Leave it to the flailing Pebble Partnership - now consisting of just one under-funded Canadian company - to conclude that the only truly "independent" review of its uniquely reckless Pebble Mine is an "independent" review that is bought and paid... Read More >
The Pebble Partnership and the Demeaning of Independence
Leave it to the flailing Pebble Partnership - now consisting of just one under-funded Canadian company - to conclude that the only truly "independent" review of its uniquely reckless Pebble Mine is an "independent" review that is bought and paid for by . . . The Pebble Partnership.
Pebble and its Beltway-based CEO announced this week the hiring of two Washington, D.C. consulting firms to "conduct an independent review" of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ("EPA") work on the proposed mine. According to former Defense Secretary William Cohen, principal of the Cohen Group, the "independent" review being undertaken by his firm and the DC law firm DLA Piper will "focus on the fairness of EPA's actions" and "will follow the evidence wherever it might lead . . . as fairly and thoroughly as possible."
Never mind that Mr. Cohen has been hired by the very company whose economic existence depends on building the Pebble Mine.
Photo Cred: Robert Glenn Ketchum
Never mind that Mr. Cohen has been hired by the very company that has attacked EPA relentlessly for years, claiming that its Pebble Mine project has been illegally and unfairly targeted by EPA.
Never mind that the residents of Bristol Bay have overwhelmingly opposed the Pebble Mine and supported EPA's involvement to an unprecedented degree, because the mine, if constructed, threatens to contaminate and ultimately destroy the incomparable Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery - the economic, cultural, and subsistence life-blood of the region, its communities, and its people.
After a four-year, twice peer-reviewed comprehensive scientific risk assessment of the potential impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed from large-scale mining like the Pebble Mine, EPA found "significant" and potentially "catastrophic" impacts on the region - and on its $1.5 billion salmon fishery and the 14,000 jobs that it generates.
This was, of course, bad news for The Pebble Partnership, but it was neither illegal nor unfair. In stark contrast to The Pebble Partnership's penchant for high-priced DC lobbyists and lawyers, it reflects our constitutional democracy at its best.
Congress gave EPA the clear legal authority over 40 years ago under the Clean Water Act, and the public record shows that scientific review, public participation, and opportunities for stakeholder input (including time and again by The Pebble Partnership) in EPA's process were extensive and pervasive. By the time the process had run its course, the agency had received over 1.5 million comments, with an astounding 95 percent supporting EPA's review.
For years, EPA has taken plenty of heat from The Pebble Partnership and from the company's mining industry boosters in Congress, who launched their own investigation and requested that EPA's Inspector General do the same. With no disrespect intended to Mr. Cohen or his firm, there is absolutely nothing credible to be gained from yet-another Pebble -sponsored "independent" review. If Pebble doesn't like EPA's process or the ultimate outcome of that process, it has a right to file an appeal in court, but that review, too, is unlikely to meet Pebble's nonsensical and uniquely self-serving definition of "independence."
"Here we go again," said Alannah Hurley, the Executive Director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay. "This is more of the same desperate PR-stunt, a bought-and-paid-for review, from a company who has lost on the science, who has lost on the truth, who has lost on public opinion."
Sadly, The Pebble Partnership isn't listening. It is hoping that its latest high-priced Beltway consultants can engineer an end-run around the science, the law, and the will of the people of Alaska.
Stop the Pebble Mine. Take action again -- now.
Seafood lovers beware: if you buy (or eat) fish sourced from one of Iceland's leading seafood companies, you are unwittingly funding whaling. NRDC and a coalition of groups are bringing this message to the streets of Boston this week, urging... Read More >
Are Your Fish Sticks Killing Whales?
Seafood lovers beware: if you buy (or eat) fish sourced from one of Iceland's leading seafood companies, you are unwittingly funding whaling.
NRDC and a coalition of groups are bringing this message to the streets of Boston this week, urging seafood companies at the Seafood Expo North America not to do business with the giant Icelandic seafood company HB Grandi - a company linked to and controlled by Icelandic whaling interests.
Mobile ads displayed outside the Seafood Expo (and at other seafood locations throughout the city) this week ask "Do you know who caught your seafood?" and direct people to DontBuyFromIcelandicWhalers.com, which provides details about the Icelandic companies that hunt--or are linked to those that hunt--hundreds of whales each year ... in defiance of an international ban against commercial whaling.
The message is simple: Don't financially support Icelandic whaling by buying fish from HB Grandi.
HB Grandi - Iceland's largest seafood company - plays a very active role in Iceland's whaling industry. Not only does it provide its facilities for the processing of endangered fin whale meat for the export market (to Japan), but it is also controlled by the whaling and investment company Hvalur hf. Hvular is responsible for the death of 551 endangered fin whales since 2006.
Iceland is one of only three nations that continue to hunt whales for profit, despite a commercial whaling ban put in place by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1982. Iceland has steadily increased its self-allocated whaling quotas in recent years. In 2013, it announced a five-year block quota that could result in the slaughter of almost 2,000 whales, including 770 endangered fin whales.
Last year, the coalition wrote to major U.S. wholesalers and retailers that source Icelandic seafood, urging them to audit their supply chain in order to reassure the public that they are not buying fish from companies linked to whaling. (Click here to read my blog.)
While some companies like High Liner Foods and Trader Joe's have pledged their opposition to commercial whaling and confirmed they do not source seafood from HB Grandi, other companies have not responded to our request and may be purchasing seafood from HB Grandi.
For more information and to take action against Icelandic whaling, please visit the coalition website at DontBuyFromIcelandicWhalers.com.
Photo courtesy of Guerilla Billboards
Written with Lorne Stockman, Research Director at Oil Change International The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has released export data that clearly corroborates President Obama's recent assertion that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is primarily about export. Politico... Read More >
Department of Energy data shows Keystone XL is an export pipeline
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has released export data that clearly corroborates President Obama's recent assertion that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is primarily about export. Politico reports that refineries in Port Arthur and Houston - which would be the primary recipients of crude oil delivered by the Keystone XL pipeline - exported over 60% of their refined product in 2014.
The EIA data shows that Houston and Port Arthur refineries exports reached over two thirds of their production in December 2014. This is the continuation of a trend that Oil Change International (OCI) first identified in 2012, when Texas Gulf Coast refineries began exporting slightly over half of their total refined product internationally.
Refined Product Exports from Texas Gulf Refineries (bpd)
Texas Gulf Coast Exports
This data clearly discredits an unsubstantiated claim by industry consultancy IHS that the vast majority - as much as 70% - of the refined product from Keystone XL would stay in the United States. It also exposes the hollowness of the Washington Post's Fact Checker's analysis that led to it ranking the President's statement with four 'Pinocchios'.
The claims made by IHS and parroted by the Washington Post, draw their numbers from refineries in the entire Gulf Coast refining region, called PADD 3 by the Department of Energy. But this region includes many refineries - in places like New Mexico, West Texas and Arkansas - that would not have access to crude delivered by Keystone XL if it is built and also refineries that do not have access to deep water berths that enable them to export their product. And even when diluting the share of exports with these refineries, PADD 3 hasn't directed 70% of its refined product to the domestic market since 2010. An industry consulting firm such as IHS must be fully aware of this - and it's a fact that the Washington Post Fact Checker could have easily uncovered.
Looking at the production and exports of the Texas Gulf Coast refineries that would receive the vast bulk of Keystone crude and that coincidentally all have access to deep water berths in Port Arthur and along the Houston ship channel, it is abundantly clear that export has become the primary market for these refineries.
But don't just take our word for it. Ask Valero, the refining company which has committed to the largest share of Keystone XL's capacity. It told investors in a February 2015 presentation that it intended to increase its capacity to export gasoline and diesel from its Gulf Coast refineries by nearly 20% in 2015 (from 667,000 bpd to 780,000 bpd).
Valero's Port Arthur refinery has installed equipment specifically to refine tar sands crude that it hopes to receive via Keystone XL stating that this equipment will convert the heavy crude to diesel for the export market.
In addition to the fact that the refineries interested in Keystone XL are exporting the majority of their refined product, the tar sands industry has already exported unrefined tar sands crude from Gulf Coast ports to the international markets in 2014. While these volumes of re-exported tar sands crude are still small, they constitute an increasing share of the limited volumes of Canadian crude reaching the Gulf Coast today. If Keystone XL is built, market experts expect exports of Canadian tar sands from Gulf Coast ports to reach hundreds of thousands of barrels a day in coming years. As Marin King, an analyst with FirstEnergy Capital in Calgary observed about growing volumes of raw tar sands exports from the Gulf Coast:
"This is a viable opportunity for Canadian barrels to get out into the wider world. It's another source of revenue other than big brother United States." Martin King, FirstEnergy Capital analyst, April 2014
The President was right - Keystone XL is a tar sands pipeline through the United States, not to it. The pipeline would enable a substantial expansion of tar sands production - resulting in a significant increase in carbon emissions - putting our lands and waters at risk in order to allow the tar sands industry to access the international market.
This blog was co-drafted with Liz Barratt-Brown, NRDC Senior Advisor It seems that when the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is dealt a blow, the talk of a deal in exchange for its going forward picks up a notch.... Read More >
Talk of a deal on Keystone XL is foolhardy and presumptuous
This blog was co-drafted with Liz Barratt-Brown, NRDC Senior Advisor
It seems that when the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is dealt a blow, the talk of a deal in exchange for its going forward picks up a notch. Suddenly pundits and others feel free to suggest trading away a pipeline that thousands of students, Native Americans, ranchers and farmers, nurses and Nobel Laureates, and environmental groups are fighting to oppose. And they do so without thinking what it would mean to people living along its route, where a spill into their aquifer would ruin livelihoods. But most importantly, talk of a deal makes no sense as a deal involving approval of Keystone XL would defeat the very purpose of what these millions of people are trying to stop.
The latest talk of a deal is similar to a reported proposal a year and a half ago that would link the pipeline's approval with Canadian promises to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. But granting Keystone XL's permit is the very thing that is going to push Canada's emissions to exceed any commitments it might make. The tar sands industry has made it clear that approval of Keystone XL is the linchpin to their expansion plans. And all that expansion means carbon emissions. It is as if Canada is asking, "If you let us expand the industry that is doing the most damage to the climate, we will promise to treat the climate better." Trading Keystone XL is akin to giving an alcoholic a bottle of whiskey who promises sobriety tomorrow. It just won't work.
The Canadian federal government has demonstrated it has no intention to reduce emissions from its rapidly expanding tar sands sector. This would have been an obvious strategy to show that change can be made on the ground and to convince skeptics that the impacts of Keystone XL have been overblown. Instead the government hired high priced lobbyists and to this day denies that Keystone XL has any impact on carbon emissions upstream.
For over seven years, it has repeatedly promised and failed to deliver on regulations that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its tar sands sector. Because of rapidly growing tar sands emissions, Canada is on track to miss its international climate targets by a wide margin. In fact, there are no federal or provincial regulations in place or under active consideration that would reduce emissions from Canada's tar sands sector let alone ensure it is decreasing rapidly.
Here are the details on Canada's climate record (from our report with Environmental Defence):
"Growing emissions from Canada's tar sands sector are more than enough to cancel out every other efforts in the country to reduce emissions."
- Kyoto Protocol: In 2011, Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, with its emissions nearly 20 percent above its 1990 levels - higher than when it joined. Among the nations that ratified Kyoto, Canada is the only country to withdraw.
- Turning the Corner Plan: In 2008, the Canadian government released a plan calling for a 20 percent reduction from its 2006 emissions. It backed away from this target the next year during negotiation of the Copenhagen agreement.
- Copenhagen agreement: In 2009, Canada committed to reduce its emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels as part of the Copenhagen agreement but the country is on track to miss its targets by a significant margin equivalent to the emissions produced by all the country's power plants.
- Regulations in oil and gas sector: The Canadian government has failed to adopt a single regulation to limit emissions from this sector, and they are set to skyrocket over the coming years and decades.
- Growth in tar sands cancels out provincial efforts: Rising emissions from the tar sands is expected to triple from 2005 levels by 2020 and cancel out any advances made by the provinces. Promised carbon capture has not materialized.
- Canada seeks to squelch, not advance, action on climate: Over the last decade, Canada has aggressively promoted the tar sands expansion as central to its achieving "energy superpower" status including stopping a clean fuels policy in Europe. It has reduced support for climate research, ceased all major federal programs to support renewable energy development, gutted environmental requirements, muzzled scientists from speaking about climate change, and continued significant subsidies to the oil and gas sector.
Nearly 100,000 people have signed a pledge of resistance led by CREDO and others promising civil disobedience if the permit were to be approved.
Thankfully the Obama Administration moved quickly this time to squelch talks of a deal. And Canada once again re-iterated there could be no emissions trade because they won't concede Keystone XL is a global warming issue. It seems that while pundits might want to opine, they are getting scant pick up from the two players that matter most.
As a community, we will keep reiterating that there must be no deal on Keystone XL - that it is impossible to "mitigate" or "offset" tar sands emissions, that approving Keystone XL is in conflict with making progress on climate, and that it would put the lands and livelihoods of our tar sands partners along the route at great risk.
It is time to reject the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all.
When he vetoed legislation meant to force approval of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline last week, President Obama noted that the project is designed largely as a way to route Canadian tar sands to the global export... Read More >
Three facts you should know about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and...
When he vetoed legislation meant to force approval of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline last week, President Obama noted that the project is designed largely as a way to route Canadian tar sands to the global export market.
Sure enough, the Gulf Coast refineries the pipeline would serve already export the majority of the fuel they produce, leading a four fold increase in U.S. petroleum exports overall in just the past decade. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of barrels of unrefined tar sands are being exported for Gulf Coast ports daily—a figure that many energy experts expect to increase dramatically should Keystone XL be permitted.
The Washington Post Factchecker responded with outdated and demonstrably incorrect information, relying on an industry report we've debunked and dated State Department assumptions that have since proven wrong.
The President is on solid ground. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is an export pipeline through the United States, designed to increase the tar sands industry's access to the international market.
Here's what the President said:
"I've already said I'm happy to look at how we can increase pipeline production for U.S. oil, but Keystone is for Canadian oil to send that down to the Gulf. It bypasses the United States and is estimated to create a little over 250, maybe 300 permanent jobs. We should be focusing more broadly on American infrastructure for American jobs and American producers, and that's something that we very much support."
- President Obama, interview with WDAY of Fargo, N.D., Feb. 26, 2015 (emphasis added)
1. FACT: Refineries interested in Keystone XL export the majority of their refined product.
As we've detailed over the years, the Gulf Coast has become a major exporter of refined products—and coastal refineries now export the majority of their production. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Gulf refineries in coastal Texas and Louisiana exported the majority of their refined product for the first time in 2014 (with exports reaching 50.4% of their production over the course of the year). Gulf Coast exports of refined product reached an all time high of 3.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in December 2014. This means that Texas Gulf and Louisiana Gulf Coast refineries with access to coastal shipping exported 56% of the refined product produced in the region in December. We did not get here by accident—this has been part of a strategy that Gulf Coast refineries have been pursuing for over a decade to reposition from supplying the domestic market to maximizing their international exports—and this trend shows no signs of diminishing.
This trend is strongest among the refineries closest to the Keystone XL terminus points in the Texas ports of Houston and Port Arthur. These Texas coastal refineries began exporting the majority of their refined product in the final quarter of 2011, years before the ahead of their regional peers.
The refineries are leading a surge in U.S. exports of petroleum products, which have more than quadrupled in a decade, rising from 1 million barrels per day, on average, in 2004, to 4.2 million gallons a day in 2014 according to EIA data.
Valero, which is the largest buyer of capacity on Keystone XL, is at the forefront of this trend. Valero has been increasing the export capacity from its Gulf Coast refineries for years now. In its most recent investor presentation, Valero detailed plans to increase its Gulf Coast export capacity for gasoline and diesel alone to reach 780,000 bpd (slide 44). Given that the company's total Gulf Coast refinery capacity is less than 1.6 million bpd (slide 37), and gasoline and diesel production rarely accounts for more that 60% of a refineries output, this represents more the 80% of Valero's production of premium refined products. Moreover, lower quality refined products, such as petroleum coke—of which tar sands crude produces significantly more than conventional crude—tends to have much larger volumes exported than more products such as gasoline and diesel.
2. FACT: Unrefined Canadian tar sands crude is already being exported from the Gulf—a trend that is expected to increase.
The problem with the WaPo factchecker's argument that the Gulf Coast refineries would never allow raw Canadian crude to be exported is the fact that tar sands producers are already re-exporting 25,000 bpd of unrefined Canadian tar sands from Gulf Coast ports. That's about 10% of the total volume of Canadian crude making it to the Gulf Coast today.
Ed Morse, one of the few oil analysts who called the drop in oil prices, believes that this is just the beginning for Canadian crude re-exports from the Gulf and Martin King predicts them growing to 200,000 bpd in two years. To put that in perspective, that's more than two-thirds of all Canadian crude getting to the Gulf Coast today. We know industry is planning to re-export significantly larger volumes of Canadian tar sands from the Gulf because it is already sending millions of barrels of tar sands to refineries in Europe and Asia for testing and has spend enormous resources lobbying to weaken the European Union fuel quality standard to preserve access to that market.
The WaPo factchecker relies on the early 2014 State Department environmental review to support his critique of the President. The State Department report was published before 1) the Gulf Coast became inundated by domestic crude, lowering prices relative to international markets and 2) the trend of Canadian re-exports from the Gulf had become clear. Today, State's assumption that re-exports of Canadian crude wouldn't happen is no more accurate than its proposition that oil prices would stay between $90 and $140 a barrel. Re-exports of Canadian tar sands are a reality—and should Keystone XL bring more tar sands to the Gulf, energy experts believe they will increase substantially.
3. FACT: Keystone XL is designed for Canadian tar sands, not domestic crude.
Keystone XL was proposed in 2008, it was planned to be a bullet pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf for Canadian crude. While it's true that domestic oil producers negotiated on ramp with 100,000 bpd capacity for North Dakota crude, the state's producers have shown a marked disinterest in pipelines to the Gulf Coast, which is already inundated with light crude.
Rather than moving their crude by pipeline to the Gulf Coast, North Dakota's producers are shipping their product by rail to the East and West Coasts. According to North Dakota's Pipeline Authority, Bakken producers are only using about 25% of their existing pipeline capacity—the rest is moving by rail. They have turned down two major new oil pipelines—the 200,000 bpd Bakken Crude Express and the 250,000 bpd Dakota Express and are only using a fraction of their current pipeline capacity.
The North Dakota's Pipeline Authority shows the state will have 3.15 million bpd of rail and pipeline export capacity by 2017—the earliest Keystone XL could be built. Of course, that's three times as much capacity as North Dakota currently needs—and of that inflated figure, North Dakota only puts Keystone XL down for 20,000 bpd. Based on how much excess transport capacity North Dakota will have and how underutilized the state's pipelines already are, that figure will likely prove to be an overestimate.
Keystone XL is an export tar sands pipeline through the United States, not to it. It would carry tar sands to Texas Gulf Coast ports where refineries have been exporting the majority of their product for years and where an increasing amount of Canadian tar sands goes straight from pipelines to tankers to be exported elsewhere. Domestic producers in North Dakota not only don't need Keystone XL, by all accounts, they don't want it. And the pipeline would enable the expansion of some of the dirtiest and most carbon intensive crude oil in the world, undermining efforts to address climate change while putting our communities, lands and waters at risk. It is not in the nation's interest and should be rejected.
Last year NRDC filed a petition with EPA asking them to review the use of glyphosate (also known as Roundup) in light of its effects on monarch butterflies and to impose restrictions on its use. After more than a year,... Read More >
Monarch butterflies can't wait another year - EPA needs to act now
Last year NRDC filed a petition with EPA asking them to review the use of glyphosate (also known as Roundup) in light of its effects on monarch butterflies and to impose restrictions on its use. After more than a year, EPA has yet to respond to our petition so today we are filing a lawsuit to compel them to act with expediency.
Anyone who has been following the plight of the monarch butterflies knows that they are in trouble. In the last 15 years their population has dropped dramatically from a high of a billion in the late 1990s to a mere 56.5 million this year--the second lowest count on record.
While more than 50 million butterflies may sound like a lot, it is actually dangerously low. The population which spends its winters in the forests of Mexico is vulnerable to cold snaps or other weather events which in the past have killed more butterflies than the existing population.
Scientist agree that the leading factor in the decline of monarch butterflies is the loss of milkweed, a native wildflower that the caterpillars depend on as their only food source. With the adoption of genetically modified crops that are resistant to the application of the herbicide glyphosate (also known as Roundup) milkweed that was once found in agricultural fields has been largely eliminated from the agricultural Midwest. And without sufficient amounts of milkweed the monarch population has declined.
The EPA is responsible for ensuring that the pesticides it approves do not have harmful effects on the environment. Clearly, the decline of monarch butterflies was an unintended consequence of the broad use of glyphosate. However, now that it has been identified the EPA needs to review glyphosate and impose restrictions that would help mitigate the damage that it is doing to monarch butterflies. Instead, the EPA recently approved another pesticide containing glyphosate, Enlist Duo, which we are challenging.
Rather than approving more pesticides, it's time for EPA to reverse the damage that these pesticides are causing. Since the EPA last reviewed glyphosate, its use in the US has soared. This unprecedented onslaught is hurting the monarchs as they make their migration, which will begin soon. We, and the monarchs, can't afford to wait any longer for EPA to act.
A recent opinion piece by Daniel Rubinoff argued that efforts to save the declining monarch butterfly in the US are misplaced. Chief among Rubinoff's arguments is that other species of butterflies, moths and spiders are in more critical condition and... Read More >
Let's not shoot the Monarch messenger: Butterflies (and critters) of all...
A recent opinion piece by Daniel Rubinoff argued that efforts to save the declining monarch butterfly in the US are misplaced. Chief among Rubinoff's arguments is that other species of butterflies, moths and spiders are in more critical condition and deserve as much attention. Certainly, no one is suggesting that other species should be overlooked. Indeed, let's not lose sight of the fact that many of these "less well-known insects," as Rubinoff puts it, are facing threats from the same common denominator: habitat loss and pesticide use. Addressing these issues on a broad, national scale—as is being proposed for the monarch butterfly—will bring benefits to many critters—even those we may not know as well.
In the US right now pollinators of all kinds are facing serious problems. Native prairies that were once the home for many species have been converted into large agricultural monocultures. In many areas the broad scale use of the herbicide glyphosate—also known as Roundup—in connection with genetically modified Roundup ready crops has effectively eliminated milkweed, a native wildflower that the monarch butterfly depends on. Additionally, large swaths of crops are treated with a class of pesticides called neonicitinoids which are known to severely impair bees and other beneficial insects. America's heartland has turned into a deathtrap for critters of all kinds.
Monarch butterflies are the most recognized species of butterfly in the US. They put a face (or rather recognizable wings) on the problem of species decline. Having plunged 90% in the past 15 years the migrating population that spends its winters in Mexico is now perilously small. Previous cold snaps have killed off more butterflies than currently exist suggesting that even at 50 million butterflies we are one bad weather event away from losing the entire migrating population.
But even if you buy Rubinoff's premise that the monarch migration in North America is not in danger of being lost, do we really want to send a message that it's ok if they dwindle down to numbers so small that no one in the future will remember the scores of butterflies that used to grace their backyards each summer? Let's not shoot the most inspiring of insect messengers whose decline has finally woken up government officials—from three nations, no less—to the fact that we are managing our world towards extinction.
Instead, let's embrace the fact that our government has just acknowledged that a monumental effort is needed to combat the damage that decades of poor land use practices have wreaked on our natural world. Let's delight in the fact that people from all over want to do whatever it takes to make sure monarch butterflies visit their gardens. And let's celebrate the fact that the USFWS has dedicated $3.2 million dollars towards an effort that will help improve habitat not just for monarchs but for many other "less well-known insects." Saving the monarch brings benefits to us all.
The coastal California gnatcatcher - a small bird that dines on insects and mews like a kitten - lives in the distinctive coastal sage scrub habitat of southern California. This habitat, much like the bird, is highly endangered in... Read More >
Strike Two: Developers' second shot at the coastal California gnatcatcher...
The coastal California gnatcatcher - a small bird that dines on insects and mews like a kitten - lives in the distinctive coastal sage scrub habitat of southern California. This habitat, much like the bird, is highly endangered in the US having been reduced by 70-90% over the last several decades due largely to development. As a result, the Coastal California gnatcatcher has also declined and in 1993 the gnatcatcher was added to the federal Endangered Species Act list. Nonetheless, every couple of years or so developers like the National Association of Home Builders and the Pacific Legal Foundation petition to have Endangered Species Act protections removed from gnatcatcher by claiming that the bird is not distinguishable from similar birds farther south in Baja California.
Most recently, these developers filed a petition to remove Endangered Species Act protections from the gnatcatcher based on a new genetic study - which they paid for. This is the second such study that they claim demonstrates that the Coastal California gnatcatcher is not a valid subspecies. And it's the second one that fails to do so.
First of all, much like their initial study, this one by Zink et al. relies on slowly evolving gene regions that would not be expected to demonstrate differences at the subspecies level. In fact the authors themselves have previously argued against using the very type of genes that they used for this study. Furthermore, despite the fact that these genes would not be expected to show differentiation below the species level, a subsequent reanalysis of the authors' own data by another research team shows that 2 of the 7 genes actually do differentiate the coastal California gnatcatcher from other gnatcatchers to the south suggesting a genetic basis for their distinction even without using more informative genetic data.
Second, the Zink et al. study claims to use ecological niche modeling to show that gnatcatchers are habitat generalists and therefore the coastal California gnatcatcher is not uniquely adapted to the coastal sage scrub environment. They acknowledge that the coastal California gnatcatcher "occupies the distinctive CSS habitat in the north" and that they "do not have identical niches" to the gnatcatchers to the south, but they argue that when the backgrounds of each environment are taken into account that the two groups "do not exhibit significant niche divergence." However, here the authors simply misinterpret their own results. Rather than demonstrating a lack of niche divergence their analysis is inconclusive - that is, the analysis cannot determine whether there is niche divergence or not likely due to the type of data they used for their model. Zink et al. relied on climatic data that are inherently limited for detecting spatial differences and do not necessarily reflect aspects that are biologically important to the species - a point which the authors' concede.
In short, once again the developers have tried to claim that the coastal California gnatcatcher is not a subspecies and once again they have failed. The best available science continues to support the coastal California gnatcatcher as a subspecies that has been recognized for almost a century. Nonetheless the US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently evaluating the groups' petition as they have in the past. Each time the US Fish and Wildlife Service has confirmed the status of the coastal California gnatcatcher and its need for continued protections. They should do so again.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
A column of fire lighting the sky. Oil spilling into a nearby river. If the horrifying images of this weekend's West Virginia oil train fire and spill seem familiar; they should. We saw the same type of disaster in... Read More >
Unregulated oil by rail versus Keystone XL: A false choice
A column of fire lighting the sky. Oil spilling into a nearby river. If the horrifying images of this weekend's West Virginia oil train fire and spill seem familiar; they should. We saw the same type of disaster in the state last summer too, when a train derailed last April in Lynchburg, Virginia, dumping 29,000 gallons of crude oil into the James River.
And like last year, Big Oil's allies will try to turn this mess into an argument for their pet project: the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Their argument is that we can build the pipeline OR we will have more fiery infernos along the nation's rail lines. It's a scare tactic. And it's wrong.
Building Keystone XL will do little or nothing to reduce the risk of fiery disasters like we have seen in West Virginia (and Minnesota and North Dakota).
That is because those oil trains are carrying oil from the Bakken formation in the Dakotas.
Shale oil from North Dakota's Bakken formation - like oil fracked from other shale deposits in places like Colorado, Wyoming, Texas and elsewhere - contains particularly high levels of flammable gases and it has shown a higher risk of igniting in crashes. As railroads ferry more and more of this kind of crude, the risks of transporting potentially explosive cargo touches more and more of our communities.
North Dakota's producers aren't shipping their product by rail because they're not able to build pipelines. In fact, Bakken producers turned down two major pipeline proposals by Oneok and Koch Industries that would have shipped nearly half a million barrels a day to the Midwest and Gulf Coast. The simple fact is that for a variety of reasons, North Dakota's producers prefer shipping their crude by rail to the East and West Coasts than to the Gulf Coast by pipeline.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is not going to take that oil off the rails. It is designed to move thick, carbon-intensive tar sands from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Very little tar sands is moving by rail. Because shipping heavy thick bitumen by rail requires specialized infrastructure and tar sands is already so expensive to produce, the increased cost of putting tar sands on trains make it unlikely we will see that change any time soon. The first companies to try to make tar sands by rail work are either on or past the brink of bankruptcy.
If we want to reduce the risks from oil trains, let's fix the trains and toughen safety standards. Many of the same industry groups pushing to build Keystone XL are fighting the common sense safeguards that would protect our communities from crude by rail accidents. Disingenuous efforts to tie rail safety to tar sands pipeline construction is a bait and switch that hide the industry's desire for more pipelines AND unregulated rail access. To prevent crude by rail accidents like the one in West Virginia, we are going to have to get serious about addressing the risks emanating from the crude by rail boom.
The following is a guest blog post by Margaret Hsieh, an attorney in NRDC's New York office. Female monarch in Cerro Pelón portion of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Photo credit: Margaret Hsieh. High in the Sierra Madre mountains of... Read More >
“Butterflies fill the air”: A Guest Blog From the Monarch...
The following is a guest blog post by Margaret Hsieh, an attorney in NRDC's New York office.
High in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico, complete stillness seems to reign at first. The woods are tranquil, worlds apart from the hustle and bustle of the town where I've been based. As I adjust to the surrounding serenity, however, I start to notice movement all around me. At first it is imperceptible, but then it becomes unmistakable: the entire area is palpitating with the beating of thousands of butterfly wings.
I was in the Cerro Pelón portion of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, helping to monitor the remaining population of North American monarch butterflies that overwinters in Mexico each winter. Since mid-January, I accompanied staff from the World Wildlife Fund, Danaidas, and the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) to different portions of the reserve and beyond, to monitor and count the monarch colonies inhabiting each area.
The monarchs are a wonder to behold. On cold days, dense groups of butterflies hang immobile from oyamel fir and pine trees, like immense chandeliers that have sprouted bizarre and magnificent scales. But on warm days, countless monarchs descend from their roosts in search of nectar. Butterflies fill the air, carpet the ground, and alight on flowers, leaves, and branches. Those high in the sky appear as brilliant specks of orange and black, like intricately patterned confetti fluttering in the sunshine.
The monarch is a remarkable species that journeys over 2,500 miles across the North American continent annually. It takes four to five generations of butterflies to complete a single migratory cycle from Mexico to Canada and back. No butterfly that arrives in Mexico has ever been there before. Yet, somehow, the monarchs return to the same mountaintops every year.
The monarch's spectacular migration has evolved over thousands of years. Yet, within just two decades, human activity has put this phenomenon in danger, wreaking a dramatic decline of over ninety percent in the migrating monarch population. The population has been devastated by a combination of deforestation in its winter habitat, climate change, and—above all—by the pervasive use of glyphosate-containing herbicides in the United States, which has decimated the milkweed on which monarchs depend. Just last week, Mexican authorities released data indicating that monarch numbers from this year are the second lowest ever: approximately 56.5 million butterflies compared to over a billion individuals in 1997.
Although there has been a clear downward progression in monarch numbers, this decline is not inevitable. The Mexican experience provides a striking example of how forceful and concerted action can counter destruction of the butterflies' habitat. In the past, illegal logging was a key threat to the monarch reserve. Responding to this crisis, the Mexican government strengthened its enforcement efforts. Just as importantly, the government, NGOs, and private entities have collaborated to provide funding and support to local communities to develop alternative, non-timber-based sources of income. Revenue from activities such as tourism, reforestation, sale of handicrafts, and production of edible mushrooms in greenhouses has taken significant pressure off the forests inhabited by monarchs. Although small-scale logging remains a problem, large-scale logging in these forests all but ceased by 2012.
The progress in Mexico is inspiring but cannot, on its own, reverse the monarch's decline. Success in conservation of the butterflies' winter habitat in Mexico stands in sharp contrast to the ongoing, large-scale destruction of the butterflies' milkweed habitat in the United States. With the adoption of genetically modified crops that are resistant to glyphosate (also known as Roundup), the corresponding increase in use of the herbicide has led to widespread destruction of milkweed throughout the agricultural Midwest—a key breeding ground for monarchs in the United States.
We don't have to choose between monarchs and food production. Prior to the widespread use of glyphosate, milkweed grew, and monarchs thrived, alongside crops in agricultural fields. However, we do need to fight back against Big Ag interests in maximizing profits through ever-increasing pesticide sales. Last February, NRDC petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review glyphosate in light of serious harm to monarchs; NRDC also challenged EPA's approval of a new, glyphosate-containing pesticide called Enlist Duo. By scaling back excessive use of pesticides and planting more milkweed, we will not only help to safeguard monarchs, but will also pave the way for more productive farms and healthier communities.
Seeing the monarchs this winter has been a life-changing experience. But I hope it is not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With luck—and lots of effort by involved citizens in both countries—the monarch's extraordinary migration will be around for many years to come.