Dateline Earth

Dateline Earth takes the broad view of what’s going on environmentally. Yes, we live in western North America. But we’re all over the map when it comes to the story of the century: climate change and, more broadly, the environment’s effect on all of our lives.

Chinese investment spurs Alberta tar sands and pipeline across the Rockies

Today brings another fascinating development in the saga of the Alberta tar sands, which is becoming one of our favorite topics here at InvestigateWest and shows signs of becoming a major geopolitical dispute as well as a massive fueler of global warming.

[caption id="attachment_3469" align="alignright" width="252" caption="Developing the tar sands leaves behind huge lakes of toxic waste, like this tailings pond. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace."]Developing the tar sands leaves behind huge lakes of toxic waste, like this tailings pond. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.[/caption]

The big news today is that a Chinese state-owned company, PetroChina, has purchased a 60 percent stake in the Athabasca Oil Sands Corp.'s MacKay River and Dover projects for nearly $2 billion.

This is likely to boost the case for building a pipeline across the Rockies to unload oil-sands petroleum on the west coast of British Columbia, a  prospect completely unwelcome to native First Nations living in B.C.

For more on the environmental implications of the tar sands, see this recent Dateline Earth post. Or, just suffice it to say the impact is huge. 

The Calgary Herald's editorial writers missed a comma in the following excerpt, but it conveys the apprehensions some are feeling in Canada and the United States about PetroChina's move: 

Canadians should be deeply concerned about the relationship that would evolve, in which a foreign government increasingly makes important decisions about a premier Canadian industry and not necessarily with the free market in mind.

Methane bubbles out from permafrost to enhance global warming

For the second day in a row, we have some really disturbing news coming out of the Far North regarding the pace at which climate change is hurtling forward. (The first was this Western Exposure post.)

Charles J. Hanley of the Associated Press reports that in Canada's Northwest Territories, the permafrost is melting and the Earth is burping out huge slugs of methane, one of the most potent of the greenhouse gases.

This methane has the potential to drive extremely rapid warming. It's known as  a feedback loop: As more methane escapes, it traps more heat in the atmosphere, which in turn melts more permafrost, and so on.

It's not that the earth has never gotten as hot as it apparently is about to get -- there were once balmy beaches and tropical vegetation in Alaska, for instance.

But the pace at which this warming is occurring is giving scientists serious pause, Hanley reports:

Researchers say air temperatures here in northwest Canada, in Siberia and elsewhere in the Arctic have risen more than 4.5 degrees Farenheit since 1970 -- much faster than the global average...

In 2007, air monitors detected a rise in methane concentrations in the atmosphere, apparently from far northern sources.

Drought threatens Garden of Eden site in Iraq

The lede on a recent piece from The Guardian makes me wonder why we're not hearing more about this story:

A water shortage described as the most critical since the earliest days of Iraq's civilisation is threatening to leave up to 2 million people in the south of the country without electricity and almost as many without drinking water.

(Possible reason we haven't heard more: Like so many environmental stories, this one is not breaking news. It oozes, rather than breaks, as the saying goes. )

It sounds impressive anytime something is happening that hasn't been known before in a particular country's history. But recall that when we're talking about Iraq, we're talking about what appears to be the first civilization. Yes, we're talking about the Garden of Eden, or at least the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Martin Chulov's file from Nasiriyah covers death and disease resulting from saltwater intrusion, electricity from hydropower about to grind to a halt, and goes on to paint this grim picture:

What whacko tree-huggers think about so-called global warming

OK, we realize you come to Dateline Earth for thoughtful analysis  of environmental news here and abroad. But, hey, it's Friday. It's the last week of August. So let's just settle for something funny, shall we?grist-logo1

Thanks to Twitter, we discovered something called elephantjournal.com. Before clicking on the link below, you should know that the about-to-be-mentioned Chip Giller is the brilliant guy behind grist.org, one of our favorite enviro-news sites. (Motto: "Gloom and doom with a sense of humor.")

Check it out: http://bit.ly/Lk00b

Small hydro dams show environmental tradeoffs in fighting climate change

[caption id="attachment_3240" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="We're talking about set-ups like this... although a lot smaller. That's the point. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy"]We're talking about set-ups like this... although a lot smaller. That's the point. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy[/caption]

Quick -- before it goes behind the pay wall -- check out this intriguing Wall Street Journal story on how plans to combat climate change could mean tearing up the wilderness.

The WSJ's Jim Carlton points out that across the country, and particularly in the West, are streams where power providers would like to install small hydroelectric dams. From a climate-change standpoint, this is great: Carbon-free power! Enough to serve millions of homes! And often, no threat of NIMBYs, says the piece, datelined in Sultan, Wash., just up the road from InvestigateWest World Headquarters:

A big public utility is on the  cusp of building a hydroelectric-power plant on a picture-perfect stream in the Pacific Northwest, but the plan has yet to draw the usual opposition.

That is in part because approved project, which involves building a dam on a tributary called Youngs Creek, is so small and remote that is has attracted little notice.

However, Carlton points out, the cumulative impact of actually building the thousands of these plants envisioned by power producers could have a substantial impact in the form of crisscrossing the backcountry with roads needed to build and maintain the dams.

The numbers cited by Carlton here in Washington state are instructive:

According to the U.S.

ExxonMobil "green company of the year?" Puh-leeze!

It was one thing to see ExxonMobil's ad right on the front page of The Wall Street Journal on Monday, headlined "Energy from algae" and rhapsodizing about how its research efforts could someday result in algae taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Fair enough. If a company decides to spend $600 million on research aimed at heading off disastrous levels of climate change, it can legitimately give itself a highly visible public pat on the back.

exxonmobilheaderlogo1But then I came across the Forbes piece, also published on Monday, that calls ExxonMobil the "green company of the year." Puh-leeze! (Subhead: "Oil from algae? Just a sideshow, Exxon's real thrust into green energy is a big bet on natural gas.")

One need look no further than today's headlines to see that ExxonMobil, far from being a "green" company, is pleading guilty to killing migratory birds.

OK, so obviously Forbes writer Christopher Heiman was reporting his piece long before this dead-birds case hit the news. But still, the mind reels trying to figure out how he and his editors could have come to the conclusion that ExxonMobil is somehow worthy of high praise for its environmental record.

Curtis Brainerd's "The Observatory" column for Columbia Journalism Review does a thorough job of explaining why Forbes stumbled badly here, simply based on the fact that Heiman found that natural gas is significantly better than coal from a greenhouse-gas standpoint. True enough, and it's also true that Exxon's going great guns on natural gas.

Third World diseases showing up in U.S.: "10 times more important than swine flu"

Bug bites. Animal feces. Viruses.

Those are three of the ways that Third World diseases are being spread in the United States, particularly in slums, the rural South and along the Mexican border, Stephanie Simon and Betsy McKay report in The Wall Street Journal.

Yes, the headlines today are full of news that up to half the U.S. population could contract swine flu this fall. But George Washington University microbiologist Peter Hotez says that's nothing compared to the likes of dengue fever or Chagas:

These are diseases that we know are ten-fold more important than swine flu. They're on no one's radar.

Now, as you might suspect, these diseases are not likely to be  problem for you if you live in a suburb, where sanitation, insect control and veterinary care are routine.

However, in crowded slums, risks multiply manifold.

The health-care legislation in the House calls for a concentrated study of these diseases, but its fate is uncertain in the Senate.

Can technology save us from global warming?

With big global companies decades behind the pace necessary to avert really bad alterations in the climate, it's perhaps unsurprising to learn scientists are coming up with schemes for massive tinkering with the climate through technology.

[caption id="attachment_3034" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Courtesy pdphoto.org"]Courtesy pdphoto.org[/caption]

Hmmm... wasn't that how we got into this mess in the first place? We seem perpetually  convinced we can engineer our way out of just about anything.

And yet, reading Scott Canon's story in the Kansas City Star on so-called "geoengineering" to avert climate catastrophe, some of the meaures seem benign enough. Painting all our roofs white? Simple enough.

But what about sending up aircraft to spew sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere? We know it would probably cool the planet -- it replicates what happens when a big volcano blows. You get a masking of the atmosphere from incoming solar rays. It's exactly what happened when Mount Pinatubo did its thing in 1991.

Even atmospheric scientist Alan Robock, who recently broached this idea, has his doubts, though. He notes that there are almost bound to be side effects we don't anticipate, Canon wrote:

Robock said seeding the stratosphere is a bad idea. It easily could trigger droughts, deplete the atmosphere’s ozone layer, make less energy available for solar power systems, obscure the stars to astronomers and possibly destroy great swaths of ocean life. The sky would even be less blue, Robock said.

Now, some of these geoengineering ideas seem just too good to be true.