TIME fracking

Geologists: Fracking Likely Cause of Ohio Earthquakes

Gas Drilling Earthquakes
A brine injection well owned by Northstar Disposal Services LLC is seen in Youngstown, Ohio, Jan. 4, 2011. Amy Sancetta—AP

Tremors under the state’s Appalachian Mountains last month were likely the result of hydraulic fracturing—the gas extraction process referred to as “fracking”—geologists have said for the first time, leading Ohio to issue strict permit conditions on Friday

Geologists have for the first time linked earthquakes deep under Ohio’s Appalachian Mountains to hydraulic fracturing, leading the state to issue strict permit conditions Friday on the gas extraction process.

Researchers found that five small tremors last month near Youngstown, Ohio were likely the result of the injection of sand and water that occurs during the hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — process, the Associated Press reports. Fracking involves injecting rocks with pressurized water or other liquids in an effort to extract gas which can be turned into usable fuel.

Because the geology of each shale formation is different, the discovery in Ohio may not apply everywhere across the country. However, other instances of fracking causing small earthquakes have been recorded elsewhere, including in Oklahoma, England and British Columbia, Canada.

Ohio’s new permit conditions require natural gas companies to install sensitive seismic-monitoring equipment at drilling sites near known faults or seismic activity. If an earth tremor of greater than 1.0 magnitude is linked to fracking, operations will be halted.

“While we can never be 100 percent sure that drilling activities are connected to a seismic event, caution dictates that we take these new steps to protect human health, safety and the environment,” James Zehringer, director of Ohio’s natural resources department, said.

[AP]

MORE: The Fuss Over Fracking: The Dilemma of a New Gas Boom

TIME Environment

Wal-Mart Could Make Organic Food Cheap—and Eventually, Plentiful

Customers enter a Wal-Mart store on Feb. 20, 2014 in San Lorenzo, Calif.
Customers enter a Wal-Mart store on Feb. 20, 2014 in San Lorenzo, Calif. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The retail giant says it will sell some organic products at 25% below what its competitors cost. That's good for the organic market

If you still think organic food is something for hippies and vegans—and best of all, hippie vegans, though that might be redundant—it’s time to update your cultural stereotypes. This morning Wal-Mart announced that it would begin carrying products from the Wild Oats organic line—and that it would offer the goods at prices that are at least 25% cheaper than their organic competitors. Wal-Mart, the Bentonville behemoth that became the biggest retailer in the world by ruthlessly lowering prices, wants to make organic food cheap. And that could make the organic food market go supernova. “If we can make the price premium disappear, we think it will grow much, much faster,” Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of grocery at Wal-Mart U.S., told reporters.

Organic has already been growing rapidly. Though the category still accounted for just 4% of total U.S. food sales at the beginning of 2012, organic sales rose to 10.2% that year, or $29 billion. A decade earlier, organic sales were just $8 billion. And this rapid growth is occurring even as sales at traditional supermarkets have been slumping. A wide swath of customers are switching to organic food when they can, and chances are even more would make the move if they could afford it: internal research at Wal-Mart found that 91% of its customers would buy “affordable” organic products if they were available. Over at Fortune magazine—another Time Inc. title—the editors are hailing the organic star Whole Foods on the cover of their latest edition:

The Austin-based chain is one of the country’s most successful retailers — its revenue has doubled and profits have tripled since 2007 — defying dismal grocery industry trends by offering consumers a mix of organics, truly delicious prepared foods, and an expanding array of staples under its 365 house brand. Now, having conquered affluent suburbs and trendy urban areas, Whole Foods is out to win over the rest of America.

In the short term, Wal-Mart’s move—which for now will be confined to staples like olive oil and tomato paste—could actually raise prices for some organic foods. That’s because the demand for organics has been outpacing the supply —this year there’s been a shortage of organic milk in many places, and organic egg production has dropped even as demand has increased because the price of the organic feed needed for the hens that lay the eggs has skyrocketed. (The example of milk is instructive: sales of whole organic milk nationwide increased 17% from January through October 2011, compared with the same period in 2010—even as sales of conventional milk over those months fell by 2%.) Under U.S. Agricultural Department rules, it also takes at least three years for farmers to switch from conventional crops to organic ones, so there will likely be a lag.

Still Wal-Mart’s unique, um, talent for getting suppliers to do what it wants will likely ensure that organic supply will rise to meet that growing demand over time, at prices that are less than what consumers have been accustomed to paying. The cognitive dissonance is inevitable—for the hardest-core of organic shoppers, the ones who long ago turned away from conventional groceries because of health and environmental fears, Wal-Mart is up there with Monsanto as a symbol of all that is is evil in the food world. But Wal-Mart has actually been selling organic products for years with a lot of success. And just as the company’s adoption of energy efficiency and renewable energy—while not without problems—has helped push those technologies towards the mainstream, Wal-Mart’s embrace of cheap organic could have a major impact on the American diet and farming. Scale is a hell of a thing.

TIME Environment

The Sriracha Factory Is a Public Nuisance, Says California City

A machine boxes Sriracha for shipping.
A machine boxes Sriracha bottles that will end up in restaurants and on grocery store shelves. Peter Bohler for TIME

Council representatives in Irwindale have demanded a hot sauce factory do a better job within 90 days to contain its stinging fumes that residents say causes asthma, heartburn, headaches, teary eyes and nosebleeds—or they'll go in and make the changes themselves

A city in California has declared a Sriracha plant located close to town a public nuisance for emanating spicy fumes that have prompted a ton of complaints, the Associated Press reports.

The declaration was made by the Irwindale City Council on Wednesday night. Council representatives will now enter the hot sauce factory and make changes if the factory doesn’t find a way to contain the pollution within 90 days.

Last fall, residents complained that stinging fumes emanating from the factory caused asthma problems, heartburn, headaches, streaming eyes and nosebleeds. The complaints resulted in the factory being partly shut-down, but the problems persisted.

The Sriracha maker, Huy Fong Foods, is working with the air-quality experts South Coast Air Management District on improving its filtration system and is making progress, air-quality experts said.

The hot sauce Sriracha is Thai in origin but has become a popular condiment in many kinds of restaurants in the U.S.

[Associated Press]

TIME Disaster

A Survivor of the Washington Mudslide Shares Her Story

Washington mudslide survivor Amanda Skorjanc, 25, talks to the media while sitting in her hospital bed on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, in Seattle. Dan Bates—The Herald / Pool / AP

Amanda Skorjanc, who was watching videos at home with her infant son when the land began to move, breaks her silence on how they were injured but rescued from the disaster that has claimed 36 lives so far

Few who witnessed the terrifying mudslide that ravaged the small Washington community of Oso on March 22 lived to tell the story, but on Wednesday, Amanda Skorjanc shared her terrifying experience, which she lived through with her infant son.

“I held onto that baby like it was the only purpose that I had,” she told the AP from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where she is hospitalized.

Skorjanc was watching videos at home with her son when the lights started to flicker and shake. Looking outside, she saw an enormous sludge wall pummeling through the community, launching a neighbor’s chimney in her direction.

When the horrifying deluge finally ended, Skorjanc and her baby found themselves injured but alive in a pocket formed by a damaged couch and pieces of roof.

“I started to hear sirens — the most amazing sound I ever heard,” she said, adding that she kept her eyes closed as she and her son were rescued. “I was scared and in so much pain.”

Skorjanc’s husband was out on an errand when the mudslide hit, and was unscathed.

Skorjanc, however, suffered multiple fractures, crushed ankles and injuries to an eye socket, while her son fractured his skull. While he is recovering, doctors say she will need to be off her feet for another 10 weeks — and the emotional healing will take a lot longer.

The latest death toll in the disaster is 36.

[AP]

TIME Environment

Banning GMO Labeling Is a Bad Idea—For GMOs

GMO labeling laws in California
A new bill in Congress would nullify state efforts to mandate labeling of GMO foods Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

A bill introduced in Congress would nullify any state effort to require labeling of genetically modified organisms. But that will make GMO acceptance even less likely, as public support for GMO labels is on the rise

Americans in two states have voted on ballot initiatives that would have required the labeling of any foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs, for short). And twice, voters rejected those initiative in close ballots—thanks in part to tens of millions of dollars spent by GMO crop developers like Monsanto and industry groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). You’d think then that GMO supporters in the food industry would be feeling pretty confident that they could win on genetically-modified food legislation.

Apparently you’d be wrong. Republican Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas introduced on Wednesday new legislation that would nullify any attempt by states to require GMO labeling. More than two dozen states so far are considering bills that would mandate some form of labeling, with Maine and Connecticut having so far passed labeling measures into law. According to Pompeo, that’s enough to mandate a federal response:

We’ve got a number of states that are attempting to put together a patchwork quilt of food labeling requirements with respect to genetic modification of foods. That makes it enormously difficult to operate a food system. Some of the campaigns in some of these states aren’t really to inform consumers but rather aimed at scaring them. What this bill attempts to do is set a standard.

The bill—the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act”—would prohibit any mandatory labeling of foods made with bioengineering. The bill would also make it virtually impossible for states to block any efforts by food companies to put a “natural” label on any product that does contain GMO ingredients, requiring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create regulations that specify the maximum level of accidental GMO presence allowed in foods that come with a non-GMO label.

Translation: it’s almost as if the bill’s drafters were trying to hit on every fear that GMO-phobes have. It’s not surprising that the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—an environmental non-profit that has been deeply skeptical of GMOs—has called the bill the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act.” As Marni Karlin, the director of legislative and legal affairs at the Organic Trade Association, said in a statement:

Consumers, particularly the eight out of ten American families who buy organic products, want to know what is in their food. Rep. Pompeo’s bill ignores this consumer demand for information. Instead, it ties the hands of state governments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration concerning GMO labeling. It is fatally flawed.

It’s worth noting that even though ballot initiatives to require GMO labeling have twice failed, polls indicate strong support for labeling nationally. A New York Times survey last July found that 93% of Americans believe that foods containing GMO ingredients should be labeled. But we’re still a long way from that happening. While both Connecticut and Maine have passed laws mandating labeling, the measures don’t actually kick in until other nearby states approve similar laws. It seems a little early to pass a federal law to nullify state laws that aren’t actually in power yet.

In reality, though, arguments about GMO labeling tend to be arguments about GMOs—their usefulness and their safety. Confusion is rampant over GMOs, and if you want smart, straight reporting on the subject, check out Nathanael Johnson’s great series at Grist, which is summarized here. Like Johnson, I think the hazards posed by GMOs are “negligible to non-existent.” While they have yet to really fulfill their promise, GMOs can be a useful tool as the world tries to figure out how to feed billions more people without significantly increasing farmland, something that would be far worse for the environment than any genetically modified crop.

But the fact that I think properly regulated GMOs can be an important part of global farming is also why I think this bill is a mistake. Would a patchwork of laws mandating GMO labeling in some states and not others be an enormous and costly headache? Yes. But the same surveys that show support for GMO labeling also show deep distrust of bioengineering in food. And a lot of that distrust stems from the sense that GMOs are somehow being foisted on consumers without their knowledge or their consent. As Johnson notes, that increases the sense of risk around GMOs:

In a famous paper on risk perception, published in Science in 1987, Paul Slovic pointed out that people judge voluntary, controllable actions as much less risky than those that are involuntary and out of their control. Similarly, people see the unknown as much more risky than the known. Genetically engineered foods are, for most people, both unknown and uncontrollable.

By passing a law that would preemptively ban any attempt to require labeling, GMO defenders are playing into the hands of their opponents, making bioengineering feel far more risky than it really is. GMO advocates are losing this battle—see a company as mainstream as General Mills announce that a flagship product like Cheerios would now be made without genetically modified ingredients. If the food industry was smart, it would take a leading role in establishing a national standard for GMO labels. But given the bloody way this endless debate has played out, I wouldn’t expect a truce any time soon.

 

TIME Environment

SeaWorld Will Keep Its Orcas for at Least Another Year

Baby Killer Whale Born At SeaWorld San Diego
A newborn baby killer whale swims with its mother on Dec. 21, 2004, at Shamu Stadium in SeaWorld San Diego Getty Images

Lawmakers disappointed animal-rights activists by tabling the so-called Blackfish bill for further study at a committee hearing in Sacramento. The study likely won't conclude for another 12 months

SeaWorld’s San Diego location will get to keep its 10 killer whales for the time being.

At a committee hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday, lawmakers heard impassioned arguments for and against a bill that would force SeaWorld San Diego to stop using orcas in its shows, but the issue never came to a vote. Instead, the committee recommended that the bill go through a detailed study that likely won’t conclude for another year.

The bill, introduced by Los Angeles–area state-assembly member Richard Bloom, would make it unlawful to hold any wild orca in captivity for entertainment or performance purposes, as well as breed orcas in captivity. All orcas held in captivity before the bill was passed would be returned to the wild if possible and to “sea pens” if not.

Hundreds of people flooded the hearing room in support of the bill, having arrived from all over California. Some were associated with groups like the Humane Society or local unions, while others were simply individuals who opposed keeping large mammals in captivity. “We are the voice for the voiceless,” one supporter said, a phrase that was repeated or paraphrased by many at the hearing. “You have the power to free these animals,” another said to the committee members. “Please do so.”

Representatives from SeaWorld and opponents of the bill argued that the money generated from millions of visitors to the parks helps support the much larger population of orcas in the wild and generates interest in marine life, providing close encounters between people and whales that would be unlikely otherwise.

Bloom introduced the bill after seeing the controversial film Blackfish, a 2013 documentary about the consequences of keeping killer whales in captivity, which has led to death in some cases. The team from SeaWorld has fought back against the perspective of the film and at the hearing called it “dominated by falsehoods.” The parks have 29 orcas throughout the world.

The decision to study the bill further was not the desired result for animal-rights activists, but some saw it as only a temporary setback. “The writing is on the sea wall,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said in a statement. “The public has learned how orcas suffer psychologically, succumb to premature deaths, and lash out in frustration and aggression in SeaWorld’s orca pits, and they’ve responded with lower attendance levels, public protests, and legislation. SeaWorld can take the year to figure out how to release the orcas into ocean sanctuaries.”

Bloom’s office would have preferred a favorable vote that would keep the bill moving through the California legislature and toward Governor Jerry Brown’s desk, but his chief of staff, Sean MacNeil, says the study period will also allow for more public hearings and discussion about the issue. “The study, in many ways, can serve as an opportunity,” he said.

TIME Environment

10 Amazing Places to Visit Before They Vanish

The world is filled with jaw-dropping sights, but rapid climate change is threatening some of the most spectacular natural wonders. Here are just a few of the world’s most majestic places that could disappear in as little as a few decades.

  • Great Barrier Reef, Australia

    Great Barrier Reef
    Ippei Naoi—Getty Images

    The largest coral reef in the world, which covers more than 133,000 sq miles (344,400 sq km), has long been an attraction Down Under. Yet increasing environmental challenges have been steadily eroding the structure for years now. From rising ocean temperatures to an influx of pollution, this natural wonder could be destroyed within the next 100 years.

  • Venice, Italy

    Venice, Italy
    Holger Leue—Getty Images

    The Italian city, long heralded as one of the most romantic in the world thanks to its charming canals, is facing ruin. The city of canals has long been sinking, but an uptick in the number of increasingly severe floods each year could leave Venice uninhabitable by this century’s end.

  • The Dead Sea

    The Dead Sea
    Reynold Mainse—Getty Images

    The ancient and salty Dead Sea is the site of both history and healing. Yet in the last 40 years, the lake has shrunk by a third and sunk 80 feet. Experts believe it could disappear in as little as 50 years, due to neighboring countries drawing water from the River Jordan (the Sea’s only water source).

  • Glacier National Park, Montana

    Avalanche Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana
    DeAgostini—Getty Images

    Once home to more than 150 glaciers, Montana’s majestic national park now has fewer than 25. Rapid climate change could see that number shrink to zero by 2030, which would not only leave the park without a glacier, but also severely disrupt its ecosystem.

  • Maldives

    An aerial view of Feydhoo Finolhu island at Male Atoll, Maldives.
    Marco Prosch—Getty Images

    As the lowest-lying country on Earth – with an average elevation of around five feet above sea level – this beautiful island nation could be completely engulfed by water within the next 100 years if sea levels continue to rise. The risk has become so great the Maldivian government has purchased land in other countries for citizens who face displacement.

  • Seychelles

    North Island, Seychelles
    Majority World—UIG/Getty Images

    The epitome of a tropical paradise, the Seychelles is a collection of around 115 islands in the Indian Ocean and home to numerous luxury resorts (not to mention a population of nearly 90,000 citizens). Yet the islands are in danger due to beach erosion, after already seeing a devastating coral die-off. Some experts believe that in 50 to 100 years, the entire archipelago could be submerged.

  • The Alps

    The Alps
    Philippe Desmazes—AFP/Getty Images

    One of the most famous skiing regions in the world, the Alps sit at a lower altitude than the Rocky Mountains, which leaves the range more susceptible to climate change. Around 3% of Alpine glacial ice is lost per year and experts believe that the glaciers could disappear entirely by 2050.

  • Magdalen Islands, Quebec, Canada

    Iles de la Madeleine, Quebec, Canada
    Ron Erwin—Getty Images

    With sandy beaches and sandstone cliffs, the Magdalen Islands are a lovely getaway spot in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Yet the archipelago is regularly pelted by heavy winds and despite a wall of sea ice blunting the worst of the weather, the island’s coast currently erodes up to 40 inches a year. Even more troubling: that protective ice is rapidly melting. If experts are correct and the ice melts completely within the next 75 years, the island’s shores will be vulnerable to the area’s destructive storms.

  • Alaska

    Little Coal Creek Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska, United States of America.
    Paul Zizka—Getty Images

    The Alaskan tundra is one of the most distinctive features of America’s northernmost state. Yet climate change has led to the thawing of the region’s permafrost, which not only damages infrastructure but also dramatically alters the current ecosystem.

  • Athabasca Glacier, Alberta, Canada

    Athabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
    Tim Graham—Getty Images

    The most-visited glacier in North America, Alberta’s Athabasca Glacier is a part of the Columbia Icefield spanning 2.3 square miles (6 sq km). Yet the glacier has been melting for the past 125 years, with its Southern edge retreating nearly a mile in that timeframe. Experts believe the glacier is now shrinking at its fastest rate yet and is currently losing anywhere between 6.6 to 9.8 feet a year.

TIME Environment

Renewable Energy Investment Is Down—and That’s OK

Solar and wind in Germany
Investment in renewables like solar and wind is down, but their share of global power is up Sean Gallup—Getty Images

Funding for solar, wind and other forms of clean power fell 14% in 2013, largely because it's now cheaper to adapt to the newer technologies, but that doesn't mean the shift to renewable energy has fully stopped

On the surface, the new numbers on the global renewable energy industry in 2013 do not look good for the planet. Investment in renewable energy fell 14% in 2013 to $214.4 billion, according to a new report from the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And that comes after a year when renewable energy investment was already falling—it’s now down 23% from the record investment levels seen in 2011. Given that recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underscore the desperate need to increase the shift from fossil fuel to low-carbon power sources like solar or nuclear, the two-year investment decline is not good news.

But looking at the numbers more closely tells a brighter story. It’s true that investment in renewable energy has been falling, but that’s chiefly due to the rapidly falling cost of solar photovoltaic systems, according to Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The average price of installing a solar panel has dropped by 60% in the U.S., which means that less money can buy more solar power. Globally, renewable energy aside from large hydro plants accounted for 43.6% of all new power capacity added last year—the same as in 2012—which translated to 81 gigawatts. That raised renewable energy’s share of total power generation from 7.8% to 8.5%.

On top of that, more clean energy companies can draw funding from public equity—a stock market index of clean tech companies was up 54% in 2013. And the biggest drop was in a form of energy—biofuels—that’s looking less green every year. Even with investment down, the shift towards a world powered by low-carbon sources hasn’t stopped. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Liebreich at a press conference Monday morning.

The biggest change on the global stage was in Europe, where investment was down 44% from the year before (U.S. investment fell by 10%). Some of that drop is due to the delayed effects of Europe’s economic slowdown, which led countries like Spain and Bulgaria to make retroactive cuts to subsidies for existing renewable energy projects, which killed off investment altogether. Renewable energy remains heavily subsidized in most of the world, which makes it extremely vulnerable to policy uncertainty. “For the last few years there has been enormous policy uncertainty, even in the heart of Europe,” says Leibreich. “We’re at a point where there will be a lot of regulatory cleanup.”

There are even some caveats to the caveats. Those 81 GW of wind, solar and other renewables added to the global grid last year is in terms of power capacity, not actual generation. Because wind and solar are intermittent—they generate power when the wind blows and the sun shines—they actually generate far less energy in practice than their listed capacity. In the U.S., the capacity factor for renewables—excluding hydro—was 33.9%, compared to 63.8% for coal and 90.3% for nuclear. Until we figure out how to balance out the renewable sources—either through cheap energy storage or through more advanced power grids—clean energy will often need to be supported by dirtier power sources.

Still, renewable energy is poised to become an ever bigger part of the global energy picture—though perhaps not as fast we need if we’re to stave off the worst effects of climate change. We’ll need not just more investment in new wind and solar plants, but also in the sort of research that will yield breakthrough technologies that can change the rules of the energy industry (More nuclear, by far the biggest source of near zero-carbon power in the U.S., would help as well). This is a power shift that is just beginning.

TIME Environment

Largest Environmental Bankruptcy Settlement Ever Announced by Anadarko Petroleum

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Bharara speaks while flanked by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Cole as they announce a settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp in Washington
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara speaks while flanked by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole as they announce a settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp at the Justice Department in Washington, April 3, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

The environmental bankruptcy settlement involving Anadarko Petroleum Corp over pollution allegations is reported to be the largest ever

Global energy company Anadarko Petroleum Corp will pay $5.15 billion to those who claim that pollution from the company’s uranium deposits, wood creosote and rocket fuel processing caused cancer and other health problems. The agreement, which was announced on Thursday, ends years of litigation and is the biggest environmental bankruptcy settlement ever, Reuters reports.

The settlement still must be approved by a judge and a federal court after a 30-day public comment period.

“Beyond the unprecedented magnitude of this recovery, the timing of the settlement was critical to ensure the money is promptly available to victims overdue for relief,” John Hueston, the trustee for the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a news conference in Washington, D.C. that $4.4 billion of the settlement will go towards cleanup and environmental claims.

Andarko said in a statement tat it would net $550 million in tax benefits from the agreement.

[Reuters]

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