory of evolution, both nationally and internationally. The American Humanist Society promotes International Darwin Day each year, calling it a “day of celebration, activism and international cooperation for the advancement of science, education, and human well-being.”

A 2013 analysis by the Pew Research Center determined that 60 percent of Americans believe “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third reject the idea of evolution. Pew also found about 24 percent of Americans believe that a “supreme being guided the evolution of living things” for the purpose of creating human beings.

Himes, an elder in his Presbyterian church, said he doesn’t see his faith as being at odds with the Darwin Day bill.

“No science can explain why human beings evolved,” he said. “But we shouldn’t argue with the fact that they did evolve.”

 

Nature lovers blast Walker’s plan to end DNR magazine paid for by readers

Twenty years of back issues in Jim Stroschein’s attic attest to his love of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ publication. Since 1919, the DNR magazine has featured stories and photos highlighting Wisconsin’s natural splendor, from where to hunt, fish, hike and camp to what it’s like to a own a north woods cabin.

If Republican Gov. Scott Walker gets his way, this will be the last year for the DNR magazine. Even though it is sustained entirely by subscribers — it had nearly 84,000 as of December — Walker’s proposed budget would end it next February. He argues that the state shouldn’t be in the publishing business and that more people can be reached through social media than the DNR magazine.

The proposal has outraged subscribers, particularly older ones who don’t rely on the internet for news, and has Democrats wondering if the pro-industry governor wants to pull the plug because the DNR magazine promotes science.

“To take away this tremendous communication tool, which costs them nothing, is really short-sighted,” said Stroschein, 54, of Mineral Point. “I don’t understand it.’’

At least a dozen states publish magazines detailing their environmental and wildlife agencies’ work, regarding them as a public relations vehicle. Wisconsin’s, which comes out every two months, typically runs articles by agency staff and freelancers accompanied by gorgeous photographs of wildlife and the outdoors. The April issue has a list of outdoor trips for the public, a staff story on a state nature preserve, and contributor pieces on kids’ efforts to build better birdhouses and how a ruffed grouse followed a man’s aunt around in 1950.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, a Walker appointee, told legislators last month that DNR employees lose time from core duties when they work on articles and that subscription revenue doesn’t make up for the lost hours. Echoing her boss, she said the agency could reach more people through social media.

But  Walker’s three state budgets have cut $59 million from the DNR and eliminated nearly 200 positions, including half of its science researchers.

That’s the same argument that former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley made when they eliminated their states’ magazines in the last few years. Like Walker, they are both Republicans.

Some Wisconsin conservationists and Democrats aren’t buying the explanation. They believe the move reflects the de-emphasis of science and education at the DNR under Walker. The DNR recently scrubbed language from an agency webpage that stated human activity was a major cause of climate change, despite overwhelming evidence that it is, and replaced it with language that said the causes of global warming are still being debated. That move came after the state budget Walker signed in 2015 cut half the positions in the DNR’s science bureau.

Natasha Kassulke, who used to edit the DNR magazine, said agency executives began vetting content after a story on climate change ran in 2013. She said they spiked a story she wrote on the endangered American pine marten because it included a map showing that the creature inhabits an area near Lake Superior that had been slated for a contentious iron mine project. She said they also killed a story she wrote on how mammals will cope with climate change, telling her the terms “climate change” and “global warming” were forbidden.

Kassulke said she quit last summer because the editing had become so draconian.

“There are things in the magazine Walker hasn’t liked,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Middleton Democrat who sits on the budget committee. “People like to sit down with something in their hand and read it outside of their smartphone or their tablet. It pays for itself. It’s not a waste of staff time. It’s more a matter of Scott Walker trying to control the message.’’

DNR spokesman James Dick declined to comment, saying the agency stands by Stepp’s testimony to the budget committee.

Legislators could save the magazine as they revise Walker’s budget. Nearly 3,000 people have subscribed and another 1,200 have renewed since Walker released the budget in February. The committee’s Republican members say they have heard from many constituents asking to spare the magazine.

Louisiana’s current governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, decided last year to bring back the Louisiana Conservationist in a limited format. Rather than mail magazines to subscribers, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries places 7,500 free issues in its field offices.

“Everybody seems to like it, especially those old-timers, who seemed to miss it,” said agency spokesman Rene LeBreton.

Jim Shavlik, 80, of Crivitz, said he’s subscribed to the Wisconsin magazine for more years than he can remember. He sent an email to legislators warning them if the magazine dies he’ll quit volunteering to sample area water quality for the DNR.

“I do not like looking at a screen,” Shavlik said. “I just like a piece of paper in front of me. If they have a good reason (for eliminating the magazine), I can live with it. So far I haven’t heard a good reason.’’

 

 

Activists rising against Trump’s ‘dirty agenda’

With Donald Trump taking a “wrecking ball” to climate efforts, environmental activists are rising up to stage a massive display of opposition on Earth Day. A series of legal battles will follow.

The president — who has called global warming a “hoax” invented by the Chinese — signed an executive order in late March to eliminate many restrictions on fossil fuel production and roll back Barack Obama’s plans to curb carbon emissions.

The order requires a review of Obama’s Clean Power Plan and a rule on hydraulic fracturing, lifts a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands and rescinds Obama’s executive orders on climate change.

Days before Trump signed the order, his administration announced the State Department had signed off on a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

“The wrecking ball that is the Trump presidency continues,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the chair of an initiative that created the nation’s first cap-and-trade program to cut carbon pollution from power plants.

Kimmell said the administration is guilty of abdication of responsibility, because “seas are rising, droughts are becoming more commonplace, the Mountain West’s wildfire season is getting longer and we’re seeing more record-breaking temperatures. The fingerprints of climate change are everywhere.”

Multiple lawsuits against the executive order and both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline permits are in the works, with challenges from environmental groups, Native American tribes, hunting organizations and coalitions of Democratic-led states.

People’s Climate March

Meanwhile, environmental groups at every level are coordinating responses to the Trump administration around Earth Day, which is April 22.

“This isn’t going to be a kumbaya kind of Earth Day,” said Milwaukee environmental activist Tamarind Jones. “We are rising up against Trump — like a tidal wave.”

The global environmental group 350.org is involved in coordinating the People’s Climate March April 29 in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of solidarity marches also are planned.

Said Jamie Henn, co-founder of 350.org, “The Trump administration wants to shock us into despair and inaction, but since inauguration we’ve seen what can happen when people in this country mobilize: Trumpcare? Withdrawn. Muslim ban? Blocked. Next, we’re taking on Keystone XL, coal expansion, rollbacks to our basic rights to clean air and water — Trump’s entire fossil fuel agenda.”

Maura Cowley, People’s Climate March campaign coordinator for the Sierra Club, said demonstrators also will call for the United States to uphold its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump has said he’ll decide in May the fate of the international pact to tackle climate change.

“A large majority of the public wants climate action and supports the Paris agreement,” Cowley said. “And we intend to make that absolutely clear to Trump in the streets of Washington, D.C., and in marches around the world.”

The People’s Climate solidarity march and rally in Wisconsin takes place April 22 in Madison.

An announcement from the environmental group 350 Madison said, “We will march for our families. We will march for our air, our water and our land. We will march for clean energy jobs and climate justice. We will march for our communities and the people we love. And we will be louder and stronger than ever before.”

The Madison march takes place on Earth Day. That’s a week earlier than the D.C. march — both to avoid conflicts with other capital events and allow for Wisconsinites to travel to D.C.

“I will be there in Madison to say no to Donald Trump’s dirty agenda and no to Scott Walker’s dirty agenda,” said Jones. “And I’ll be there with thousands of friends.”

Earth Day March for Science

Some of Jones’ friends will be wearing lab coats, as April 22 also is the date of the March for Science in Madison and more than 300 other cities around the world.

Author and educator Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” is an honorary co-chair of the global action.

“We can solve problems, build extraordinary structures, explore space, fabricate exquisite instruments and feed billions, because we have embraced science — the means by which we have come to know nature,” Nye said in a statement for the march. “Science is the key to our future. It is in no one’s best interest to ignore what we discover. Instead, we acknowledge the facts we find, celebrate discoveries, make scientifically informed, fact-based decisions and march forward ensuring a better tomorrow for people all over the world.”

Happy Earth Day events …

Earth Day, the eco-holiday celebrated around the world on April 22, was pioneered by a U.S. senator from Wisconsin — Democrat Gaylord Nelson.

Nelson, who died in 2005, had wanted to turn attention in the United States to the environment. And so, he pushed for an annual observance to encourage the people on the planet to protect species and spaces by recycling, reusing and, perhaps most importantly, reducing.

In 1970, when the first Earth Day took place, Americans burned leaded gas in massive V8 engines. Factories belched smoke and sludge. Air pollution signaled prosperity.

An estimated 20 million people took part in the first Earth Day celebrations. A billion people are expected to participate in activities this year.

Opportunities to get involved in Wisconsin include conferences, cleanups, concerts and more.

Here’s a selection of the opportunities — but for a lengthier list, go online to www.wisconsingazette.com:

n April 18 brings the 11th annual Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison. “Hope and Renewal in the Age of Apocalypse” features Orleans author Sherri L. Smith, Station Eleven author Emily St. John Mandel, and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand. For more, go to nelson.wisc.edu.

n April 22 sees the 22nd annual Spring River Cleanup, which is coordinated by Milwaukee Riverkeeper and takes place at more than 50 locations in the Milwaukee River Basin. For more, go to milwaukeeriverkeeper.org.

n April 22 also marks Rock the Green’s sixth annual Earth Day Celebration in Estabrook Park, with music by Trapper Schoepp and presented by Milwaukee Riverkeeper. For more, go to rockthegreen.com.

n April 22 finally brings the Earth Day Park Pick Up at Warner Park in Madison, coordinated by the United Way’s Rosenberry Society. For more, go online to unitedwaydanecounty.org.

— L.N..

Environmental groups file lawsuit as Trump trashes pollution protections

Environmental groups are making good on their vow to fight Donald Trump’s intent to dispose of rules that protect U.S. citizens from pollution and curb global warming.

On March 29, they teamed up with an American Indian tribe to ask a federal court to block an order that lifts restrictions on coal sales from federal lands.

The Interior Department last year placed a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands to review the climate change impacts of burning the fuel and whether taxpayers were getting a fair return. But Trump on March 28 signed a sweeping executive order that included lifting the moratorium, and also initiated a review of former President Barack Obama’s signature plan to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Environmentalists say lifting the moratorium will worsen climate change and allow coal to be sold for unfairly low prices. It will also prove deadly for more coal workers.

“It’s really just a hail Mary to a dying industry,” said Jenny Harbine, an Earthjustice attorney who filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Montana on behalf of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity.

The White House did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit. The Department of Justice declined comment.

Environmental groups have been preparing for months to fight the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, including by hiring more lawyers and raising money. Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax” invented by the Chinese, said during his campaign that he would kill Obama’s climate plans and bring back coal jobs.

Advocates said they also will work to mobilize public opposition to the executive order, saying they expect a backlash from Americans who worry about climate change.

“This is not what most people elected Trump to do,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Poll after poll shows that the public supports climate action.”

A poll released in September found 71 percent of Americans want the U.S. government to do something about global warming, including 6 percent who think the government should act even though they are not sure that climate change is happening. That poll, which also found most Americans are willing to pay a little more each month to fight global warming, was conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

While Republicans have blamed Obama-era environmental regulations for the loss of coal jobs, federal data show that U.S. mines have been losing jobs for decades because of automation and competition from natural gas; solar panels and wind turbines now can produce emissions-free electricity cheaper than burning coal.

But many Trump voters in coal country are counting on Trump’s promise to bring back their jobs in the mines.

Those  jobs, however, in addition to causing pollution, are dangerous and deadly. Reports released last December showed that the prevalence of the deadliest form of black lung disease among U.S. coal miners is more than 10 times what federal regulators have reported. The actual number is likely even higher than that, because some clinics in coal country provided incomplete data and some in the heart of the Appalachian coal mining region did not share any data.

The disease is fatal and incurable.

Doomed to failure

Trump’s order also will initiate a review of efforts to reduce methane emissions in oil and natural gas production, and will rescind Obama-era actions that addressed climate change and national security and efforts to prepare the country for the impacts of climate change. The administration still is deciding whether to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Trump administration also has asked a federal appeals court to postpone a ruling on lawsuits over the Clean Power Plan, the Obama initiative to limit carbon from power plants, saying it could be changed or rescinded.

A coalition of 16 states and the District of Columbia said they will oppose any effort to withdraw the plan or seek dismissal of a pending legal case, while environmental advocates said they’re also ready to step in to defend environmental laws if the U.S. government under Trump does not.

“The president doesn’t get to simply rewrite safeguards; they have to … prove the changes are in line with the law and science,” said the NRDC’s Goldston. “I think that’s going to be a high hurdle for them.”

Environmentalists say Trump’s actions will put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage to other countries that are embracing clean energy, which they say could create thousands of new jobs.  Clean energy creates more jobs than the fossil fuel industry.

Environmentalists also warn that efforts to revive coal ultimately will fail, because many states and industries already have been switching to renewable energy or natural gas.

“Those decisions are being made at the state level and plant by plant,” said Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen, who said his group is “continuing to work aggressively to retire dirty coal plants.”

“Coal is not coming back,” Van Noppen added. “While the president is taking big splashy action, he is actually doomed to fail.”

Brown reported from Billings, Montana. Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker and Sam Hananel in Washington also contributed to this story.

 

Not forever in the Everglades? Climate change driving away Florida Bay’s iconic spoonbills

Of the many ways used to diagnosis the health of the Everglades, the most bizarrely beautiful by far, with red beady eyes and bald greenish head, is the scarlet-plumed roseate spoonbill nearly wiped off the planet by feather hunters a century ago.

On a blustery morning in Florida Bay earlier this month, two adults and four chicks in training also demonstrated the birds’ tenacity.

As winds whipped the bay in advance of a late-season cold front, the birds repeated an evolutionary recon mission known as a weaning flight. Over and over, the adults spread their cotton candy-colored wings, flapped skyward and hoped the chicks, now about three months old, would follow. With gusts topping 20 mph, the chicks pursued for as long as they could before returning to their swaying perches among the mangroves on South Nest Key to rest. It’s a feat unique to the spoonbills among wading birds and a sight that still dazzles the biologist who has been tracking their movements for nearly 30 years.

“Once this wind dies, they’ll be out of here,” Audubon Florida’s Jerry Lorenz mused from the wheel of his boat. “They’ll be gone by the weekend.”

Lorenz considers the spoonbills Florida’s most telling canary in a coal mine, and the song they’re singing is pretty telling: changing water patterns linked to Everglades flood control compounded by rising sea levels are driving the birds away. It’s also likely propelling an overall decline in other wading bird species in the Everglades that last year reached a decade-long low. Lorenz worries if changes aren’t made soon, the sight of spoonbills in Florida Bay might be doomed.

“We don’t have a quote, unquote dry season in the bay anymore,” he said, describing the time of year when the bay becomes a massive nursery for spoonbills and all kinds of wading birds.

Nest Key and the surrounding keys in Northeast Florida Bay once contained the highest number of nests in the state. The population was all the more remarkable for the birds’ dramatic comeback: after plume hunters reduced their numbers to just 25 breeding pairs, Florida banned the trade in 1901 and set a national example for wildlife preservation. By the late 1970s, nearly 1,300 nests were spread across the bay, with most at the mouth of Taylor Slough, where seasonal surges of fresh water turned the estuary into a fish smorgasbord. Spoonbills feed by shuffling across the shallows to stir up mud and use their beaks to feel, rather than their eyes to see, prey.

Then Florida began installing the final piece of its massive flood control system south of Miami in the 1980s. The shifting water patterns slammed the birds, Lorenz said.

By 1990, the area that had once provided the best place to breed and raise chicks produced just over 200 nests. Accelerating sea rise only made things worse. Since 2000, water levels have risen around the bay by five inches, Lorenz said, essentially eliminating the season when subsiding waters pool and collect prey like fish in a barrel, perfect for parents feeding young chicks.

This year, northeast Florida Bay had colonies on only two keys, South Nest and Duck keys, he said.

More and more, the bay’s birds _ which historically nested on islands _ are packing up and moving inland. A large colony was found on the mainland in Madeira Bay and far inland in Everglades National Park around Paurotis Pond, off the park’s main road, last year. And for the first time, spoonbills were found nesting as far north as South Carolina as they move north in search of fresher water.

They are also nesting later in the bay, an indication that they’re waiting for a dry season that never comes, and nesting longer than the two to three weeks it historically took for a colony to lay its eggs. Last year, the first chicks that hatched on South Nest Key all died, Lorenz said. It was early enough that the birds nested again and the second batch of chicks survived.

“What I think is happening is the water levels are so high because of sea level rise, they’re missing their cues,” he said.

Lorenz said last year’s 20 percent increase in spoonbills statewide was likely driven by a wet 2016 El Ni±o that followed a 2015 drought. Droughts typically lead to a drop in the number of big fish that compete with spoonbills for little fish. And while it might be a short-term boon for the birds, droughts can cause long-term problems like the seagrass die-off that covered about 25 square miles in the bay.

“When this happens, I’m just thrilled. But at the same time I know this is an anomaly,” he said. “We have not corrected the problems that started this.”

Spoonbills earned their place as an umbrella species _ one targeted by scientists to measure the health of everything else _ because of all the reasons above. Species that are easy to spot and inspire public curiosity make it easier for scientists to tell their story. The long record of observations also reveal changes and patterns. The spoonbills also occupy a special place in bird history.

Robert Porter Allen, the early ornithologist credited with saving the whooping crane, first landed on the idea of tracking the birds, Lorenz said. After plume hunting was banned, he wanted to find out why some birds seemed to rebound and others did not. So he headed to the Florida Keys in the late 1930s, began pitching a tent on the buggy islands and tracking their movements up close.

Allen was the first to document their weaning flights _ a discovery Lorenz made last month when he was researching a paper and came across a February 1962 National Geographic story.

Allen, who opened Audubon’s Everglades Research Center in Tavernier, also discovered how inextricably tied the birds’ nesting patterns were to the bay’s hydrology. Historically, the birds flocked to the mangrove islands in the bay to nest, where they were protected from raccoons, alligators and other animals that might eat them or their young. The islands were also close enough to foraging grounds, which inspired Allen’s pioneering breakthrough in research.

At the time, biologists killed birds to examine their stomach contents. So few spoonbills remained by the time he arrived that Allen instead began observing their habits. In 1989, Audubon hired Lorenz to study that prey.

After Everglades Restoration came along in 2000, Lorenz helped convince planners that the spoonbills could provide a way to measure progress in part because their decline coincided with a specific event: the completion of the South Dade Conveyance System in 1983.

The system was the final piece in a maze of canals, levees and pumps that carved up the transverse glades and instead redirected water around farm fields and Everglades National Park. Nesting reached a peak in 1978, with more than half the nests on islands near the mouth of Taylor Slough. After the project was finished, the number dramatically dropped, from 688 to about 100.

What that tells Lorenz is that this corner of the bay, at the bottom of a dried up slough that once nourished seagrass beds and freshened water to make fish more plentiful, continues to be an inhospitable home.

While it’s good that the birds are able to move and adapt, scattering across the state means their numbers will likely never recover to historic heights, he said. Roseate spoonbills are one of six species and the only one with the mysterious bubblegum color. Around the world, they thrive in massive colonies centered around estuaries. By the 1990s, Florida’s spoonbills lived mostly in three estuaries: Florida Bay, Tampa Bay and on Merritt Island east of Orlando, he said. Now, they live like nomads, nesting in a patchwork of about 20 smaller colonies.

“I accept that Florida Bay may not be the center of spoonbills like they were in the ’70s,” Lorenz said. “But there should always be a place like this. These birds should have a home.”