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Trans-Alaska Pipeline, northern Brooks Range, Alaska. Photo credit: U.S.Geological Survey / Flickr

Fracking Comes to the Alaskan Arctic

By Scott L. Montgomery

Arctic lands and waters hold irresistible allure for global oil companies. Despite opposition from environmental groups and President Obama's 2016 ban on drilling in federal Arctic waters, exploration in Alaska has revealed massive new volumes of oil.

This comes at a time of low oil prices, when many observers felt the Arctic would remain off limits. Alaska has proved precisely the opposite. Although it has gone largely unnoticed outside the industry, foreign firms are partnering with American companies to pursue these new possibilities. I expect this new wave of Arctic development will help increase U.S. oil production and influence in world oil markets for at least the next several decades.

This is a global story, spurred by continued growth in world oil demand, especially in Asia; the dynamism of the oil industry; and the fact that the U.S. has become a major new petroleum exporter, something that would have seemed impossible only a few years ago. Such realities imply that decisions made in Washington, DC are far from the only forces shaping U.S. energy and climate change policy.

Fracking Comes to the Arctic

Over the past year, oil companies have discovered volumes on Alaska's North Slope totaling as much as five billion barrels or more of recoverable oil. This is a 14 percent increase in U.S. proven reserves, based on recent estimates, which is no small thing.

One discovery, "Horseshoe," made this year by the Spanish company Repsol in partnership with Denver-based Armstrong Oil and Gas, is the largest new U.S. find in more than 30 years. It is estimated at 1.2 billion barrels and comes just after a find by ConocoPhillips in January, called "Willow," evaluated at 300 million barrels.

Both of these are dwarfed by "Tulimaniq," a spectacular discovery drilled by Dallas-based Caelus Energy in the shallow state waters of Smith Bay, about 120 miles northwest of Prudhoe Bay, in October 2016. Caelus has confirmed a total accumulation of as much as 10 billion barrels of light, mobile oil, with 3-4 billion barrels possibly recoverable at current prices of about US$50 per barrel.

Alaska's North Slope region, including the National Petroleum Reserve (NPRA), Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS). U.S. Geological Survey / Wikipedia

These new finds may only be the beginning. Tulimaniq will produce from reservoirs of the same age as Horseshoe and Willow, 75 miles to the southeast. This strongly suggests that a large new stretch of the North Slope, mostly on federal land and in state waters (within three miles of shore), has been defined for further exploration. Burgundy Xploration of Houston and Australia-based 88 Energy also have another new drilling program underway to test shale intervals known to have sourced some of the oil at Prudhoe Bay, a supergiant field that has produced some 13 billion barrels to date.

A number of these new wells will be fracked—the first use of this technique in the Arctic. One or more of the oil-bearing rock units at sites being explored on the North Slope have low permeability, meaning that oil can't flow within them very well or at all. Company engineers expect that hydraulic fracturing will be able to free such oil so it can be produced. Such has been the result for other shales and low-permeability reservoirs in places like North Dakota and Texas.

The logistics of finding large quantities of water and sand needed for fracking in the Arctic will be challenging and probably more expensive than similar operations in the lower 48 states. It remains to be seen whether operators will clean, reuse and carefully contain frack water.

Green Lights from the Trump Administration

In another significant find, Italian company Eni has developed an oil field that lies in state waters and so is not affected by Obama's drilling ban. But the oil reservoir extends into federal waters of the Beaufort Sea. Called the Nikaitchuq Unit, it lies just west of Prudhoe Bay and is producing around 25,000 barrels per day.

Eni developed this field between 2005 and 2015 using an artificial island to drill horizontal wells in various directions from a single site. The company stopped activity in 2015 when prices collapsed, but intends to drill up to six wells this year. Its leases, which continue north into federal waters, were not automatically canceled by the federal ban, but Eni needs a federal drilling permit and has submitted an application to the Interior Department. The company plans to run a long horizontal well to access the additional oil, thereby avoiding any need for a rig in federal waters.

The Interior Department is now reviewing Eni's application, which I expect it will approve. Geologic studies indicate that the oil continues across the state/federal boundary and Eni's proposal to use a horizontal lateral from an existing drill site appears to be aimed at minimizing environmental impacts.

Moreover, the Trump administration has pledged to promote fossil fuel development. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is a former congressman from Montana, which produces oil, gas and coal and Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan are strong proponents of oil and gas development.

The Oil Industry's New Dynamics

Why is all of this new Arctic drilling happening at a time when oil prices are low and in a place where production costs are high? The oil price collapse that has occurred since mid-2014 is the deepest slump since 1986.

Oil companies have ways of being nimble in hard times, such as selling assets, adjusting production levels and seeking mergers. Now rapid innovations in drilling, seismic imaging and data processing enable well-run companies to cut costs in multiple areas. Some firms can make money today at prices as low as $35 to $40 per barrel or even lower. This includes drilling offshore and fracking onshore.

Innovation and cost-cutting have made U.S. firms a potent global force and eroded the OPEC's [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] dominance by keeping oil supplies high, despite a significant production cut by the cartel and many non-OPEC producers, including Russia. In this new era, smaller companies are making inroads in areas once reserved for giants like BP and Exxon. This shift is significant because smaller, independent companies, for whom new discoveries are especially important, tend to be aggressive explorers.

Oil remains our one unreplaceable energy source. Global mobility and a modern military are, as yet, inconceivable without it. Growth in global demand, centered in developing Asia, will continue for some time, as it did even from 2010 through 2014 when prices were above $90 per barrel.

The U.S. now exports around 5.7 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products, double the level of five years ago and by far the largest volume in our nation's history, thanks to major increases in sales to Japan, South Korea, India, Taiwan, Singapore and China. In short, we would be expanding fossil fuel production even without a Trump administration.

If these new discoveries become producing fields, the Alaskan Arctic will write a new chapter in the U.S. oil industry's dramatic ascent. It will increase our leverage over OPEC and may help to counter Russia's geopolitical influence. This prospect raises a new question: How will we will use our clout as the world's most important new oil power?

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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Planting a diverse blend of crops and cover crops and not tilling helps promote soil health. Photo credit: Catherine Ulitsky / USDA / Flickr

Here's How We Feed the World

By David R. Montgomery

One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn't necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.

When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life, the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world's agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today's industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.

Myth 1: Large-Scale Agriculture Feeds the World Today

According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report, family farms produce more than three-quarters of the world's food. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare—about 2.5 acres or the size of a typical city block.

Only about one percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world's farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world's farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.

Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.

Myth 2: Large Farms Are More Efficient

Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that "well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms."

And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.

Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop—like corn or wheat—small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.

Myth 3: Conventional Farming is Necessary to Feed the World

We've all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.

But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.

The authors concluded that the actual gap may be much smaller, as they found "evidence of bias in the meta-dataset toward studies reporting higher conventional yields." In other words, the basis for claims that organic agriculture can't feed the world depends as much on specific farming methods as on the type of farm.

Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the U.S. alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.

Building Healthy Soil

Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity's ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.

I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we've oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.

Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.

No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer—and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year's supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.

So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.

We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.

Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.

David R. Montgomery is a professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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The World's Happiest and Greenest Countries

By Ariana López Peña

Costa Rica was the most environmentally advanced and happiest place on Earth last year, followed by Mexico, Colombia, Vanuatu and Vietnam.

So concluded the Happy Planet Index, which recently released its 2016 ranking of "where in the world people are using ecological resources most efficiently to live long, happy lives."

That neither the U.S. nor any European nations make the top ten may be surprising, but Costa Rica's winning position is not; this small Central American nation also topped the 2009 and 2012 rankings.

The Happy Planet Index measures life expectancy, well-being, environmental footprint and inequality to calculate nations' success—all areas where Costa Rica's government has made significant effort and investment.

Less War, More Health

In 1949, Costa Rica took a big gamble eliminating its army and investing military funds into health and education. The decision has paid off on numerous fronts.

By 2016, education comprised 8 percent of Costa Rica's national budget—up from 2.6 percent in 1994 and 5.9 percent 2014, according to a 2014 study.

By comparison, nearby El Salvador spends 3.42 percent of GDP on education, the U.S. spends 5.22 percent and Colombia allocates 4.67 percent.

In the environmental realm, Costa Rica has long been a pioneer. In the 1990s, the country passed a series of "green culture" laws including the tax-funded National Forests law that protects forests, waters, biodiversity and natural beauty as both tourist attractions and scientific resources. It also developed a financing system, supported by both the government and by international organizations, such as the World Bank, to pay for environmental protection programs.

Other green initiatives include the Eco-Marchamo, which is a voluntary complementary tax that allows drivers to offset 100 percent of the emissions generated by fuel consumption for one year and the Carbon Neutral Framework that incentives good environmental practice by Costa Rican companies.

Under President Luis Guillermo Solís, Costa Rica's national health policy also now includes the explicit goal of achieving "environmentally sustainable socio-economic development," based on the theory that such growth will better position the small country to face big international challenges, such as health crises, increasing violence and climate change.

In short, Costa Rica has built into its whole governance model the ability to face the major environmental and health challenges facing the world.

As a result, in addition to its top ranking on the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica also does very well on the Global Index of Happy Workers (at number three), in Doing Business 2017 (at number five) in the region Latin American and on the Individual Liberties Index. Costa Rica is also a leader within Central America in labour rights and ranks among the most competitive economies in Latin America. (There's more, too—you can find it here).

This reveals a key issue highlighted by the Happy Place Index: public policies have a great impact on the well-being of a populace.

Limits to the Rankings

But they're not the only factor and such rankings, while perhaps a point of pride for a tiny Central American nation, have serious limitations.

First, global indexes inevitably include certain indicators and exclude others. This can lead to certain cognitive dissonance. It is notable that among the WEF's top ten "happiest" places are two highly under-developed nations, Vanuatu and Bangladesh. Both not only have low global competitiveness but also do badly on the UN's Human Development Index (134th and 142nd, respectively).

How is it possible for a country to be eco-happy but underdeveloped?

Well, the Happy Planet Index does not look at such indicators as education, income, access to water and electricity or poverty rates. Accounting for those facts would create a more complete, and probably very different, perception of happiness.

Vanuatu, which the Happy Planet Index ranks fourth happiest in terms of sustainability, comes in 134th on Yale University's Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which examines how countries protect human health and the ecosystem. Costa Rica, first on the 2016 Happy Planet Index, ranks 42 place on the EPI. Meanwhile, Ecuador, tenth on the Happy Planet Index, is 76th in global competitiveness, according to the CDI's 2016-2017 rankings, and 103rd on Yale's EPI.

According to the UN's Conference on Trade and Development, the world's least-developed countries are characterized by having deficient per capita income and economic vulnerability. That is, at least 50 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. They're also the countries that are most exposed to climate change and its consequences.

So is a country that's green necessarily a happy place?

What is Happiness?

The Happy Planet Index is useful in reconceptualizing happiness in terms of environmental well-being and sustainable practices, but it needs fine-tuning.

In underdeveloped countries, a low carbon footprint clearly has more to do with the lack of industry than with environmental policy. These countries simply didn't undergo the same economic growth processes that the rich world did, from the Industrial Revolution through to the second world war.

And it is confusing to talk about happiness in countries where life conditions are not even minimally acceptable. Even the authors of the report on the Happy Planet Index note when discussing Costa Rica that despite its environmental commitment, Costa Rica's ecological footprint is not small enough to be totally sustainable and that its income inequality remains quite high.

The same could be noted of the other top countries in the Happy Planet Index, Mexico and Colombia, whose 2014 GINI ratings of 48.2 and 53.5, respectively, reflect starkly uneven wealth distribution. In fact, Colombia is the second-most unequal country in Latin America, a region characterized by its wealth gap.

Costa Rica has achieved a lot since it turned away from war and toward national well-being a half century ago. But many challenges – from preventing violence to increasing income equality—remain for it to become both green and truly happy.

To create the kind of sustainability that fundamentally links human, environmental and social development, policy, science, education and citizen activism must all work together.

That's how we'll redefine the meaning of happiness—in Costa Rica and beyond.

Ariana López Peña is a professor at the School of International Relations, Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica. Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

Fracking

Human-Induced Earthquakes on the Rise

By Gillian Foulger, Jon Gluyas and Miles Wilson

People knew we could induce earthquakes before we knew what they were. As soon as people started to dig minerals out of the ground, rockfalls and tunnel collapses must have become recognized hazards.

Today, earthquakes caused by humans occur on a much greater scale. Events over the last century have shown mining is just one of many industrial activities that can induce earthquakes large enough to cause significant damage and death. Filling of water reservoirs behind dams, extraction of oil and gas and geothermal energy production are just a few of the modern industrial activities shown to induce earthquakes.

As more and more types of industrial activity were recognized to be potentially seismogenic, the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij BV, an oil and gas company based in the Netherlands, commissioned us to conduct a comprehensive global review of all human-induced earthquakes.

Our work assembled a rich picture from the hundreds of jigsaw pieces scattered throughout the national and international scientific literature of many nations. The sheer breadth of industrial activity we found to be potentially seismogenic came as a surprise to many scientists. As the scale of industry grows, the problem of induced earthquakes is increasing also.

In addition, we found that, because small earthquakes can trigger larger ones, industrial activity has the potential, on rare occasions, to induce extremely large, damaging events.

How Humans Induce Earthquakes

As part of our review we assembled a database of cases that is, to our knowledge, the fullest drawn up to date. On Jan. 28, we will release this database publicly. We hope it will inform citizens about the subject and stimulate scientific research into how to manage this very new challenge to human ingenuity.

Our survey showed mining-related activity accounts for the largest number of cases in our database.

Earth-Science Reviews

Initially, mining technology was primitive. Mines were small and relatively shallow. Collapse events would have been minor—though this might have been little comfort to anyone caught in one.

But modern mines exist on a totally different scale. Precious minerals are extracted from mines that may be over two miles deep or extend several miles offshore under the oceans. The total amount of rock removed by mining worldwide now amounts to several tens of billions of tons per year. That's double what it was 15 years ago and it's set to double again over the next 15. Meanwhile, much of the coal that fuels the world's industry has already been exhausted from shallow layers and mines must become bigger and deeper to satisfy demand.

As mines expand, mining-related earthquakes become bigger and more frequent. Damage and fatalities, too, scale up. Hundreds of deaths have occurred in coal and mineral mines over the last few decades as a result of earthquakes up to magnitude 6.1 that have been induced.

Other activities that might induce earthquakes include the erection of heavy superstructures. The 700-megaton Taipei 101 building, raised in Taiwan in the 1990s, was blamed for the increasing frequency and size of nearby earthquakes.

Since the early 20th century, it has been clear that filling large water reservoirs can induce potentially dangerous earthquakes. This came into tragic focus in 1967 when, just five years after the 32-mile-long Koyna reservoir in west India was filled, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck, killing at least 180 people and damaging the dam.

Throughout the following decades, ongoing cyclic earthquake activity accompanied rises and falls in the annual reservoir-level cycle. An earthquake larger than magnitude 5 occurs there on average every four years. Our report found that, to date, some 170 reservoirs the world over have reportedly induced earthquake activity.

Earth-Science Reviews

The production of oil and gas was implicated in several destructive earthquakes in the magnitude 6 range in California. This industry is becoming increasingly seismogenic as oil and gas fields become depleted. In such fields, in addition to mass removal by production, fluids are also injected to flush out the last of the hydrocarbons and to dispose of the large quantities of salt water that accompany production in expiring fields.

A relatively new technology in oil and gas is shale-gas hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which by its very nature generates small earthquakes as the rock fractures. Occasionally, this can lead to a larger-magnitude earthquake if the injected fluids leak into a fault that is already stressed by geological processes.

The largest fracking-related earthquake that has so far been reported occurred in Canada, with a magnitude of 4.6. In Oklahoma, multiple processes are underway simultaneously, including oil and gas production, wastewater disposal and fracking. There, earthquakes as large as magnitude 5.7 have rattled skyscrapers that were erected long before such seismicity was expected. If such an earthquake is induced in Europe in the future, it could be felt in the capital cities of several nations.

Our research shows that production of geothermal steam and water has been associated with earthquakes up to magnitude 6.6 in the Cerro Prieto Field, Mexico. Geothermal energy is not renewable by natural processes on the timescale of a human lifetime, so water must be reinjected underground to ensure a continuous supply. This process appears to be even more seismogenic than production. There are numerous examples of earthquake swarms accompanying water injection into boreholes, such as at the Geysers, California.

Other materials pumped underground, including carbon dioxide and natural gas, also cause seismic activity. A recent project to store 25 percent of Spain's natural gas requirements in an old, abandoned offshore oilfield resulted in the immediate onset of vigorous earthquake activity with events up to magnitude 4.3. The threat that this posed to public safety necessitated abandonment of this US$1.8 billion project.

What This Means for the Future

Nowadays, earthquakes induced by large industrial projects no longer meet with surprise or even denial. On the contrary, when an event occurs, the tendency may be to look for an industrial project to blame. In 2008, an earthquake in the magnitude 8 range struck Ngawa Prefecture, China, killing about 90,000 people, devastating more than 100 towns and collapsing houses, roads and bridges. Attention quickly turned to the nearby Zipingpu Dam, whose reservoir had been filled just a few months previously, although the link between the earthquake and the reservoir has yet to be proven.

The minimum amount of stress loading scientists think is needed to induce earthquakes is creeping steadily downward. The great Three Gorges Dam in China, which now impounds 10 cubic miles of water, has already been associated with earthquakes as large as magnitude 4.6 and is under careful surveillance.

Devastation in Sichuan province after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, thought to be induced by industrial activity at a nearby reservoir.dominiqueb / Flickr

Scientists are now presented with some exciting challenges. Earthquakes can produce a "butterfly effect": Small changes can have a large impact. Thus, not only can a plethora of human activities load Earth's crust with stress, but just tiny additions can become the last straw that breaks the camel's back, precipitating great earthquakes that release the accumulated stress loaded onto geological faults by centuries of geological processes. Whether or when that stress would have been released naturally in an earthquake is a challenging question.

An earthquake in the magnitude 5 range releases as much energy as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. A earthquake in the magnitude 7 range releases as much energy as the largest nuclear weapon ever tested, the Tsar Bomba test conducted by the Soviet Union in 1961. The risk of inducing such earthquakes is extremely small, but the consequences if it were to happen are extremely large. This poses a health and safety issue that may be unique in industry for the maximum size of disaster that could, in theory, occur. However, rare and devastating earthquakes are a fact of life on our dynamic planet, regardless of whether or not there is human activity.

Our work suggests that the only evidence-based way to limit the size of potential earthquakes may be to limit the scale of the projects themselves. In practice, this would mean smaller mines and reservoirs, less minerals, oil and gas extracted from fields, shallower boreholes and smaller volumes injected. A balance must be struck between the growing need for energy and resources and the level of risk that is acceptable in every individual project.

Gillian Foulger is a professor of geophysics at Durham University. Jon Gluyas is a geologist who began work in the oil industry after completing a Ph.D. Twenty eight years later in 2009 he joined Durham University as professor in geoenergy, carbon capture and storage. Miles Wilson is a Ph.D. student in the department of earth sciences at Durham University. Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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Triclosan and 18 other chemicals have been banned from soaps and washes. AP Photo / Kiichiro Sato

Is This Toxic Chemical Lurking in Your Household Products?

By Erica Hartmann

This year marks 20 years since Hasbro was fined for false advertising, claiming their Playskool toys laden with the antimicrobial chemical triclosan would keep kids healthier. It is also the year when soap manufacturers will finally have to remove the chemical from their products.

Any antimicrobial chemicals in there? Shutterstock

Triclosan is one example of a potentially hazardous chemical used in some antimicrobial products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently banned it, along with 18 others chemicals, from hand soaps because of unacceptable risks to humans and the environment. Exposure to triclosan in general is linked with disruption of hormone function and the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

The FDA asked manufacturers to demonstrate that these chemicals are safe for long-term use and more effective than regular soap. Neither has been proven.

But these same chemicals are still used in many other products—including plush toys, pool wings, pacifier pockets, building blocks and even craft supplies like markers and scissors—without any label required. Some of these products are marketed as being antimicrobial, but many aren't.

Because these products are not under the purview of the FDA, they aren't subject to the ban and companies aren't required to reveal what makes them antimicrobial. This means it is hard for consumers to know what products contain these chemicals.

Why Was Triclosan Banned in Soaps?

Manufacturers failed to demonstrate that antimicrobial soaps were any more effective than regular soaps. Essentially, there are no reported benefits of antimicrobial soaps to outweigh the risks of using antimicrobial chemicals. So, are these chemicals any more effective in other products?

Overall, peer-reviewed research showing that household products and building materials containing antimicrobial chemicals, such as cutting boards and industrial flooring, harbor fewer bacteria is scant. Research further demonstrating that these products protect human health is essentially nonexistent. This indicates that, much like in soaps, triclosan in other products isn't doing much good.

The FDA's decision applies only to over-the-counter soaps sold to consumers and not to soaps used in health care settings or any other consumer products or building materials not under the purview of the FDA.

But some health care providers are deciding to skip the antimicrobials. For example, Kaiser Permanente, a major health care system, stopped purchasing soaps containing triclosan several years ago. And in 2015 the system announced it would no longer use paint and interior building products containing antimicrobial chemicals, citing a lack of evidence that they actually prevent disease along with safety concerns.

Not only does research suggest that antimicrobial products are ineffective at reducing microbes on the product, but several studies also suggest they may be causing an increase in antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic-resistant infections, such as MRSA, cause an estimated 23,000 deaths every year in the U.S..

Research that I conducted at the Biology and the Built Environment Center at the University of Oregon demonstrated a troubling link, finding higher concentrations of triclosan and antibiotic resistance genes in dust in an athletic and educational facility. We are currently investigating how these antibiotic resistance genes can get into bacteria.

At the moment, it's unclear how much of the triclosan we find in dust comes from soaps or other products, but triclosan has been found in almost every dust sample assayed worldwide. This suggests that the more antimicrobial chemicals we use in our homes, classrooms and offices, the more antibiotic-resistant bacteria we see there.

Again, it is worth noting that we have no evidence that using any antimicrobial products other than toothpaste, whether they are soaps or other household goods, makes us any healthier. There is even some evidence to the contrary: Without adequate exposure to the right microbes, our children may be at a higher risk of developing conditions like allergies and asthma.

Why It's Hard to Know What Products Contain These Chemicals

Let's say, then, that we want to avoid products that contain triclosan or any of the other 18 antimicrobials banned in soap by the FDA. Should be fairly easy, right? Not so: Manufacturers are not required to tell us what makes their products antimicrobial.

Soaps are personal care products, which means they fall under the FDA's jurisdiction. The agency requires that active ingredients such as triclosan be listed. For instance, triclosan is also found in some toothpastes, in which it has been proven effective against plaque and it is listed on the label.

If you want to avoid buying soaps containing these chemicals before the ban goes into effect on Sept. 6 you just need to read the label. But products that are not under the agency's jurisdiction are subject to different requirements and don't have to list the chemicals they contain. It is incredibly difficult—if not impossible—to find out exactly which products contain which antimicrobial chemicals.

Products that are marketed as being antimicrobial, for instance, often contain these chemicals. But not all products that contain antimicrobial chemicals are advertised as such.

Concerned consumers can get recommendations from advocacy groups like the Environmental Working Group and Beyond Pesticides. However, that information is focused largely on triclosan and not the additional 18 chemicals banned from soap. And as manufacturers reformulate products without making public announcements, information may be incomplete or out of date.

Consumers looking for a simple way to get comprehensive information about antimicrobial products are out of luck. But one consumer with an awful lot of resources is actually starting to collect this information: Google. The tech giant went to such great lengths to uncover the ingredients for products used in their facilities that it developed an online tool called Portico. Unfortunately for us, Portico isn't yet available to the public.

It would help if regulators adopted consistent standards requiring common labeling practices and if manufacturers were required to disclose hazardous ingredients. We need to know what chemicals are in the products, especially when those chemicals could have adverse effects on our health and our environment.

What can consumers do? We can apply pressure by calling on retailers to carry antimicrobial-free products and to require clear labels on products that contain chemicals banned by the FDA.

Erica Hartmann is an assistant professor at Northwestern University. Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

In 1945, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, part of a behind-the-scenes policy to ensure access to oil for the U.S. and its allies. Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration

The Rise of Big Oil in American Politics

By Brian C. Black

"How Big Oil Bought the White House and Tried to Steal the Country" is the subtitle of a book that tells the story of a presidential election in which a candidate allowed money from big oil companies to help him win office and then rewarded them with plum appointments in his cabinet.

With President-elect Donald Trump picking former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, one might think the book is an early exposé of the presidential election of 2016.

Instead, it's from The Teapot Dome Scandal, a book that tells the story of a corruption scandal that rocked the term of President Warren G. Harding's administration in the 1920s.

In the context of Tillerson's controversial appointment, history is a useful guide to understand the rising political power of Big Oil over the past century, a subject I've studied and written about. And with Tillerson, the political influence of the energy sector has reached a high point, particularly because it strikes the president-elect and other observers as a sensible, mainstream selection.

But this is only the latest episode of a tight relationship between energy and the U.S. government that stretches over decades.

Access to Energy

In 1921, when Albert Fall accepted his position as secretary of the interior, he interpreted his responsibility to accelerate energy development on federal lands, including some in an out-of-the-way place known as Teapot Dome, Wyoming. And he believed that this meant involving private entities.

He brokered a deal with Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny, major players in the booming American oil fields of the early 1900s, blazing a new trail for federal policy—a trail that laid clear the crucial relationship between energy development and political power. In Fall's case, he personally accepted cash to allow this access to oil developers, which made him the first cabinet official to go to jail for crimes committed while serving in office.

Since its indiscreet beginning with Teapot Dome, of course, oil has only become more essential to the lives of every American. If we follow the lead of Life magazine creator Henry Luce, who referred to the 20th century as the "American Century," we are by association also declaring it the era of fossil fuels and particularly of petroleum. Oil and other fossil fuels were the relatively inexpensive energy resources that provided the foundation for the modern consumer society and political policy often focused on ensuring that supplies be assured and kept stable.

Albert B. Fall, the former secretary of the interior, became the first cabinet official to go to jail for accepting money from oil companies to clear the way for drilling on public lands. Library of Congress

Despite energy being central to our society, though, the policy influence of Big Oil most often functioned behind the scenes. For example, President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 struck a deal in a secret meeting with King Ibn Saud to allow the U.S. and its allies to have access to Saudi oil for decades to come. During the ensuing decades, foreign oil development was carried out by international companies but often required the support, if discreet, of the U.S. government.

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American Youth Make Fossil Fuel Industry Confront Climate Science in Federal Court

By Mary Wood, Charles W. Woodward, IV and Michael C. Blumm

At a time when humanity must reverse course before plunging over a climate cliff, the American public has elected a president who seems to have both feet on the fossil fuel accelerator. If there is a mechanism to force the Trump Administration to put the brakes on dirty energy policy, a lawsuit brought by 21 young people against the Obama administration may hold the key.

Two days after the presidential election, on Nov. 10, a federal district court in Oregon issued a path-breaking decision in Juliana v. U.S. declaring that youth—indeed, all citizens—hold constitutional rights to a stable climate system.

The youth, aged nine to 20 years old, seek a court-supervised plan to lower carbon dioxide emissions at a rate set by a science-based prescription. The judicial role is analogous to court-supervised remedies protecting equal opportunity for students after Brown v. Board of Education.

The Juliana v. U.S. decision could be a legal game-changer, as it challenges the entire fossil-fuel policy of the U.S.

Cruel Irony

Environmental lawsuits typically rely on statutes or regulations. But Juliana is a human rights case that bores down to legal bedrock by asserting constitutional rights to inherit a stable climate system.

The court, which ruled the suit can proceed to trial, rightly described the case as a "civil rights action"—an action "of a different order than the typical environmental case"—because it alleges that government actions "have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs' constitutional rights to life and liberty." The litigation, variously called "a "ray of hope," a legal "long shot" and a "Hail Mary pass," yielded its groundbreaking decision not a moment too soon.

At a rally for action on climate in 2014. The decisions made by adults will have broad implications for the planet today's youth will live on as adults. Joe Brusky / Flickr

The year 2016 is the hottest year on record and Arctic sea ice has hit its lowest recorded level. Heated ocean waters threaten coral reefs and marine ecosystems.

To have any hope of reversing or stalling these effects of climate change, the world must restrict fossil fuel production and ultimately switch to safe renewable energy. Even continued production solely from currently operating oil and gas fields will push the planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial temperatures, beyond the aspirational limit set by the global Paris agreement on climate change.

President-elect Trump, who notoriously claimed that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, has said he plans to immediately approve the highly contentious Keystone pipeline, open public land to drilling, rescind Obama's Clean Power Plan, eliminate NASA's climate research and withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. He intends to spur production of US$50 trillion worth of shale, oil, coal and natural gas.

The 70-year-old president-elect will not live long enough to witness the worst consequences of rapidly expanding fossil fuel development. The cruel irony for young people is that actions taken during Trump's time in office will lock in a future of severe disruptions within their projected lifetimes—and sea level rise that could make coastal cities uninhabitable. James Hansen, formerly the nation's chief climate scientist at NASA, has warned, "Failure to act with all deliberate speed …functionally becomes a decision to eliminate the option of preserving a habitable climate system."

Sea levels are projected to rise at least three feet, and perhaps much more, in the lifetime of children today, inundating some locations and making storm surges more dangerous. The Juliana lawsuit and others like it argue that citizens have a right to a stable climate. NOAA

Constitutional Argument

For decades, the political branches have promoted fossil fuel consumption despite longstanding knowledge about the climate danger. President Obama ignored warnings when he charted a disastrous course of increased fossil fuel production early in office. In a last moment of opportunity to avert climate tipping points, Americans should recall an elementary school civics lesson: The U.S. has three, not two, branches of government. The founders wisely vested an independent judiciary with the responsibility of upholding the fundamental liberties of citizens against infringement by the other branches.

As the president-elect promises to ramp up fossil fuel production and dismantle Obama's recent climate measures, and with no obvious statutory law to prevent him from doing so, only a fundamental rights approach carries any hope of trumping Trump.

In Juliana, the youth asserted their fundamental rights under the Constitution's substantive due process clause and the public trust doctrine. This is an ancient principle requiring government to hold and protect essential resources as a sustaining endowment for citizens. They contended that government infringed on their rights to life, liberty, and property by promoting fossil fuel policies that threaten runaway planetary heating—thereby jeopardizing human life, private property and civilization itself.

The principle of public trust law, dating to the time of Roman Emperor Justinian, holds that natural resources, including the sea, the shores of the sea, the air and running water, are common to everyone. It has since become part of U.S. jurisprudence. Petar Milošević / Wikipedia

Judge Ann Aiken's Juliana decision in November upheld both public trust and substantive due process rights under the Constitution and allowed the case to go forward. "I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society," she wrote, explaining that public trust rights, which "both predated the Constitution and are secured by it," cannot be "legislated away."

The opinion is bound to have a rippling effect. The case is actually part of a wave of atmospheric trust litigation (ATL) cases and petitions across the U.S. and in other countries. Launched by the group Our Children's Trust in 2011, the legal campaign asserts youths' rights to a stable climate system and seeks court-supervised climate recovery plans.

Recent victories in Massachusetts, Pakistan, the Netherlands and Washington state indicate widespread judicial concern over the political branches' failure to confront the climate emergency. The youth plaintiffs hope that the dominoes continue to fall in their favor in time to thwart climate catastrophe.

As ATL moves forward globally, the Juliana case will proceed to trial as early as next summer or fall. The plaintiffs' attorneys aim to show the government's deliberate indifference to mounting climate danger.

Already dubbed "the trial of the century," this is the first time that U.S. fossil fuel policy will confront climate science in court. Any government denial of climate change will have to confront the scrutiny of a fact-finding judge.

Consent Degree From Obama?

The case also offers President Obama a fleeting opportunity.

Five days after the election, Sec. of State Kerry proclaimed that President Obama would use his last days in office to "do everything possible to meet our responsibility to future generations to be able to address this threat to life itself on the planet."

If so, the most viable way might be to offer a partial settlement of the Juliana case before going to trial. One form of settlement could be an enforceable consent decree consisting of interim steps to halt further fossil-fuel mining and infrastructure development. Such a settlement would help secure Obama's measures to close the Arctic to drilling and halt coal leasing on federal lands.

Young Americans could use a down payment on the colossal climate mortgage hanging over their future. And President Obama could use a climate legacy. It may be worth his time now to sit down with the "plucky millennials" who sued him to save the planet—before his time in office runs out.

Mary Wood is the Philip H. Knight Professor of Law at the University of Oregon. Charles W. Woodward, IV is a post graduate research fellow at University of Oregon. Michael C. Blumm is the Jeffrey Bain Scholar & Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark. Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

5 Reasons Eliminating NASA’s Climate Research Would Be a Huge Mistake

By James Dyke

Will President Donald Trump really slash funding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) "politicized" climate change science?

It certainly has been politicized, but not by the scientists conducting it. Blame instead the fossil fuel industry-funded lobby groups and politicians that have for more than a generation tried using doubt, obfuscation or straightforward untruths to argue that humans are not in fact causing significant changes to the climate.

Panuwat Phimpha / Shutterstock

That is what must irk Trump's team of skeptics. NASA's organizations such as the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Jet Propulsion Laboratory have made seminal contributions to our understanding of how humans are changing the Earth's climate. All funded by the U.S. taxpayer.

De-funding NASA's climate change science is effectively sticking your fingers in your ears and whistling Dixie. The Earth's climate is indifferent to politics and will continue to respond to human emissions of greenhouse gases. All that would happen is U.S. leadership in this area would end, with the risk that not just America but humanity would be the loser.

Specifically, here are five reasons why de-funding (aka wilfully destroying) NASA's climate change research would be colossally stupid.

1. NASA's Satellites Are Our Eyes on Our World

NASA currently operates more than a dozen satellites that orbit the Earth and remotely sense ocean, land and atmospheric conditions. Its research encompasses solar activity, sea level rise, the temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans, the ozone layer, air pollution and changes in sea and land ice.

All of this is directly relevant to climate change, but also represents vital research on these different components of the Earth system itself. Billions of dollars have been sunk into these programs which produce data that is used by an international community of scientists studying many different aspects of the Earth.

NASA Earth observation satellites. NASA

2. Climate Science is a Key Part of NASA's Mission

Okay, we can't turn all these satellites off, but we can stop the administration using its data to progress climate change science. NASA was created with the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 with a remit to develop technology for "space observations" but not Earth science. That was the job of other federal agencies.

But the model of cross-agency research failed during the 1970s due to a lack of funding. Budgets were cut and NASA ended up conducting some of the science that was made possible by the data it was collecting. Moreover, it was told to put more emphasis on research towards "national needs" such as energy efficiency, pollution, ozone depletion and yes, climate change. As such, Earth and climate change science is one of the central remits of the agency which has become a global leader in it.

3. NASA Attracts the Best of the Best

NASA is world famous, largely because of programs such as Apollo which put humans on the Moon. But its fame extends well beyond those interested in space flight. NASA attracts some of the world's best and brightest Earth and climate change scientists because its operations offer unparalleled breadth and scale of research. And saying "I work for NASA" is still pretty cool.

De-funding climate change science would mean putting many scientists—some of whom are just starting their careers—out of work. Some would be happily gobbled up by other agencies in other countries, in fact I'm sure overtures to some staff are already in the post. This would be America's loss.

4. NASA Has Transformed Climate Change Communication

A visit to climate.nasa.gov will immediately show how effective NASA's communication of Earth science has become. Climate science is complex. NASA along with other U.S. agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produce unparalleled visualizations of climate change. These are used by other agencies and communicators around the world and further increases the profile and reputation of NASA and the U.S. as leaders in Earth science.

5. Climate Science Can Be NASA's Next Great Legacy

It's easy to get misty-eyed about some of NASA's operations. Apollo was a staggering achievement. But while U.S. astronauts visited the Moon "for all mankind" we should remember that the space race was driven by the cold war and rivalry with the USSR. The fact humans have never returned to the Moon should tell us that there isn't much to be gained from such fleeting visits.

In terms of legacy, I think Eugene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17 and so the last human to walk on the moon, summed it up best: "We went to explore the Moon, and in fact discovered the Earth." It was one of the crew of Apollo 17 that took photograph AS17-148-22727 as they left Earth orbit on their way to the Moon on the Dec. 7, 1972. This photograph is now known as the Blue Marble and has become one of the most reproduced images in all of human history. There have been profound changes to the Earth since that photograph was taken. There are nearly twice as many humans living on it. The number of wild animals has halved. Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher than they have been for many thousands of years. And yes, the Earth's surface and oceans are warmer, glaciers are melting and sea levels rising.

The Blue Marble photograph.

The Blue Marble, like all of NASA's images, was released to the public domain. Free to be used by anyone. The science that NASA conducts on climate change is similarly shared across the world. Its Earth and climate science represents the best of not just the U.S., but humanity. We need it now, more than ever.

James Dyke is a lecturer (assistant professor) in Sustainability Science at the University of Southampton. Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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