Monthly Archives: April 2022

Who Is Responsible for the Death of Birds?

Oil industry groups and wildlife conservation advocates are squaring off over Biden administration plans of 2022 to adopt new federal rules for the accidental killing of migratory birds…The measures being considered could include a permit process for new skyscrapers, power lines, wind turbines and other structures that birds fly into, often with fatal results. Businesses that secure a permit would limit exposure to steep fines for inadvertent bird killings under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Fish and Wildlife officials are also considering assessing a conservation fee as part of that permit process, with the money going to help mitigate habitat loss that has contributed to declining bird populations.

The agency said the rules are needed to protect declining populations of migratory birds, noting that nearly 10% of roughly 1,100 species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are threatened or endangered. While much of that is because of habitat loss from new development and agriculture, the agency says that “millions of birds are directly killed by human-caused sources such as collisions with man-made structures,” according to a Fish and Wildlife document.

Environmentalists are backing the effort, along with some businesses that say existing regulations are ambivalent and need clarification. But the permit system, even in its infancy, is being opposed by the American Exploration & Production Council and several other oil and gas production groups. They say no data exists to show that a permitting program will protect birds “over and above our industry’s operational practices and conservation measures.” Oil and gas drilling contributes to accidental deaths of birds in several ways, including when birds fly into the colorless flames as excess methane gas is being burned off from wells.

Pits used for disposal of mud, wastewater and other liquids in connection with oil drilling are estimated to kill hundreds of thousands of birds annually, according to a Fish and Wildlife report….The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s top lobbying group, said the Biden administration should limit criminal punishments to intentional killings following court rulings that the law doesn’t apply to accidents. If regulators create a permit program, they said it should be general, not project specific, to minimize “undue administrative burdens or delay.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups raised concerns that the permit process could obstruct projects funded by the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure plan—along with new wind and solar energy projects that the White House wants to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels and help combat climate change…Wind turbines are estimated to kill between 140,000 and 500,000 birds a year, according to Fish and Wildlife, and a major expansion of those turbines could push bird deaths over 1 million annually, wildlife researchers have estimated.

Duke Energy Corp., whose subsidiary was fined $1 million in 2013 after dozens of birds died at a wind-turbine project in Wyoming, said it supports the new rule-making effort.

Hazard type — Average annual deaths (est.)

Cats — 2,400,000,000
Building glass collisions — 599,000,000
Vehicle collisions — 214,500,000
Poison — 72,000,000
Power line collisions — 25,500,000
Communication tower collisions — 6,600,000
Electrocutions — 5,600,000
Oil Pits — 750,000
Wind-turbine collisions (land-based) — 234,012
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2017

Excerpts from Katy Stech Ferek, Battle Looms Over Bird Protection, WSJ, Apr. 15, 2022

Normal Nuclear Accidents

In March 2022, a nearly tragic accident involving India and Pakistan pointed to another path to nuclear war. The accident highlighted how complex technological systems, including those involving nuclear weapons, can generate unexpected routes to potential disaster—especially when managed by overconfident organizations.

India and Pakistan possess more than 300 nuclear weapons between them, and have fought multiple wars and faced many military crises. On March 9,2022 three years after their dispute over Kashmir escalated into attacks by jet fighters, the Pakistan Air Force detected “a high speed flying object” inside Indian territory change course and veer suddenly toward Pakistan.* It flew deep into Pakistan and crashed. The object was a BrahMos cruise missile, a weapon system developed jointly by India and Russia. India soon stated the launch was an accident.

The firing of the BrahMos missile falls within a long history of accidents involving military systems in India. Military aircraft have strayed across the borders during peacetime. India’s first nuclear submarine was reportedly “crippled” by an accident in 2018, but the government refused to divulge any details. Secrecy has prevented the investigation of an apparent failure of India’s ballistic missile defense system in 2016. Engagements between India and Pakistan can arise from such accidents, as in 1999 when a Pakistani military plane was shot down along the border by India, killing 16 people. Pakistan has had its share of accidents, including a Pakistani fighter jet crashing into the capital city in 2020.

All these weapons systems are inherently accident-prone because of two characteristics identified by organizational sociologist Charles Perrow decades ago—interactive complexity and tight coupling—that combine to make accidents a “normal” feature of the operation of some hazardous technologies. The first characteristic refers to the possibility that different parts of the system can affect each other in unexpected ways, thus producing unanticipated outcomes. The second makes it hard to stop the resulting sequence of events. For Perrow, “the dangerous accidents lie in the system, not in the components,” and are inevitable.

Perhaps the best and most troubling proof of this proposition is in the realm of nuclear weapons—which embody all the properties of high-risk technological systems. Despite decades of efforts to ensure safety, these systems have suffered many failures, accidents and close calls. During 1979–1980, for example, there were several false warnings of Soviet missile attacks, some of which resulted in U.S. nuclear forces being put on alert.  

Given the secretive nature of Indian nuclear policymaking, little is known about India’s nuclear command and control system. However, the 1999 Draft Nuclear Doctrine called for “assured capability to shift from peacetime deployment to fully employable forces in the shortest possible time.” The combination of technology and plans for being able to rapidly launch nuclear weapons raises the risk of accidental and inadvertent escalation to nuclear war.  

South Asia’s geography is pitiless. It would only take five to 10 minutes for a missile launched from India to attack Pakistan’s national capital, nuclear weapon command posts or bases….Compounding these dangers is the overconfidence of India’s officials, who displayed no recognition of the gravity of the Brahmos accident.

Excerpt from Zia Mian, M. V. Ramana, India’s Inadvertent Missile Launch Underscores the Risk of Accidental Nuclear Warfare, Scientific American, Apr. 8, 2022

Regulators are Smart but Smugglers are Smarter

In a move cheered by climate activists, the European Union began in 2015 to restrict the production and import of gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are widely used in refrigeration, air-conditioning and manufacturing, but they are also potent greenhouse gases. The first big shortages hit in early 2018. Prices across Europe multiplied sixfold or even more. The EU wanted to push HFC users to adopt pricey, climate-friendlier alternatives. It thought that the engineered shortage would do the trick.

But prices are still not much higher than before the crunch. The reason: HFCs were being smuggled into the EU. The trafficking is still going on. The Environmental Investigation Agency, a watchdog based in London that has dispatched researchers to pose as buyers in Romania, estimates that a quarter of all HFCs  in the EU are contraband. A body formed by chemical companies, the European FluoroCarbons Technical Committee (EFCTC), says the proportion may be as high as a third.

Such estimates are rough. But they have not been plucked from thin air. Much can be inferred, for example, by examining officially registered trade flows. Data from Turkish sources show that in 2020 more than four times as much HFC tonnage left Turkey bound for the EU than the latter reported as imported. This suggests that plenty of tanks and canisters holding HFCs enter on the sly.

The smuggling has hit some firms particularly hard. To supply greener alternatives to HFCs, Chemours, an American firm, spent around $500m on r&d and production facilities. But with illegal imports continuing to hold down HFC prices, demand for alternatives has been “stagnating” and even declining…

This has miffed America. In a report last year on barriers to trade, Katherine Tai, the American trade representative, wrote that the eu’s “insufficient oversight and enforcement” of its HFC caps is hurting American chemical firms, not to mention the climate. European officials, for their part, point to the difficulty of preventing profitable

When prices first soared, a car boot could be filled in Ukraine with canisters of an HFC blend called R404A that would sell, hours later, for ten times as much in Poland. Margins have since shrunk as legions have got in on the action. But contraband HFCs are still so valuable that canisters are sometimes given space on boats trafficking migrants from north Africa to Europe…The black market is now dominated by crime syndicates that move large volumes, says the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). Most of the contraband seems to come from China, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Excerpts from HFC Smuggling: Free as Air, Economist, Feb. 26, 2022

How Forests Create Clouds and Cool the Earth

Tropical forests have a crucial role in cooling Earth’s surface by extracting carbon dioxide from the air. But only two-thirds of their cooling power comes from their ability to suck in CO2 and store it. The other one-third comes from their ability to create clouds, humidify the air and release cooling chemicals. This is a larger contribution than expected for these ‘biophysical effects’ says Bronson Griscom, a forest climate scientist.

The analysis, published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change in March 2022, could enable scientists to improve their climate models, while helping governments to devise better conservation and climate strategies. The findings underscore growing concerns about rampant deforestation across the tropics. Scientists warn that one-third of the world’s tropical forests have been mown down in the past few centuries, and another one-third has been degraded by logging and development. This, when combined with climate change, could transform vast swathes of forest into grasslands

Trees in the tropics provide shade, but they also act as giant humidifiers by pulling water from the ground and emitting it from their leaves, which helps to cool the surrounding area in a way similar to sweating, Griscom says. “If you go into a forest, it immediately is a considerably cooler environment,” he says.

This transpiration, in turn, creates the right conditions for clouds, which like snow and ice in the Arctic, can reflect sunlight higher into the atmosphere and further cool the surroundings. Trees also release organic compounds — for example, pine-scented terpenes — that react with other chemicals in the atmosphere to sometimes create a net cooling effect… When they considered only the biophysical effects, the researchers found that the world’s forests collectively cool the surface of the planet by around 0.5 °C.

Threats to tropical rainforests are dangerous not only for the global climate, but also for communities that neighbour the forests, Lawrence says. She and her colleagues found that the cooling caused by biophysical effects was especially significant locally. Having a rainforest nearby can help to protect an area’s agriculture and cities from heatwaves, Lawrence says. “Every tenth of a degree matters in limiting extreme weather. And where you have forests, the extremes are minimized.”

Excerpts from Freda Kreier, Tropical forests have big climate benefits beyond carbon storage, Nature, 

Unleashing Hydropower without Wasteful Disasters

After years of fighting, Native American tribes, environmentalists and the hydroelectric power industry say they have reached a deal on a proposed legislative package that could boost clean energy as well as river conservation. The compromise deal, which would require approval from Congress, is the result of four years of talks between groups that have long been courtroom and policy adversaries because of disagreements involving vanishing fish populations and changes to river ecosystems. Concerns over climate change have helped them find common ground to potentially expand hydroelectric power, a carbon-free energy source, they said.

The deal seeks to grant approvals to add hydroelectric power to some existing dams in as little as two years, while speeding the approval of off-river pumped-storage projects, which store surplus energy for later use, in as little as three years. Another key component would give tribes, instead of the Department of the Interior, authority on the conditions put on permits for things like the protection of tribal cultural resources or fish passage.

Groups supporting the package include the National Hydropower Association, American Rivers, the Skokomish Tribe, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Our respective constituencies have battled each other to a draw for generations,” said Malcolm Woolf, the National Hydropower Association’s chief executive.

Hydroelectric power makes up about 7% of the U.S. electricity mix. Around 281 hydro-generating facilities, making up roughly one-third of non-federally owned generation, are up for re-licensing by 2030. The re-licensing process usually takes more than seven years and new projects take almost as long, a regulatory environment that has been likened to nuclear power approvals. Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the current permitting process for hydropower “a wasteful disaster” because of its yearslong timelines. “I look forward to seeing the agreement various stakeholders have reached,” he said Friday.

The proposal would amend the Federal Power Act, first passed in 1920.

Excerpts from Jennifer Hille, Tribes, Industry Groups Reach Deal to Boost U.S. Hydroelectric Power, WSJ, Apr. 4, 2022