Planet Watch

Ice Age fears: don't believe the hype

Russia Today on July 12 announces breathlessly: "Earth is facing the prospect of a 'mini ice age' this century, with our sun's activity projected to fall 60 percent in the 2030s, British astrophysicists say, based on the results of new research that they claim allows exact predictions of solar cycles." The scientists in question are a team from Northumbria University led by a Professor Valentina Zharkova. While the lead researcher's nice Russian name must be appealing to RT, there are other aspects of the story that doubtless make it even more irresistible. We smell Putin propaganda to allow him to go on exploiting Arctic oil without having to worry about contributing to global warming. Why have we seen this reported in few sources other than the unreliable (and state-controlled) RT? 

BP in $18.7 billion settlement over 2010 oil spill

BP on July 2 reached a settlement that will require the company to pay $18.7 billion in penalties and damages to settle all claims regarding the 2010 Gulf oil spill. The agreement, the largest corporate settlement in US history, will add to the $43.8 billion that BP had budgeted for penalties and cleanup costs, bringing the total cost of the spill for BP to $53.8 billion. The settlement with the US Department of Justice and the affected Gulf states specifically requires the company to pay at least $12.8 billion in penalties stipulated under the Clean Water Act and natural resource damages. Another $4.9 billion will go to the affected states. [An additional $1 billion will be paid to local governments.] Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch in a statement said, "Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—the largest environmental disaster in our nation's history—the Justice Department has been fully committed to holding BP accountable... The Deepwater trial team has fought aggressively in federal court for an outcome that would achieve this mission, proving along the way that BP's gross negligence resulted in the Deepwater disaster."

New York state puts fracking ban in place

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released a final environmental impact statement (PDF) on the dangers of fracking on June 29, which carries the force of law and officially bans fracking in the state. Signed by DEC commissioner Joseph Martens, the report cited significant water withdrawals, increased stormwater runoffs, potential severe flooding and inadequate waste disposal as possible dangers that may affect the state's water resources. The report also cited the dangers of increased greenhouse gas emissions and the release of naturally occurring radioactive material. The Department considered extensive mitigation measures but were not convinced as to their efficacy. "In the end...[t]he Department’s chosen alternative to prohibit high-volume hydraulic fracturing is the best alternative based on the balance between protection of the environment and public health and economic and social considerations." This decision confirms a report issued in December by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration affirming their intent to block hydraulic fracturing across the state.

Doomsday Clock: three minutes of midnight

More than 25 years after the end of the Cold War, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists security board announced Jan. 29 that the probability of global catastrophe is very high, and set the hands of its iconic Doomsday Clock at three minutes to midnight—two minutes closer than in 2014. "Despite some modestly positive developments in the climate change arena, current efforts are entirely insufficient to prevent a catastrophic warming of Earth," the statement read. "Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have embarked on massive programs to modernize their nuclear triads—thereby undermining existing nuclear weapons treaties." The BAS Timeline shows that the last time the clock stood at three minutes to midnight was in 1984, at the height of the Reagan arms race. The only previous time was in 1949, two years after the Clock was unveiled at seven to midnight in 1947. In 1953 it was moved to two minutes of midnight in response to the development of the hydrogen bomb—the closest it has ever stood. The most relaxed positioning was 17 to midnight in 1991, after the Cold War ended. The clock was last moved—from six to five minutes of midnight—in 2012.

Obama's new offshore plan: don't believe the hype

This week, the Obama administration released a draft of its next five-year plan for offshore drilling—opening up a previously off-limits area along the Southeastern coast, from Virginia down to Georgia, as well as offering many new oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico. And while it would protect some key areas north of Alaska from drilling, it would open other Arctic areas up. The plan designates 9.8 million acres of Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas off-limits to oil-and-gas leasing, and asks Congress to set aside 12 million acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as "wilderness area," affording another level of protection. Daily Caller is outraged that the Alaskan waters are to be off-limits; Grist is outraged that the Southeastern waters are to be opened up; Bloomberg tries to play it objective. However, read the small print last line of the White House memo on the supposedly new polcy: "Nothing in this withdrawal affects the rights under existing leases in the withdrawn areas."

UN: world refugees break record

War across large swaths of the Middle East and Africa in the first six months of 2014 forcibly displaced some 5.5 million people, signalling yet another record, the United Nations reported Jan. 7. The UN refugee refugee agency, UNHCR, in its new Mid-Year Trends 2014 Report finds that of the 5.5 million who were newly displaced, 1.4 million fled across international borders, officially becoming refugees. The rest were displaced within their own countries, and are known as internally displaced persons (IDPs). The new data brings the number of people being helped by UNHCR to 46.3 million as of mid-2014—some 3.4 million more than at the end of 2013 and a new record high.

Behind oil slump: shale boom or geopolitics?

As we noted in September (when the price had just dipped below $100 a barrel), after an initial price shock when ISIS seized northern Iraq, the world oil price has since slumped. It now stands at around $60 a barrel. Recall that way back in late 2001, when the US was invading Afghanistan, it stood at a lowly $11. At that time, we predicted an imminent price shock to jump-start the planned industry expansion—both in the Caspian Basin and here at home, overcoming environmental concerns. Boy, were we right. The price of a barrel first broke the $100 mark in 2008, and has frequently crossed it in the years since then, although it never quite hit the much-feared $200-a-barrel. But now the petro-oligarchs are talking like $100 may be the new $200. Saudi Arabia's oil minister Ali al-Naimi last month answered "we may not" when asked if markets would ever lift prices to $100 again. (CNN, Dec. 23) How much of this are we to believe, and what is really behind the slump?

NDAA provision would allow mining on Apache land

Lawmakers have slipped a provision into the new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would allow a massive copper mine on public lands that are sacred to the Apache. Previous efforts failed to pass HR 687, or the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, which would allow a subsidiary of international mining conglomerate Rio Tinto to acquire 2,400 acres of the Tonto National Forest in southeast Arizona in exchange for 5,000 acres in parcels scattered around the state. The massive underground copper mining project is fiercely opposed by environmental groups as well as the San Carlos Apache Tribe, which holds the area, near the town of Superior, as a sacred site. Now the land swap has been incorporated into the 1,600-page NDAA. A petition against the provision has been posted to the White House website. (ICTMN, Arizona Republic, Dec. 3)

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