Why Ecuador Abandoned Plans to Leave Fossil Fuels in the Ground and Save the Amazon
On Aug. 15, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced his government’s abandonment of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, the innovative attempt to reverse the economic arrangement of oil extraction in the Amazon by keeping the oil in the soil in exchange for international assistance. His words that evening were disheartening to many. They encroached on the hopes of environmentalists and indigenous rights activists in Ecuador and progressives around the world.
Correa had announced on Ecuadorian state television that he was liquidating the fund for the program and that it was the world’s fault. “The world has failed us,” the fiery president declared, implying that the global community of wealthy nations, organizations and individuals rejected the unique opportunity to cooperate with the Ecuadorian government and its people to save one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. The idea, highly touted by environmental activists and international supporters of the Correa government, as well as the government itself, was radical in the sense that it would try to provide a model for not extracting oil, while sparing the inhabitants and countless species of the forest from the invariably destructive nature of drilling. Conservation groups have pointed out that the idea for the plan came from civil society, not the government, as one might assume from press coverage.
Growth, Environment and Democracy
If the world is to blame, then surely Correa, as the leader of Ecuador and a prominent voice for an alternative twenty-first century development model, must take his fair share of the responsibility. Correa has earned respect around the world for his economic management, defense of sovereignty and promotion of innovative approaches to the environment, or Pachamama. The latter factor was most notably manifested in what is called the Green Constitution. Yet, Correa dismissed the key Article 71 wherein the ambitious drafters declared
All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature. To enforce and interpret these rights, the principles set forth in the Constitution shall be observed, as appropriate…The State shall give incentives to natural persons and legal entities and to communities to protect nature and to promote respect for all the elements comprising an ecosystem.
The problem Correa faces after announcing the end of the initiative can best be understood in the classic jobs/growth vs. environment dilemma. While many respected the idea that the government was willing to choose the environment as long as tangible forms of cooperation were coming from wealthier nations abroad, to back away from this initiative deals a blow that an overwhelming majority of Ecuadorians (over 90 percent from the major cities according to a recent poll) are unable to accept. Additionally, Correa’s many critics abroad, especially in the international media, are delighted to point out the hypocrisy of the decision.
To address these concerns, opponents of drilling are now preparing to organize a referendum. Such a move requires five percent of the population to sign a petition and deliver it for review to the National Electoral Council, and then an absolute majority of valid votes is required for the referendum to succeed.
While people around the world can only lament the lack of leadership on environmental issues, despite the abundance of dire forecasts and scientific consensus, encouraging models are rarely visible or effective. The Ecuadorian government has succeeded in providing stable economic and political conditions, something unfortunately rare in the South American country. Yet, if we are to believe the rhetoric that boldly emanates from the capital Quito, that Correa’s policies are part of a citizen’s revolution, then the facts on the environmental front must be reviewed. The groups opposed to the drilling of oil in and near Yasuni National Park are on the front lines defending the world’s diminishing biological reserves. In a country plagued by centuries of inequality, a revolution based on the citizenry’s needs must be radical and innovative. The Correa government often insists it is both, but pragmatism in the traditional sense of markets and growth seem to be the defining feature. How could a citizen’s revolution exclude the de jure citizens inhabiting the biological reserves, i.e. the indigenous tribes, some of which have little or no contact with the outside world?
Furthermore, the 2008 constitution, in granting rights to nature, is trailblazing but also essential. UN data reports that threatened species in Ecuador in the year 2011 were no less than 2,260. In neighboring Peru and Colombia, both countries with roughly four times the territory of Ecuador, the number of threatened species is roughly a quarter of that amount (even the vastly larger U.S. and Brazil do not come close to Ecuador in threats to endemic species). For a sense of how Ecuador is leading the world in this harrowing category, check out this infographic by the Mother Nature Network. This phenomenon can likely be explained as a reflection of both the dense biodiversity within the Andean-Amazon corridor near the equator and vast ecocide that has occurred over the years.
Playing Catch Up in Late Capitalism
President Correa is certainly aware of the inequity present within the global climate change debate. On Sept. 24, 2007, when he first announced the initiative at the UN High Level Meeting on Climate Change, he pointed out that over 90 percent of damages from climate-change related disaster occurred in developing countries, and clearly the poorest are the most vulnerable within such countries. Now, however, his leadership appears aimed to assist the majority of impoverished people in Ecuador (while giving the middle and upper classes a significant boost) at the expense of the environment and the many native peoples who are categorized as impoverished and are clearly marginalized. This new policy seems to be a betrayal of his former sympathies. It has been widely reported that in his younger years, Correa lived amongst indigenous people, learning Quechua, and even despairing over the extent of the poverty they had to endure.
Since the announcement, the president has fired back at critics by arguing that this drilling, Plan B of the Yasuni proposal, will only take place in one thousandth (.001) of the park's territory. He also claims that the public, especially the youth, are being manipulated in an effort to take down the government. Critics point out that there has already been drilling in the park under Correa and that the auctions of oil blocks nearby are also problematic. Moreover, the issue of mining for copper and gold in the south of the country, near the Peruvian border in the Cordillera del Condor, will also have a major impact on indigenous people, water supplies and precious rainforest. Overall, the green position is increasingly stained, the revolution less radical.
Due to the international headlines announcing the initiative’s failure, now would be an appropriate time to look over the facts related to oil extraction in Ecuador. It is nothing short of dismaying. Over the years, firms including Texaco, Occidental Petroleum (with deep ties to the family of former VP Al Gore), Brazil’s Petrobras, Venezuela’s PDVSA and others backed by the Chinese CNPC and Sinopec, as well as the Ecuadorian state firms PetroEcuador and PetroAmazonas, have all played a role in the extraction sector in the country. Many of these companies have been implicated in irresponsible methods that have led to considerable pollution. The most famous example is Texaco’s near three-decade span of exploration and extraction in the northeastern corner of the country near the towns of Lago Agrio and Coca. This involved the construction of an inexcusably faulty pipeline in coordination with the government, dumping of produced water into waterways and creating a major disaster zone with unlined pits that continue to frequently spill over when it rains. A fierce legal battle rages on over this issue and the area’s inhabitants are still suffering.
The history of oil extraction in the Andean nation is also notorious among the whole of the Ecuadorian population. Aside from the pollution, there is also the inverse relationship, especially in the 1970s and '80s, with oil production and exports to national debt. The more oil the country exported in previous decades, the more indebted it became to foreign entities. Since a key aspect of Correa’s approach has been a break with the Western-backed international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, the leadership has been able to acquire a brand new source of lending from China.
Correa has also prided himself on the ability to negotiate or renegotiate contracts that are much more favorable for Ecuador. This success must be noted and credit is due the government in this regard. Correa’s explanation that he is doing this for poverty-stricken Ecuadorians does ring true to a certain extent. After a 2008 default on $3.2 billion in bonds that left the country with a poor credit rating, the government had to rely heavily on China to maintain public works projects. These have been on the rise and having a notable effect on poverty reduction and infrastructure. This has boosted support for Correa, evidenced by his landslide reelection in February of this year, winning around 35 percent more votes than his closest rival.
However, such progress is not clearly established and the country’s loans coming from China (representing more than half of borrowing by Ecuador between 2005-2011 and certainly on the rise) arrive with a significant premium in the form of high interest rates. Experts also believe the country is running the risk of an over reliance on oil exports, thereby contributing to an eagerness to continue exploitation of proven reserves. This enthusiasm is clearly on display in the decision over Yasuni, where the president claims profits from reserves may actually be worth as much as $18 billion, nearly three times the amount when the initiative first got underway.
The attitude expressed over the initiative is also proving politically unpopular. Mr. Correa is not able to run for office again under the current rules and has repeatedly expressed that he has no interest in ruling Ecuador beyond the end of his term in 2017 (though he recently signed a proposal to reform the constitution in August that would, among other things, include indefinite reelection). Yet there may certainly be backlash against his party and effective resistance on the ground. The leader of the largest indigenous collective, the Confederation of Indigneous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, Humberto Cholango, has declared that it is up to all Ecuadorians to defend the park and its tribes as this issue is of “transcendental importance, not only for Ecuadorians, but for all of humanity.” Correa, however, disagrees and says he is confident that the Ecuadorian people will trust him and that his government, defenders of their self-proclaimed revolution, will win again.
Missing an Opportunity to Lead and Inspire
After all is said and done, the loss of integrity in Yasuni National Park would be a tragic blow to the ecosystem, the indigenous tribes and environmentalists around the world. Celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio have expressed their support for the initiative along with people around the world in search of alternative models. It is therefore very unfortunate that, as his critics see it, Correa did not fully engage in the promotion of the Yasuni-ITT initiative.
Interestingly, while the governments of other developing countries, such as Indonesia and Turkey and neighboring Colombia and Chile, pledged their support, the U.S., China, UK and Japan all officially stood on the sidelines. (Individual contributions have come from at least 11 countries though, including the U.S., UK and Japan.) The Italian, Spanish and a regional government in Belgium led the way in commitments and deposits, but the German government never backed the fund and disagreed with the premise. However, earlier this year Germany and Ecuador did reach an agreement amounting to 34.5 million euros in support of forest protection and the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Responding to German criticism over the Yasuni decision, that deal has now been unilaterally canceled by the Correa government.
Considering the negotiating prowess of Rafael Correa and the burgeoning relationship with the People’s Republic of China, which promotes harmonious, respectful and mutually beneficial cooperation, it begs another question: Why weren’t Chinese leaders brought aboard?
Similarly, we see a failure in terms of multinational corporations. Major firms like Coca-Cola (which committed to a $100,000 contribution, but didn’t deposit the funds), Google and Facebook are highly visible in the Ecuadorian market and should have been under more pressure to back the initiative and earn some positive press. One can easily see how a company like Amazon might have felt compelled to save an important corner of the forest that is its namesake.
The unfortunate reality is that Correa’s brash style is likely a factor.
Billy Pizer, a former deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy under President Obama, made the case that the initiative was about holding the forest hostage, as did other Western observers. This seems more than a bit disingenuous though. Consider that Ecuador’s history has been rife with corrupt leadership that has been under the sway of not only Washington but also Wall Street for decades. This has led Ecuador to the state in which it currently finds itself, with few good options to successfully lift up its poor. The Ecuadorian president, in condemning critics opposed to the open-pit copper mine that a Chinese firm is currently readying, declared that the country cannot be beggars sitting on a sack of gold. The jobs/growth vs. environment argument, when it applies to developing countries, is always complicated by history—history that is all too often ignored by the wealthier colonizers of previous eras.
Such debate has bogged down progress on the climate change accords and is incredibly depressing in its nature. We are likely to see more disheartening scenes throughout the developed world as leaders are increasingly concerned with succeeding in today’s harshly competitive global economy. This comes alongside a drive to improve the lives of millions of impoverished human beings. Unfortunately, it leaves out future generations who may never get to experience nature in its most diverse form or a state that could be considered unspoiled. A citizen’s revolution should necessarily account not only for the poor majority of a society, but for those in the margins living on top of the reserves of oil and minerals. It should also account for our descendants. For this to happen, we need good ideas. The Yasuni-ITT Initiative is one such good idea. Its fate now rests on the democratic will of a nation of some 15 million human beings, 29 percent of whom are living in dire poverty. Its fate should have rested on a government that seeks to inspire the world through a genuinely alternative model of development. It should have rested on the desire of people, organizations and nations around the world aiming to right some of the wrongs of the global system. In any case, there is enough blame to go around.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
By Ayesha Tandon
New research shows that lake "stratification periods" – a seasonal separation of water into layers – will last longer in a warmer climate.
These longer periods of stratification could have "far-reaching implications" for lake ecosystems, the paper says, and can drive toxic algal blooms, fish die-offs and increased methane emissions.
The study, published in Nature Communications, finds that the average seasonal lake stratification period in the northern hemisphere could last almost two weeks longer by the end of the century, even under a low emission scenario. It finds that stratification could last over a month longer if emissions are extremely high.
If stratification periods continue to lengthen, "we can expect catastrophic changes to some lake ecosystems, which may have irreversible impacts on ecological communities," the lead author of the study tells Carbon Brief.
The study also finds that larger lakes will see more notable changes. For example, the North American Great Lakes, which house "irreplaceable biodiversity" and represent some of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems, are already experiencing "rapid changes" in their stratification periods, according to the study.
As temperatures rise in the spring, many lakes begin the process of "stratification." Warm air heats the surface of the lake, heating the top layer of water, which separates out from the cooler layers of water beneath.
The stratified layers do not mix easily and the greater the temperature difference between the layers, the less mixing there is. Lakes generally stratify between spring and autumn, when hot weather maintains the temperature gradient between warm surface water and colder water deeper down.
Dr Richard Woolway from the European Space Agency is the lead author of the paper, which finds that climate change is driving stratification to begin earlier and end later. He tells Carbon Brief that the impacts of stratification are "widespread and extensive," and that longer periods of stratification could have "irreversible impacts" on ecosystems.
For example, Dr Dominic Vachon – a postdoctoral fellow from the Climate Impacts Research Centre at Umea University, who was not involved in the study – explains that stratification can create a "physical barrier" that makes it harder for dissolved gases and particles to move between the layers of water.
This can prevent the oxygen from the surface of the water from sinking deeper into the lake and can lead to "deoxygenation" in the depths of the water, where oxygen levels are lower and respiration becomes more difficult.
Oxygen depletion can have "fatal consequences for living organisms," according to Dr Bertram Boehrer, a researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, who was not involved in the study.
Lead author Woolway tells Carbon Brief that the decrease in oxygen levels at deeper depths traps fish in the warmer surface waters:
"Fish often migrate to deeper waters during the summer to escape warmer conditions at the surface – for example during a lake heatwave. A decrease in oxygen at depth will mean that fish will have no thermal refuge, as they often can't survive when oxygen concentrations are too low."
This can be very harmful for lake life and can even increase "fish die-off events" the study notes.
However, the impacts of stratification are not limited to fish. The study notes that a shift to earlier stratification in spring can also encourage communities of phytoplankton – a type of algae – to grow sooner, and can put them out of sync with the species that rely on them for food. This is called a "trophic mismatch."
Prof Catherine O'Reilly, a professor of geography, geology and the environment at Illinois State University, who was not involved in the study, adds that longer stratified periods could also "increase the likelihood of harmful algae blooms."
The impact of climate change on lakes also extends beyond ecosystems. Low oxygen levels in lakes can enhance the production of methane, which is "produced in and emitted from lakes at globally significant rates," according to the study.
Woolway explains that higher levels of warming could therefore create a positive climate feedback in lakes, where rising temperatures mean larger planet-warming emissions:
"Low oxygen levels at depth also promotes methane production in lake sediments, which can then be released to the surface either via bubbles or by diffusion, resulting in a positive feedback to climate change."
Onset and Breakup
In the study, the authors determine historical changes in lake stratification periods using long-term observational data from some of the "best-monitored lakes in the world" and daily simulations from a collection of lake models.
They also run simulations of future changes in lake stratification period under three different emission scenarios, to determine how the process could change in the future. The study focuses on lakes in the northern hemisphere.
The figure below shows the average change in lake stratification days between 1900 and 2099, compared to the 1970-1999 average. The plot shows historical measurements (black), and the low emission RCP2.6 (blue), mid emissions RCP6.0 (yellow) and extremely high emissions RCP8.5 (red) scenarios.
Change in lake stratification duration compared to the 1970-1999 average, for historical measurements (black), the low emission RCP2.6 (blue) moderate emissions RCP6.0 (yellow) and extremely high emissions RCP8.5 (red). Credit: Woolway et al (2021).
The plot shows that the average lake stratification period has already lengthened. However, the study adds that some lakes are seeing more significant impacts than others.
For example, Blelham Tarn – the most well-monitored lake in the English Lake District – is now stratifying 24 days earlier and maintaining its stratification for an extra 18 days compared to its 1963-1972 averages, the study finds. Woolway tells Carbon Brief that as a result, the lake is already showing signs of oxygen depletion.
Climate change is increasing average stratification duration in lakes, the findings show, by moving the onset of stratification earlier and pushing the stratification "breakup" later. The table below shows projected changes in the onset, breakup and overall length of lake stratification under different emission scenarios, compared to a 1970-1999 baseline.
The table shows that even under the low emission scenario, the lake stratification period is expected to be 13 days longer by the end of the century. However, in the extremely high emissions scenario, it could be 33 days longer.
The table also shows that stratification onset has changed more significantly than stratification breakup. The reasons why are revealed by looking at the drivers of stratification more closely.
Warmer Weather and Weaker Winds
The timing of stratification onset and breakup in lakes is driven by two main factors – temperature and wind speed.
The impact of temperature on lake stratification is based on the fact that warm water is less dense than cool water, Woolway tells Carbon Brief:
"Warming of the water's surface by increasing air temperature causes the density of water to decrease and likewise results in distinct thermal layers within a lake to form – cooler, denser water settles to the bottom of the lake, while warmer, lighter water forms a layer on top."
This means that, as climate change causes temperatures to rise, lakes will begin to stratify earlier and remain stratified for longer. Lakes in higher altitudes are also likely to see greater changes in stratification, Woolway tells Carbon Brief, because "the prolonging of summer is very apparent in high latitude regions."
The figure below shows the expected increase in stratification duration from lakes in the northern hemisphere under the low (left), mid (center), and high (right) emission scenarios. Deeper colors indicate a larger increase in stratification period.
Expected increase in stratification duration in lakes in the northern hemisphere under the low (left), mid (centre) and high (right) emissions scenarios. Credit: Woolway et al (2021).
The figure shows that the expected impact of climate change on stratification duration becomes more pronounced at more northerly high latitudes.
The second factor is wind speed, Woolway explains:
"Wind speed also affects the timing of stratification onset and breakdown, with stronger winds acting to mix the water column, thus acting against the stratifying effect of increasing air temperature."
According to the study, wind speed is expected to decrease slightly as the planet warms. The authors note that the expected changes in near-surface wind speed are "relatively minor" compared to the likely temperature increase, but they add that it may still cause "substantial" changes in stratification.
The study finds that air temperature is the most important factor behind when a lake will begin to stratify. However, when looking at stratification breakup, it finds that wind speed is a more important driver.
Meanwhile, Vachon says that wind speeds also have implications for methane emissions from lakes. He notes that stratification prevents the methane produced on the bottom of the lake from rising and that, when the stratification period ends, methane is allowed to rise to the surface. However, according to Vachon, the speed of stratification breakup will affect how much methane is released into the atmosphere:
"My work has suggested that the amount of accumulated methane in bottom waters that will be finally emitted is related to how quickly the stratification break-up occurs. For example, a slow and progressive stratification break-up will most likely allow water oxygenation and allow the bacteria to oxidise methane into carbon dioxide. However, a stratification break-up that occurs rapidly – for example after storm events with high wind speed – will allow the accumulated methane to be emitted to the atmosphere more efficiently."
Finally, the study finds that large lakes take longer to stratify in spring and typically remain stratified for longer in the autumn – due to their higher volume of water. For example, the authors highlight the North American Great Lakes, which house "irreplaceable biodiversity" and represent some of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems.
These lakes have been stratifying 3.5 days earlier every decade since 1980, the authors find, and their stratification onset can vary by up to 48 days between some extreme years.
O'Reilly tells Carbon Brief that "it's clear that these changes will be moving lakes into uncharted territory" and adds that the paper "provides a framework for thinking about how much lakes will change under future climate scenarios."
Reposted with permission from Carbon Brief.
By Robert Glennon
Interstate water disputes are as American as apple pie. States often think a neighboring state is using more than its fair share from a river, lake or aquifer that crosses borders.
Currently the U.S. Supreme Court has on its docket a case between Texas, New Mexico and Colorado and another one between Mississippi and Tennessee. The court has already ruled this term on cases pitting Texas against New Mexico and Florida against Georgia.
Climate stresses are raising the stakes. Rising temperatures require farmers to use more water to grow the same amount of crops. Prolonged and severe droughts decrease available supplies. Wildfires are burning hotter and lasting longer. Fires bake the soil, reducing forests' ability to hold water, increasing evaporation from barren land and compromising water supplies.
As a longtime observer of interstate water negotiations, I see a basic problem: In some cases, more water rights exist on paper than as wet water – even before factoring in shortages caused by climate change and other stresses. In my view, states should put at least as much effort into reducing water use as they do into litigation, because there are no guaranteed winners in water lawsuits.
Alabama, pay attention to Supreme Court ruling against Florida in water war #Water #SDG6 https://t.co/wIjdoY6Ccr— Noah J. Sabich (@Noah J. Sabich)1617800452.0
Dry Times in the West
The situation is most urgent in California and the Southwest, which currently face "extreme or exceptional" drought conditions. California's reservoirs are half-empty at the end of the rainy season. The Sierra snowpack sits at 60% of normal. In March 2021, federal and state agencies that oversee California's Central Valley Project and State Water Project – regional water systems that each cover hundreds of miles – issued "remarkably bleak warnings" about cutbacks to farmers' water allocations.
The Colorado River Basin is mired in a drought that began in 2000. Experts disagree as to how long it could last. What's certain is that the "Law of the River" – the body of rules, regulations and laws governing the Colorado River – has allocated more water to the states than the river reliably provides.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet (one acre-foot is roughly 325,000 gallons) to California, Nevada and Arizona, and another 7.5 million acre-feet to Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. A treaty with Mexico secured that country 1.5 million acre-feet, for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. However, estimates based on tree ring analysis have determined that the actual yearly flow of the river over the last 1,200 years is roughly 14.6 million acre-feet.
The inevitable train wreck has not yet happened, for two reasons. First, Lakes Mead and Powell – the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado – can hold a combined 56 million acre-feet, roughly four times the river's annual flow.
But diversions and increased evaporation due to drought are reducing water levels in the reservoirs. As of Dec. 16, 2020, both lakes were less than half full.
Second, the Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – have never used their full allotment. Now, however, they want to use more water. Wyoming has several new dams on the drawing board. So does Colorado, which is also planning a new diversion from the headwaters of the Colorado River to Denver and other cities on the Rocky Mountains' east slope.
Utah Stakes a Claim
The most controversial proposal comes from one of the nation's fastest-growing areas: St. George, Utah, home to approximately 90,000 residents and lots of golf courses. St. George has very high water consumption rates and very low water prices. The city is proposing to augment its water supply with a 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell, which would carry 86,000 acre-feet per year.
Truth be told, that's not a lot of water, and it would not exceed Utah's unused allocation from the Colorado River. But the six other Colorado River Basin states have protested as though St. George were asking for their firstborn child.
In a joint letter dated Sept. 8, 2020, the other states implored the Interior Department to refrain from issuing a final environmental review of the pipeline until all seven states could "reach consensus regarding legal and operational concerns." The letter explicitly threatened a high "probability of multi-year litigation."
Utah blinked. Having earlier insisted on an expedited pipeline review, the state asked federal officials on Sept. 24, 2020 to delay a decision. But Utah has not given up: In March 2021, Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill creating a Colorado River Authority of Utah, armed with a $9 million legal defense fund, to protect Utah's share of Colorado River water. One observer predicted "huge, huge litigation."
How huge could it be? In 1930, Arizona sued California in an epic battle that did not end until 2006. Arizona prevailed by finally securing a fixed allocation from the water apportioned to California, Nevada and Arizona.
Litigation or Conservation
Before Utah takes the precipitous step of appealing to the Supreme Court under the court's original jurisdiction over disputes between states, it might explore other solutions. Water conservation and reuse make obvious sense in St. George, where per-person water consumption is among the nation's highest.
St. George could emulate its neighbor, Las Vegas, which has paid residents up to $3 per square foot to rip out lawns and replace them with native desert landscaping. In April 2021 Las Vegas went further, asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw ornamental grass.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that the Las Vegas metropolitan area has eight square miles of "nonfunctional turf" – grass that no one ever walks on except the person who cuts it. Removing it would reduce the region's water consumption by 15%.
Water rights litigation is fraught with uncertainty. Just ask Florida, which thought it had a strong case that Georgia's water diversions from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin were harming its oyster fishery downstream.
That case extended over 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended the final chapter in April 2021. The court used a procedural rule that places the burden on plaintiffs to provide "clear and convincing evidence." Florida failed to convince the court, and walked away with nothing.
Robert Glennon is a Regents Professor and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law & Public Policy, University of Arizona.
Disclosure statement: Robert Glennon received funding from the National Science Foundation in the 1990s and 2000s.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
Plugging and capping abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells in Central Appalachia could generate thousands of jobs for the workers and region who stand to lose the most from the industry's inexorable decline.
According to a new report from the Ohio River Valley Institute, just four states (Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky) account for at least 538,000 unplugged abandoned oil and gas wells, though that number is almost certainly low.
The first oil well in the U.S. was drilled in Pennsylvania before the Civil War and the timeline of the region's oil and gas production contributes to its disproportionate number of orphaned wells.
Among other toxic pollution released from orphaned wells, Central Appalachian wells dumped 71,000 metric tons of methane — an extremely potent heat trapping gas — into the atmosphere every year.
The report comes as the Biden administration works to allay worries in a region still tied to the fossil fuel industry.
President Biden's infrastructure plan includes $16 billion for plugging and remediating orphaned oil and gas wells and abandoned mines.
For a deeper dive:
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.
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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.