2013-2015

2013

January 4 — Crystal River nuclear power plant financing starts to unravel as Duke Energy Co.  declares the plant “inoperable.” The insurance system that is supposed to pool risk against minor incidents says it is overburdened, and  the fiasco spreads.   The Tampa Times editorial reflects the deep loss of confidence that the world nuclear industry now confronts:

Duke Energy officials say they are contemplating repairs at Crystal River and estimate costs would fall between $1.5 billion and $3.5 billion. At the same time, Duke refuses to pay taxes on the Citrus County property appraiser’s $2.4 billion assessment, which includes about $600 million for the nuclear plant. So Duke is weighing $3 billion in potential repairs on a structure it swears is worth less than $600 million? That is a shell game only a corporate bloodsucker or Florida legislator could applaud.

A month later, the plant is permanently closed, and related developments show that nuclear power prospects are declining in the US and Japan.

The city of Beijing struggles through months of life-threatening toxic smog in the winter of 2012 and spring of 2013.  Increasing cancer is one result.  One small silver lining is that  the obvious environmental problem creates an opening for more political dialogue, similar to Glasnost in 1980s  Russia, which took off in part as a response to that country’s environmental problems and the Chernobyl disaster.

US Electric utilities running on coal start going bankrupt in the US as the price of natural gas undercuts an older, heavily subsidized rate structure.  The leveraged Texas utility Energy Future Holdings bankruptcy exposed the built-in subsidies and their weaknesses.   Both coal and nuclear power faced new competition from increasingly cheap natural gas from “fracking.”

Exxon loses $236 million lawsuit by state of New Hampshire over MTBE contamination on April 8, the first state-level lawsuit, with anywhere from $1 to $15 billion more to come in estimated liabilities in other states.   MTBE was an octane booster that replaced other options such as leaded gasoline and severe reforming / BTX compounds.   Surprisingly, despite its well known threat to groundwater, MTBE is still marketed as safe in many other countries.

Renewable energy goals are increasingly set aside in the US as the price of natural gas declines, apparently without any historical memory of the boom and bust energy cycles.

March 13 — Pope Francis:  Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is elected Pope,  leader of the Catholic Church.  He choses the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor and of   animals and the environment.

April 8 — Death of Mikhail Beketov, a Russian environmental journalist who became a symbol of the effects of government impunity and brutality. His death was a direct result of a beating in 2008 for his defense of Russia’s environment, especially the Khimki Forest, which he said was being plundered by Russian government officials.

April 20-22  — Earth Day is a bust in the US, with far fewer communities participating and perhaps one quarter of the news articles being written than only a few years before.  As usual, when concerns about the environment dip dramatically, other concerns are at work: in this case, the Boston Marathon bombing.

Germany’s Energiewende faces problems, as might be expected, transitioning from fossil and nuclear to all renewable energy.  Still, as documented in the book Clean Break, Germans are determined.

May 28 — Air pollution in northern China from unrestricted use of coal caused 500 million residents of Northern China to lose more than 2.5 billion life years of life expectancy, or an average of five years each,  compared to residents of southern China, where coal is not used for heating, according to a PNAS paper by Yuyu Chen and colleagues.

July 6 — Over 50 dead in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, as an oil train races out of control and explodes in a small town.  The train disaster raises questions about the safety of trains versus pipelines, and also about the safety and wisdom of a petroleum economy in the first place.

July 11 —  Google incorporated hosts a fund-raiser for leading climate denier and ultra-right wing US Sen. James Inhofe. Google’s hard right turn, combined with its cooperation US government surveillance, is ominous for world flow of  information.

July 16 — Twenty two school children die in India after eating a lunch that had been accidentally poisoned by pesticides.  The children are among about 200,000 people a year being killed by organo-phosphorous pesticides, one news agency reports.

Aug 20 — Nigeria’s president vows that the lead poisoning that killed 400 children working in the country’s gold mines will never occur again.  The lead poisoning took place in the late 2008 – 2010 period as small scale gold mines popped up in Zamfara State.

Summer 2013 — Violent crime is down worldwide, and the correspondence to the decline in blood lead levels from taking lead out of gasoline is rather more than coincidental.   Mother Jones.

Sept. 8 — Japan wins  bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games, despite the Fukushima disaster.   Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says the future of Japan now  hinges on decommissioning the reactors and containing the radiation.

Sept. 15 — Anglo-American mining company pulls out of a  highly controversial Pebble  Alaskan mining operation.      Meanwhile, expansion of mining operations in northern Chile proves controversial.   And thousands of Romanians protest government give-away of a gold mine to Gabriel Resources.

Sept. 27 — Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fifth assessment, says climate scientists are 95 percent certain that “human influence has been the dominant cause” of global warming.  While the conclusion isn’t different from previous assessment, the research behind climate science has  improved.  

Minamata Convention on mercury poisoning signed Oct. 10, 2013  —  A thousand delegates from  140 nations — but not the US —  adopted a treaty that controls the use and trade of mercury.  The convention was named for the Japanese city that suffered thousands of deaths and injuries from uncontrolled releases of mercury into the ocean and, ultimately, into the food chain.  In the 1950s and 60s, “Minimata disease” was one of the world’s earliest and strongest wake-up calls for environmental protection. Some 65,000 patients have applied for help, but only  3,000 were officially recognized. That number is set to expand following  an April 16, 2013 ruling of Japan’s Supreme Court.   Some supporters have demanded that the government conduct a thorough investigation on the spread of the disease but they have been refused. That it took over 55 years for Japan to begin to  recognize the broader implications of Minamata disease, and for the international community to form an agreement, despite obvious need,  indicates the extraordinary weakness of environmental laws.  Still, as Environmental Health News noted:

The UN mercury treaty now bears Minamata’s name. This creates a special obligation to meet the demands of mercury-poisoned victims in the Japanese seaside city and transform a human tragedy into an opportunity for change…

Pope Francis

Nov. 24 — Pope Francis issues Evangelii Gaudium, which says (¶ 56).

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

Dec. 19 — Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere pass the 400 parts per million mark.   The last time the atmosphere had that much carbon, seas were 40 meters higher.   Meanwhile, experts say climate change is leading to the spread of dsease, along with drought and famine, public health experts say.

 Globally, 2013 was tied with 2003 as the fourth warmest year on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

2014

Jan. 9 — A catastrophic spill of methyl cyclohexane  shuts down water supplies for 300,000 people in Charleston, W.Va., sending shock waves through the most industry-friendly political establishment in the US. The “Elk River chemical spill” (as it was known) produces a little soul-searching but not much protection for West Virginians.

Jan 21 — One quarter of the world’s cartilaginous fish — sharks and rays among them — face extinction within the next few decades, according to latest research.

Feb 3  — Duke Energy Co.’s coal ash pond on the Dan River releases  82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water.

Feb 16  – American science educator and engineer Bill Nye  debates global warming with congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).  

Feb 19 —   Melting sea ice in the Arctic and the resulting exposure of dark water is reducing Earth’s albedo more than previously forecast, according to NASA.  

April 3 — Navajo uranium cleanup — US Dept. of Justice announces largest environmental fine in US history against Andarko Petroleum — $5.15 billion — for damages suffered by Navajo tribes in the Southeastern US during uranium mining.

April 11 — The IPCC releases another key part of the Fifth Assessment Report  on climate change.   The executive summary (pdf) helps explain the “unequivocal”  findings, which include:

    • Warming of the atmosphere and ocean system is unequivocal. Many of the associated impacts such as sea level change (among other metrics) have occurred since 1950 at rates unprecedented in the historical record.
    • There is a clear human influence on the climate
    • It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since 1950, with the level of confidence having increased since the fourth report.

May 6 — US National Climate Assessment report,  written by more than 300 experts from 13 government agencies, states: “Observations unequivocally show that climate is changing and that the warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.”

May 11 — Antarctic ice sheets are melting, NASA says.

May 31 — Retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, leader of the South African anti-apartheid campaign, says that tar sands are “filth” and Canada should not develop them.

June 2 — US President Barack Obama proposes new carbon emissions rules for power plants in order to slow the rate of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere and fight climate change.  The new rules are greeted with enthusiasm in some areas, despair in others.   The rules are a compromise and not as strong as environmentalists hoped and some industries feared.

June 5 — Mountaintop Removal Mining — a scourge of Appalachia’s environment — is one step closer to ending after a federal district court ruling   that the practice is ruining water and aquatic ecosystems.

Aug 1 — Public opinion — Americans are deeply polarized over environmental issues, according to polls from Michigan State University and the Pew Center.  While environmental issues united the country in the 1970s, they  became increasingly divisive after the fall of the Soviet Union. At that point, around 1991, when the “red scare” was replaced by the “green scare.” Other polling by 2015 shows the divisions are not so sharp.

Aug 3 — Nuclear decommissioning — One of the first major nuclear power plant decommissioning projects in the US, to take place at San Onofre, California, will cost $4.4 billion, according to Southern California Edison.   The plant has been one of the least safe in the US, according to environmentalists.

Aug 4 — Dam breaks at Mount Polley mine in central British Columbia dumping 24 million cubic meters of water and mine tailings into Quesnel Lake.

Sept. 21 — People’s Climate March in New York brings over 400,000 people demonstrating for action on climate threats.

November 4 —  Republicans win majority in US Senate and retain their majority in House, fallowing 2014 mid-term elections with the lowest voter turnout since World War II.  Anti-environmental politicians now dominate science, energy and environment committees in both houses for the first time in history.  Although American public opinion remains strongly in favor of environmental protection, the influence of over $750 million in energy industry campaign money — more than any other industry — was a major factor. Such campaign spending would have been illegal only a few years beforehand. Another factor is the mid-term disadvantage of parties in power.

Nov. 11 — Concerned about depletion of fish stocks, regulators shut down cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine.

December — International climate talks (COP 20) end on a disappointing note in Lima, Peru, where weak voluntary agreements to cut back on some carbon emissions are seen as failing poor countries.

Dec. 15 — Greenland’s ice sheets are melting quickly, according to papers submitted to the American Geophysical Union.  Fully melted, Greenland ice alone would raise world sea level by 20 feet.

Increased fracking for natural gas in the US, coupled with over-production of oil  in Saudi Arabia, sends world fossil fuel prices into the basement in a race to control the future of energy.  The short-term winners are (probably) the oil industry and the Saudis.  The losers are (probably) the Russians, the renewable energy industry and the nuclear industry — and of course, the environment.  Only one state in the US — New York — has the foresight to slow down the rush to natural gas in December, 2014, concerned about air and water pollution.  But other states had the same information.

2015   – 

Evidence continues to mount concerning the gravity of global climate change:

Colleges and financial institutions are increasingly divesting from fossil fuels over issues like climate change and mountaintop removal mining.

Biofuels represent something of a wrong turn in the search for sustainable energy, according to a January 2015  World Resources Institute report.

Solar:   Now that the economics of renewable energy are favorable, electric utilities are stepping up their fight against solar energy in Japan and the US.  But offshore wind energy is faltering in the US.

Drought afflicts nations around the world.  On the US West Coast reaches grim new levels, necessitating mandatory conservation regulations and calling into question the idea of endless growth.   Taps  were also running dry in Sao Paulo, Brazil.    And a water crisis was under way in Pakistan.

Jan. 16 — Animal loss in world oceans has reached crisis proportions, scientists say.

Jan. 26 — Alaska Wilderness — White House proposes setting aside 12  million acres in Alaska with wilderness designation, which would prevent development of all kinds.

Feb. 25 —Keystone XL veto —  US President Barack Obama vetoes a bill that would have allowed construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline from the Canadian tar sands to US refineries.

Feb. 26 — State of NJ settles $8.9 billion lawsuit with Exxon-Mobil for $250 million, creating a public outcry.  Exxon-Mobil is a major campaign donor to New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

March 2 — The after effects of the BP oil spill have been deadly for marine life in the Caribbean, scientists said.

China’s leaders said they will get  tougher  on air pollution regulations in March. They have been spurred on by a popular documentary  — Under the Dome — that was belatedly banned by censors. Meanwhile,  air pollution in Delhi, India is getting worse than in Beijing.

March 30 — Four PEMEX oil workers killed in Caribbean rig explosion.

March 2 — Controversy breaks out in the US over pro-industry scientists whose work on climate change failed to disclose financial ties to the oil industry.

Nicaragua’s  Atlantic-Pacific canal would create environmental problems, according to critics.  Financed by Chinese billionaire Wang Jing, the canal is already under construction without much (if any) consideration for environmental impacts.

March 20, 2015  — Michael Mann  explains (in one of a series of lectures) how he became a target in the US climate change wars.

March, 2015 — Following criminal convictions from a 2010 PG&E natural gas pipeline explosion, critics ask that the California utility be broken up into separate, more manageable units.

Everglades restoration projects run into conflicts with the sugar industry.

Deforestation in Canada and Russia is beginning to  exceed deforestation in tropical rain forests.

US Public opinion is not really divided on CO2 rules and renewable energy, experts say.  Most Republicans and overwhelming majority of others want action on climate.   But there is a ‘moral engagement‘ gap, and politics to consider.

New York is rethinking energy distribution systems and philosophies with its “Reforming the Energy Vision” initiative.   Among the goals: Consumer empowerment along with reduced carbon footprint.

April 9 — China’s environment ministry blocks plans for another major hydro dam on the Yangtze River.

April — The US EPA has been allowing routine lying about the safety of pesticides, activists charge.

April 15 — Amazon Watch releases videos showing Chevron oilfield workers attempting to rig core tests in Ecuador. The videos emerged at the end of a long and bitter legal fight over contamination in the upper Amazon oil fields.

April 25 — Global Witness says environmental advocates are being killed at the rate of two per week.    See this report.

May 27 — New rules limiting water pollution in the US are announced by the EPA and are fought by industrial agricultural groups.

May 28 — Exxon CEO Ray Tillerson claims that Exxon is not investing in renewable energy because “We choose not to lose money on purpose.” He was incredulous that such a thing would even be suggested at a stockholders meeting.

June — Demonstrations continue against new canal linking Pacific and Caribbean in Nicaragua.

June 18 —  Pope Francis issues “Laudito Si”  environmental encyclical calling for environmental justice and dialogue in the international community, especially on climate change. In one portion he says:   We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.

World reaction is highly positive.  United Nations Secretary  General Ban Ki-moon today welcomed Laudito Si  and called for a ‘new dialogue’ about shaping the future of our planet. “The Secretary-General reaffirms that humanity has a significant obligation to care for and protect our common home, the planet Earth, and to show solidarity with the poorest and most vulnerable members of society who are suffering most from climate impacts,” declared a statement issued earlier today by a UN spokesperson.  Reaction from the scientific community was also highly positive.

Critics from the fossil fuel industry and a handful of US conservatives react negatively but do not address the issues, except to say that the Pope was not considering  the impact of “energy poverty”   that is supposedly brought on by not using fossil fuels.   Historically, the primary impacts of the encyclical will probably be to ease the way towards a climate summit in Paris in the fall of 2015 and to permanently thwart claims by the fossil fuel industry that environmentalism is itself a religion.

Summer, 2015 — Wildfires in the western United States,  Alaska, Canada, and  elsewhere in the world is a result of climate change, researchers say.

Aug. 3 — President Obama notes environmental history of air pollution in announcing plans to fight climate change through EPA’s Clean Power Plan.   The plan essentially puts limits on emissions from oil and coal plants, encourages a shift to natural gas, and greatly encourages a shift to renewable energy, which it says has “lower cost and greater availability” than in the past.  The clean power plan will not give nuclear power the favorable economic treatment it would need to survive in the US market, according to former NRC commissioner Peter A. Bradford.

Coal kills:  India’s government says air pollution killed 35,000 people over the past nine years on Aug. 8.  Epidemiologists say coal is cutting the average person’s life in India by about three years, but this has not yet led to any meaningful action. Pressure to take steps against climate change may help.  In contrast, China is creating a “war on pollution” after epidemiological studies showed that coal was cutting off an average of 5 years per person in the country’s north.

In the US regulations controlling coal pollution have added about 1.6 years to the lives of each of the 200 million people living downwind of a coal plant, according to Michael Greenstone in a Sept. 25, 2015 New York Times article.

July25 —  Germany generates 78 percent of its electricity from wind and solar on this day, setting a new record.  

Sept. 23 — When a West Virginia lab finds that Volkswagen diesel autos have rigged their emissions in order to pass static EPA tests, the CEO of Volkswagen resigns and stocks take a major hit.

September 24 — Pope Francis asks for action in immigration reform and climate change in a speech to the US Congress.   The speech was part of a tour of Latin America and the US in September that culminated in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly calling for peace and environmental justice.

“[I]t must be stated that a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Man, for all his remarkable gifts, which “are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology” (Laudato Si’, 81), is at the same time a part of these spheres. He possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.

Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.”

Sept. 18 — US EPA issues notice of violation to Volkswagen for rigging engines to foil emissions testing.

Sept. 25 — Chinese premier Xi Jenping and US president Barack Obama announce new initiatives on containing greenhouse gasses.

November 5: Two dams collapse at a Brazilian iron ore mine, releasing floods that kill more than a dozen people.

November 6: US President Barack Obama stops the Keystone XL oil pipeline between Canada and the United States.

Nov 30 – Dec 12  — United Nations Climate Change conference (COP 21) — For the first time, all 195 UN member states agree on an  “ambitious and balanced” plan to control climate change.

“The voice of the French foreign minister cracked, his translator fought with tears during a historic announcement: The Paris agreement had been adopted. It was the outcome of years of negotiations: For the first time in history, all UN member states, not only industrialized countries but also developing countries commited to cutting green house gas emissions and to cut global warming together. The Paris agreement is due to enter into force in 2020 and shall limit global warming to below 2 degrees, if possible even 1.5 degrees. The adoption of the agreement itself won’t save the planet. But it’s a roadmap for environmental action in the years to come.” — Deutche Welle 

Dec 3 — Coal ‘baron’ Don Blankenship is found guilty of mine safety violations leading to the deaths of 29 miners in a West Virginia accident in 2009.  It is the first time that criminal charges have ever been filed against mining executives for deliberate safety violations. Only a few months into his one-year jail sentence in 2016, Blankenship claims he is a “political prisoner.”

Dec. 18 — In an unusual compromise, US Congress renews solar and wind energy tax credits for five years, proving stability to the renewable energy industry.