Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count on Sandy Hook

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Counting birds on Spermacetti Cove, Sandy Hook in Highlands, New Jersey.

Counting birds on Spermacetti Cove, Sandy Hook in Highlands, New Jersey.

Today marks the start of National Audubon Society‘s 115th Christmas Bird Count (CBC)! From December 14 through January 5, thousands of volunteers across North America are invited to go out, count birds and contribute data to an early-winter bird census.

When looking at the CBC Map, you will see that every state offers a significant number of local counts, which cover about a 10-15 mile diameter circle each. Since every CBC is a real census, and since the 15-mile diameter circle contains a lot of area to be covered, single-observer counts are not allowed. To participate on the CBC, you need to join an existing CBC circle. You can find one near you online!

All data from the local counts across North America gets compiled, reviewed and documented. The Christmas Bird Count allows researchers, conservation biologists, and interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

For example, in the 1980’s, CBC data was used to document the decline of wintering populations of the American Black Duck. Conservation measures were put into effect shortly after, to reduce hunting pressure on the species.

Learn more about how the CBC data has been used recently in Audubon’s Birds & Climate Change and Common Birds in Decline reports.

I joined the local Sandy Hook Count this morning, which covers a 10-mile radius around Gateway National Recreation Area – Sandy Hook Unit in Highlands, New Jersey.

White-winged Scoter. Photo: AllAboutBirds.org © Ken Phenicie Jr

White-winged Scoter. Photo: AllAboutBirds.org © Ken Phenicie Jr

The Sandy Hook Count is split up into smaller territories, since there is such a large amount of bird habitat to cover in the park. I joined members of Monmouth County Audubon Society and helped count birds in the South Sandy Hook territory. We scanned Sandy Hook Bay for waterfowl and gulls, walked to Nike Pond and looked for songbirds, and we also traveled through the ancient Holly Forest, where we saw a few raptors. Many areas of Sandy Hook that are usually closed to the public were open to us for the CBC.

In the short three hours that I joined the group, we watched a number of Harbor Seals sunning on Skeleton Hill Island (!) and saw and heard a number of great birds:

  • American Black Duck
  • American Crow
  • American Goldfinch
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Brant
  • Bufflehead
  • Canada Goose
  • Carolina Wren
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Gray Catbird
  • Great Black-backed Gull
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Herring Gull
  • Horned Grebe
  • House Finch
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Northern Harrier
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Sanderling
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Song Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • White-winged Scoter
Bufflehead. Photo Credit: AllAboutBirds.org © Brian L. Sullivan

Bufflehead Photo: AllAboutBirds.org © Brian L. Sullivan

Wondering how this incredible citizen science initiative all got started? The first Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was completed on Christmas Day of the year 1900 as an “alternative activity to an event called the ‘side hunt‘ where people chose sides, then went out and shot as many birds as they could.” The group that came in with the largest number of dead birds was declared the winner of the event. Frank Chapman, a famous ornithologist, recognized that over-hunting would only exacerbate declining bird populations, and proposed to count birds on Christmas Day rather than shoot them.

To get involved in this historic event, visit The National Audubon Society’s website.

Counting waterfowl on Sandy Hook Bay.

Counting waterfowl on Sandy Hook Bay.

#GivingTuesday 2014: Celebrate All Things Winged with The Raptor Trust

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Scoured the shelves for deals on Black Friday? Gearing up for gadget buying on Cyber Monday? Don’t forget to honor the most important day of this week (after Thanksgiving, of course), Giving Tuesday.

Giving Tuesday is a call to action, a national day of giving around the annual shopping and spending season. The third annual #GivingTuesday will take place on this coming Tuesday December 2, 2014.

GT_Street-wall_2014#GivingTuesday is a day for giving back, to write a check to a worthwhile cause or to donate your time and expertise to charity. #GivingTuesday, where global charities, families, businesses, community centers, students and more have come together to shape a new movement. A movement so compelling that the White House has taken notice.

A day that inspires personal philanthropy and encourages bigger, better and smarter charitable giving during the holiday season. A day that proves that the holidays can be about both giving and giving back.

Show your support for Giving Tuesday by taking a photo and uploading it to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using the hashtags #GivingTuesday and #UNselfie. For more information, check out the short YouTube video below or visit #GivingTuesday on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

On Giving Tuesday 2014, I have decided to give back to the birds in my home state. One of my favorite organizations working specifically on avian rehabilitation and education is The Raptor Trust. My sister and I visited the Trust back in May of this year and had an incredible day. Everyone on staff was extremely friendly and enthusiastically answered our questions about the birds of prey in their care. Even the volunteer working the at gift shop was proud to discuss the history of the Trust and their birds with us.  For those birds that would not survive if they were released, The Raptor Trust property has become their home. We were able to see these residents up close and personal. The birds were so beautiful that we walked through the Trust twice to be sure we didn’t miss anybody!

Vilma, The Raptor Trust's Barred Owl plays a key role in the organization's educational programs. Photo by Joy Yagid.

Vilma, The Raptor Trust’s Barred Owl plays a key role in the organization’s educational programs. Photo by Joy Yagid.

Officially founded in 1983, The Raptor Trust is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and one of the premier wild bird rehabilitation centers in the United States.

Located in Millington, NJ, the Trust property includes a hospital with state-of-the-art medical facilities, quality exterior housing for several hundred birds, and an education building. For three decades, the Trust has worked tirelessly to fulfill it’s mission:

  • To provide free care and assistance to injured, sick, or orphaned wild birds.
  • To educate people about wild birds, especially birds of prey.
  • To provide a humane example for others.
The Raptor Trust Director Chris Soucy. Photo Credit: NewJerseyHills.com.

The Raptor Trust Director Chris Soucy. Photo Credit: NewJerseyHills.com.

20-something Environmentalist sat down with Director of The Raptor Trust, Chris Soucy, and asked what continues to motivate and inspire the work that he is doing.

Chris explained, “One of the greatest rewards in our work is to be able to release a bird back into the wild after we have cared for it. The birds come to us sick, injured or orphaned bird in great numbers – as many as 4,000 each year.  It takes a huge team of dedicated volunteers, along with a medical staff, veterinarians, educators and administrative help to run the center. These caring people put their hearts and souls into the work we do. Because we are successful more often than not in releasing our patients back into the wild where they belong, the rewarding feeling that comes from it happens all the time – for our staff and volunteers, for the people who find injured birds and bring them to us, and no doubt for the birds themselves.”

Red-Tailed Hawk Release. Photo from The Raptor Trust's Facebook page.

Red-Tailed Hawk Release. Photo from The Raptor Trust’s Facebook page.

Chris went on to explain, “In our 32+ year history we have cared for over 90,000 wild birds and released more than half of them back into the wild. On site, we have a full-service medical center and a education center where we present programs to thousands of visitors each year about birds, wildlife and conservation.  Our center is open to the public year round, and visitors here can see hawks, falcons, eagles and vultures up close and learn about what amazing and ecologically important creatures they are.”

Please consider The Raptor Trust when making your year-end gifts this #GivingTuesday and throughout the holiday season. Help them help all things winged.

To learn how to get involved with The Raptor Trust, and for more amazing photographs of birds of prey, like them on Facebook.

Here are a few other excellent New Jersey organizations working on
wildlife issues:

This #GivingTuesday, Tuesday, December 2, 2014, consider making an impact on the world. Choose an issue that you are passionate and donate your time or funds to organizations that are part of the solution. Be a force for good.

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Liquefied Natural Gas Port in the Atlantic Ocean? No Fracking Way!

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Growing up in New Jersey, it didn’t quite feel like summertime until I was eating Kohr’s ice cream on Jenkinson’s Boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach or riding a bike on the promenade in Cape May.  My family and I have gone down the shore every summer since I was born.

I have spent a lot of time with my feet in the ocean in awe of its systems, trying unsuccessfully to grasp the power and enormity of it all.  I think that every child should get to experience the great moments of finding a conch shell fully intact, seeing a pod of dolphins swim across the current, and watching sandpipers scurry across the sand.

In order for future generations to even have a fighting chance at one of these shore moments, a recent project proposed off the coasts of New York and New Jersey by Liberty Natural Gas called “Port Ambrose” must be stopped.

Photo Credit: Clean Ocean Action

Photo Credit: Clean Ocean Action

On June 14, 2013, the Maritime Administration (part of the US Department of Transportation) announced Liberty Natural Gas’ Port Ambrose application. Port Ambrose is a proposed deepwater port to be used for the import or export of natural gas which has been liquefied. Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is dirty; the carbon footprint of LNG is almost as bad as coal.  In liquid form, this dirty energy source can be shipped across the world and sold for the largest profit overseas.

The Port Ambrose facility would be located off the coast of Long Branch, NJ and Jones Beach, NY.  This location also happens to be near the entrance to the New York Harbor, in two active Coast Guard training areas, in the middle of a proposed offshore wind area, and within several important fishing areas and wildlife migration routes.

With fishing areas and wildlife migration routes in the area proposed, it is important to note that the installation of new pipeline facilities for Port Ambrose would disrupt hundreds of acres of seafloor and cause re-suspension of sediments in the ocean, which increases the turbidity of the water and negatively impacts water quality.  Establishing new pipelines in the ocean would also generate serious underwater noise pollution.

In the ocean, hearing and sound are vital for the survival of marine life. Sound is used for everything from migration to reproduction to feeding. Over 700 fish species produce low frequency sounds — sea turtles, Squid, octopus, shrimp, crab — and even coral and fish larvae have been found to respond to sound. All of these species would be affected by the noise pollution caused by Port Ambrose.

Port Ambrose would bring not only noise, but water pollution to the Atlantic Ocean.  If approved, Liberty would be required to test the pipeline from the Port for any safety and control issues.  For these pipe tests alone, the port would discharge 3.5 million gallons of chemically-treated seawater.  Water pollution would also increase in inland regions, as LNG exports drive up the costs of manufacturing and electricity and increase the intensity of hydraulic fracturing, a major source of water pollution, for shale gas expansion.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a water-intensive process where a mix of millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals (including ones known to cause cancer) are injected underground at high pressure to fracture shale to release the natural gas found in the rock formation into a nearby well.  Oftentimes, this chemical stew is released into the surrounding groundwater through faulty pipes.

Beyond the well, fracking brings industrial activity into communities through the clearing of land to build new access roads and new well sites, drilling and encasing the well, fracking the well and generating the waste, trucking in heavy equipment and materials and trucking out the toxic waste — all contributing to air and water pollution risks and devaluation of land.

The synergy of the environmental impacts from fracking AND a deepwater port is the last thing New Jersey and New York need, especially now, as the region is recovering and rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy.

It is time to wean ourselves from our addiction to fossil fuel, stand up to Big Energy, and develop more renewable energy sources.  Port Ambrose would simply feed our addiction.  Let’s preserve Jersey Shore moments for generations to come, encourage Governor Christie to reaffirm his veto and for Governor Cuomo to veto Ambrose.

Take Action:

To learn more about Port Ambrose and how to get involved in the fight to Block the Port, contact Lindsay McNamara, Program and Communications Associate at Clean Ocean Action via e-mail at communications@cleanoceanaction.org.

Clean Ocean Action (COA) is a 501(c)3 working to “improve the water quality of the marine waters off the New Jersey/New York coast.”

Eyeless Shrimp?

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As a “Millennial,” the constant bombarding of information on the web has become engrained in my daily routine.  I am able to access news stories and reports in the blink of an eye.  I can read my Twitter timeline for up-to-the-second information from various environmental groups.  On the surface, this seems to be a clear advance in technology and a benefit for all Americans who wish to stay informed and aware of current events.  I can follow an event for a little while, but when I get bored I am able to quickly toggle to something new and exciting.  The whole world is at my finger tips…which is exactly the problem.  It is near impossible to have a story stay relevant for more than a couple days.  It seems to be one issue after another, factoid after factoid from website after website.  If a certain story makes me uncomfortable or sad, I have plenty of others to choose from.  I can control what I am exposed to; unlike a few decades ago when whatever was on a few channels of the TV was the only accessible news.

The plethora of information in the worldwide web creates an interesting dilemma for environmental news.  Oftentimes, news that is reported is bad news.  Environmental disasters make people uncomfortable.  They force us to step back and look at the system that we have created…but now that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of our stomachs only has to last for a few days.  We can easily follow other stories, happier ones, and push the images of oiled birds out of our minds.  Out of sight, out of mind.

It has been over two years since the Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill and it appears that there are only a few sources still covering the disaster.  We need to find a way to make environmental issues relevant for more than a day, a week or a month so that real progress can be made.  These continued updates must find their way to mainstream news, without bias from big industry.

Last week, it was announced that shrimping has been stopped along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  WEAR TV had originally reported that the closure was due to the deformities found in the fish caused by the oil spill and chemicals used to clean up the oil.  The original post (on April 23) was titled: “Looming Crisis: Officials Close Gulf Waters to Shrimping as Reports of Deformed Seafood Intensify.”  WEAR TV withdrew their original post, citing the smaller average size in shrimp as the reason for the shrimping closure.

It is frightening to me to grow up in a time when we have so much information at our fingertips, but the stories are being manipulated not by the media, but by industry and corporations.  The general public of the United States needs to take a stand to not only demand coverage of more environmental news, but demand accurate and unbiased coverage.  It is unacceptable for a respected TV station to blame smaller average size in shrimp as the reason for the ban on shrimping.  The problems in shrimp populations began after Deepwater Horizon exploded and BP used about two million gallons of toxic Corexit dispersants to disperse the oil.  “Grossly deformed seafood” has been found all along the Gulf from the Florida panhandle to Louisiana, although Alabama is the first state to close waters to the seafood fishing industry.  All waters in the Mississippi Sound and Mobile Bay, plus some areas of Little Lagoon, Wolf Bay and Bon Secour have been closed to shrimpers.

Al Jazeera interviewed Darla Rooks, a woman who has been fishing all her life in Port Sulfur, Louisiana.  Rooks reported finding shrimp with abnormal growths, without eyes, and female shrimp with their babies still attached. She has also seen shrimp with oiled gills: “We are also seeing eyeless fish, and fish lacking even eye-sockets, and fish with lesions, fish without covers over their gills, and others with large pink masses hanging off their eyes and gills.”

 

Two years later, the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill continue to threaten the economic vitality of the Gulf Coast.  I think we are at a turning point in the United States in terms of energy policy.  We are at a fork in the road and it is time for us to turn to renewable sources of energy for not only the wildlife of the coastal regions, but the people and the economies they depend on.

Effects of Mountaintop Removal on Appalachian Wildlife

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Changes to the water, air and land in coal country have caused trouble for vast amounts of biodiversity in the region.  The biodiversity of the Appalachian headwater streams is second only to the tropics.  The southern Appalachian mountains are home to the greatest diversity of salamanders on the globe, accounting for 18% of the known species worldwide.

Salamanders and other herptiles, birds, and mammals have all been struggling to adapt to the changing environmental conditions caused by mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining in the Appalachian region. Salamanders become significantly less common in areas with many MTR sites.  When the forests are clear cut for MTR coal mining, the woodlands are converted into grasslands.  Grasslands do not provide salamanders with loose soil and a lot of ground cover, habitat characteristics required for their survival.  The conversion of woodlands to grasslands has also affected bird populations in Appalachian.  West Virginia is home to native woodland bird species like the Red-Shouldered Hawk and the Broad-winged Hawk, but as the number of intact forests decline, so do the number of native hawks.  Since the expansion of MTR coal mining, native hawks have been outnumbered by an increase in open-country species like the Northern Harrier and the American Kestrel.  A 2003 study showed an increase in other grassland bird species like Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows.  The increase in Grasshopper Sparrows was explained by the fact that it colonizes most successfully in grassland habitats.  Unlike Grasshopper Sparrows, interior forest songbird species native to the Appalachian region require a large amount of intact forest to survive, something not found in areas with MTR sites.  MTR sites are affecting the survival rate of salamanders, native hawks and songbirds and mammals through the conversion of lush forest to clear cut grassland.

Mammals are deeply affected by the expansion of grassland areas in Appalchia due to the vast amount of reclaimed MTR coal mining sites in the region.  A 2002 study of small mammal communities on reclaimed MTR sites showed that while small mammals can continue to thrive, species from the Peromyscus family—types of rodents that frequently make their homes in grasslands—are most abundant.  Other mammals lose “traditional migration routes, travel corridors, and food sources” on reclaimed MTR sites.  Reclaimed MTR sites make it difficult for native woodland species to thrive.  According to EPA’s Fine Particle Emission Information System (FPEIS) study, deforestation and forest fragmentation from MTR coal mining disrupt the Appalachian forest and are harmful to forest-dwelling wildlife species.  Wildlife species like, Eastern chipmunks, Woodland Jumping Mice, Woodland Voles, and Northern Short-tailed Shrew showed significant populations decrease once their wooded habitat was transformed into grasslands.  Grassland transformation harms West Virginia’s state animal, the Black Bear, too.  As MTR coal mining displaces bears from their forest home, they need to find another place to live.  This leads to the now-frequent occurrence of bears in residential neighborhoods looking for shelter and food in garbage cans.  The residents are put in danger and the bears are most often put to death, leading to dramatic declines in population.  It is time for stronger environmental legislation that will allow for economic expansion in Appalachia, while protecting native and the species that inhabit them.

Sources:

Burns, Shirley Stewart (2007), Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia Communities, University of West Virginia Press, Morgantown.

Epstein, Paul R, et al. (2011), Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1219: 73-98.

Mountaintop Removal in Appalachia

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The Appalachian region of the United States, extending from southern New York to northern Mississippi, is home to more than 25 million people in 420 counties across 13 states.  The majority of the Appalachian population is poor whites dispersed over large rural areas.  The Appalachian economy is extremely reliant on mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, despite the low amount of jobs it produces.

Strip mining is approximately 2.66 times more productive than underground mining, in terms of short tons produced per miner-hour.  Historically, as coal production increased from 1973-2006, the number of employees in the mines increased dramatically from 1973 to 1979 and great economic prosperity was brought to the land.  The levels than began to plummet below the 1973 employment point.  Between 1985 and 2005, employment in the Appalachia mining industry dropped by 56% due to increases in mechanization.  Currently, there are only 6,300 MTR and surface mining jobs left in West Virginia specifically.

The first MTR project in the United States was established in 1970 at Bullpush Mountain, West Virginia.  Until the mid 1990’s, MTR remained a small source of coal in the United States.  It is now the major form of mining in West Virginia and Kentucky (the second and third largest coal-producing states, after Wyoming) and is also practiced in Virginia and Tennessee. Technological innovation, globalization and the rise in natural resource depletion have all contributed to the increase in MTR coal mines.  The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 also had a large impact on mining in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia.  These amendments encouraged companies to seek low-sulfur coal, abundant in central Appalachia.  MTR mining uses explosives to blast away the tops of mountains in order to access all of the coal within the mountain.  MTR has been completed on about 500 sites, altering some 1.4 million acres and burying 2,000 miles of headwater streams of water resources.

The MTR strip mining process involves the initial stage of exploration followed by an extraction stage.  Boreholes are drilled or opened using explosives, and trenches and pits are dug. Land is cleared and roads are constructed.  After roads are developed, mining companies clear cut the forests and the fragmented rock on top of the mountains with more explosives, in order to expose the coal seams.  Exposing coal seams results in the leveling of mountain tops in the mountain ranges of Appalachia.  Mountains in the Appalachian region have been lowered by 800 to 1,000 feet.  Exposing coal seams also creates “valley fill,” the rubble or mine spoil then sits along edges precariously until it is dumped in the valleys.

Many Appalachia residents first encounter coal companies during the exploration stage of MTR mining.  Residents are given letters offering homeowners a chance to have their property surveyed in case any damage occurs during blasting.  The survey is supposed to make it easier to distinguish preexisting damage from the damage associated with the explosion.  However, surveying is very expensive and most residents cannot afford to participate in the process, leaving them with no concrete evidence of blasting damage to their homes.  Blasting cracks walls and foundations of houses, greatly reducing property values.  Noise, dust and the property damage resulting from blasting are often the most common complaints from residents.  There is also noise and dust created from the constant array of coal trucks hauling various materials in and out of the area.

Air pollution increases in Appalachia as the number of MTR coal mines grows.  Particulate matter is blasted into the air, along with residue from the explosives.  The clear cutting of forest that takes place to build mines leads to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions.  When deforestation and land transformation from MTR are included, life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from coal increase up to 17%.  Water pollution is also a result of MTR mining that negatively affects the population of Appalachia.  Water pollution occurs largely because valley fill is not considered an infringement on the Clean Water Act. Valley fill from MTR was ruled a violation of the Clean Water Act in a 1999 US District Court decision.  Unfortunately, the meaning of “fill material” was redefined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) after fierce lobbying to have the decision reversed.  A dramatic increase in the number of MTR projects resulted from this decision.  The EPA reexamined the issue in 2009, threatening to use veto authority under the Clean Water Act to reverse permits issued by the ACOE.

Actions to limit the number of MTR projects have only occurred twelve times since 1972.  The Obama administration’s veto on the largest MTR mining permit, Spruce Mine in West Virginia, was overturned by a federal judge on March 23, 2012.  U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that the EPA is not authorized to withdraw a Clean Water Act permit that already was issued by the ACOE.

Legally defined as a pollutant or not, valley fill is definitely tied to stream health.  Electrical conductivity, a measure of ion concentration, is used as an indicator of stream health.  The EPA recommends electrical conductivity to not exceed 500 microsiemens per cm.  In areas of most intense MTR mining, where 92% of watershed has been mined, a recent study revealed levels of 1,1000 microsiemens per cm. Gregory J. Pond, an environmental biologist with EPA Region 3 in Wheeling, and his team, showed that more than 90% of 27 Appalachian streams below valley fill sites were impaired as per Clean Water Act standards.  None of the ten streams sampled in non-mined valleys were impaired.  The Clean Water Act specifies that streams must be appropriate for “designated uses,” like recreation, human consumption of fish, and protection of aquatic life health.

Stream health is not only affected by valley fill, but “slurry” pollution as well.  Slurry refers to the mixture of chemicals—clay, non-carbonaceous rock, and heavy metals—that coal is washed in directly after it is mined to reduce impurities and prepare for combustion.  Slurry is moved by the gallon to impoundments that are found along the periphery and at various elevations in areas to MTR sites, often adjacent to coal processing plants.  During heavy precipitation events, unlined slurry dams, or those lined with dried slurry are susceptible to breaching and collapse.  In West Virginia alone, there are over 110 billion gallons of coal slurry permitted for 126 impoundments.  Between 1972 and 2008, there were 53 publicized coal slurry spills in the Appalachian region; one of the largest was a 209 million gallon spill that occurred in Martin County, KY in 2000.  Most of the 1,300 impoundments in the nation are poorly constructed, increasing the threat of slurry leaching into groundwater supplies, nearby bodies of water, or water supplied for household and agricultural use.  If environmental quality issues in Appalachia are not addressed, the land, water and air will continue to decline, making it even more difficult to foster economic vitality in a region that truly needs it.

Sources:

Burns, Shirley Stewart. Bringing down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal Surface Coal Mining on Southern West Virginia Communities, 1970-2004. Morgantown, W. Va.: West Virginia UP, 2007. Print.

Epstein,et al. “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1219.1 (2011): 73-98. Print.

Holzman, David C. “Mountaintop Removal Mining: Digging into Community Health Concerns.” Environmental Health Perspectives 119:12 (2011): A476-A483.

Stretesky, Paul B. and Lynch, Michael J. “Coal Strip Mining, Mountaintop Removal, and the Distribution of Environmental Violations across the United States.” Landscape Research, 36:2 (2011): 209-230.

 Ward, Ken. “W.Va. Delegation Asks White House to Review EPA over Spruce Mine” West Virginia Gazette, 17 Dec. 2010. Web. 30 Apr. 2012. <http://wvgazette.com/News/201012170919&gt;.

Ethanol is Not the Answer

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With oil at $104/barrel, it seems only logical to invest in alternative sources of fuel for our cars in the United States.  The increase in oil prices has led to the apparently beneficial act of diverting grain from food supply to ethanol production.  Ethanol is an alcohol made by fermenting sugar components of plant materials, usually sugar and starch crops.  In its purest form, ethanol can be used as fuel for cars, but it is most commonly used as a gasoline additive to increase octane and improve emissions from automobiles.  As long as oil prices are above $80/barrel, grains, mainly corn, will be diverted from food consumption to ethanol production.  It has even been announced that the percentage of ethanol in gasoline in the United States will shift from 10-15% by summer 2011 driving season.  Without further investigation, ethanol seems to be another green or environmentally friendly innovation of the 21st century.  However, with the use of ethanol has come an increase in food prices, poverty, deforestation and believe it or not, carbon dioxide emissions.  In 2009, 19 billion gallons of ethanol were produced.  What has this done for the planet and its populations?  Nothing but harm.

Using grain for ethanol has no doubt been a key contributor to rising food prices.  People in less developed countries spend an average of 60-70% of their income on food, while those in more developed countries spend only 10% of their income on food.  Therefore, rising food prices affect the most poor the most quickly and deeply.  We must recognize the marginalizing effect on of the very rich and very poor as exacerbated by ethanol production.  The UN’s Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015 seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel for the Third World.  Trends were even reversing, until 2007, when food prices sky rocketed because of the emergence of ethanol in gasoline.  By 2008, poverty had increased across East Asia, Middle East, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.  Adding ethanol to gasoline is a moral and political question.  Should we choose to benefit a car owner whose income averages $30,000 annually over the two billion poorest people in the world who average an income of only $3,000 annually?  It is obvious that big business, investors and lobbyists choose to benefit the car owner in order to make a larger profit, a practice that is entirely unethical.  U.S. grain used to produce fuel for cars in 2009 would feed 340 million people for one year.  Developed countries have an obligation to assist less developed countries; the people of the Third World have little opportunity to advance because of their focus on immediate needs for survival.  Are we going to make food unattainable too through our addition to fossil fuel consumption, which drives ethanol production?

As if the catastrophic effects of ethanol on poverty is not enough, the production of the allegedly “ecologically friendly” fuel source only adds to the land paucity issue we face today in 2011.  Clearing land to plant corn for ethanol means more land must be cleared to plant grain for food.  With little to no new land accessible for farming, rainforests across the globe are being destroyed as a direct result of adding ethanol to gasoline.  Forests in Brazil, Congo Basins, and Indonesia have become a prime target.  Release of sequestered carbon, loss of plant and animal species, increased runoff and soil erosion are just a few consequences of deforestation, the “Biofuel carbon debt” as named by a 2008 study in Science conducted at the University of Minnesota.  Not only does ethanol production contribute to land use issues, it contributes to water shortages, as well.  It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain.  If we are now farming more grain to compensate for both ethanol and food supply, we are contributing to aquifer depletion and falling water tables.

Ethanol must at least be an efficient source of energy to outweigh all of the above costs.  When looking at resource efficiency, natural resource managers view the resource from extraction to production, namely “cradle to grave.”  When applying the cradle to grave concept to ethanol, it can be concluded that ethanol is not in the least bit sustainable.  Combining the total energy used for farm equipment, irrigation systems and transportation of crops to processing plants and later fuel terminals and retail pumps, ethanol seems hardly “green.”  Not to mention the fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides made from petroleum necessary to maximize yields in a Post-Green Revolution world.  Cradle to grave analysis suggests it is time to put an end to ethanol.  Even if the entire U.S. grain harvest were to be converted into ethanol, it would satisfy at most only 18% of U.S. automotive fuel needs.

The repercussions of ethanol production pose severe threats to both the environment and impoverished countries.  Perhaps the most detrimental threat of all however, with Cinco de Mayo rapidly approaching, is the effect of ethanol on the market for tequila.  As if rainforest clearing, substantial water use, skyrocketing food prices and trend-reversing poverty rates were not enough, ethanol is threatening margarita consumption.  Farmers in Mexico are shifting from harvesting blue agave, a cactus-like plant from which tequila is made, to more profitable cash crops such as wheat and corn to keep up with ethanol production.  Ending ethanol production for gasoline additives?  I’ll drink to that.

The “Peak Oil” Debate

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For the last 20 some-odd years, natural resource experts have estimated we have 30 years of oil left.  This seems counter-intuitive.  How can 20 years pass, but the amount of oil we have left on the planet stay the same, especially as we continue to consume it at an exponential rate?  The answer lies in advances in technology.  Improved technology has allowed access to otherwise trapped oil reservoirs.  We can now reach what has been termed “tough oil.”

Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, and Michael Klare, a Five Colleges professor of Peace and World Security Studies shed light on the idea of “easy oil” vs. “tough oil.” “Easy oil” is categorized as oil produced in “friendly, safe, and welcoming places,” such as oil found on shore or near to the shore, close to the surface or concentrated in large reservoirs.  On the other hand, “tough oil” is buried far offshore or deep underground, or spread out in small, hard-to-find reservoirs.  The manner with which “tough oil” must be obtained is from “unfriendly, politically dangerous or hazardous places.”

Twenty years ago, the majority of our oil supply was “easy oil,” giving us 30 more years of black gold.  Currently in 2011, as we continue to deplete natural reserves at an ungodly rate, we have managed to reestablish our 30 year oil supply with advances in technology, but twenty-first century oil is now “tough oil,” calling for processes like oil sands mining to extract.

While conventional crude oil is extracted from the ground by drilling wells into a petroleum reservoir, oil sands have been deemed “unconventional” oil and require a much more extensive process.  Extra-heavy oil flows very slowly toward producing wells under normal conditions and therefore must be extracted by strip mining.  Strip mining reduces the viscosity of the oil by injecting steam, solvents, and/or hot air into the sands.  Consequently, oil sands mining requires more water and energy than conventional oil extraction.  Because of this, Environmental Defense has called the Alberta Oil Sands project “the most destructive project on Earth.”  Below are a few hard numbers to back up this claim:

  • Oil sands mining is permitted to use two times more fresh water than the entire city of Calgary uses in a year
  • At least 90% of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in ponds so toxic that propane cannons are used to keep ducks from landing in them
  • Processing the oil sands uses enough natural gas in a day to heat 3 million homes
  • Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil

 Despite the environmental disadvantages of oil sands mining, Chief executive Peter Voser has named tar sands one of the new projects set to propel Shell’s growth even higher.

With this damaging method proposed, it is important to pay attention to where 2012 election candidates stand on alternative energy and peak oil.  Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) claims, “The new Republican majority seems intent on restoring the robber-baron era where there were no controls on pollution from power plants, oil refineries and factories.”  We absolutely cannot return this era where politicians honor businessmen who use questionable business practices to become powerful or wealthy.  We cannot elect candidates who are funded and supported by oil megalomaniacs.  We need to credit candidates who are walking the talk and looking for new solutions away from petroleum to power America’s economy.

We can no longer stand for individuals who are just talking about renewable energy sources—we need action.  Especially since many environmentalists believe that we have reached “peak oil,” the point at which the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.

“Peak oil” is not to be confused with oil depletion; it is not a period of falling reserves and supply, but a point at which maximum production is reached.  “Peak oil” should be viewed as an opportunity to transition our economy and consequently the American lifestyle away from oil and towards more renewable sources, like solar, wind and geothermal.  It is not a doomsday environmental crisis, more a wakeup call to stop extracting “tough oil” and progress in a more environmentally-conscious manner.