Climate Sense: Sea ice, economics, legal issues and the orca task force

The shift to “clean fuels,” such as solar and wind power, is tied up in economics, and it appears that change is coming — with or without a push from government. This week, I read three different and somewhat contradictory reports about this dynamic competition between fossil fuels and renewable energy.

I also took a look at the hard data surrounding Arctic sea ice and reviewed videos of the governor’s orca task force meeting on Monday.

Item 1: Sea ice has stopped growing for the year

Spring has come to the Arctic, as the extent of the sea ice appears to have stopped growing this year and has begun its annual decline.

Arctic sea ice extent for March 13. The orange line shows the average extent for that day from 1981 to 2010. Click twice to enlarge.
Graphic: National Snow and Ice Data Center

The maximum extent of sea ice was probably reached on March 13, when it reached 5.71 million square miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. That would tie it with the year 2007 for the seventh lowest extent in the 40-year record of satellite data. It is also the highest extent of ice since 2014, as one can see in the chart on the NSIDC News and Analysis page.

“While this is not a record-low year for the Arctic sea ice maximum extent, the last four years have been the lowest in our record, reflecting a downward trend in winter sea ice extent,” said NSIDC senior research scientist Walt Meier. “This is just another indicator of the rapid changes that are occurring in the Arctic due to climate change.”

NSIDC, supported by government agencies, says the analysis is preliminary, since it is possible that more ice could accumulate with shifts in the weather.

Item 2: Court blocks oil drilling for climate considerations

Oil-drilling projects in Wyoming have been blocked by a federal judge, who says the Bureau of Land Management needs to first consider the cumulative effects of climate change from those projects.

Map of recent oil and gas leases in three Western states. Click on map for zoom-in video.
Map: Western Environmental Law Center

“BLM summarized the potential on-the-ground impacts of climate change in the state, the region, and across the country,” said U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras in a written opinion (PDF 448 kb). “It failed, however, to provide the information necessary for the public and agency decision makers to understand the degree to which the leasing decisions at issue would contribute to those impacts. In short, BLM did not adequately quantify the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing.”

The lawsuit, brought by WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, alleges that 473 oil and gas leases covering 460,000 acres in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado were in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act for failing to discuss the full impacts on climate change. The judge agreed, applying his specific ruling to 282 leases.

Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, managing attorney for WildEarth Guardians, said in a news release: “It’s high time the federal government was held accountable for the costs of sacrificing our public lands for dirty oil and gas. This win demonstrates the Trump administration can’t legally turn its back on climate change.”

Leasing of federal lands for oil development is the “irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources” that triggers a review of the overall environmental impacts, the judge said. While the BLM could not predict the specific impacts of each drilling project at the leasing stage, “it could reasonably foresee and forecast the impacts of oil and gas drilling across the leased parcels as a whole.”

Reporter Nichola Groom covered the story for Reuters.

Item 3: Climate change at orca task force

Monday’s meeting of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force included an afternoon session with presentations on the effects of climate change, with a special focus on the effects of salmon and orcas. It also includes a talk by Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish, who describes how shellfish growers are working to overcome the damaging effects of ocean acidification on their industry.

The presentations on climate change were followed by discussions by task force members about how they should address the issue of climate change. The climate change discussion can be heard in the video below.

For those interested, I blogged about the morning sessions yesterday in Water Ways, which involved legislative progress, also recorded by TVW.

Item 4: Economics to end fossil fuels, but when?

Author Bill McKibbon in The New York Review of Books uses two economic reports about fossil fuels and geopolitics as a springboard for writing an engaging piece that describes the dynamic competition between fossil fuels and clean energy.

“(Author Kingsmill) Bond writes that in the 2020s — probably the early 2020s — the demand for fossil fuels will stop growing,” says McKibbon. “The turning point in such transitions ‘is typically the moment when the impact is felt in financial markets’ — when stock prices tumble and never recover … Precisely how long it will take is impossible to predict, but the outcome seems clear….

“A far more important question, of course, is whether the changes now underway will happen fast enough to alter our grim climatic future,” he continues. “Here, the answers are less positive.

“Scientists, conservative by nature, have routinely underestimated the pace of planetary disruption: The enormous melt now observed at the poles was not supposed to happen until late in the century, for instance, and the galloping pace of ocean acidification wasn’t even recognized as a threat two decades ago.”

Item 5: Financial returns on fracking in doubt

While the federal government moves ahead with plans for extensive oil and gas leasing, a new analysis by Sightline Institute raises questions about whether the process of fracking is really paying off.

“By some measures,” the authors wrote, “America’s fracking industry had a banner year in 2018. Shale companies produced more oil and gas than ever, lifting total U.S. output to all-time highs … (But) a cross section of 29 publicly traded, fracking-focused oil and gas companies spent $6.7 billion more on drilling than they realized from selling oil and gas….

“These disappointing results come on the heels of a decade of bleak financial performance. Since its inception, the fracking sector has consistently failed to produce enough cash to satisfy its voracious appetite for capital. From 2010 through 2018, the companies in our sample had an aggregate negative cash flow of $181 billion.”

Authors of the report are Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry, Kathy Hipple and Tom Sanzillo.

Item 6: U.S. banks pour money into fossil fuels

A new report funded by a coalition of environmental groups has found that 33 global banks have provided $1.9 trillion to companies expanding their development of oil, natural gas and coal since adoption of the 2015 Paris climate accord. Such financing has risen in each of the past two years, the report says.

The report, “Banking on Climate Change 2019” says the four largest bankers of fossil fuels are all U.S. banks — JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi and Bank of America.

“At a time when science tells us we need to rapidly transition to clean energy, major American banks are placing themselves on the wrong side of history by continuing to offer a blank check to the fossil fuel industry,” Ben Cushing of the Sierra Club said in a press release. “The global outcry for financial institutions to stop financing climate destruction will only grow louder and more powerful until these banks get the message and pull their support for dirty fossil fuels once and for all.”

“Climate Sense” is my attempt to share some of the important research, political developments, fascinating viewpoints or inspiring opinions that I come across during my reading. For a further explanation, read my first Water Ways post of 2019: “Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year.”

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