6 takeaways from the ODNR fracking memo scandal

fracking well
fracking well

A fracking well looms large above eastern Ohio’s rolling hills (courtesy of Inhabitat).

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has found itself in hot water after the Ohio Sierra Club obtained a document that showed the agency planned to actively promote oil and gas drilling in Ohio’s state parks. The memo details ODNR’s plans to actively counter opposition from environmental groups, which it labels as “eco-left pressure groups” and “skilled propagandists,” by collaborating with industry allies and like-minded third parties, including the Ohio Oil and Gas Alliance, Halliburton, and the US Chamber of Congress.

I don’t feel like spending an entire post responding to the document; there are plenty of stories about it already. Plunderbund has an excellent piece on the scandal, which is well worth reading in full:

While the document displays a startling collusion between the fossil fuel industry and the agency that’s supposed to regulate it, one should expect little more from the Kasich administration and its allies in the Statehouse. The Ohio GOP has devolved into little more than a mouthpiece for the industry at this point.

Just last month, Tony Stewart, the president of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association, told the Dispatch that it “came up with the methodology” behind HB 375, the GOP bill to rewrite Ohio’s tax laws for the industry. The bill, which makes Gov. Kasich’s original proposal look downright progressive, guarantees that Ohio would continue to give away its natural resources for pennies on the dollar.

Despite the inherent risks associated with fracking, the Ohio GOP seems far more interested in colluding with the industry that protecting the health and well-being of its constituents and the environment of our state. The state has bent over backwards to import fracking wastewater from Pennsylvania – trucking in more than 100 million gallons in 2011 alone – despite the fact that injection wells have caused more than 100 earthquakes near Youngstown. ODNR also allows fracking companies to dispose their waste, which can contain the radioactive element radium, in municipal dumps; the Ohio Environmental Council has labeled this practice “dump and glow.”

I just have a few additional thoughts to share on this story:

  1. This story does not reflect well on John Kasich, who has consistently tried to position himself as a “compassionate conservative” and seems to fancy himself a Republican leader in the model of Ronald Reagan. Having your administration actually develop a list that demonizes environmental groups and Democratic State Senators as “adversaries” who are attempting to “create public panic” and must be taken down comes off as a hell of a lot more Nixonian than Reaganesque.
  2. Memo to Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols, part 1: If you are trying to distance yourself from a politically damaging story by claiming that the Governor’s office was unaware of what ODNR was up to, maybe it’s a bad idea to call the environmentalists who raised this issue “extremist groups.” It’s tough to distance yourself from a document by parroting its language and implicitly endorsing it.
  3. Memo to Rob Nichols, part 2: Oh, and you’re probably going to need to do a better job explaining why 8 members of the administration were invited to a meeting to discuss the strategy that exact same day that the document was drafted. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.
  4. If the Ohio GOP honestly believes that moderate environmental groups like the Ohio Environmental Council and NRDC are “extremists” and “propagandists,” they really need to get their heads checked. I guess when you’re that far to the right, all center-left environmentalists look like “enviro-socialist rent seekers,” to quote Senator Bill Seitz.
  5. I have my doubts that administration is only pushing drilling in state parks “to ensure a balance between wise use and protection of our natural resources for the benefit of all,” as the memo claims. It’s hard to believe that the same elected officials who are going out of their way to keep Ohio’s oil and gas severance taxes substantially lower than any other drilling state – willingly forgoing at least $800 million in tax revenues – are pushing fracking because “it will provide millions of dollars to restore deteriorating park and forest infrastructure.” It’s all about better bathrooms, folks.
  6. Lastly, it’s laughable that ODNR lists friends of parks/forests groups and communities who live near state parks/forests as “allied audiences” who would share the same goals as the administration. As I’ve noted in the past, the people who bear the greatest burden from natural resource extraction are those communities sitting on the front lines. Yet, despite the fact that fracking has damaged at least 360,000 acres of land nationally since 2005 (including more than 1,600 in Ohio), neither Governor Kasich’s bill nor HB 375 specifically sets aside a single dollar from severance taxes on the industry for affected communities. I’m just a tad bit skeptical that a group of lawmakers who ignore perhaps the single most important tenet of good natural resource governance is going to oversee fracking in a way that will cause no “disturbance” to our common, public heritage as Ohioans.

The restoration of wetlands is a major victory for the Great Lakes

9 mile wetland restored
9 mile wetland restored

Restoration of the Nine Mile Wetland in the Euclid Creek watershed (Source: Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District)

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Given the spate of bad news for the Great Lakes recently – from declining lake levels to toxic algal blooms to microplastic pollution to the threat of an Asian carp invasion – it may be hard for people to find any good news on the health of these vital bodies of water.

Fear not. The US Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a census of the nation’s wetlands every five years, and the latest report includes great news for the Great Lakes region – total wetland extent in the region expanded by 13,600 acres. As Sarah Goodyear wrote at Next City:

[S]ome 13,610 acres of coastal wetlands were added to the eight-state Great Lakes region between from 2004 and 2009. Given that the total wetlands acreage in the Great Lakes watershed is 8.5 million, that may not seem like a lot. Plus, some of that acreage comes from receding water that has exposed land. But it nevertheless represents a positive trend that stands in contrast to the rest of the country. During the study period, 360,720 acres of such wetlands disappeared across the nation at large.

History of wetlands destruction

The recent effort to conserve wetlands has reversed a centuries-long trend. When Europeans reached North America in the early 1600s, approximately 221 million acres of wetlands covered much of what would become the United States. Due to rapid clearing of these ecosystems to make room for settlements and provide timber for the expanding country, Americans cleared 118 million acres (53.4% of the total wetland area) by the early 1980s.

Unfortunately, Ohio stood at the forefront of wetland destruction. From the 1780s to the 1980s, the state lost 90% of its total wetlands, trailing only California’s 91% loss. This number includes the astonishing destruction of the Black Swamp, which once spanned much of the northwestern corner of the state. In just 25 years (approximately 1860-1885), a wetland that covered an area roughly the size of Connecticut completely disappeared.

This wave of wetland degradation and destruction has its roots in our consistent tendency to undervalue the important services wetlands provide. As The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History notes, early settlers in the Western Reserve (present day Cleveland) viewed their initial settlement along the Cuyahoga River as “a miasmic, disease-ridden swamp.” This view of wetlands was eventually codified into law; from 1849-1860, Congress passed a series of Swamp Land Acts, which gave 15 states control over all wetlands in their territories – a total of 64.9 million acres – for reclamation projects.

Benefits of wetlands conservation

As time has passed and more research has been done, however, it is increasingly clear that wetlands are among the most important ecosystems on Earth.

Wetlands provide a myriad of benefits. They serve as crucial refuges for fish species; research suggests wetlands can have fish populations that are 4-10 times more abundant [PDF] than other ecosystems. They also improve water quality. The degradation of coastal wetlands significantly compromises the quality of water in the surrounding areas, creating $16 billion in losses from pollution every year. Additionally, wetlands act as important buffers against coastal storms and floods. The conservation of the wetlands along the Charles River near Boston prevents $40 million in flood-related costs annually. Overall, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the economic value of the world’s wetlands [PDF] at $17 trillion.

Clearly, the addition of 13,600 acres of wetlands to the Great Lakes region represents a major victory, particularly in light of their continued destruction worldwide. Since the 1980s, for instance, human activities have destroyed 35% of remaining mangroves, a form of tropical coastal wetlands.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Much of the success in this are stems from the work of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC) and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a federal initiative that President Obama established in 2009. The GLRI has provided more than $1 billion to enhance the Great Lakes region over the last five years. These funds have and continue to go to protecting wetlands throughout the area, including the restoration of wetlands along the Euclid Creek.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. recognizes the important services that our wetlands provide, particularly the role they play protecting the quality and quantity of our water resources. We celebrate the expansion of coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes region in recent years and support ongoing efforts to strengthen our coastal ecosystems through programs like GLRI, and we remain committed to educating people on the vital role that wetlands play in keeping our Great Lakes great.

How big is the carbon footprint of the Keystone XL pipeline?

co2 emissions per country with keystone
august 2011 keystone xl protest

Members of my grad school cohort and I at the August 2011 Keystone XL protest.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is set to pass through two countries, but it’s environmental impact would surpass that of many, many more.

In its final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), the State Department estimated that Keystone will produce somewhere from 1.3 to 27.4 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) annually. Given that I strongly question the document’s underlying assumption that the pipeline will have little, if any, impact on the overall rate of Canadian tar sands extraction, let’s assume that the actual number will be on the high side of this range. Accordingly, let’s consider two scenarios, one in which Keystone generates 14.35MMTCO2e annually (median value) and one in which it generates 27.4 MMTCO2e annually (maximum value).

The Sierra Club has already produced some useful graphics comparing Keystone’s carbon footprint to other greenhouse gas (GHG) generators. For instance, they calculate that releasing 27.4 MMTCO2e is equivalent to putting another 37.7 million cars on the road or building 51 new coal-fired power plants.

keystone xl 51 coal power plants

Courtesy of the Sierra Club

But let’s put Keystone XL into a more global perspective, shall we? Using 2009 data from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (the last year for which a full, global dataset was available), I compared the median and maximum annual carbon emissions from the pipeline to the rest of the world.*

In the chart below, I have highlighted the bars for the two Keystone XL values in red. As you can see, both the median and maximum CO2 emissions values for Keystone XL far exceed those from the majority of countries on Earth. Using its median and maximum values, Keystone XL would generate more annual CO2 emissions than 112 and 123 countries, respectively.

co2 emissions per country with keystone

Data are from the World Development Indicators. The median and maximum values for Keystone XL are highlighted in red. I removed the values for the top 10 emitting countries from the chart, as they severely skewed the scale.

Using 2009 population data from the same source, I calculate that Keystone XL – a project which the State Department says will create 35 permanent jobs – would account for more annual carbon emissions than those from 86.3 million people (median value) or 136.1 million people (maximum value) combined, respectively. If we were to treat Keystone as its own country – let’s call it Keystonia – with a population of 35, it would account for 782.86 tons of CO2 per capita (using the maximum value), more than 18.5 times higher than current world leader Qatar.

Keystone XL may only account for 0.518% of the US’s total CO2 emissions (using 2012 numbers), but denying that it would exacerbate the climate crisis is a fool’s errand. Approving this pipeline would be an environmental injustice of epic proportions.

 

*The dataset included both countries and territories, bringing the population size to 216. I removed all countries/territories for which data were missing, bringing the sample size to 200.

The one issue that may determine if Keystone XL gets approved

keystone xl route
Map of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project, alongside the existing Keystone pipeline (courtesy of the Washington Post).
keystone xl route

This map shows the proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline, alongside the existing Keystone pipeline (courtesy of The Washington Post).

The State Department released its final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) regarding the Keystone XL pipeline this afternoon. I won’t write a full overview of the report – there are already several good ones available – but I’ll just make a few quick observations.

If you read the report, you’ll notice that the State Department’s entire assessment of the pipeline’s impact centers on whether or not the project is a literal “keystone” of the continued expansion of tar sands production (sorry for the terrible pun). According to the SEIS, the project holds almost no bearing on the overall tar sands industry, despite the fact that it could transfer 830,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) from Alberta to the Gulf Coast for refinement. The report bases this conclusion upon the fact that, in lieu of the pipeline, the industry will find alternatives for transport, particularly railways. As the chart below suggests, the amount of tar sands bitumen being transported by rail has spiked in the last few years.

tar sands by rail

The volume of tar sands bitumen shipped by rail from Western Canada since 2011 (courtesy of the State Department).

Accordingly, State concluded that

Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.

This assertion is highly debatable, and there is a multitude of evidence that challenges it. Industry representatives have consistently spoken about the importance of the pipeline, and a 2013 Reuters investigation stated that relying on rail for transport would halve the amount of oil extracted from the tar sands. Additionally, a report from the Pembina Institute demonstrated that pipelines like Keystone will be central in shaping the future development of tar sands.

Some of my fellow Keystone opponents have pointed out that the SEIS indicates the project will be responsible for releasing carbon emissions, which would exacerbate climate change. In his statement after the report’s release, Bill McKibben said “this report gives President Obama everything he needs in order to block this project.”

The report is definitely stronger on this front than the draft SEIS. Rather than claiming Keystone would have “no significant environmental impact,” as the draft report did, the final SEIS notes

The total direct and indirect emissions associated with the proposed Project would contribute to cumulative global GHG emissions.

While this is a positive development, the crux of the report still ends up being the market analysis which underlines the projected environmental impacts. Because the report assumes that the pipeline won’t affect overall tar sands production, the SEIS actually concludes that Keystone would be better for the climate and the environment, generally, than all alternatives considered, including the no build option.

keystone climate analysis

Comparison of the annual and lifecycle GHG emissions from Keystone XL and the alternative projects examined in the SEIS (courtesy of the State Department).

I certainly hope that President Obama sticks to the pledge he made this summer, when he stated that he would only approve the pipeline if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” But I remain concerned that the report may provide him enough clearance to approve the pipeline, given the underlying market analysis.

If I didn’t have a dog in this fight – which I clearly do – I might find it appealing to see a decision of such import resting on something as wonkish and esoteric as a study of energy market dynamics. Hell, I basically went to grad school because I want to work in that world. But there’s too much on the line here.

We just need to trust that the President understands the scope of his decision. We’ve drawn our line in the sand, and there’s no erasing it.

5 ways the Opportunity Corridor is like Keystone XL

keystone xl protest
keystone xl protest

12,000 people rallied around the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2011.

Angie Schmidt has a post on Rust Wire that explores how all large development projects in Cleveland, including the so-called Opportunity Corridor, are framed through a “jobs” lens. It’s a good piece that’s well worth reading, but it got me thinking about the similarities between the Opportunity Corridor and the Keystone XL pipeline.

[For those of you who are unfamiliar with road projects in the city of Cleveland, the Opportunity Corridor is a proposed three-mile boulevard that would pass through some of the poorest neighborhoods on the East Side of Cleveland. The road would more readily connect I-490, a freeway that ends abruptly at East 55th Street, to University Circle, the heart of Cleveland’s biomedical and arts industries. The Ohio Department of Transportation calculates that the project will cost $331.3 million to complete, putting the cost per mile at an astounding $110.4 million.]

In the first post I ever wrote on this site, I examined the fight over Keystone XL according to social movement theory. Many of these insights are surprisingly relevant for the Opportunity Corridor discussion as well. So let’s explore a few of these similarities.

Bipartisan support from powerful decision makers

Keystone XL has enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle. Although the pipeline has become increasingly partisan in recent months, particularly as House Republicans have made it a cause célèbre in budget and debt ceiling negotiations, it has enjoyed broad support from powerful players. TransCanada’s main US lobbyist, Paul Elliot, was the national deputy director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, while a majority of Democrats (54%) still favored the project as of last September.

Similarly, the Opportunity Corridor has enjoyed support from a wide array of political leaders in Ohio. Republican Governor John Kasich is, unsurprisingly, firmly behind the project, using it as a way to garner additional support in heavily Democratic Northeastern Ohio. But several Democratic lawmakers, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cuyahoga County Executive (and gubernatorial candidate) Ed FitzGerald. Possibly the project’s biggest booster has been the center-left Plain Dealer, whose editor is a co-chair of the panel backing construction.

No longer a done deal

As recently as 2011, most policymakers assumed that Keystone XL was an inevitability. More than 70% of “insiders” in an October 2011 National Journal poll said the project would get final approval before the end of that year.

But the insiders underestimated the opposition to Keystone, which coalesced in the summer of 2011. Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org, worked to build a coalition of environment, labor, and social justice organizations that has effectively stalled the project for almost three years.  The fact that President Obama has publicly dismissed many arguments that Keystone proponents have made demonstrates just how effective this organized action has been.

Likewise, a movement has begun to build in opposition to the Opportunity Corridor. Angie Schmidt has been a leader in this movement, and she formed Clevelanders for Transportation Equity last year as a focal point. While the project still seems fairly likely to go forward, it has not been without backlash. The GreenCityBlueLake Institute continues to question its utility, while residents of the “Forgotten Triangle” have begun to speak out against the impact the project will have upon them.

Social and environmental costs

Thirdly, both projects would carry clear social and environmental consequences for populations that are politically, socioeconomically, and ecologically vulnerable.

Poor, marginalized communities of color live along both ends of Keystone XL. The pipeline begins in the tar sands fields of northern Alberta, where a number of First Nations tribes have lived along the Athabasca River for generations. This area has undergo dramatic changes in the past several years. Tar sands extraction has polluted the water extensively, and cancer rates in the region are 30% higher than average. At the other end of the proposed pipeline – Port Arthur, Texas – extensive pollution from oil refining creates severe health issues for residents who are overwhelmingly low-income persons of color. Children living in this area are 56% more likely to contract leukemia.

Likewise, the Opportunity Corridor is slated to run through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland. Five of the six affected neighborhoods have poverty rates higher than Cleveland’s 31.2% rate; in two of them, roughly two-thirds of residents live in poverty. The people living in these are also overwhelmingly Black or Hispanic and suffer from health outcomes more common in least developed countries than the United States.

minority populations opportunity corridor neighborhoods

The six neighborhoods affected by the proposed Opportunity Corridor are overwhelmingly home to persons of color (courtesy of ODOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement).

In 2008-2009, the asthma rates in this area stood at 15.6% (PDF), nearly double the national average (8%). In 2009, infant mortality rates in these neighborhoods were staggering, reaching as high as 69 deaths per 1,000 live births; that number is higher than the rates for Bangladesh, Burma, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda. Many of these health disparities are due, at least in part, to extremely high rates of air pollution. Even ODOT acknowledges that truck traffic will increase in these neighborhoods and will run at much higher speeds (approximately 45 mph), which may exacerbate these issues further.

Given the severe environmental health implications of these projects, it is unsurprising that the EPA has cast shade on the environmental impact statements done for both projects.

Symbols of a larger issue

Both projects are major symbols of the paradigms they represent. Keystone is part of our fossil fuel-driven economic model that is slowly destroying our climate with every ton of greenhouse gases emitted. The Opportunity Corridor, in turn, is a microcosm of Northeast Ohio’s obsession with the sprawl-based, car-centric development model. While stymieing either project would fail to topple the superstructures that they represent, it would be a symbolic victory that allows us to say we are not going to be blindly beholden to such models any more.

It’s all about jobs

Except when it isn’t. Rather than portraying these projects for what they are – a pipeline that will benefit Canadian oil companies and a large highway project that will supposedly reduce nonexistent congestion – proponents have framed them as jobs projects. And it’s certainly hard to argue with the need to invest in our infrastructure and provide employment opportunities to the hard-hit construction industry.

Keystone XL’s supporters have used industry-driven studies to claim that it would create tens of thousands of short-term construction jobs, along with thousands of permanent jobs in related industries. Opportunity Corridor backers have also claimed that it would create jobs for construction workers and help spark a manufacturing renaissance on the city’s Southeast side.

But the evidence suggests that these claims are overblown. If you really dig into the numbers, you find out that, not only are these projects unlikely to live up the hype, but fixing our existing infrastructure would actually create more jobs.

Economics for Equity and Environment and the Labor Network for Sustainability recently released a report that considered the economic impact of repairing our existing oil/gas and water pipelines, rather than building Keystone XL. It found that investing $18 billion to repair these pipelines would create more than 300,000 jobs. This amounts to five times as many jobs and 156% as many direct jobs per unit of investment as Keystone. This endeavor would both counter the fossil fuel behemoth and pay greater economic dividends; it’s a clear win-win.

In turn, it seems likely that spending the money allocated for the Opportunity Corridor to repair Cleveland’s existing roads would be far more beneficial. While no one has directly analyzed the economic impact of such a proposal, a 2009 study from the Political Economy Research Institute found that repairing existing roads creates 16% more jobs than expanding road infrastructure (PDF). Using their numbers – 17,472 jobs per $1 billion invested – would suggest that repairing Cleveland’s roads would create 6,890 jobs, compared to the 5,940 from building the Opportunity Corridor (interestingly, even proponents estimate it would only create 5,300 jobs).

Overall, the similarities between Keystone XL and the Opportunity Corridor are striking. So it makes sense that the two movements opposed to their construction are following similar, grassroots tactics. While it’s too early to say how either fight will end up, I encourage Opportunity Corridor opponents, who seem to have a steeper hill to climb, to take heart. Even if the road is eventually built, you now have an opportunity to start building a strong coalition to fight for sustainable development and transportation equity over the long haul.

How oil will make Syria’s civil war even deadlier

syrian oil field worker
syrian oil field worker

Many Syrians now work in the oil fields of Deir el Zour in order to make a living (courtesy of McClatchy).

The New York Times published an article yesterday that likely raised some eyebrows.

Islamist rebels and extremist groups have seized control of most of Syria’s oil and gas resources, a rare generator of cash in the country’s war-battered economy, and are now using the proceeds to underwrite their fights against one another as well as President Bashar al-Assad, American officials say.

While the oil and gas fields are in serious decline, control of them has bolstered the fortunes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and the Nusra Front, both of which are offshoots of Al Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is even selling fuel to the Assad government, lending weight to allegations by opposition leaders that it is secretly working with Damascus to weaken the other rebel groups and discourage international support for their cause.

Needless to say, this is a disconcerting series of events. But the fact that does not make it surprising.

To date, there has been a lot of ink spilled on how natural resources and/or climate change may have contributed to the ongoing civil war. The Center for Climate and Security, probably the best source of information on this subject, has assembled a collection of  more than three dozen such articles. There appears to be a solid case that the combination of an historic drought (likely driven by climate change) and incredibly poor water resource management by the al-Assad regime may have helped sparked the crisis. (It would obviously be excessively reductive and deterministic to claim that climate change caused the conflict, but it likely contributed to it. Anyways, I digress.)

But helping drive the onset of violent conflict constitutes just one of the three major ways that we know natural resources contribute to conflict. Natural resources can help finance ongoing conflict and create incentives for leaders to spoil peace efforts in order to continue profiting from resource rents.

These two connections appear to be quite common facets of modern conflict. We know, for instance, that Charles Taylor funded violence in Liberia by exploiting the illegal timber trade and that both parties in the Angolan civil war financed their war efforts by selling diamonds. Moreover, the ready availability of revenues from opium production in Afghanistan and diamonds in Sierra Leone have provided incentives for warlords and rebel leaders to avoid brokering peace and to finance resumed conflict.

nr wars

This chart lists 18 recent civil conflicts which involved natural resources (courtesy of UNEP).

In fact, according to the UN Environment Programme, natural resources have helped to fuel some 40% of all civil conflicts since 1960. Given these realities, it is wholly unsurprising – though no less disconcerting – that rebel groups like ISIS and the Nusra Front have turned to oil reserves in the areas under their control.

There was one new and disturbing piece of information buried in the article, though.

A second American official said that while Mr. Assad’s government is growing ever more desperate for oil, [ISIS] is becoming increasingly independent of wealthy donors in the Persian Gulf and other funding sources. As the group has gained control of more territory, it has been able to sustain its operations through a combination of oil revenues, border tolls, extortion and granary sales, the official said.

As ISIS continues to stuff its war chest with oil rents, it no longer depends as heavily upon its Persian Gulf benefactors. This outcome risks to further exacerbate the brutal nature of the conflict, as ISIS finds itself free of any restrictions that may have previously been attached to its funding (granted, it’s unlikely that these groups would be concerned about the dictates of donors, but they may have, at least, had to deal with practical restrictions due to a lack of resources).

Beardsley & McQuinn previously explored the relationship between rebel group behavior and funding sources (paywall). They compared two rebel groups – the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Indonesia and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.

They found that GAM had to rely heavily upon the local population to raise revenues and recruit fighters. This process required GAM to expend a considerable amount of effort and resources; Beardsley & McQuinn note that the relatively meager funds it raised and small number of fighters in its ranks meant that GAM used low return on investment (ROI) methods to finance its rebellion. Accordingly, the group needed to remain attentive to the needs of the Acehnese people, which drove its leaders to the bargaining table after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated the region.

LTTE, in contrast, was able to procure funding and recruits much more readily. The group financed its war effort through a combination of extorting payments, controlling business enterprises, and garnering donations from Tamils abroad. These tactics had a much higher ROI and did not require LTTE to consider the needs of the people in conflict-affected areas. As a result, the group was much more willing to engage in violent attacks that either directly harmed Tamils or that garnered retribution on Tamils in return. Additionally, the group saw little incentive in brokering peace after the tsunami, as it had more to gain from ongoing conflict than from international aid flows. The Sri Lankan civil war only ended in 2009 after Colombo brutally suppressed LTTE controlled areas.

So while it should come as no surprise that Syrian rebels, including al Qaeda-linked groups, would turn to oil resources for funding, it should raise red flags. The Syrian civil war isn’t going to end anytime soon, regardless of what happens in Geneva, and this new report suggests that things are only going to get much, much worse long before they improve.

Extreme heat increases migration from rural areas

hanna lake dried up
hanna lake dried up

A man walks through the desiccated remains of Hanna Lake in Balochistan, which dried up during a decade-long drought in the region (courtesy of Al Jazeera).

The link between extreme weather and migration remains ambiguous, despite the hype surrounding so-called climate refugees, but new research appears to bolster the connection.

A new study published this week in Nature Climate Change (paywall) explores the effects of different disasters on human migration patterns in rural Pakistan. In light of the severe floods that have affected Pakistan in recent years, particularly the historic 2010 floods that affected 20 million people, the authors focused on the impact that extreme rainfall and temperatures have on patterns of migration in the country. The study examines the relationship over a 21-year period (1991-2012), relying on data from three longitudinal surveys.

The authors analyze several key weather variables, including rainfall during the monsoon season, average temperatures during the Rabi (winter wheat) season, flood intensity, and a 12-month moisture index measurement.

The various measures of rainfall have no significant effect on the mobility of men or women, either within or outside of the villages surveyed. In fact, the results suggest that periods of high rainfall actually decrease out-migration within the villages, perhaps due to the fact that farm and non-farm incomes increase significantly during these periods.

These results correspond with previous studies examining the relationship between rainfall and migration. Afifi and Warner examined the influence of 13 different forms of environmental degradation on patterns of international migration. They found that only one of the 13 – flooding – failed to increase international migration flows. In addition, Raleigh, Jordan, and Salehyan (PDF) concluded in 2008 that Bangladeshis affected by flooding migrated just two miles from their homes, on average, and that the vast majority of those displaced returned home shortly after the flood waters receded.

In contrast to flooding, this study did find a robust relationship between extreme heat and out migration flows. The authors note that males in rural Pakistan are 11 times more likely to leave their villages when exposed to extremely high temperatures. These results hold for both land-owners and non-land owners, as well as asset-rich and asset-poor Pakistanis. This outcome likely stems from the fact that extreme heat decreases both farm and non-farm incomes by 36% and 16%, respectively.

The authors also find that both men and women appear far more likely to migrate during periods of both extreme high temperatures and low rainfall. This result indicates that out migration flows are likely to spike during extreme droughts.

While droughts often appear to develop due largely to below-average rainfall, they actually originate through a much more subtle interaction of precipitation and temperature. Less rainfall tends to lower soil moisture levels, which, in turn, increases heat transfer from the soil to the air and elevates surface albedo. These effects drive up temperature further, often creating a positive feedback cycle by which lower rainfall and higher temperatures work together to drive prolonged droughts.

The results of the study have important implications for governments, donor organizations, and NGOs operating in a greenhouse world. As global temperatures continue to rise, we already know that the likelihood of extreme heatwaves will spike dramatically. This outcome will likely increase rural out-migration in the developing world. Moreover, the authors suggest that their work will require donors and aid agencies to reconsider how they respond to and plan for disasters in the future.

Existing flood relief programs may potentially crowd out private coping mechanisms such as migration, particularly for the poor and risk-averse living in flood-prone areas. Our results also show the important role of heat stress — a climate shock which has attracted relatively less relief — in lowering farm and non-farm income and spurring migration. Sustainable development will require policies that enhance adaptation to weather-related risks for farmers and for enterprises tied to the rural economy. Shifting relief towards investments in heat-resistant varieties, producing and disseminating better weather forecasting data and weather insurance, and policies that encourage welfare-enhancing migratory responses might improve individual abilities to adapt to an array of weather-related risks.

January is the vanguard of climate change in the US

map mean temperature anomalies january 2014
map mean temperature anomalies january 2014

Mean temperature anomalies for the continental US from January 1-26 (courtesy of the National Weather Service).

It’s been freaking cold in the Eastern half of the US, and it’s only gotten colder in the past 12 hours or so.

Another section of the dreaded Polar Vortex has broken off and is hovering over the Midwest. This morning, temperatures hovered around -9°F in Cleveland, just shy of the record low for the date. Further inland, however, temperatures plummeted to -14°F or lower.

There’s no question that this January has been abnormally cold and snowy for the region. Through yesterday, the average temperature this month was 22.6°F, which is 5.4°F below the long-term average of 28.1°F. The only way for the monthly temperature to reach that mark would be if the next 5 days were, on average, 63°F. Given that it’s currently 5°F and tomorrow’s high will be 12°F, that isn’t going to happen.

Yet, by most regards, this January has been far from record-breaking in Northeast Ohio. To date, it is only the 16th coldest January since 1964, and the temperature anomaly is not statistically significant (for fellow nerds, the z score is -0.723). Furthermore, just 5 years ago in 2009, the average monthly temperature for January was 19.4°F, the third coldest on record.

But, as we know, one cold month or even winter does not a trend make; the world is warming steadily. And, in the US, January has warmed at a faster rate than any other month. It has been the vanguard of warming.

From 1970-2013, January warmed by a rate of 1.14°C per decade, nearly twice as fast as any other month. [Interestingly, this trend does not hold worldwide. October, which has the lowest rate of warming in the continental US, has warmed at the greatest rate (0.33°C per decade) globally. This result is likely due to the fact that global temperatures include data from both sides of the equator.]

monthly average temperature anomalies

Monthly average temperature anomalies for the United States for 1970-2013 (Data from NOAA National Climatic Data Center).

Cleveland has followed a similar trend. Over the last 50 years, January has demonstrated the greatest rate of warming, with average monthly temperatures increasing by 1.371°F per decade. This number is nearly two-thirds larger than second-place February, which has warmed at a rate 0.826°F.

cleveland monthly temperature anomalies

Monthly average temperature anomalies for Cleveland from 1970-2013 (data from Northeast Ohio Media Group).

Moreover, the number of days on which temperatures dip below 10°F has fallen steadily during this period, decreasing by 2.31 days per decade. This winter has clearly bucked that trend, as there have already been 12 days below 10°F since the beginning of December. That’s the most since we had 15 such days in 2009, and we aren’t even into February yet.

number of frigid nights in cleveland

The number of frigid nights in Cleveland per year, 1970-2013 (courtesy of Climate Central).

Interestingly, for as far below average as temperatures have been in the Midwest, they’ve been even higher than average throughout the West. While mean temperatures have been 4-5°F below average throughout much of the country, nearly all of California, Montana, and Nevada have seen temperatures upwards of 8-9°F higher than normal. This disparity doesn’t even account for Alaska’s abnormally warm winter weather. Fairbanks, for instance, has been three times warmer than normal this January.

Climate change deniers have consistently tried to use the cold snap blanketing most of the eastern US as evidence that, as noted climatologist Donald Trump put it, global warming is “bulls#*t.” Cold weather in January doesn’t disprove climate change. In fact, January has been the proverbial canary in the coal mine for global warming, and that trend hasn’t changed in the last 28 days.

2013 made 1988 look downright frigid by comparison

James Hansen 1988 testimony
James Hansen 1988 testimony

Dr. James Hansen testifying before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 1988 (courtesy of The Washington Post).

In his landmark testimony (PDF) before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on June 28, 1988, Dr. James Hansen, then director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies said,

The present temperature is the highest in the period of record…The four warmest years, as the Senator mentioned, have all been in the 1980s. And 1988 so far is so much warmer than 1987, that barring a remarkable and improbable cooling, 1988 will be the warmest year on record.

Hansen’s testimony proved to be accurate. 1988 ended up as the warmest year on record at that time, dating back to 1880, according to data from NOAA. The average global temperature in 1988 was 0.34ºC above the 20th century average, just edging out the 0.33ºC temperature anomaly from 1987.

global annual temperatures 1880-1988

Annual temperature anomaly records, worldwide, from 1880-1988 (courtesy of NOAA).

Flash forward to today. Yesterday, NOAA reported that, globally, 2013 tied 2003 as the fourth warmest year on record. Despite abnormally cool temperatures in the continental US during November and December, those months proved to be the warmest and third warmest on record worldwide, respectively. Overall, 2013 was 0.62ºC above the 20th century average. Accordingly, the temperature anomaly for 2013 was 82% larger than that for 1988.

Seth Borenstein, the great AP reporter on weather/climate issues, made a remarkable observation on Twitter yesterday after NOAA released its data.

The great warming of 1988, which sparked Hansen’s testimony and put climate change on the map as a political issue, is now so ordinary that it no longer ranks among the 20 warmest years on record. The rate of warming may have slowed slightly since 1988, but the total warming trend continues to plow ahead. It took all of 25 years to push 1988 out of the top 20.

annual global temperatures 1988-2013

Annual global temperature anomalies from 1988-2013 (courtesy of NOAA).

Looking at the overall trend, you can really get a sense of how quickly warming has increased since the 1940s. Due to a string of cooler than normal years from the 1880s-1930s, the average temperature anomaly from 1880 (when record keeping began) and 1988 was actually -0.08ºC. Since 1988, that warming anomaly has skyrocketed to an average of 0.49ºC.

Twenty five years ago, 1988 stood out for its searing, abnormal heat. Unless we take action, 25 years from now we may end up looking back nostalgically at that year and praying for temperatures that cool.

Ohio’s oil & gas industry literally wrote HB 375

state rep. matt huffman

State Representative Matt Huffman (R-Lima) is the main sponsor of HB 375 (courtesy of Ohio House GOP).

As a follow-up to my piece on the horrors of HB 375, Ohio Republicans’ plan to alter the state’s severance tax on the oil & gas industry, I came across an article from The Columbus Dispatch on the potential impact of the bill to tax revenues in the state:

The state tax commissioner says the impact on Ohio taxpayers of a tax plan for the state’s burgeoning oil and gas industry — sold as a way to reduce Ohioans’ taxes — cannot be predicted.

“The bill has some significant components that would have unpredictable impacts on state revenues,” Tax Commissioner Joe Testa told The Dispatch. “Specifically, the net-proceeds model it’s based on gives us no way of knowing what net figure these taxpayers will be declaring.”

Testa joins the nonpartisan budget analysis arm of the legislature in declaring the financial impact of the severance tax in House Bill 375 difficult to ascertain. Money would go for drilling oversight, capping of orphan wells and a minor annual income-tax cut.

“It allows for credits to be taken against other taxes for severance tax paid,” he said. “That approach is a lot like the old corporate franchise tax that Ohio wisely did away with because there were too many loopholes.”

Buried at the bottom of the article, however, is a single clause in the last sentence of the piece that, while not surprising in the least, is definitely illuminating. Tom Stewart, the president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association noted that

oil and gas interests came up with the methodology used in the legislation.

In other words, the industry wrote the language on what may be the most important piece of legislation regulating their profits in Ohio over the last 40 years.

We already knew that HB 375 amounted to little more than a massive giveaway to Ohio’s oil & gas industry. Now we have proof, straight from the horse’s mouth.