Category Archives: Down To Earth

The Viral Storm – Nathan Wolfe


The Viral Storm

The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age

Nathan Wolfe

Genre: Biology

Price: $9.99

Publish Date: October 11, 2011

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.

Seller: Macmillan

“One of the world’s foremost virus hunters” ( Financial Times ), Stanford University biologist Nathan Wolfe reveals the origins of the world’s most deadly diseases and how we can combat and stop contagions. A “mix of biology, history, medicine, and first-hand experience [that] is potent and irresistible,”* The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age shares information Wolfe uncovered on his groundbreaking and dangerous research missions in the jungles of Africa and the rain forests of Borneo to provide an in-depth exploration of how lethal viruses evolved alongside human beings; how illnesses like HIV, swine flu, and bird flu almost wiped us out in the past; and why modern life has made our species vulnerable to the threat of a global pandemic. In a world where each new outbreak seems worse than the one before, Wolfe points the way forward, as new technologies are brought to bear in the most remote areas of the world to neutralize these viruses and even harness their power for the good of humanity. His provocative vision of the future will change the way we think about viruses, and perhaps remove a potential threat to humanity’s survival. “An astonishingly lucid book on an important topic. Deeply researched, yet effortlessly recounted.”—*Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies


The Viral Storm – Nathan Wolfe

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The Story of More – Hope Jahren


The Story of More

How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here

Hope Jahren

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $11.99

Publish Date: March 3, 2020

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC

“Hope Jahren is the voice that science has been waiting for.” — Nature “A superb account of the deadly struggle between humanity and what may prove the only life-bearing planet within ten light years, written in a brilliantly sardonic and conversational style.” —E. O. Wilson “ Hope Jahren asks the central question of our time: how can we learn to live on a finite planet? The Story of More  is thoughtful, informative, and—above all—essential. ” —Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction Hope Jahren is an award-winning scientist, a brilliant writer, a passionate teacher, and one of the seven billion people with whom we share this earth. In The Story of More , she illuminates the link between human habits and our imperiled planet. In concise, highly readable chapters, she takes us through the science behind the key inventions—from electric power to large-scale farming to automobiles—that, even as they help us, release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere like never before. She explains the current and projected consequences of global warming—from superstorms to rising sea levels—and the actions that we all can take to fight back. At once an explainer on the mechanisms of global change and a lively, personal narrative given to us in Jahren’s inimitable voice, The Story of More is the essential pocket primer on climate change that will leave an indelible impact on everyone who reads it.


The Story of More – Hope Jahren

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Louisiana has a new plan to prevent flood disasters


Louisiana has a new plan to prevent flood disasters

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To clean up space junk, some people grabbed a net and harpoon

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This story was originally published by WIRED and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Clyde Tombaugh spent much of his life peering at telescope data. He discovered Pluto in 1930, and he spent years poking around the outer solar system. But as the scientific community began to dream about launching a vehicle into the great beyond, he focused his gaze much closer to home.

At the time, the smaller stuff in our immediate space environment remained largely a mystery. People like Tombaugh worried whether orbiting gunk would make spaceflight that much harder. If they ever built a spaceship, would space litter pummel it irreparably?

As part of a 1950s Army project, Tombaugh tried to find out. But before he finished, the Soviets sent the world’s first object to orbit. When Sputnik first spun around Earth, in 1957, Tombaugh’s equipment caught it: a shiny sphere, just about two feet across. The fact that he could spot it meant that if dangerous debris had been orbiting, he likely would have found it, too. And he hadn’t. When he published his final report in 1959, Tombaugh concluded that rockets faced little risk of colliding with natural objects.

Humans have since sent thousands of rockets to space. In their cargo holds, they have stored satellites that help humans communicate, wage war, watch TV, and grok planetary processes. Sometimes, as Sputnik did not long after launch, these objects finish their useful lives, slip back into the surly bonds of Earth, and burn up in the atmosphere. There’s the glove that a Gemini astronaut let slip from the first spacewalk, and a spatula from a shuttle mission. Once, a tool bag escaped an ISS astronaut and floated around for eight months. Other times, however, junk remains in orbit long after it’s useful. A Chinese missile, for instance, smashed a Chinese satellite into thousands of pieces, some of which continue to circle and circle.

These pieces of trash could pose a version of the threat that Tombaugh had worried about: that they’ll get in the way of humans’ desire to send stuff to (and keep it in) space. Earth’s front porch is now littered with around 24,000 pieces of debris bigger than a large orange, and millions and millions of bits smaller than that. Meanwhile, the number of new satellites humans want to launch is on the rise. According to consulting company Euroconsult, around 7,000 smallsats may hop to orbit in the next decade. Elon Musk, though famous for missed deadlines, plans to launch the initial satellites in his space-internet megaconstellation in 2019, as does internet provider OneWeb.

Satellites in low Earth orbit are supposed to spiral back down, burning up in Earth’s atmosphere 25 years after they complete their missions. The process can happen naturally as their orbits decay over time. Alternately, these craft can point thrusters into space and willfully plunge into the atmosphere. But sometimes more aggressive measures are needed to clean up the junk circling overhead. Making sure satellites obey the 25-year guideline, and watching them closely in the meantime, has spawned a whole sector of creative solutions. Here are some of the latest experiments in de-junking space:

Grim Reapers

The satellite industry calls it “active debris removal,” but think of it as a space robot that’s out to kill. In June, scientists at Surrey Space Center and their partners dispatched a mission called RemoveDEBRIS from the International Space Station. Soon after, it deployed a net and captured a small CubeSat that the team had previously released. The net wrapped around the satellite, cocooning it and ending its life. RemoveDEBRIS will also test a harpoon on a dead satellite, and use a sail to then drag itself back down.

A company called Astroscale is pursuing a similar approach. “The best way to avoid a bunch of small pieces of debris that could harm large satellites is to remove large satellites that become small pieces of debris,” says Chris Blackerby, the company’s COO. Astroscale’s first mission, called ELSA-d, a cheery acronym that hides the ominous “End-of-Life Service” hidden within it, aims to show that a reaper-style space robot can find lost debris, match a dead satellite’s tumble, and dock.


Traditionally, satellites have thrusters that push them to the orbits they need, keep them there, and then (assuming the gas gauge doesn’t read “empty”) send them shooting down to Earth when the time comes. But conventional chemical engines are way too heavy for small satellites, so lots of the little guys don’t really have propulsion systems — which can pose a space-junk problem if their orbits don’t wind down quickly. They need thrusters that are appropriately sized for smallsats.

“The use of propulsion is the beginning, middle, and end of a mission,” says Beau Jarvis, an exec at a propulsion company called PhaseFour. The PhaseFour system, which you will be able to plunk on your satellite, uses radio waves to turn gas into plasma, which shoots from the spacecraft, pushing it in the opposite direction.

Many similar gas pedals require expensive cathodes and anodes, but ones that don’t are easier to make en masse. Another engine-maker, Accion, also dispenses with the expensive parts: Its engines use a liquid salt that shoots from the craft. Zoom zoom.


Not long ago, a distressed customer approached Roccor, a space manufacturer. “They had a satellite that was basically built and ready for launch,” says CEO Douglas Campbell. They had just one problem: Their de-orbit plan needed some work. So Roccor made them a new one, involving … space feathers.

At the end of a satellite’s life, two thin composite sheets — coiled tight like a tape measure during the rest of the mission — will pop from it, making the satellite resistant enough that it slips down and crosses the Kármán line that delineates Earth and space. The system weighs between around 1 and 4 kilograms (2.2 to 8.8 pounds), and is basically another way of doing a dragsail. “Low Earth orbit is beachfront property,” says Campbell, who plans to sell the “Rocfall” feathers so more satellites don’t become space junk. “Everyone wants to be there. We don’t want to ruin the environment.”


Two government groups in the U.S. keep abreast of what’s what in space, and help orbiters avoid collisions. NASA’s Orbital Debris Office deals with the minute, while the US Strategic Command tracks everything bigger than 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) and issues the “duck!” alerts to satellite operators. Last year, though, the Trump administration said it would turn some responsibility for space traffic management over to the Department of Commerce (although the details of how aren’t yet fully fleshed out). Why? Because satellites are increasingly commercial operations.

“In the past, the U.S. government got into ‘space situational awareness’ because it was primarily a military issue,” says Dan Ceperley, CEO of the private satellite-tracking company LeoLabs. It’s still a military issue — secret communications, spying, navigation — but it’s also morphed into an everyone-else issue. So the Department of Commerce and companies like LeoLabs will help shoulder some of the defense sector’s past burdens. LeoLabs has two radar systems, with plans for more, and they hope to give customers information about satellites’ whereabouts with more regularity than the government.


Federal trackers traditionally find satellites using either radar or optical telescopes. But those devices don’t necessarily tell you whose object you’re pinging, or give you its position every hour of every day. You have to extrapolate an object’s orbit using physics, so there’s some fuzziness in the calculation of its position, and uncertainty in collision red-flags. But a scientist at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center, has a reasonable question. Why not put GPS transponders on new craft? Just like if you put one on your enemy’s car, you could know where it was, and what it was, all the time, no home radar required. Similarly, a Los Alamos project called ELROI proposes slapping laser-beaming “license plates” on orbiters so that they’re easier to detect and identify.

The metal bits and spent rocket stages already dirtying Earth orbit are unlikely to get license plates or GPS devices. They’ll continue to circle our planet like overhead reminders that our environmental contamination has expanded, like a growing gray cloud, beyond terra firma. But because there are so many clean-up artists, maybe it won’t be too late.

If we end up with too much trash, we won’t only make our desire to launch lots of little satellites untenably complicated. We could also, someday, make it impossible to send a rocket safely beyond Earth, just like Tombaugh and his cohort feared before anyone had even tried.

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To clean up space junk, some people grabbed a net and harpoon

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Shipping giants look lustily at the warming Arctic

When a blue-hulled cargo ship named Venta Maersk became the first container vessel to navigate a major Arctic sea route this month, it offered a glimpse of what the warming region might become: a maritime highway, with vessels lumbering between Asia and Europe through once-frozen seas.

Years of melting ice have made it easier for ships to ply these frigid waters. That’s a boon for the shipping industry but a threat to the fragile Arctic ecosystem. Nearly all ships run on fossil fuels, and many use heavy fuel oil, which spews black soot when burned and turns seas into a toxic goopy mess when spilled. Few international rules are in place to protect the Arctic’s environment from these ships, though a proposal to ban heavy fuel oil from the region is gaining support.

“For a long time, we weren’t looking at the Arctic as a viable option for a shortcut for Asia-to-Europe, or Asia-to-North America traffic, but that’s really changed, even over the last couple of years,” says Bryan Comer, a senior researcher with the International Council on Clean Transportation’s marine program. “It’s just increasingly concerning.”

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Venta Maersk departed from South Korea in late August packed with frozen fish, chilled produce, and electronics. Days later, it sailed through the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia, before cruising along Russia’s north coast. At one point, a nuclear icebreaker escorted Venta Maersk through a frozen Russian strait, then the container vessel continued to the Norwegian Sea. It’s expected to arrive in Germany and St. Petersburg later this month.

The trial voyage wouldn’t have been possible until recently. The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, with sea ice, snow cover, glaciers, and permafrost all diminishing dramatically over recent decades. In the past, only powerful nuclear-powered icebreakers could forge through Arctic seas; these days, even commercial ships can navigate the region from roughly July to October—albeit sometimes with the help of skilled pilots and icebreaker escorts.

Russian tankers already carry liquefied natural gas to Western Europe and Asia. General cargo vessels move Chinese wind turbine parts and Canadian coal. Cruise liners take tourists to see surreal ice formations and polar bears in the Arctic summer. Around 2,100 cargo ships operated in Arctic waters in 2015, according to Comer’s group.

“Because of climate change, because of the melting of sea ice, these ships can operate for longer periods of time in the Arctic,” says Scott Stephenson, an assistant geography professor at the University of Connecticut, “and the shipping season is already longer than it used to be.” A study he co-authored found that, by 2060, ships with reinforced hulls could operate in the Arctic for nine months in the year.

Stephenson says that the Venta Maersk’s voyage doesn’t mean that an onrush of container ships will soon be clogging the Arctic seas, given the remaining risks and costs needed to operate in the region. “It’s a new, proof-of-concept test case,” he says.

Maersk, based in Copenhagen, says the goal is to collect data and “gain operational experience in a new area and to test vessel systems,” representatives from the company wrote in an email. The ship didn’t burn standard heavy fuel oil, but a type of high-grade, ultra-low-sulfur fuel. “We are taking all measures to ensure that this trial is done with the highest considerations for the sensitive environment in the region.”

Sian Prior, lead advisor to the HFO-Free Arctic Campaign, says that the best way to avoid fouling the Arctic is to ditch fossil fuels entirely and install electric systems with, say, battery storage or hydrogen fuel cells. Since those technologies aren’t yet commercially viable for ocean-going ships, the next option is to run ships on liquefied natural gas. The easiest alternative, however, is to switch to a lighter “marine distillate oil,” which Maersk says is “on par with” the fuel it’s using.

But many ships still run on cheaper heavy fuel oil, made from the residues of petroleum refining. In 2015, the sludgy fuel accounted for 57 percent of total fuel consumption in the Arctic, and was responsible for 68 percent of ships’ black carbon emissions, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.

Black carbon wreaks havoc on the climate, even though it usually makes up a small share of total emissions. The small dark particles absorb the sun’s heat and directly warm the atmosphere. Within a few days, the particles fall back down to earth, darkening the snow and hindering the snow’s ability to reflect the sun’s radiation—resulting in more warming.

When spilled, heavy fuel oil emulsifies on the water’s surface or sinks to the seafloor, unlike lighter fuels which disperse and evaporate. Clean-up can take decades in remote waters, as was the case when the Exxon Valdez crude oil tanker slammed into an Alaskan reef in 1989.

“It’s dirtier when you burn it, the options to clean it up are limited, and the length it’s likely to persist in the environment is longer,” Prior says.

In April, the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. body that regulates the shipping industry, began laying the groundwork to ban ships from using or carrying heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. Given the lengthy rulemaking process, any policy won’t likely take effect before 2021, Prior says.

One of the biggest hurdles will be securing Russia’s approval. Most ships operating in the Arctic fly Russian flags, and the country’s leaders plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in coming years to beef up polar shipping activity along the Northern Sea Route. China also wants to build a “Polar Silk Road” and redirect its cargo ships along the Russian route.

Such ambitions hinge on a melting Arctic and rising global temperatures. If the warming Arctic eventually does offer a cheaper highway for moving goods around the world, Comer says, “then we need to start making sure that policies are in place.”

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Shipping giants look lustily at the warming Arctic

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Reader, Come Home – Maryanne Wolf


Reader, Come Home
The Fate of the Reading Brain in a Digital World
Maryanne Wolf

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $12.99

Publish Date: August 14, 2018

Publisher: Harper


From the author of Proust and the Squid, a lively, ambitious, and deeply informative epistolary book that considers the future of the reading brain and our capacity for critical thinking, empathy, and reflection as we become increasingly dependent on digital technologies. A decade ago, Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid revealed what we know about how the brain learns to read and how reading changes the way we think and feel. Since then, the ways we process written language have changed dramatically with many concerned about both their own changes and that of children. New research on the reading brain chronicles these changes in the brains of children and adults as they learn to read while immersed in a digitally dominated medium. Drawing deeply on this research, this book comprises a series of letters Wolf writes to us—her beloved readers—to describe her concerns and her hopes about what is happening to the reading brain as it unavoidably changes to adapt to digital mediums. Wolf raises difficult questions, including: Will children learn to incorporate the full range of “deep reading” processes that are at the core of the expert reading brain?Will the mix of a seemingly infinite set of distractions for children’s attention and their quick access to immediate, voluminous information alter their ability to think for themselves?With information at their fingertips, will the next generation learn to build their own storehouse of knowledge, which could impede the ability to make analogies and draw inferences from what they know?Will all these influences, in turn, change the formation in children and the use in adults of “slower” cognitive processes like critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that comprise deep reading and that influence both how we think and how we live our lives?Will the chain of digital influences ultimately influence the use of the critical analytical and empathic capacities necessary for a democratic society?How can we preserve deep reading processes in future iterations of the reading brain?Who are the “good readers” of every epoch? Concerns about attention span, critical reasoning, and over-reliance on technology are never just about children—Wolf herself has found that, though she is a reading expert, her ability to read deeply has been impacted as she has become, inevitably, increasingly dependent on screens. Wolf draws on neuroscience, literature, education, technology, and philosophy and blends historical, literary, and scientific facts with down-to-earth examples and warm anecdotes to illuminate complex ideas that culminate in a proposal for a biliterate reading brain. Provocative and intriguing, Reader, Come Home is a roadmap that provides a cautionary but hopeful perspective on the impact of technology on our brains and our most essential intellectual capacities—and what this could mean for our future.

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Reader, Come Home – Maryanne Wolf

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Climate science’s official text is outdated. Here’s what it’s missing.

The first-ever courtroom tutorial of climate science this week went about as you’d expect. The scientists representing Oakland and San Francisco had Powerpoint problems, and the oil industry’s lawyer cherry-picked his facts.

For all their differences, both sides drew from a common source: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the gold-standard for mainstream climate science. Problem is, the last IPCC report came out way back in 2013. As it turns out, we’ve learned a lot about our climate since then, and most of that new information paints an increasingly urgent picture of the need to slash fossil-fuel emissions as soon as possible.

It’s convenient that Chevron’s attorney relied on that aging five-year-old report. The next IPCC report isn’t planned for public release until the fall of 2019. Gathering consensus takes time, and the result is that IPCC reports are out of date before they’re published and necessarily conservative.

The climate models used in these reports grow old in a hurry. Since the 1970s, they’ve routinely underestimated the rate of global warming. Some of the most recent comprehensive assessments of climate science, including last year’s congressionally-mandated, White House-approved, Climate Science Special Report, include scary new sections on “climate surprises” like simultaneous droughts and hurricanes, that have wide-reaching consequences. The scientists representing the two cities knew this, and didn’t limit their talking points to the IPCC.

“Positive feedbacks (self-reinforcing cycles) within the climate system have the potential to accelerate human-induced climate change,” says a section from that Climate Science Special report, “and even shift the Earth’s climate system, in part or in whole, into new states that are very different from those experienced in the recent past.” None of this was included in the last IPCC report.

Actually, a helluva lot has changed in our understanding of the Earth’s climate system since the 2013 IPCC report. Here are some of the highlights:

  1. Sea-level rise is going to be much worse than we thought. Like, potentially a lot worse. In the last IPCC assessment, the worst case scenario for sea-level rise this century was about three feet. That’s now about the midpoint of what’s expected; the worst-case has ballooned to about eight feet. That’s largely because …
  1. Antarctica’s massive ice sheets could collapse much more quickly than we thought. Newly discovered mechanisms of collapse in some of the planet’s largest and most vulnerable glaciers in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are beginning to capture the attention of the scientific community. Should these mechanisms kick in over the next few decades, they’d unleash enough meltwater to flood every coastal city on Earth.
  1. Extreme weather is here and can now be linked to climate change in real time. From the Arctic to the tropics, wildfires, intense storms and other extreme weather events have been increasingly fierce in recent years, and climate change has played a measurable role. A 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences opened the floodgates, so to speak, of the burgeoning field of extreme weather attribution. From last year’s Hurricane Harvey to last month’s nor’easter-linked floods in Massachusetts, nearly every weather event now bares a traceable connection to human-caused climate change.
  1. Global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius is pretty much locked in. A forthcoming special report of the IPCC will say that meeting the 1.5 degree target — one of the most ambitious commitments of the Paris Agreement — looks “extremely unlikely.” Humanity’s shift to zero-carbon energy sources is moving about 10 times too slowly. At this point, it would probably take geoengineering to prevent it. Researchers have started testing ways to do that.
  1. We’ve already lost entire ecosystems, most notably coral reefs. During a record-breaking El Niño event in 2015, the world lost massive swaths of coral in a global bleaching event “unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.” More than 90 percent of the world’s coral will surely die by 2050 without rapid emissions reductions. That means one of the richest stores of biodiversity on the planet is already in jeopardy.

The climate system is moving much more quickly than we thought, and human action to curb climate change is moving much too slowly. Nasty surprises are increasingly possible, and hopeful surprises are more necessary than ever. But there’s some solace to take from this week’s events. The hearing this week is just one of the many courtrooms in which Big Oil has been forced to defend itself. Challenging polluters directly through the courts might result in one of those hopeful surprises people weren’t betting on five years ago.

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Climate science’s official text is outdated. Here’s what it’s missing.

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Oil companies bid on just 1 percent of available plots at America’s largest offshore lease sale

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in U.S. history, which included all available areas in the Gulf of Mexico, garnered only tepid interest from oil and gas companies on Wednesday. Industry and government representatives called the results encouraging and consistent. Critics deemed it an “embarrassing flop.”

The sale was in the spotlight amidst the Trump administration’s push to expand drilling in federal waters, and President Trump’s repeated commitments to “energy dominance.” It was considered a test of the industry’s appetite, and the modest bids that resulted are seen as a setback to the government’s plans of stimulating investment in the gulf. Trump’s efforts to cut environmental regulations and increase offshore oil drilling doesn’t just spell trouble for climate change: The fire sales are lowering the price, and taxpayers lose out as oil companies buy drilling leases at a fraction of the normal cost.

A 77.3 million acre patch of the ocean, about the size of New Mexico, was on the auction block, including plots offshore of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and a small part of Florida. (The majority of waters off the coast of Florida have been protected from drilling in the past, though it’s unclear if that will continue in the future.) The Bureau of Energy Ocean Management received 159 bids from 33 companies, with the top bids totaling $124.8 million.

Bids must be reviewed before they are finalized, but the preliminary results are similar to a slightly smaller region-wide sale in the Gulf of Mexico last year. That sale offered about 1 million fewer acres and generated about $121.1 million in winning bids. BOEM regional director Mike Celata pointed to the higher number of bids in this sale compared to the last (159 versus 99 bids) as a positive sign. “You are definitely seeing an increase in interest,” he said in a press call after the sale. “You see continued, consistent investment in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Earlier this month, Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called Wednesday’s sale a “bellwether” for future offshore energy production. If that’s true, Wednesday’s sale might signal rough waters ahead.

Of the 77.3 million acres available Wednesday, just over 800,000 acres — or 1 percent — received bids. And when a tract of land did get bid on, the oil companies didn’t need to compete. More than 90 percent of the tracts of land leased on Wednesday had only one bid. Over the past 20 years, more than three-quarters of the leases awarded in the Gulf of Mexico — 76.6 percent — were awarded on the basis of single bids, the Project on Government Oversight reported earlier this year. Adjusting for inflation, the average price paid per acre in each Gulf of Mexico auction has declined by 95.7 percent, dropping from $9,068 to $391, the report also found.

While sales are not final, the average winning bid price from this week’s sale was $153 per acre, compared to $238 per acre in last year’s Gulf of Mexico sale. “The Trump Administration’s bargain basement fire sales of America’s oceans and public lands to the oil and gas industry are an embarrassing and fiscally irresponsible failure,” the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, said in a statement, calling the sale an “embarrassing flop.”

Major companies like BP, Chevron, and Shell all placed several bids. Money received from the leases are directed to the U.S. Treasury, Gulf Coast states, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund and Historic Preservation Fund. Lease terms stipulate that winning bidders explore and drill “in an environmentally sound and safe manner.” (If you want more details, check out BOEM’s flowchart of approval steps from sale to drilling.) “Once that process is done, then they can begin punching holes in the ground,” John Filostrat, BOEM director of public affairs, said in an interview with Mother Jones.

BOEM has imposed rental fees that escalate over time to encourage “faster exploration and development” of leases. The government also receives a royalty payment — a percent of production — once the companies start collecting oil or gas. Recently, BOEM cut the royalty rate for shallow water leases by a third (18.75 percent to 12.5 percent) to try to spark more interest. “They are reducing the return for the tax payer,” Raleigh Hoke, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network, says.

The Trump administration also has a new offshore energy plan in the works that would open up almost all of the continental shelf for drilling leases in 2019-2024. After a public comment period later this year, the final program is expected next year. Some analysts have predicted that oil companies’ response to the new plan will be slow.

Under pressure from energy companies, the administration recently rolled back offshore drilling safety measures established after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. “It’s crazy,” Hoke says, “to put all these lease blocks up for sale while simultaneously weakening safety regulations, putting workers at risk, and potential opening the door to another catastrophe.”


Oil companies bid on just 1 percent of available plots at America’s largest offshore lease sale

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Fossil fuels are the problem, say fossil fuel companies being sued

Big Oil and the cities suing them in federal court agreed on at least one thing on Wednesday: Human-made climate change is real.

In the country’s first court hearing on the science behind climate change, a lawyer for Chevron, Theodore Boutrous Jr., said the oil company accepts the scientific consensus. He quoted chapter and verse from the reports of the International Panel on Climate Change, the thousands of scientists assembled by the United Nations to figure out exactly what’s going on. “From Chevron’s perspective, there is no debate about the science of climate change,” Boutrous said.

Oil companies have recently started saying they’re on the side of science, but they’ve never said it so clearly in court.

San Francisco and Oakland are suing BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell, arguing that the corporations that profit from fossil fuels should pay for the seawalls and pumps needed to protect them from rising tides. But Boutrous, the only oil company lawyer to speak at the hearing, didn’t accept blame, pointing the finger instead at the people who burned the fossil fuels. In other words, oil doesn’t cause climate change. People burning oil cause climate change.

For five hours, the two sides tried to explain climate science, after U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup had asked for a tutorial. A gaggle of 100-some attorneys, climate advocates, and journalists packed the mid-century-modern courtroom. Alsup strode into the room dressed for science, wearing a smart-looking pair of browline glasses and a tie decorated with images of the solar system.

In the run up to this hearing, journalists compared it to the Scopes monkey trial in 1925, which found a teacher guilty of telling students about evolution, but Alsup shot down such comparisons. “We have these tutorials so the poor judge can learn some science — it helps to have science,” he said in a soft southern accent.

The big question going into the hearing: Would the oil companies try to cast doubt on the evidence that their business model is heating the earth? Climate skeptics have been trying to make their voices heard by sending in friend-of-the-court briefs with their own spin on the evidence, but Boutrous stuck to the scientific consensus unveiling a deft bit of legal jiu jitsu that could form the core of the oil company argument as the case moves forward. Alsup would occasionally raise some climate-skeptic argument, and both sides would explain why it didn’t make sense.

Big Oil’s POV

Boutrous started by citing reports from the IPCC as an unimpeachable authority. These reports are an “amazing resource” he said, before quoting them at length. Boutrous explained that the IPCC has found with increasing certainty over the years that humans fossil fuel use is the primary driver of climate change — but that’s not the only point Boutrous wanted Alsup to absorb. He twice read a quote from the IPCC that climate change is caused “largely by economic and population growth.”

Then, Boutrous added his interpretation. “It doesn’t say that it’s the production and extraction that’s driving the increase,” he said. “It’s the way people are living their lives.”

This appears to be the core of the oil companies’ strategy. First, believe everything the IPCC says. Second, the IPCC says the real problem is prosperity, economic growth! Therefore, blame the ones burning the oil — all we did was dig the stuff up.

To hammer it home, Boutrous showed an IPCC graph of emissions from the United States and China since 1970, with a scale that makes U.S. emissions look like a flat line.

“One thing that surprises me is that the U.S. has gone up, but not gone up much,” Alsup mused, leaning on folded hands. “But China has gone up dramatically.”

“Correct,” Boutrous responded. That’s because China’s population has grown, and its coal-burning economy has grown even more. The implication was clear: It is demand for energy driving carbon emissions, not the companies providing the fossil fuels.

Death by PowerPoint

While the oil companies just had one slick lawyer making a focused argument, the cities had three scientists scrolling through their very own PowerPoint presentations. The scientists hammered some simple points, aided by many graphs of temperature over time. They also skated quickly over some bewildering complexity.

Alsup didn’t let the tricky stuff fly over his head — he jumped in to make the presenters explain. At one point, he questioned Oxford scientist Myles Allen on the graph he was using: “Explain that graph there? I still don’t get it,” Alsup said.

Allen’s explanation only muddied the waters further. “I just don’t think your chart demonstrates what you’re telling me,” Alsup said. After a moment, Allen realized he must have grabbed the wrong figure. “You’re absolutely right,” he said.

At another point the court waited on tenterhooks as a scientist tried to get an animation of sea-level rise to work. It didn’t.

To be sure, the plaintiffs had a bogglingly complex task. There are hundreds of thousands of studies on climate change, and Alsup had asked them to boil it all down into a two-hour presentation, which just isn’t the way science works. Science advances through accumulation of evidence backed by piles of data, but law advances through argument.

After the final expert, University of Illinois scientist Don Wuebbles, had plowed through 20 minutes of facts and figures, Alsup tried to pull him from his PowerPoint. “Just in the last 10 minutes: You heard what the other side said right? What critique would you make?” But Wuebbles declined to respond and returned to his PowerPoint presentation.

The showdown that wasn’t

Alsup appeared to want to see some of the classic climate-skeptic arguments fought out, face to face, in his courtroom. But nothing doing. Each side agreed, for instance, that greenhouse gases are more important than water vapor in warming the planet. If nothing else, that seems like a victory for climate hawks: When all the Big Oil companies are willing to say, clearly and unambiguously, that humans burning fossil fuels are warming the planet, it means that the terms of debate have shifted.

Boutrous represents only Chevron, but Alsup held the feet of the other companies to the fire, too.

“You can’t just get away with sitting there in silence then saying, ‘He’s not speaking for us,’” Alsup told to the attorneys for the other companies. “You have two weeks to tell me if he said something you disagree with.”

This court tutorial was the first of its kind for climate science, but it’s not entirely out of the ordinary. Judges are frequently called on to serve as arbiters of scientific uncertainty, so it only makes sense that they sometimes ask for primers from scientists to get themselves up to speed. “In this age of science, we must build legal foundations that are sound in science as well as in law,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. “Scientists have offered their help. We in the legal community should accept that offer.”

Even if this tutorial persuades Alsup, the cities could still lose. The oil companies seem poised to argue that those who bought petro-products are just as responsible as those who sold them. And they will almost certainly argue that those suffering the ravages of climate change should try to fix things by passing laws rather than suing businesses. That’s a position even the most liberal members of the Supreme Court have held in the past.

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Fossil fuels are the problem, say fossil fuel companies being sued

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A federal judge has climate science questions. Here are the answers.

Today’s courtroom drama unfolding in San Francisco will come in the form of a “tutorial” on climate science, not a debate.

Federal Judge William Alsup, a quirky, inquisitive man who previously taught himself the Java programming language for a 2012 lawsuit involving Oracle and Google, will be the only one asking questions. There will be no direct debate between lawyers representing the people of the State of California and those for the defendant oil companies.

In a court document, Judge Alsup narrowed his focus to eight specific questions regarding climate science (in bold below). In the two weeks since the questions were posted, climate scientists have attempted to crowdsource the best, most succinct answers. (I’ve further summed them up in just a few words, in parenthesis.):

  1. What caused the various ice ages (including the “little ice age” and prolonged cool periods) and what caused the ice to melt? When they melted, by how much did sea level rise? (Natural changes in the Earth’s orbit and the amount of greenhouse gases. Sea level rose a lot — more than 400 feet.)
  2. What is the molecular difference by which CO2 absorbs infrared radiation but oxygen and nitrogen do not? (Three-atom molecules vibrate more easily than two-atom molecules.)
  3. What is the mechanism by which infrared radiation trapped by CO2 in the atmosphere is turned into heat and finds its way back to sea level? (Greenhouse gases like CO2 emit extra trapped energy from the sun, warming the surface.)
  4. Does CO2 in the atmosphere reflect any sunlight back into space such that the reflected sunlight never penetrates the atmosphere in the first place? (Yes, but not enough to matter.)
  5. Apart from CO2, what happens to the collective heat from tail pipe exhausts, engine radiators, and all other heat from combustion of fossil fuels? How, if at all, does this collective heat contribute to warming of the atmosphere? (The amount of heat from the sun that’s trapped by greenhouse gases is 100 times more than direct heat from fossil fuel burning.)
  6. In grade school, many of us were taught that humans exhale CO2 but plants absorb CO2 and return oxygen to the air (keeping the carbon for fiber). Is this still valid? If so, why hasn’t plant life turned the higher levels of CO2 back into oxygen? Given the increase in human population on Earth (four billion), is human respiration a contributing factor to the buildup of CO2? (Yes, this is still valid – but this process is roughly carbon neutral, so there is no major impact on the climate. And human respiration of CO2 is 10,000 times too small to matter to the climate.)
  7. What are the main sources of CO2 that account for the incremental buildup of CO2in the atmosphere? (Fossil fuel burning and deforestation)
  8. What are the main sources of heat that account for the incremental rise in temperature on Earth? (Human activities are likely responsible for 93 to 123 percent of recent global warming. It can go over 100 percent because we’re canceling out what would be natural cooling.)

The crowd-sourcing effort (with references) was coordinated by NASA’s Gavin Schmidt, who in an email to Grist said he doesn’t actually expect there to be much disagreement over the science in today’s courtroom tutorial. Chevron, one of the defendants, is not planning to deny evidence at all in its explanations. In fact will refer Judge Alsup to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the gold standard of mainstream climate science.

“Despite the attempted interventions from the fringe,” Schmidt wrote, “ I doubt that the defendants or plaintiffs will be making much hay with the science.”

Even if disagreement is unlikely, Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist from Texas A&M University — who penned a Twitter thread of answers to Alsup’s questions — hailed the uniqueness of today’s court activities.

“Obviously, I wish these issues were not still being debated in court, since they’re not being debated in the scientific community, but I also appreciate the deliberate approach the judge seems to be taking,” he wrote to Grist.

No matter what the oil industry lawyers argue today, these facts are well established: Human activities are by far the dominant cause of modern climate change, and only a sharp reduction in our emissions — which means our use of oil — will help solve the problem.

Continued here:  

A federal judge has climate science questions. Here are the answers.

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