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Utility Giant Cuts Ties With Willie Soon

Southern Company supplied nearly $470,000 for research by climate contrarian affiliated with Harvard-Smithsonian, now conducting an ethics investigation

Apr 7, 2015

Controversial climate contrarian and Harvard-Smithsonian scientist Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon has one more report to complete for a giant utility company that has pumped nearly a half-million dollars into his highly disputed research before the company cuts his funding.

The Southern Company, which generates power for nine states––largely from coal––has decided it will no longer fund Soon's work, which claims the sun is the primary driver of global warming.

"Our agreement with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory expires later this year and there are no plans to renew it," Southern spokesman Jack Bonnikson said in an email.

Soon is obligated to deliver one final report––"Solar Activity Variation on Multiple Timescales"––by November. Then no more.

Southern's decision comes at a time when the company finds itself in the midst of a firestorm of controversy surrounding revelations that Soon failed to divulge that fossil fuel interests were a primary source of funding for 11 studies published in nine scientific journals beginning in 2008.

Climate Change Beliefs, Parsed on a Local Level, Paint a Valuable Portrait

New study creates thin slices of data on people's attitudes toward climate, could be a boon for policymakers.

Apr 6, 2015

A new statistical model grinds national poll data about climate change as finely as any pepper mill, and it can predict the public's climate change beliefs, risk perceptions, and policy preferences right down to the level of each state, county and congressional district, its authors say.

But the arrival of this Big Data tool may not produce many big surprises.

Fracking Study on Water Contamination Under Ethics Review

Chesapeake Energy paid undisclosed fees to the lead author, whose study was based on water samples provided by the company.

Apr 6, 2015

Drinking-water wells in Pennsylvania close to natural gas sites do not face a greater risk of methane contamination than those farther away, according to a new study published in Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T). But the study is now being called into question because of its methodology and some undisclosed ties to energy giant Chesapeake Energy.

The findings contradict recent studies that identified a correlation between proximity to natural gas wells and higher methane levels in well water. The new study analyzed more than 11,000 water samples collected by Chesapeake and provided to researchers.

Methane is the main component of natural gas and is not toxic for humans. But if the gas escapes from water taps and accumulates in confined spaces such as basements it poses a risk of explosion. 

"We found no statistically significant relationship between dissolved methane concentrations in groundwater from domestic water wells and proximity to pre-existing oil or gas wells," wrote the authors, led by Donald Siegel, chairman of earth sciences at Syracuse University. "Previous analyses used small sample sets compared to the population of domestic wells available, which may explain the difference in prior findings compared to ours."

InsideClimate News and 'Big Oil + Bad Air" Series Named Finalist for IRE Award

By ICN Staff

Apr 3, 2015

The investigative series "Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil + Bad Air on the Texas Prairie," was cited as a finalist in the Investigative Reporters & Editors Awards on Friday in the large multimedia category.

The series, produced by InsideClimate News in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel, has won several awards already. It won a 2014 EPPY Award in the category of Best Investigative/Enterprise Feature on a Website and was awarded first place by the Association of Health Care Journalists. ICN staff cited by IRE for their work on the project: Lisa Song, David Hasemyer, Zahra Hirji, Sabrina Shankman and Paul Horn.

Flawed Steel Still in Wide Use in Oil Pipelines

Anniversary of Exxon spill in Arkansas puts spotlight back on 48,400 miles of pipelines made with flawed technique phased out 40 years ago.

Apr 3, 2015

The two-year anniversary of ExxonMobil's oil pipeline rupture in Arkansas is once again putting the spotlight on old pipe that can harbor cracks and other dangerous defects—and that's still in widespread use across the country.

Federal regulators have known for decades that vintage pipe carried extra risks. After a spate of new spills, however, they recently took the first step toward mandating more rigorous testing on pre-1970 pipe, including the kind that was a factor in causing ExxonMobil's oil spill in Mayflower, Ark.

The failed section of ExxonMobil's Pegasus line was manufactured in the 1940s using low-frequency electric resistance welding (LF-ERW), a process that was widely used from the 1930s into the 1960s. The technique was phased out by 1970 because it left flaws in the steel that could cause pipelines to split open along the lengthwise seams.

N. Carolina Lifts Fracking Ban and Punts on Toxic Air Emissions

Seventy-two pages of oil-and-gas regulations went into effect when the moratorium was lifted, but regulations on air pollution weren't included.

Apr 3, 2015

North Carolina is the latest state to green-light hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within its borders.

In mid-March, the state's fracking moratorium was lifted and 72 pages of new oil-and-gas regulations went into effect. The rules cover, among other things, public disclosures about certain chemicals used in fracking; how far wells must be from homes, business and waterways; and ways to dispose of drilling waste.

But one major aspect of drilling operations was entirely left out: air emissions. That's despite increasing concern that the myriad oil-and-gas sources of toxic emissions—from the well pad to refineries to waste sites—pose significant public health risks.

North Carolina's Mining and Energy Commission drafted the rules for fracking. It's up to a different group—the Environmental Management Commission—to produce the air regulations. But so far, that 15-member group hasn't produced any such rules and now it's quite possible that it never will.

That's because a recently passed Republican measure includes language that authorizes the Environmental Management Commission to decide whether new air rules for drilling operations are even needed.

This bill gives regulators permission to "punt" on new air rules, according to Mary Maclean, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Sierra Snowpack, Thinned by Climate Change, at Record Low in Waterless California

Following the official measurement, the governor ordered cities and towns to cut water use by 25 percent for the first time in state history.

Apr 2, 2015

It was bad news for California following annual snowpack measurements throughout the towering­­––and usually snow-covered––Sierra Nevada mountain range. There was very little snow.

On Wednesday, the Sierra snowpack held only 1.4 inches of water when 28.3 inches is normal for this time of year. The numbers foreshadow yet another gloomy year of drought in a state that depends on a steady stream of snowmelt to replenish its reservoirs and aquifers.

The snowpack numbers recorded at more than 300 locations in the Sierra are far worse than the end-of-season numbers since 1950, when record-keeping began. The previous worst years came last year and in 1977 when the snowpack held 7.1 inches of water.

The dismal number means there will be minimal runoff this spring in central and northern California streams and rivers.

The Sierra snowpack is vital to California. As much as one-third of the state's water supply comes from snowpack that melts and is ultimately captured in a series of reservoirs for use as drinking water and for agricultural irrigation. The state draws the remainder of its water from aquifers and the Colorado River.

Chuck Schumer Votes Reliably on Climate, but Rarely Leads

Probable next Senate Democratic leader calls for climate action while keeping quiet on fracking. 'It hasn't been where he's put most of his time.'

Apr 2, 2015

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the probable next Senate Democratic leader, has been vocal about the need for climate action and has compiled a solid pro-environment voting record, but he's never been a leader on the issue, environmentalists and political experts said.

A senator since 1998, Schumer's principal focus in a 42-year political career has been economic policy and immigration. Since Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City in 2012, he has joined in calls for world leaders to act on global warming.

"Sen. Schumer has made it clear that he views environmentalists as an important constituency and the environment as an important issue for the party," said David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "On an individual level, it hasn't been where he's put most of his time. In a new role, he'll have to look at things through a new lens."

Political commentators and journalists say the three-term senator is "exactly who Democrats need" to overhaul the party and regain majority control, in the words of the Washington Post's Dana Milbank. The current Democratic leader of the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, announced his plan last week to retire after 2016. Reid and some other party leaders, including Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, endorsed Schumer for the post this week.

Schumer drew criticism from New York's anti-fracking grassroots activists last May when he told MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, "Democrats throughout the country have supported fracking." The environmentalists flooded Schumer's office with calls and letters protesting his comment. A few weeks later, he walked back his statement at a fundraiser, said Alex Beauchamp, director of Food and Water Watch's work in the Northeast and a spokesman for New Yorkers Against Fracking.

Eating on Land Unlikely to Save Polar Bears

As Arctic ice dwindles, theories that polar bears can adapt their fat-heavy diet are debunked in a new paper.

Apr 1, 2015

Scientists studying the effects of Arctic melting have found themselves in what you could call the Polar Bear Wars.

On one side, a sizeable group of researchers have spent decades documenting the connection between the rapid melting of sea ice and declines in polar bear health and survival.

On the other, a handful of scientists who have observed polar bears eating nontraditional prey on landlike goose eggs and berrieshave hypothesized that could mitigate the loss of their icy habitat as the globe warms. Studies from this side have spawned misleading headlines such as, "Polar Bears Just Might Outlive Us All."

A paper published today in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment is the latest attempt to settle the score.

U.S. Submits Climate Pledge in Next Step to UN's Paris Talks

As promised, the U.S. turned in its emissions goals, but China and other large countries missed the UN's suggested deadline.

Mar 31, 2015

Clap your hands if you believe in Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

After all, it's faith in those documents, known as INDCs—detailed country-by-country pledges to reduce climate change—that are supposed to keep alive the glimmering hopes of a universal, binding treaty on climate change that the United Nations wants to conclude in Paris at the end of the year.