By Phillip Doe
I went to a meeting earlier this winter in the Colorado Governor's Office. I’m not a regular.
The Governor, John Hickenlooper, Hick to his friends, had called the meeting with Boulder County Commissioners to discuss the county’s draft regulations governing the recovery of oil and gas found in the county’s deep underground shale formations. The fact is that most of the state is underlain by these ancient and organically rich seabeds. All are ripe for exploitation through the use of the industry’s new mining technique called horizontal fracking.
In his haste, the governor had apparently forgotten that such meetings require the public be notified at least 24 hours in advance so they can listen in on the public’s business. This law has been on the books since 1972 and is widely used, but imperfectly understood, apparently, by the governor and his lieutenants. Hick was a long-term mayor of Denver before becoming governor. Its use is commonplace in city government.
To an outsider this meeting might sound like a tempest in a teapot, but as in most states with oil and gas reservoirs made recoverable through fracking, the state government of Colorado has said that it, and it alone, has the authority to regulate the oil and gas industry. The counties and cities may write their own regulations, but they must be in “harmony” with the state’s, and can not add conditions or requirements that would harm the industry’s bottom line. They are “preempted” from doing so.
With the Boulder contingent, Hick started out by telling them that as a businessman and brewpub owner he’d never been sued; that he’d always been able to broker a deal, that he hoped a deal could be made with Boulder County government.
He went on to say, obligatorily, that he thought public health had to be protected, but added quickly that the oil industry’s property rights must also be protected. To this observer most of what he asserted concerning protecting the public’s rights and investigating their concerns is contradicted by the facts.
For example, he said nothing about the fact that he had already sued the city of Longmont, a city of 86,000 within Boulder County, over its regulations. Longmont’s regulations, labored over by a cautious oil lawyer, but eminently decent man, did not ban fracking within the city, as many wanted, but did make residential neighborhoods, schoolyards and the city’s open spaces off-limits to drilling by the industry.
Hick had sued over these regulations for not being in harmony with the state’s, whose only spacing restriction is that wells must be at least 350 feet from any residence or building in urban areas. Rural restrictions are even more favorable to the industry. There, only a 150 feet setback is required. Some wag has observed that under state planning guidelines a rural folk is worth less than half a city folk, less even than the three-fifths slaves were worth in the "original" Constitution.
In the old days, an oil rig stood 150 feet high, thus the rural setback of 150 feet might protect a house or barn if the rig were to topple. New rigs used in horizontal fracking are sometimes taller according to one retired oil field worker and bitter critic of the industry. The critics are legion. Still, many large, rent seeking ranchers and farmers support the looser rural restrictions.
In reaction to the state’s lawsuit against Longmont, citizens launched an initiative to ban fracking altogether within the city. Operating on a shoestring, and laboring against $500,000 the industry dumped on the city to defeat the initiative, the ban vote carried by a remarkable 60/40 margin, demonstrating, perhaps, the power of a well-organized citizenry over big money, even big-oil money.
On the day of this meeting, Hick had not sued over the ban, though he had threatened to do so. In the end, the industry did it for him, with his blessings and encouragement. Indeed as guest speaker at an oil and gas convention in Denver subsequent to the Boulder commissioners’ meeting, he told the assembled oil men that he would bring the full might of the state to bear on their behalf if the industry were to sue over Longmont’s ban. Some find this bully pulpit cheerleading incredible.
Still, on this day he was most keenly interested in seeing that Boulder County did not also author another ban on fracking or enact something more stringent than the state’s rules. He was not openly threatening, but everyone knew the Longmont background.
One of the county commissioners, Will Toor, told the governor that in his judgment a countywide ballot initiative banning fracking, if there were to be one, would pass on a 60/40 basis, just like in Longmont.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), a smart politician, added that he thought the state rules should be a floor, not a ceiling, that the local governments should have that prerogative under their charters. Hick, somewhat surprised if not openly flustered, shot back that they weren’t ready to talk about that. Polis said that he thought that was what they were there to talk about. Clearly, deal making was not really on the agenda.
Later, in the hallway outside the governor’s office, Polis told one of the mothers who had attended the meeting that if an oil well were to be drilled in his backyard he would move. Many would agree, but not many are multi-millionaires like Polis. The mass of humanity, if Hick has his way, will have to endure the toxic fume garden the industry is building in neighborhoods across the state.
So what about the contentions of citizens that fracking is unsafe, despite the industry’s bemused denials to the contrary?
The 2005 Energy Act is a good starting point for this discussion. Written only two years after the first horizontally fracked well was successfully drilled, the act was widely reported to have been written by the industry in the comfort of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, himself the former head of Halliburton Industries, one of the major providers of fracking fluids, an immensely profitable product according to industry observers.
The Act of 2005 is the culmination of a 40-year oil industry lobbying effort in Washington to exempt the industry from practically every foundational health and environmental law on the books. Not even the casino players on Wall Street have been as successful in creating a regulatory world to their liking. The bilking and mayhem are easy thereafter, as we’ve all seen.
Only one reasonable conclusion can be drawn from this sustained lobbying effort, the practice of horizontal fracking is most assuredly not safe. Otherwise there would have been no need to rip out more than 40 years of public health and environmental law from the pages of our civic history.
Notes on the air we breathe, and other acts of faith
Air and water quality issues are so ubiquitous in areas invaded by the industry that summarizing is difficult. Most astonishing, however, is that neither Colorado nor the U.S. has undertaken a systematic examination of the thousands of citizen complaints. With regards to air quality, these complaints run from skin rashes, to open sores, to nose bleeds, to stomach cramps, to loss of smell, to swollen and itching eyes, to despondency and depression, even death.
In this federal vacuum, several smaller-scale studies have been undertaken in Colorado.
The first in time was a health assessment commissioned by Garfield County, a west slope county home to roughly 10,000 oil and gas wells. The Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) conducted it at the invitation of the county government. That same government curtailed it when the results were thought to be too alarming. Among the findings were high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, at and near well sites. In fact, the assessment states that even at distances of 2,700 feet from a well site, toxic chemicals were still detectable at levels that would increase the chance of developing cancer by 66 percent based on published health standards.
I asked the authors of this study if the governor or any members of his staff had contacted them to discuss the assessment. Remarkably, they said, no. Strange indeed, since this study figured prominently in Governor Cuomo’s announcement that New York State was placing an indefinite moratorium on fracking until the health and environmental impacts of fracking were better understood.
Only weeks old, a first-of-its-kind study from The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, TEDX, measured more than 44 hazardous pollutants at operating well sites, again in Garfield County. Many of them are known to impact the brain and nervous systems; some are even known to harm the hormonal system of unborn babies. The study found prevalence of the pollutants up to .7 of a mile from the well site.
The lead scientist and head of TEDX, Dr. Theo Colborn, an environmental health analyst, who happens to live in Paonia, Colorado, at the doorstep of drilling in Garfield County to the north, has called for the U.S. to make further studies of these chemicals and their impact on all life, right down to the molecular level. Dr. Colborn even sent a letter to the President Obama and First Lady. Here is a video of Dr. Colborn reading the letter she sent to the President Obama and First Lady:
Another peer reviewed 2012 study out of Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine supports Dr Colborn’s results. That study headed by a professor of molecular medicine, Robert Oswald, and veterinarian Michelle Bamberger found significant health links between fracking and livestock exposed to fracking’s air and water byproducts. These animals suffered neurological, reproductive and gastrointestinal disabilities.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has one of its high tech air monitoring towers located outside the small town of Erie, Colorado. There are five nationally. It recently released the results of long-term monitoring of air quality at Erie. The results are alarming and consistent with the TEDX and CSPH studies.
Perhaps the study’s most damning finding was that Erie, a bucolic town of roughly 18,000 folk, has air quality spikes, particularly methane and butane spikes, that exceed by 4 to 9 times those of Pasadena, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles, and Dallas, Texas, two cities with some of the worst, health threatening air in America.
NOAA reported that fully 4 percent of the methane gas produced in the Wattenberg field is leaked to the atmosphere and therefore never brought to market. The same NOAA team last year found that 9 percent of the produced gas was being leaked to the atmosphere in a large gas field on mostly Indian land in north central Utah. These percentages do not include gas that is intentionally burned off, called flared by the industry, as an operational prerogative open to the industry without regulatory penalty.
That Erie should share this dubious unhealthy air honor with the likes of Pasadena and Ft Worth can only be explained by the fact that it sits at the western extreme of one of the largest gas fields in the U.S., the Wattenberg Field.
The industry has tried to finesse the NOAA findings by claiming the high readings are from auto emissions along the interstate west of the city. NOAA has correctly pointed out that methane and propane are not auto exhaust products. They are clearly indicators of the massive volume of volatile organic gases escaping from oil wells and pipelines in the Wattenberg.
Adding to the science, a recent article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, concluded from examining the NOAA data that oil and gas activity in the Wattenberg field “contributed about 55 percent of the volatile organic compounds linked to unhealthy ground-level ozone."
This field, home to about 20,000 wells, is in Weld County, which Erie straddles. It and Garfield County are the epicenters of drilling in Colorado, but the industry sensing Croesus-like riches is branching ever southward and westward from Weld toward Colorado’s population centers. Like Croesus, the industry may have crossed a river of growing discontent that will eventually prove its undoing.
Too little noted in the Colorado fracking saga is what the NOAA study underscores. Methane, a gas with 105 times the heat capturing capacity of CO2 over a 20-year time horizon, is escaping at alarming rates from oil and gas drilling sites and pipelines.
To even consider methane recovered through fracking as an effective transition fuel in the fight against climate change, natural gas releases would have to be at less than two percent of volume. Presently, scientists at Cornell University estimated releases of methane to be at 4 to 7 percent of product recovered, making it worse, over the critical short term, than coal for climate change. This is of course without regard to the huge quantity of gas that is flared to the atmosphere as CO2.
An effective zero emission standard for health threatening and climate warming volatile gasses such as methane is technologically reachable, but don’t expect it to be part of Colorado oil and gas rule making. Here, the “little guys” in the drilling business are sometimes given exemptions from even the most rudimentary health considerations such as requiring enclosed holding tanks for fracking return water, deceptively called, green completion. The state’s position is that these “small guys” are not technologically equipped to install these tanks, which, in reality, are only a halfway measure, but better than open pits. Such a requirement would put them out of business says the state’s regulatory agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). This agency has a dual charge. It is also charged with protecting public health.
One activist mother from Erie told me that the COGCC’s environmental exceptions for technologically challenged drillers is like arguing that a person who flunks out of medical school should still be allowed to perform brain surgery because that was his expectation and his monetary well being depends on it. Clearly, public health does not lead the list of governmental concerns at fracking discussions.
So, despite all the compelling evidence to the contrary, we are still assured by the industry that all is well. Our air is safe. Hick, like them, is confident in the wisdom of not knowing, though just recently he did make a bow toward sanity by asking for a little over one million dollars for air quality studies. Dr. Colborn, operating on a very tight budget, spent more than $400,000 monitoring the air emissions from just one well in Garfield County.
The governor, however, is not alone in singing the virtues of ignorance. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inexplicably eliminated air quality impacts from its long awaited environmental study of fracking. A draft of this study will be released in 2014, with a final promised in 2015 after it has been peer reviewed by industry soldiers, sans air.
Insider review by the industry of its own operations has led my friend Wes Wilson, a retired EPA environmental engineer, to simply shake his head in disbelief. Undue industry influence is what caused him to blow the whistle on EPA’s Bush era white wash of fracking’s potential impact on public health back in 2004.
“We didn’t ask BP to participate in the evaluation of the DeepWater Horizon disaster in the Gulf. That would have caused howls of outrage from the public,” says Wilson. “We should feel the same outrage here, for, in truth, the impacts of fracking, as presently practiced, will have a much greater impact on public health and the environment than DeepWater.”
Notes on the water we drink, and some we shouldn’t
Water use has received more attention, perhaps, than air quality in the Colorado debate over fracking, for after all, you can see it, but still it is in the not-to-worry register of state politics. Water is said to be king in the west, but from a regulatory standpoint it is a true pauper.
In Colorado, water is owned by the public, so says the state’s constitution, but it is treated as private property, most of it controlled by big agriculture and ranching, many of the same rent seekers who champion the irrational 150 foot setback.
Some background information is necessary to understand the potential impact of fracking on Colorado’s water, which, as many know, is projected to be a dwindling resource in the West as a result of climate change.
A grassroots organization, Be the Change, of which I am a board member, has aggregated information from state and federal websites on land leased to the oil industry. Be the Change did this because neither the state nor feds would, though they’ve been asked to do so, repeatedly.
Their calculation shows that at the start of 2012 approximately 9,000 square miles of public land in Colorado had been leased to the industry. This is roughly 10 percent of the state. Private land leases are thought to be greater, realistically much greater since most of the land in the Wattenberg field and on Colorado’s eastern plains is private. Thus, conservatively, 20 percent of the state is effectively owned by the oil and gas industry. Mineral rights overwhelm the rights of surface owners. This, too, is a source of concern and outrage by urban dwellers who never, until now, thought they would have to deal with an oil well as a fire-belching, air-choking neighbor.
The public/private leases combined constitute a landmass greater than that of nine states and rivals the size of West Virginia, a truly unfortunate arithmetic coincidence. But West Virginia will soon be left in Colorado’s exhaust since approximately 70 percent of Colorado is underlain by these deep oil bearing shale formations, and new leasing is continual, perhaps in the 1,000 square mile range annually.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), for example, sold off about 69,000 acres on Feb. 14 of this year. About 25 percent of the parcels went for $2 an acre, a minimum rate established in 1922 and that hasn’t been adjusted since. A quarterly event, dependent primarily on the interest expressed by industry speculators who nominate the land, this sale was originally scheduled for roughly double the acreage, but objections were great from the public, with the result that considerable land was withdrawn, at least temporarily. The BLM, when assessing suitability for oil and gas leasing, is often operating from environmental documents that are more than 30 years old, well before horizontal fracking with its huge water requirements was even dreamt of. These leases are for 10 years. The state has a similar minimum, but its leases are for a shorter five years, with a one year option.
Surely, someone, maybe even the governor, should want to know how this staggering transfer of ownership, for that is effectively what an oil lease is, will impact the state’s land, water, wildlife and recreation base. This knowledge is particularly important if one is interested in the potential water demand of thousand of fracked wells on these ever growing 20,000 square miles of oil leases. By comparison, the Bakken oil field in North Dakota, the new darling of the industry, is thought to measure only about 15,000 square miles.
Governor Hickenlooper at a recent meeting of the big water users and developers in the state said, unremarkably, that water is our most important resource. One could hope he was channeling W.H. Auden who observed, “Thousands of people have lived without love, but no one has lived without water.”
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that Hick’s recitation was one of those made-for-the-audience statements, containing not even the least notion of what it was going to take to protect Colorado’s water in the face of massive new industrial demands from fracking.
The estimates for the number of new wells in the state over the long term are dicey, at best. The state has made none and apparently has no plans to do so. Thus, a swipe-at-the-sky estimate using industry statements made in public forums must serve as the basis for an estimate. An industry hydrologist said at a public meeting in Castle Rock, CO, a couple of years ago that they expected 60,000 new wells in the state over the next 20 years. More recently an industry spokesperson said that there could be 100,000 new wells in the state in 30 years. These would be in addition to the industry’s 50,000 presently producing wells in the state. These projections are not out of line with the estimated acreage under lease to the industry.
The 100,000 new well projection also jibes with recent drilling permit data. Last year 3,770 drilling permits were approved. If this number were to be repeated annually over the next 30 years, we might expect at least 100,000 new wells. In 2007, before natural gas prices tumbled from the production glut, 8,000 new well permits were approved. So, a projection of 3,300 new wells a year, where oil is the prize, not gas, is well within historical bounds.
A wild card factor in the estimate game is the rarely discussed possibility that many of these wells will be refitted to tap different shale formations both above and below the Niobrara formation which is currently the big play—apparently an ersatz gambling term the industry likes to use to describe its development activities. These formations number as many as eight in some parts of the state. Development of these other shale formations would also increase well and water demand numbers.
As a general rule a vertically fracked well, which almost all of the 50,000 presently producing wells are, requires about 250,000 gallons of water in the initial frack. They can be and often are fracked multiple times to keep the oil and gas moving to the surface.
The new horizontally fracked wells take much more water, approximately five million gallons per well for the initial frack. They, too, it is thought, will be refracked, but the frequency is unknown given the activity’s infancy. The head of technical development for Halliburton has said, however, that refracking will require marginally more water with each refrack to be affective.
For purposes of attempting to estimate the overall water demand from fracking over a 30 year planning horizon, we can posit that by the year 2043 about 80 percent of the 100,000 new wells would be horizontally drilled and that the remaining 20 percent would be vertically drilled. This extremely conservative configuration would result in a water demand of 13.4 billion gallons for new wells in that year, or in the language of water planning, 41,000 acre feet. (An acre-foot, af, is 326,000 gallons, the amount of water required to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot).
It is extremely important to note that water use by the industry is like no other. When they use water, they destroy it for any other use. When cities and agriculture use it, about 50 percent of it is returned to sustain streams and be reused by those downstream. So, while 41,000 af would be enough water for the domestic needs of about 410,000 people only half of it is actually consumed, with the other half being available for, in this example, another 410,000 people downstream.
By comparison, when the industry uses 41,000 af of water it consumes it all; thus, in reality, it is using enough water for the domestic needs of more than 800 thousand people. This consumption calculation is usually overlooked or ignored by industry apologist, both inside and outside government.
And remember something approaching the 41,000 af of annual demand in the 30th year would have been necessary to the industry for many years prior. Indeed, such demand might continue on indefinitely into the future, depending on the industry’s level of success in mining the multiple shale formations that underlie much of the state.
Still, it’s when one attempts to add in the potential water demand from refracking existing wells that the gallons begin to resemble something even Henry Paulson would recognize as really big.
For example, if one fifth of all wells needed to be refracked every year to sustain some level of production in a population consisting of 80 thousand horizontally fracked wells and 70 thousand vertically fracked wells, the annual water requirement, in the 30th year, could exceed 270,000 af annually, or enough water for the domestic needs of over five million people since fracking’s demand is based on 100 percent consumption or destruction as explained above. And here again something resembling this water requirement for refracking would have been required for many years previous and many years following. By comparison Denver’s present annual water demand, both residential and industrial, is approximately 240,000 af, only half of which is actually consumed.
And even if only one tenth of all wells needed to be refracked annually, the demand, based on 100 percent consumption, when added to what is projected for new wells is still staggering. This is particularly so in light of the fact that all of Colorado’s rivers on the front range, generally the rivers draining the east side of the continental divide, are already over appropriated; that is, there are more people with water rights than there is water to satisfy those rights. In fact, the taxpayers of this state have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to neighboring states, either through cash penalties or other forms of compensation, for water the state’s agricultural users have stolen.
A few years back, the U.S. Supreme Court in ruling against Colorado in the Arkansas River case said, condemningly, that Colorado knew or should have known that it was stealing water that belonged to Kansas. The taxpayers have always paid the costs of reparation, not the farmers who stole the water, but that is old news.
Add to this mix that climate change is predicted to reduce snow pack and runoff in the southern Rockies. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in a new study predicts the annual flow of the Colorado River will be reduced by nine percent because of future temperature increases caused by climate change. It did not look at additional decreases that might result if the snow pack were also diminished. But NOAA has added to the grimness of our water future in a new report that projects a 10 percent to 20 percent reduction in Colorado’s snow pack by 2100 if CO2 emissions continue to grow at a modest rate. Thus further diminishing spring runoff to the Colorado and other rivers heading in the state, as well. Always, the Colorado River has been the river the water tycoons have targeted when more is needed, and more is always needed as long as the public can be gulled into paying for development.
One could argue that using some portion of the public’s water for fracking couldn’t possibly be any worse than using it to raise corn which is then turned into ethanol. Ethanol is probably a net energy loser. Some may recall that Cornell’s Professor Pimentel, among others, argued back in 2003 that it took more energy to produce ethanol than it generated. In Colorado, about 86 percent of the public’s water is used by agriculture, much of it to grow corn. Nationally, about 40 percent of all corn is converted to ethanol.
Alas, science-based assertions that ethanol was just another chimera did not stop the U.S. from adding requirements that some portion of every gallon of gas sold in this country has to contain the stuff. This came to be in that glory of American law making, the aforementioned Energy Policy Act of 2005. The virtue of ethanol in our gas tanks was a favorite nostrum of then Senator Ken Salazar. He, advertising himself as the senator for rural America, said ethanol would save the country. Colorado, incidentally, is one of the most urbanized states in the union. Salazar will soon be returning to the state since his resignation as Interior Secretary. The Denver Post is already touting him as a gubernatorial candidate in 2016, presumably after Hick leaves to run for President, an idea floated most recently in a New York Times editorial. He should have the oil industry’s financial backing.
Still if the oil industry wants the public’s water in what, by any reasonable yardstick, will be significant quantities, there should be a wide ranging public discussion of our water dilemma and how best to guarantee a future that protects the public’s water resources and the natural splendors of the state. That discussion does not seem to be on the Governor’s radar. He, in fact, has said repeatedly that he hopes the concept of self-regulation can continue to form the underpinnings for the state’s relationship to the industry.
Industry self-regulation is self-fulfilling in this instance since Colorado only has 16 inspectors to oversee the states 50,000 operating wells. These inspectors have responsibility over the state’s 80,000 non-operating wells, as well. Further complicating enforcement is the fact the state regulations disallow local environmental, health, and law enforcement staff any independent inspection or enforcement powers. It would seem that we have self-regulation by design.
The potential demands on Colorado’s fresh water should alarm every sentient being in the state. It’s too bad most of them have no recognized rights.
Equally disturbing is the way the industry is allowed to dispose of the polluted water that returns to the surface as part of the initial oil and gas production phase. Most of this flow-back water, as it is termed, is trucked off and reinjected into old wells that have been authorized for the purpose. Called Class II wells, about 200 of them are being used for fracking wastewater disposal, though the COGCC, recognizing the huge long-term demand, has recently drafted new regulations that would allow all nonproducing wells to become disposal wells. As I stated earlier, roughly 80,000 of these wells pock the state.
Some of course probably won’t be tapped, for some are within yards of schools and playgrounds and some others will be reopened given the new technology. Some others as Shane Davis of Fractivist has shown in his invaluable study of wells in Weld County actually are shallowly buried beneath new housing. Their reuse might prove difficult.
Some sense of the magnitude of the potential waste-water disposal problem is gained by looking at the situation in Texas. There, according to state data, more than 50,000 disposal wells are used to service 216,000 active drilling wells.
It would be folly to deny, as one bobs down the vast river of deregulation big money and political mendacity have created under the guise of job creation, that the greed heads don’t rule the regulatory world in Colorado, if not the nation. In this regard Colorado looks a lot like Nigeria.
How much frack water is disposed of through the above described process? Well, from information gained from state studies done in North Dakota—there are no comparable studies available in Colorado—early returns of water from a newly fracked well vary from 11 percent to more than 50 percent of the injected water.
In addition to the early flow-back water, other water, called produced water, continues to be carried back to the surface over the operative life of the well, though in much reduced quantities. It too is destined for the reinjection graveyard. Information gathered in Texas, where disposal tracking is valued, suggests as much as 70 percent of the initial frack water volume, eventually, may have to be reinjected into disposal wells.
Although there is some reuse of frack water in the field, whatever is left is ultimately reinjected. Many alarms are being sounded about this practice. The former chief scientist in EPA’s Class II well permitting program has become suspicious of how the program is metastasizing well beyond its rather modest beginnings and has warned that all of these supposedly safe disposal wells will ultimately leak and, therefore, hold the fearful potential of infecting surrounding groundwater.
Mark Williams, a University of Colorado hydrologist studying western energy development is quoted in a recent ProPublica article as saying, “You are sacrificing these aquifers … By definition, you are putting pollution into them. ... If you are looking 50 to 100 years down the road, this is not a good way to go."
The seriousness of his assessment is given new meaning by the fact that in Mexico City deep aquifers, more than a mile deep, are being considered as a new long-term water supply as traditional sources dry up or become overtaxed.
Many other physical scientists have sounded the same alarm about production wells. Perhaps chief among them is Cornell Professor Anthony Ingraffea, himself a former industry scientist. It is his estimation that about seven percent of wells will leak almost immediately, 60 percent will leak in 30 years, and all will eventually leak. His concerns are more than borne out by a Duke University study in the Pennsylvania Marcellus showing remarkably high incidences of groundwater contamination associated with relatively new fracked wells. The industry has rolled up into its traditional pill-bug denial configuration, deflecting all charges.
Despite the industry’s trademark see-no-evil stance, some of the industry’s own studies relate the danger and substantiate Professor Ingraffea’s research. Schlumberger the industry’s clear leaders in fracking technology, along with Haliburton, said early on that under sustained well head pressure five percent of wells would fail within a year, 26 percent of wells at age four and 60 percent would fail at maturity, 32 years.
A 2009 study by members of the Society of Petroleum Engineers reached similar conclusions. Neither of these last two studies could be confused for the ranting of fire-breathing Jacobins.
In Colorado roughly 60 percent of the state’s water is groundwater. Much of it may be at risk if the production and injection free-for-all continues. And if that weren’t enough we can add that we don’t really understand the nature of the risk since we don’t know the chemistry of the water being injected. Yes, this water is largely unmeasured as to it constituents because it is exempt from the requirements of federal environmental law.
But consider this, in Douglas County south of Denver, one of the richest counties in the nation, ground water overdrafting is of epidemic proportions, having fallen more than 300 feet as a result thereof. It may be that in the future, a significant part of the supply for those inhabitants will have to come from even deeper aquifers. Will those aquifers be polluted and rendered unusable by our present shortsightedness?
The governor would do well to recognize that in storytelling the fellow who poisons the well is always the villain. Even the greater villain, in the modern day story, perhaps, is the overlord who accommodates it.
End Notes: Down a very deep rabbit hole
Not long ago a New York Times editorialist asked, given our plodding indifference to climate change, if we were going to be able to “avoid the greatest intergenerational environmental injustice of all time?” The fellow asking the question was Thomas Lovejoy, a professor of science at George Mason University and chairman at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment.
His answer was muffled in doubt. In particular he wondered if we could act soon enough to limit heat-trapping gasses from exceeding the critical threshold of a 2 degrees C increase by 2100. True, many of us will be dead by 2100, I for sure. But my grandchildren and yours might not be if we act quickly to embrace a concept Nathaniel Hawthorne called the magnetic chain of humanity, but, of course, any variation on the notion that we-are-all-in-this-together will do.
Our link in this magnetic chain would be to simply insist that all venting and flaring of gasses at wellheads must cease except in the case of emergency.
As stated earlier, the technology is already developed to accomplish this. In addition, state law forbids waste in the production of natural resources. But that prohibition has probably gone the way of the constitutional prohibition against subsidizing private corporations. They have been overturned by the courts in whack-a-do rulings or simply ignored by the political ruling class armed with internal memos undoing the done.
All wells could not be converted at once, of course. So closures would have to be instituted until they could be. After all, waste of a natural resource, remember, has long been forbidden by our state law, and as the politicians are fond of saying, this is a nation of laws.
This prohibition would also apply to any new wells in that production could only commence once pipelines were in place to capture both the oil and gas. Oil can be stored on site, but gas cannot, at least not without substantial costs to the industry. This is the reason that in North Dakota the natural gas is simply flared and vented. The waste there was recently described as being great enough to power all the homes in Chicago and Washington, D.C. combined.
Norway, for instance, employees the waste-limiting regimen described above. They allow no production until the infrastructure is in place to capture both the oil and gas produced. Another big difference between Norway and the U.S. is that the resource is treated as a national resource, not one to be exploited by every character with an appetite for riches and who happens to own a checkbook, a drill bit, and a pickup. Denmark’s production is regulated as well to serve the national needs and accounts for over 25 percent of national revenues annually, though most goes into a rainy day trust fund for when the oil peters out.
Unlike Norway we continue down a path laid out by the industry. Waste, while illegal, is acceptable as long as it serves the industry’s bottom line. The true extent is unknown because it is unmeasured by the state. Thus, we are reduced once again to making our own calculations. So, if from four to seven percent of the 1,500 billion cubic feet of gas produced in Colorado in 2011 were lost through a leaky process as documented by NOAA and calculated by Ingraffea and others, we, in Colorado, would have wasted between 60 billion and 105 billion cubic feet of methane gas to the atmosphere. This is enough gas to heat between 750 thousand and 1.3 million Colorado homes. According to the census there are 2.2 million housing units in the state.
If we add in the amount of gas that is flared, which is almost certainly a greater amount, we can see that what is wasted in Colorado might not heat all the homes in Chicago and Washington D.C. combined, but is certainly enough to heat all the homes in Colorado.
For the public to regain control of the water it owns, several things need to be done? First, and most importantly, a serious water demand study with projections extending out at least 30 years must be conducted. Factored into these projections of demand must be a realistic examination of the sensitivity of our future water supply to climate change.
The reality of climate change has simply been ignored as the water buffaloes continue to look at the worn out solution of more dams financed by the public for the enrichment of the few, most recently the developers, but now, too, the oil industry. In this regard, know that we already have more than 2,000 reservoirs in this state, over half of them on the Front Range. Many often will not fill if climate change hits hard the southern Rockies as many climate scientists predict.
Water conservation, particularly in the agricultural sector which, as stated earlier, uses about 86 percent of the water, will almost certainly have to become more than a politician’s palliative if we are to realize a rational water future. Future conservation might even include the curtailment of corn-ethanol production, with its high demand for water and petrochemical fertilizers—but only if sanity reigns.
The result of the study will indicate where and how much water might be available to the industry. It is quite possible the study under certain climate change futures might indicate no safe availability. In which case, the industry would have to seek more expensive fracking mediums. In British Columbia, propane is reportedly being used successfully instead of water for fracking. Its use has the beauty of simplicity: gas in, gas out, thus, greatly reducing the wastewater disposal factor, though not the groundwater contamination threat.
Clearly, this sort of analysis needs to be done before more land is leased to the industry or more water destroyed. In a rational world, one in which the planet’s and public’s well being came first, this analysis would have been done already and the consequences understood.
Remember, too, that when the climate-change-denying, job-whores start their whine that jobs come before fustian concerns over our constitutional rights to “public peace, health, or safety,” remind them there will be a host of new jobs available in the oil patch. It will take a lot of people to install the controls needed to curb the huge waste of methane into the atmosphere at wellheads and along aging pipelines.
Because we really have no understanding of what we are doing in this dystopian nightmare of our own making, a moratorium on new leasing and horizontal fracking must be instituted. If Hick and his cohorts in the legislature cannot be made to understand our mutual responsibility in the climate change battle, or more personally our responsibility to the health of our fellows, human and otherwise, the folk will have to invoke its right to direct democracy through the initiative process, which our constitution describes as the “first power … reserved by the people.”
The initiative process is hated by the political elite, but it is the grand gift to us from the writers of our constitution who understood the corrupting power concentrated wealth had in the 19th century over federal and state legislatures, particularly as used by the railroad barons. The oil industry is more than a worthy modern-day replacement.
If we assume that, in the near term, some water might be available to the industry as a result of the comprehensive water supply study, the present free-for-all, in which every petty water provider can sell to the industry on the spot market for a tidy profit, must be eliminated
First, speculation in water as a commodity is forbidden by our constitution. If anyone is to receive the benefit of a market sale it should be the public to which the water belongs constitutionally and, in many cases, has paid for through federal and state subsidized water development programs.
Perhaps no one would be surprised, given the lay of the land in Colorado, that even though the public owns the water, it has never received any monetary consideration for the “beneficial use” of that water. On the other hand, if the public ever needs its water back to satisfy a growing population or to restore a river or stream, it must pay a market rate to reacquire it. The state’s constitution says the right for the beneficial use of water shall never be denied, but it does not say that reasonable compensation cannot be built into the transaction.
Secondly, the oil industry, like every other developer in the state, must be made to demonstrate they have a reliable water supply and identify the source of that supply as part of the leasing and permitting process. Evasion of this requirement, as the BLM and the state have allowed, by pretending that there is no relationship between land leasing for oil development and cumulative water demand is nothing short of idiocy. If they lease, we must assume they intend to drill, at least exploratorily, and that water will be the fracking medium.
Moreover, saving any short-term, fresh-water surpluses by injecting them into our rapidly receding Front Range groundwater reservoirs should always be considered. This water-reserving approach would help provide a long-term insurance policy against an uncertain water future, particularly since underground reservoirs tend to collapse once stripped of the structural equilibrium the mined water provided.
A complication in reclaiming the public’s right to protect its water supply from destruction whether by fracking or any other use is contained in a law the legislature passed in 1979. This legislation took deep ground water out of the public estate and gave it to the state water engineer for his administration. This was done so that developers in Douglas County could continue to over appropriate the groundwater that was otherwise threatened by the constitutional requirement to appropriation, that is, you can’t appropriate something that is already used.
To accomplish this slight of hand, they created a new class of water, calling it non-tributary groundwater. Apparently, they would have us believe it came from the center of the earth, not from slow surface percolation into deep aquifers. The result of this misbegotten assault on the public’s estate is a 300-foot decline in the groundwater table, as mentioned earlier. Unwittingly their malfeasance has set the stage for a inevitable fight between the oil industry and the developers over who gets the rest, the stuff the legislature apparently thinks came from the center of the Earth.
In this regard, it should not go unnoticed that in the writing of the state’s constitution considerable debate surrounded who should be the owner of the water in Colorado, the state or the public. The Populists won the day, arguing that if they gave it to the state, the state would let the wealthy and the corporations steal it.
We need to take back what is ours, and, despite the framer’s best efforts, perhaps they knew, someday, we might have to seek our own remedies. Perhaps that’s why they reserved for us the “first right” of legislation, the right of direct democracy, the right of the initiative.
As for Hick, he probably doesn’t agree with any of this. Why only last week he was back in Washington regaling Senators with stories of his derring-do in drinking fracking fluid. If it didn’t hurt him, it must be ok, reasoned he. What he didn’t say was that the fracking fluid he was drinking is quite expensive and is not known to have been used anywhere in Colorado. Equally unclear is whether Hick shows any of the signs Dr. Colborn’s studies indicate are associated with breathing fracking chemicals. Among them are a loss of empathy, smaller head size, and reduced cognitive powers.
As an activist told me at a rally against fracking at the state capitol, he wanted Hick to drive up near Longmont, where a spill of more than 80,000 gallons of green fracking fluid occurred last week, and drink a dram or two of that stuff. He said to those gathered, “now folks, that would be an acid test.”
In the end, if Hick and his administration can’t be turned toward defending the public interest, the public will have to go it alone with the support of a growing number of legislators who know their political future may depend on joining this fight against unregulated fracking. In fact, many are beginning to realize it is not so much a question of political well being as being on the right side of history.
In the short term that means every like-minded community, grassroots and public interest group in the state should sign on to help Longmont in defending its right to ban, either materially, with amicus briefs, or simply in letters of open support.
Last month, the city council of Fort Collins, the state’s fourth most populous city, passed a preliminary ban on all drilling within city limits. It also issued a letter of support to the people of Longmont. Can other cities be far behind?
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
Wes Wilson contributed to this article.
By Courtney Lindwall
Coined in the 1970s, the classic Earth Day mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" has encouraged consumers to take stock of the materials they buy, use, and often quickly pitch — all in the name of curbing pollution and saving the earth's resources. Most of us listened, or lord knows we tried. We've carried totes and refused straws and dutifully rinsed yogurt cartons before placing them in the appropriately marked bins. And yet, nearly half a century later, the United States still produces more than 35 million tons of plastic annually, and sends more and more of it into our oceans, lakes, soils, and bodies.
Clearly, something isn't working, but as a consumer, I'm sick of the weight of those millions of tons of trash falling squarely on consumers' shoulders. While I'll continue to do my part, it's high time that the companies profiting from all this waste also step up and help us deal with their ever-growing footprint on our planet.
An investigation last year by NPR and PBS confirmed that polluting industries have long relied on recycling as a greenwashing scapegoat. If the public came to view recycling as a panacea for sky-high plastic consumption, manufacturers—as well as the oil and gas companies that sell the raw materials that make up plastics—bet they could continue deluging the market with their products.
There are currently no laws that require manufacturers to help pay for expensive recycling programs or make the process easier, but a promising trend is emerging. Earlier this year, New York legislators Todd Kaminsky and Steven Englebright proposed a bill—the "Extended Producer Responsibility Act"—that would make manufacturers in the state responsible for the disposal of their products.
Other laws exist in some states for hazardous wastes, such as electronics, car batteries, paint, and pesticide containers. Paint manufacturers in nearly a dozen states, for example, must manage easy-access recycling drop-off sites for leftover paint. Those laws have so far kept more than 16 million gallons of paint from contaminating the environment. But for the first time, manufacturers could soon be on the hook for much broader categories of trash—including everyday paper, metal, glass, and plastic packaging—by paying fees to the municipalities that run waste management systems. In addition to New York, the states of California, Washington, and Colorado also currently have such bills in the works.
"The New York bill would be a foundation on which a modern, more sustainable waste management system could be built," says NRDC waste expert Eric Goldstein.
In New York City alone, the proposed legislation would cover an estimated 50 percent of the municipal waste stream. Importantly, it would funnel millions of dollars into the state's beleaguered recycling programs. This would free up funds to hire more workers and modernize sorting equipment while also allowing cities to re-allocate their previous recycling budgets toward other important services, such as education, public parks, and mass transit.
The bills aren't about playing the blame game—they are necessary. Unsurprisingly, Americans still produce far more trash than anyone else in the world, clocking in at an average of nearly 5 pounds per person, every day—clogging landfills and waterways, harming wildlife, contributing to the climate crisis, and blighting communities. As of now, a mere 8 percent of the plastic we buy gets recycled, and at least six times more of our plastic waste ends up in an incinerator than gets reused.
It's easy to see why. Current recycling rules vary widely depending on where you live—and they're notoriously confusing. Contrary to what many of us have been told, proper recycling requires more than simply looking for that green-arrowed triangle, a label that may tell you what a product is made out of and that it is recyclable in theory, but not whether that material can be recycled in your town—or anywhere at all. About 90 percent of all plastic can't be recycled, often because it's either logistically difficult to sort or there's no market for it to be sold.
That recycling marketplace is also ever changing. When China, which was importing about a third of our country's recyclable plastic, started refusing our (usually contaminated) waste streams in 2018, demand for recyclables tanked. This led to cities as big as Philadelphia and towns as small as Hancock, Maine, to send even their well-sorted recyclables to landfills. Municipalities now had to either foot big bills to pick up recyclables they once sold for a profit or shutter recycling services altogether.
According to Goldstein, New York's bill has a good shot of passing this spring—and it already has the support of some companies that see the writing on the wall, or as the New York Times puts it, "the glimmer of a cultural reset, a shift in how Americans view corporate and individual responsibility." If the bill does go through, New Yorkers could start to see changes to both local recycling programs and product packaging within a few years.
What makes these bills so groundbreaking isn't that they force manufacturers to pay for the messes they make, but that they could incentivize companies to make smarter, less wasteful choices in the first place.
New York's bill, for instance, could help reward more sustainable product design. A company might pay less of a fee if it reduces the total amount of waste of a product, sources a higher percentage of recycled material, or makes the end product more easily recyclable by, say, using only one type of plastic instead of three.
"Producers are in the best position to be responsible because they control the types and amounts of packaging, plastics, and paper products that are put into the marketplace," Goldstein says.
Bills like these embody the principles of a circular economy—that elusive North Star toward which all waste management policies should point. By encouraging companies to use more recycled materials, demand for recyclables goes up and the recycling industry itself is revitalized. What gets produced gets put back into the stream for reuse.
If widely adopted, we could significantly reduce our overall consumption and burden on the planet. With less paper used, more forests would stay intact—to continue to store carbon, filter air and water, and provide habitat for wildlife and sustenance for communities. With less plastic produced, less trash would clog oceans and contaminate ecosystems and food supplies. In turn, we'd give fossil fuels even more reasons to stay in the ground, where they belong.
That would be my Earth Day dream come true—with little hand-wringing of fellow guilt-stricken individuals required.
Courtney Lindwall is a writer and editor in NRDC's Communications department. Prior to NRDC, she worked in publishing and taught writing to New York City public school students. Lindwall has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Florida. She is based in the New York office.
- 3 New Films to Watch This Earth Week - EcoWatch ›
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By Alexandria Villaseñor
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
My journey to becoming an activist began in late 2018. During a trip to California to visit family, the Camp Fire broke out. At the time, it was the most devastating and destructive wildfire in California history. Thousands of acres and structures burned, and many lives were lost. Since then, California's wildfires have accelerated: This past year, we saw the first-ever "gigafire," and by the end of 2020, more than four million acres had burned.
After experiencing California's wildfires, I researched the connection between wildfires and climate change. Even though I was only 13 at the time, I realized I needed to do everything in my power to advocate for our planet and ensure that we have a safe and habitable Earth for not only my generation's future, but for future generations. Every day, our planet is increasing its calls for our help. Our ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; heatwaves and droughts are increasing. We're seeing more frequent wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other extreme weather events. Climate change is happening right now, and people all over the world are losing their livelihoods — and even their lives — as a result of the growing number of climate-fueled disasters.
My activism started with the youth climate strike movement, which began when Greta Thunberg started striking in front of the Swedish Parliament in 2018. However, I want to acknowledge that young people, especially youth of color, have been protesting and demanding action for the planet for decades. I'm honored to follow in the footsteps of all the youth activists who paved the way for my activism and for the phenomenal growth of the youth climate movement that we have seen since 2018.
My experiences in the youth climate movement have allowed me to see that one of the greatest barriers we have to urgent climate action is education. Because of the lack of climate education around the world, I founded Earth Uprising International to help young people educate one another on the climate crisis, which ultimately has the effect of empowering young people to take direct action for their futures.
The primary mission of Earth Uprising International is increased climate and civics education for youth. Climate literacy and environmental education are the first steps to mobilizing our generations. By adding climate literacy to curricula worldwide, governments can ensure young people leave school with the skills and environmental knowledge needed to be engaged citizens in their communities. A climate-educated and environmentally literate global public is more likely to take part in the green jobs revolution, make more sustainable consumer choices, and hold world leaders accountable for their climate action commitments. Youth who have been educated about the climate crisis will lead the way in adaptation, mitigation, and solution making. Youth will be the ones who will protect democracy and freedom, advocate for climate and environmental migrants, and create the political will necessary to address climate change at the scale of the crisis.
So this year, for Earth Week, I am thrilled to be organizing a global youth climate summit called "Youth Speaks: Our Message to World Leaders," on April 20. Together, in collaboration with EARTHDAY.ORG and hundreds of youth climate activists around the world, the summit will address our main issues of concern, including climate literacy, biodiversity protection, sustainable agriculture, the creation of green jobs, civic skill training, environmental justice, environmental migration and borders, the protection of democracy and free speech, governmental policy making, and political will.
From this summit, youth climate activists from all over the world will be creating a concise list of demands that we want addressed at President Biden's World Leaders Summit, occurring on Earth Day, April 22. We believe that youth must inform and inspire these critical conversations about climate change that will impact all of us!
For more information about our global youth climate summit, "Youth Speaks: Our Message to World Leaders," go to www.EarthUprising.org/YouthSpeaks2021. There, you will find information about how to participate in our summit as well as be kept up to date on the latest agenda, participants, and follow along as we develop our demands and platform.
The youth will continue to make noise and necessary trouble. There is so much left to be done.
This story originally appeared in Teen Vogue and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
By Jessica Corbett
As the Biden administration reviews the U.S. government's federal fossil fuels program and faces pressure to block any new dirty energy development, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland won praise from environmentalists on Friday for issuing a pair of climate-related secretarial orders.
"Today is a watershed moment in the history of the U.S. Department of the Interior," declared Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. "With Secretary Haaland's actions today, it's clear the Interior Department is now working for communities, science, and justice. We are grateful for her leadership and bold action to put people over polluters."
"Today's orders make certain that the Interior Department is no longer going to serve as a rubber-stamp for the coal and oil and gas industries," said Nichols. "Secretary Haaland's actions set the stage for deep reforms within the Interior Department to ensure the federal government gets out of the business of fossil fuels and into the business of confronting the climate crisis."
BREAKING: Interior Secretary Deb Haalaned just repealed Trump-era policies that prioritized Big Oil execs above com… https://t.co/m1d2uolRWV— Friends of the Earth (Action) (@Friends of the Earth (Action))1618595500.0
Secretarial Order 3398 rescinds a dozen orders issued under the Trump administration which an Interior statement collectively described as "inconsistent with the department's commitment to protect public health; conserve land, water, and wildlife; and elevate science."
Specifically, she revoked: S.O. 3348; S.O. 3349; SO 3350; S.O. 3351; SO 3352; S.O. 3354; S.O. 3355; S.O. 3358; S.O. 3360; S.O. 3380; SO 3385; and SO 3389. Implemented throughout former President Donald Trump's term, they related to "American energy independence," the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska, and leasing and permitting for energy projects, among other topics. With the order, Haaland reinstated the federal moratorium on coal leasing.
Haaland's other measure, Secretarial Order 3399, establishes a departmental Climate Task Force that will identify policies needed to tackle the climate emergency, support the use of the best available science on greenhouse gas emissions, implement the review and reconsideration of federal gas and oil leasing and permitting practices, identify actions needed to "address current and historic environmental injustice" as well as "foster economic revitalization of, and investment in, energy communities," and work with state, tribe, and local governments.
The department also noted that "the solicitor's office issued a withdrawal of M-37062, an opinion that concluded that the Interior secretary must promulgate a National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program consisting of a five-year lease schedule with at least two lease sales during the five-year plan," which allows DOI "to evaluate its obligations under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act."
Today, @SecHaaland revoked a dozen pro-Big Oil and anti-environment orders from the Trump administration. Little by… https://t.co/p0tHEciEct— Western Values Project (@Western Values Project)1618606421.0
Haaland — a former congresswoman and first-ever Native American Cabinet secretary whose confirmation was celebrated by climate campaigners, Indigenous leaders, and various progressive advocacy groups — said Friday that "from day one, President Biden was clear that we must take a whole-of-government approach to tackle the climate crisis, strengthen the economy, and address environmental justice."
"At the Department of the Interior, I believe we have a unique opportunity to make our communities more resilient to climate change and to help lead the transition to a clean energy economy, Haaland continued. "These steps will align the Interior Department with the president's priorities and better position the team to be a part of the climate solution."
"I know that signing secretarial orders alone won't address the urgency of the climate crisis. But I'm hopeful that these steps will help make clear that we, as a department, have a mandate to act," she added. "With the vast experience, talent, and ingenuity of our public servants at the Department of the Interior, I'm optimistic about what we can accomplish together to care for our natural resources for the benefit of current and future generations."
Haaland's orders were welcomed by environmental and climate groups as well as other critics of fossil fuel development on public lands and in federal waters.
Kristen Miller, conservation director at Alaska Wilderness League, said the orders "are another important step toward restoring scientific integrity, meaningful public process, and the longstanding stewardship responsibilities for America's public lands and waters at the Department of Interior. This is the type of bold and visionary leadership we need if we're to effectively fight climate change, tackle the extinction crisis, and prioritize environmental justice and tribal consultation."
"We applaud the secretary's actions to ensure meaningful consultation and elevate strong science, especially around climate change, into decision-making across the department," Miller added. "And we thank the secretary for reversing the Trump administration's energy dominance agenda in the Arctic Ocean and the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska, and look forward to working with her on a different management direction for the western Arctic that focuses on addressing the climate crisis and protecting its extraordinary wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and cultural values."
Environment America public lands campaign director Ellen Montgomery said that "Haaland is building on President Biden's strong start by restoring conservation as a priority for the Department of the Interior. Our public lands and waters should be protected for the sake of the wildlife and people who depend on them. They should not be mined and drilled to extract fossil fuels — an antiquated 20th-century pursuit that pollutes our air and makes climate change worse."
"The Interior Department is in a powerful position to drive bold action for the climate in the United States," said Nichols of WildEarth Guardians. "Haaland's actions today confirm that President Biden and his administration are seizing the opportunity to rein in fossil fuels and make climate action and climate justice a reality."
"We can't have fossil fuels and a safe climate and today's orders take a major step forward in acknowledging and acting upon this reality," he said. "If we truly have any chance of protecting peoples' health, advancing economic prosperity, and achieving environmental justice, we have to start keeping our fossil fuels in the ground."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.
Here are three new films to watch this Earth Week that will transport you from pole to pole and introduce you to the scientists and activists working to save our shared home.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
When to Watch: From April 16
The coronavirus pandemic has brought home the stakes of humanity's impact on the environment. But the lockdowns also proved how quickly nature can recover when humans give it the space. Birds sang in empty cities, whales surfaced in Glacier Bay and capybara roamed the South American suburbs.
The Year Earth Changed captures this unique year with footage from more than 30 lockdowned cities between May 2020 to January 2021. Narrated by renowned wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough, the film explores what positive lessons we can take from the experience of a quieter, less trafficked world.
"What the film shows is that the natural world can bounce back remarkably quickly when we take a step back and reduce our impact as we did during lockdown," executive producer Alice Keens-Soper of BBC Studios Natural History Unit told EcoWatch. "If we are willing to make even small changes to our habits, the natural world can flourish. We need to learn how to co-exist with nature and understand that we are not separate from it- for example if we closed some of our beaches at for a few weeks during the turtle breeding we see that it can make a huge difference to their success. There are many ways that we can adapt our behavior to allow the natural world to thrive as it did in lockdown."
Where to Watch: San Francisco International Film Festival
In 1989, Will Steger led an international team of six scientists and explorers to be the first humans to cross Antarctica by dogsled. Steger and his team weren't just in it for the adventure. They also wanted to draw attention to the ways in which the climate crisis was already transforming the icy continent and to rally support for the renewal of the Antarctic Treaty, which would keep the continent safe from extractive industries.
In After Antarctica, award-winning filmmaker Tasha Van Zandt follows Steger 30 years later as he travels the Arctic this time, reflecting on his original journey and once again bringing awareness to changes in a polar landscape. The film intersperses this contemporary journey with footage from the original expedition, some of which has never been seen before.
"Will's life journey as an explorer and climate activist has led him not only to see more of the polar world than anyone else alive today, but to being an eyewitness to the changes occurring across both poles," Van Zandt told EcoWatch. "But now, these changes are happening in all of our own backyards and we have all become eyewitnesses. Through my journey with Will, I have learned that although we cannot always control change, we can change our response. I feel strongly that this is a message that resonates when we look at the current state of the world, as we each have power and control over how we choose to respond to hardships, and we all have the power to unite with others through collective action around a common goal."
After Antarctica is available to stream once you purchase a ticket to the San Francisco International Film Festival. If you miss it this weekend, it will screen again at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival from May 13 to May 23.
Tasha Van Zandt
Where to Watch: Virtual Cinema
While many films about the climate crisis seek to raise awareness about the extent of the problem, The Race to Save the World focuses on the people who are trying to stop it. The film tells the story of climate activists ranging from 15-year-old Aji to 72-year-old Miriam who are working to create a sustainable future. It follows them from the streets to the courtroom to their homes, and explores the impact of their advocacy on their personal lives and relationships.
Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Joe Gantz told EcoWatch that he wanted to make a film about climate change, but did not want to depress viewers with overwhelming statistics. Instead, he chose to inspire them by sharing the stories of people trying to make a difference.
"Unless millions of people take to the streets and make their voices heard for a livable future, the politicians are not going to get on board to help make the changes needed for a sustainable future," Gantz told Ecowatch. "I think that The Race To Save The World will energize and inspire people to take action so that future generations, as well as the plants, animals and ecosystems, can survive and thrive on this planet."
Check back with EcoWatch on the morning of Earth Day for a special preview of this inspiring film!
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By Michael Svoboda
For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.
The earliest Earth Days raised awareness, led to passage of new laws, and spurred conservation. But the original problems are still with us. And now they intersect with climate change, making it impossible to address one problem without affecting the others.
The 12 books listed below remind us about these defining interconnections.
The first three focus on biodiversity and on humanity's fractured relationships with the animals we live with on land.
The second trio explores the oceans and, at the same time, considers social and cultural factors that determine what we know – and don't know – about the 75% of our planet that is covered by water, perhaps the least well understood part of the climate system.
Agriculture and food security are examined by the third tranche of titles. This set includes a biography that may challenge what you think was/is possible, culturally and politically, in the American system.
Finally, there is the problem of waste, the problem of single-use plastics in particular. These three titles offer practical advice and qualified hope. Reducing litter might also reduce emissions – and vice versa.
As always, the descriptions of the works listed below are drawn from copy provided by the publishers or organizations that released them. When two dates of publication are included, the latter is for the paperback edition.
A Life on Our Planet My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future, by David Attenborough (Grand Central Publishing 2020, 272 pages, $26.00)
See the world. Then make it better. I am 93. I've had an extraordinary life. It's only now that I appreciate how extraordinary. As a young man, I felt I was out there in the wild, experiencing the untouched natural world – but it was an illusion. The tragedy of our time has been happening all around us, barely noticeable from day to day – the loss of our planet's wild places, its bio-diversity. I have been witness to this decline. A Life on Our Planet is my witness statement, and my vision for the future. It is the story of how we came to make this, our greatest mistake – and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right. We have one final chance to create the perfect home for ourselves and restore the wonderful world we inherited. All we need is the will to do so.
Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, by Michelle Nijhuis (W.W. Norton 2021, 352 pages, $27.95)
In the late 19th century, as humans came to realize that our industrializing and globalizing societies were driving other animal species to extinction, a movement to conserve them was born. In Beloved Beasts, science journalist Michelle Nijhuis traces the movement's history. She describes the vital role of scientists and activists such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson; she reveals the origins of organizations like the Audubon Society and the World Wildlife Fund; she explores current efforts to protect species; and she confronts the darker side of conservation, long shadowed by racism and colonialism. As the destruction of other species continues and the effects of climate change escalate, Beloved Beasts charts the ways conservation is becoming a movement for the protection of all species – including our own.
How to Be an Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human, by Melanie Challenger (Penguin Random House 2021, 272 pages, $17.00 paperback)
How to Be an Animal tells a remarkable story of what it means to be human and argues that at the heart of our existence is a profound struggle with being animal. We possess a psychology that seeks separation between humanity and the rest of nature, and we have invented grand ideologies to magnify this. In her book, nature historian Melanie Challenger explores the ways this mindset affects our lives, from our politics to our environments. She examines how technology influences our relationship with our own animal nature and with the other species with whom we share this fragile planet. Blending nature writing, history, and philosophy, How to Be an Animal both reappraises what it means to be human and robustly defends what it means to be an animal.
Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean's Biggest Secret, by Jess Keating, Illustrated by Katie Hickey (Tundra Books 2020, 34 pages, $17.99)
From a young age, Marie Tharp loved watching the world. She loved solving problems. And she loved pushing the limits of what girls and women were expected to do and be. In the mid-twentieth century, women were not welcome in the sciences, but Marie was tenacious. She got a job at a laboratory in New York. But then she faced another barrier: women were not allowed on the research ships (they were considered bad luck on boats). So Marie stayed back and dove deep into the data her colleagues recorded. At first the scientific community refused to believe her, but her evidence was irrefutable. The mid-ocean ridge that Marie discovered is the single largest geographic feature on the planet, and she mapped it all from her small, cramped office.
Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don't Know about the Ocean, by Naomi Oreskes (University of Chicago Press 2021, 744 pages, $40.00)
What difference does it make who pays for science? After World War II, the US military turned to a new, uncharted theater of warfare: the deep sea. The earth sciences – particularly physical oceanography and marine geophysics – became essential to the US Navy, which poured unprecedented money and logistical support into their study. In Science on a Mission, historian Naomi Oreskes delves into the role of patronage in science, what emerges is a vivid portrait of how naval oversight transformed what we know about the sea. It is a detailed, sweeping history that illuminates the ways funding shapes the subject, scope, and tenor of research, and it raises profound questions about American science. What difference does it make who pays? A lot.
Dark Side of the Ocean: The Destruction of Our Seas, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do About It, by Albert Bates (Groundswell Books 2020, 158 pages, $12.95 paperback)
Our oceans face levels of devastation previously unknown in human history due to pollution, overfishing, and damage to delicate aquatic ecosystems affected by global warming. Climate author Albert Bates explains how ocean life maintains adequate oxygen levels, prevents erosion from storms, and sustains a vital food source that factory-fishing operations cannot match. Bates also profiles organizations dedicated to changing the human impact on marine reserves, improving ocean permaculture, and putting the brakes on heat waves that destroy sea life and imperil human habitation at the ocean's edge. The Dark Side of the Ocean conveys a deep appreciation for the fragile nature of the ocean's majesty and compels us to act now to preserve it.
The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, by Stephen Heyman (W.W. Norton 2020, 352 pages, $26.95)
Louis Bromfield was a World War I ambulance driver, a Paris expat, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist as famous in the 1920s as Hemingway. But he cashed in his literary success to finance a wild agrarian dream in his native Ohio. There, in 1938, Bromfield transformed 600 badly eroded acres into a thriving cooperative farm, which became a mecca for agricultural pioneers and a country retreat for celebrities like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This sweeping biography unearths a lost icon of American culture. While Bromfield's name has faded into obscurity, his mission seems more critical today than ever before. The ideas he planted at his utopian experimental farm, Malabar, would inspire America's first generation of organic farmers and popularize the tenets of environmentalism years before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Food Fights: How History Matters to Contemporary Food Debates, edited by Charles C. Ludington and Matthew Morse Booker (University of North Carolina Press 2019, 304 pages, $32.95 paperback)
What we eat, where it is from, and how it is produced are vital questions in today's America. We think seriously about food because it is freighted with the hopes, fears, and anxieties of modern life. Yet critiques of food and food systems all too often sprawl into jeremiads against modernity itself, while supporters of the status quo refuse to acknowledge the problems with today's methods of food production and distribution. Food Fights sheds new light on these crucial debates, using a historical lens. Its essays take strong positions, even arguing with one another, as they explore the many themes and tensions that define how we understand our food – from the promises and failures of agricultural technology to the politics of taste.
Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need, by Michael P. Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle L. Eiseman (Comstock Publishing Associates 2021, 264 pages, $21.95 paperback)
Our Changing Menu unpacks the increasingly complex relationships between food and climate change. In it, Michael Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle Eiseman offer an eye-opening journey through a complete menu of before-dinner drinks and salads; main courses and sides; and coffee and dessert. Along the way, they examine the escalating changes occurring to the flavors of spices and teas, the yields of wheat, the vitamins in rice, and the price of vanilla. Their story ends with a primer on the global food system, the causes and impacts of climate change, and what we can do. Our Changing Menu is a celebration of food and a call to all – from the common ground of food – to help tackle the greatest challenge of our time.
Plastic Free: The Inspiring Story of a Global Environmental Movement and Why It Matters, by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz and Joanna Atherhold Finn (Columbia University Press 2020, 272 pages, $28.00)
In July 2011, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz challenged herself and some friends to go plastic free for the whole month. Since then, the Plastic Free July movement has grown from a small group of people in the city of Perth into a 250-million strong community across 177 countries. Plastic Free tells the story of this world-leading environmental campaign. From narrating marine-debris research expeditions to tracking what actually happens to our waste to sharing insights from behavioral research, Plastic Free speaks to the massive scale of the plastic waste problem and how we can tackle it together. Interweaving interviews from participants, activists, and experts, it tells the inspiring story of how ordinary people have created change in their homes, communities, workplaces, schools, businesses, and beyond. Plastic Fee offers hope for the future.
Can I Recycle This? A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer (Penguin Books 2021, 272 pages, $22.00)
Since the dawn of the recycling system, men and women the world over have stood by their bins, holding an everyday object, wondering, "Can I recycle this?" This simple question links our concerns for the environment with how we interact with our local governments. Recycling rules seem to differ in every municipality, leaving average Americans scratching their heads at the simple act of throwing something away. Taking readers on an informative tour of how recycling actually works (setting aside the propaganda we were all taught as kids), Can I Recycle This gives straightforward answers to whether dozens of common household objects can be recycled. And it provides the information you need to make that decision for anything else you encounter.
Zero Waste Living: The 80/20 Way: The Busy Person's Guide to a Lighter Footprint, by Stephanie J. Miller (Changemaker Books 2020, 112 pages, $10.95 paperback)
Many of us feel powerless to solve the looming climate and waste crises. We have too much on our plates, and so may think these problems are better solved by governments and businesses. This book unlocks the potential in each "too busy" individual to be a crucial part of the solution. Stephanie Miller combines her climate-focused career with her own research and personal experience to show how relatively easy lifestyle changes can create significant positive impacts. Using the simplicity of the 80/20 rule, she shows us those things (the 20%) that we can do to make the biggest (80%) difference in reversing the climate and waste crises. Her book empowers busy individuals to do the easy things that have a real impact on the climate and waste crises.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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