The Showdown Over Keystone, Ctd

A reader huffs:

Regarding Dave Roberts’ comment that blocking Keystone “will show that there’s life in the climate movement”, I beg to differ.  Keystone is a symbolic victory without any substance; if the moral victory is to “show that people can mobilize around climate with the numbers”, congratulations, you just won a victory that has zero effect on climate change.

I’ve been an environmentalist since I was a kid roaming the mountains of New Hampshire and the backwoods of Maine, but I cringe at supporting any environmental group that is focusing on Keystone.  Today my charitable giving instead goes to groups like the Nature Conservancy that are actually working to protect forests, make coral reefs more resistant to climate change, and otherwise finding practical solutions instead of spending their resources fighting moral victories. If Roberts’ “climate movement” wants me to join them, start picking battles that actually matter – write a bill that sets national renewable standards, or that creates long-lasting incentives for non-carbon energy sources, or something that ACTUALLY MAKES A DIFFERENCE for the climate, and I’ll happily join the cause.

Another counters:

You quote a reader who says “Believing that stopping XL will benefit the environment is just sticking your head in the oil-sands.” Then you allow Dave Roberts to counter, with his claim that such commentators “apply wonk logic to an activist problem.”  Not at all.  If fact, it’s the “wonk logic” of your reader that’s off track.

Max Auffhammer, an environmental economist at UC-Berkeley, did the math last March and estimated that “not building Keystone XL will likely leave a billion barrels worth of bitumen in the ground.” All that bitumen simply cannot get out of Canada fast enough on trains.  If Keystone XL goes down, a lot of CO2 will never enter earth’s atmosphere. McKibben isn’t right on everything, but he’s at least partly right on this.


To the reader who asked for a dose of reality when it comes to building Keystone; yes, this Liberal will give you that the oil will come out regardless of whether or not Keystone is built.  Since we’re being honest, time for some honesty from the other side as well. First, stop saying this is about jobs.  Why do the oil companies want the pipeline? Because it lowers their cost to get the product to market.  The money they would pay to thousands of truck drivers and train companies they now get to keep.  Yes, there will be some temporary construction jobs created, but once the pipeline is built, it will take very little people to manage, so the net impact will be less jobs.

More honesty?  Whether Keystone is built or not, it will have zero impact on oil prices and therefore no impact on everyday Americans.  Even more?  Yes, the likelihood of a spill is less for the pipeline versus rail/truck, but the pipeline is carrying significantly more oil and a leak can go undetected for some time, so the chance is less but the impact is much, much larger.

So the last reality I’d like to reader to face is this has nothing to do with helping middle/lower class in this country.  This is about people in the oil industry making as much money as they possibly can.

On that note:

As you’re covering the Keystone XL activity today/this week, I hope you’ll include an important factor in these votes and debates that isn’t getting covered: the $721 million the energy industry spent in the 2014 midterms to put industry-friendly politicians in Congress.

It’s no surprise that congressional leaders are so focused on passing Keystone their first weeks back in Washington. Despite this clear connection, most of the Keystone coverage has not highlighted how much the fight for this bill on the House and Senate floors is directly tied to the fundraising dollars that politicians received from big oil. Here are few valuable resources for you if you’re looking into how big oil has influenced the movement on Keystone:

  • How oil and gas lobbying money and election donations have influenced votes in Congress, like promoting offshore drilling or stopping clean energy initiatives, that go directly against the interests of the majority of Americans;
  • How coal, oil, and gas industries have worked behind the scenes to encourage easing restrictions on private money in elections and to strip disenfranchised communities of their voting rights

Cast Away

by Dish Staff


Chris Mooney flags a troubling new study finding that the world’s oceans now contain more than five trillion pieces of plastic, weighing more than 250,000 tons:

With a global population of about 7.2 billion, that’s nearly 700 pieces per person.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One by Marcus Eriksen of the Five Gyres Institute in Los Angeles and a large group of colleagues, is based on data from 24 separate ocean expeditions, conducted between 2007 and 2013, to sample plastic pollution. Plastic was either observed from boats, or hauled up from the ocean by nets, in 1,571 locations. The data were then used to run an ocean model to simulate the amount and distribution of plastic debris.

The result not only yielded the estimate of over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the global ocean — it also cast light on how plastic changes within the ocean (breaking down into smaller pieces) and circulates around the globe. Pieces between 1 millimeter and 4.75 millimeters in size were by far the most prevalent class of plastic in the ocean. However, by weight, really large pieces of plastic, greater than 200 millimeters in size, were the most significant.

Katy Steinmetz touches on efforts to rein in microbeads – the tiny bits of plastic found in exfoliating body washes and face scrubs – which contribute significantly to this problem:

These little orbs, introduced to replace harsher exfoliants like pumice, are so small that after they’re washed down the sink or tub, they sneak through sifters at water treatment plants and end up in the ocean and other bodies of water. Once in the ocean, researchers have found, these plastics act like sponges for toxins, and can be accidentally ingested by fish, thus ending up in the food chain. Several states considered bills to ban microbeads last session, but only Illinois passed a law, becoming the first state to do so. Now lawmakers in at least three states are gearing up for another go in 2015.

“We were outgunned,” says Stiv Wilson, associate director at 5 Gyres, a non-profit dedicated to fighting plastic pollution. In California, the industry group Personal Care Products Council—which represents companies like Johnson & Johnson and Clinique—lobbied members to oppose a bill that would have banned the use of microbeads, saying it was “overly aggressive and unrealistic.” The bill failed by one vote. The same state assemblyman who proposed that bill, Richard Bloom, plans to try again, with what Wilson says will be a “much broader coalition” of supporters.

Previous Dish on microbeads here and plastic more generally in the oceans here.

(Image via Antonio Foncubierta)

A Great Vanishing Sea

New satellite images from NASA show that the Aral Sea, a once-vast lake on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has almost completely dried up. At first glance, the sea looks like another victim of climate change, but in fact its depletion originated in ill-considered Soviet agricultural policies:

Actually a freshwater lake, the Aral Sea once had a surface area of 26,000 square miles (67,300 square kilometers). It had long been been ringed with prosperous towns and supported a lucrative muskrat pelt industry and thriving fishery, providing 40,000 jobs and supplying the Soviet Union with a sixth of its fish catch. The Aral Sea was fed by two of Central Asia’s mightiest rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.

But in the 1960s, Soviet engineers decided to make the vast steppes bloom. They built an enormous irrigation network, including 20,000 miles of canals, 45 dams, and more than 80 reservoirs, all to irrigate sprawling fields of cotton and wheat in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. But the system was leaky and inefficient, and the rivers drained to a trickle. In the decades that followed, the Aral Sea was reduced to a handful of small lakes, with a combined volume that was one-tenth the original lake’s size and that had much higher salinity, due to all the evaporation.

Anna Nemtsova explains how the events of the past decade finished it off:

The final chapter began in 2005, when the World Bank gave Kazakhstan the first $68 million credit to build a 13-kilometer-long dam to split the Aral Sea into halves: the Northern Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and the Southern Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. The dam prevented water from Kazakhstan’s Syr Darya from flowing into Uzbekistan’s half of the sea.

By 2008, Kazakhstan had managed to complete take control over the Syr Darya water, reviving 68 percent of the northern sea, reducing the salinity by half, and once again developing the fishing industry. On the southern, Uzbek side, however, the sea dried up that much faster. Uzbekistan, largely dependent on cotton, the industry of white gold, could not afford to re-channel water to its half. Also, with the water vanishing, the Russian oil company Lukoil found a silver lining in the disaster, setting out in 2006 to explore for oil and gas on the bottom of the Aral Sea in the Uzbek sector.

While climate change is not primarily responsible for the shrinking sea, it’s making the problem worse:

Recent studies suggest only 14% of the shrinking of the Aral Sea since the 1960s was caused by climate change, with irrigation by far the biggest culprit. Researchers looking at what will happen to Aral Sea levels with global warming over the next few decades have combined several model predictions together and expect net water loss to increase as more evaporation leads to less river inflow. However, if irrigation of the rivers continues, then net water loss will be even greater as river flow into the Aral Sea will essentially cease.

Sacking Plastic Bags, Ctd


Joseph Stromberg thinks the importance of reducing plastic-bag use has been overstated:

In 500 to 1000 years, the primary concern for pretty much every ecosystem on earth will be global warming. The facts on this are pretty clear. If we don’t significantly cut back on greenhouse gas emissions very soon, the world will get hotter, sea levels will rise, and the oceans will turn more acidic, among other problems. If we let truly drastic levels of warming occur — and at this point, there’s no sign we’re doing anything to stop it — scientists warn that profound disruptions to both modern human society and the natural world are very likely.

What does all this have to do with plastic bags? When it comes to greenhouse gases, they’re once again dramatically less important than the products we buy and put inside them.

Vauhini Vara has a more favorable take on the issue:

I live in San Francisco, where a local plastic-bag ban and paper-bag charge went into effect in 2012.


At the time, I was working for the Wall Street Journal. While working on an article about the city ordinance, I called a grocery store in my neighborhood, Canyon Market, to see how its owners felt about the law. Janet Tarlov, who owns the store with her husband, didn’t like the idea of giving shoppers fewer options, and worried that the inconvenience would persuade some of them to drive to nearby cities without bans or fees. “On balance, I think it’s a bad idea,” she told me at the time.

On Thursday, I called Tarlov again to see how things had played out. She laughed, a bit abashedly: “I’ve changed my mind,” she said. Even though paper bags tend to cost more than plastic bags, Tarlov thinks that the amount she has spent over all on bags since the ban has grown by less than her revenue has. Tarlov’s store pays about twenty-five cents for each paper bag it uses, and the ten-cent charge covers only part of that. But, in the past, the store had to cover the entire cost of the paper bags. (Bigger grocery chains can pay much less for paper bags, as little as a couple cents apiece; the California law requires that if stores end up with proceeds from the paper-bag fees, after covering the cost of the bags, they have to spend the money on activities related to the law, like educating customers about bringing their own reusable bags.) Plus, the ten-cent paper-bag charge has had more of an impact than Tarlov expected; more people are bringing their own reusable bags. “Our consumption of bags has gone way down,” she said. “That’s good for the environment, and people adjusted to it very quickly.”