Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Policy Advice for the Climate Movement

by Duncan Gromko
Photo Credit: Nick

If Bill McKibben, the leader of the climate movement, asked for my advice, I'd tell him two things. First, wow, you've done an amazing job mobilizing young people. Second, I think you need to add another issue to your campaign. So far, has focused mostly on stopping Keystone XL and encouraging universities and other investors to divest from fossil fuels. I love these two issues; they are a big reason that Americans are paying attention to climate change again. However, the Obama Administration is eventually going to decide on KXL, likely by June. And divestment is great, but I don't think it's going to move the needle on greenhouse gas emissions enough. We need to start fighting for something really big.

Now Bill, I'd say, one problem with the climate movement is that we're a bit divided at the moment. David Roberts over at Grist has been writing a lot about the divide between climate Analysts and Activists. Analysts like Andrew Revkin at the NY Times and Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations disagreed with the KXL protest because blocking pipeline wouldn't do much to address fossil fuel demand, which is the real driver of GHG emissions. The Analysts are right that, in terms of GHG emissions, compared to something like a carbon tax, blocking KXL is peanuts. But they miss the point: people don't get excited about a carbon tax! From George Hoberg:
"McKibben and his allies didn’t choose to draw a line in the sand on KeystoneXL because it was the most cost-effective policy to reduce GHG emissions. They picked it because it made political sense given the state of the climate movement in US and global politics. Having failed so spectacularly at Copenhagen and then in the US Congress to get meaningful action, McKibben and Co. recognized that to have meaningful success, more direct action would be required to galvanize the intensity of preferences at the grassroots level needed to foster a powerful social movement. Keystone XL turned out to be a perfect short-term vehicle for that."
A Theda Scokpol report argued that climate hawks lost the cap-and-trade fight because we didn't have intense support for the bill. Obama doesn't have as much power as people think he does; Congress has to pass legislation. Politicians need to see a political benefit to climate action (or cost to inaction). The Tea Party's hatred of climate change legislation outweighed broader support for action. In Washington, interests groups with small, but passionate support (see the NRA) have influence that is disproportionate to the size of their base. Gun control legislation is so difficult to pass because politicians know there will be a political cost to doing so. We need Activists to supply this intensity.

So Bill, you got 40,000 people out in the February cold to protest against the pipeline; the intensity is starting to grow. Maybe I'm brainwashed from living in the Beltway, but I think that you can get more intense support by going a little more mainstream. Your next issue needs to make a big dent in emissions. Side benefit, the Analysts will like that.

There are a lot of policy ideas so I'll consider seven: four from WRI, blocking coal export terminals, a carbon tax, and stopping fossil fuel subsidies. Since we're trying to appeal to both Analysts and Activists, I'll rate the policy ideas from 1 to 10 based on how much I think those two groups would like the issue:
  • Emissions standards to reduce methane leakage from natural gas production. Please, stay away from this issue. This would be a pretty marginal climate gain and you'd completely alienate Activists (because you're essentially endorsing fracking). Plus, the EPA and the Department of the Interior are already on this. (Analysts 5, Activists 1)
  • A carbon tax (or cap-and-trade). The Holy Grail for Analysts. If done right, a significant carbon tax is probably the best way to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions. But there is no way Congress is passing this bill. I applaud Senators Sanders and Boxer for proposing the bill and I hope that in a couple years the discussion on climate change has shifted enough that we can make a real push for this. But the movement is not ready for this and failing on this issue would be deflating. (Analysts 9, Activists 3)
  • Boost energy efficiency. This is a climate win, but somehow I have a tough time imagining protest slogans for energy efficiency. (Analysts 6, Activists 3)
  • Limit hydrofluorocarbons. Ditto. (Analysts 5, Activists 3)
  • Block coal export terminals. This is a decent option. As US coal consumption declines, coal producers are looking for new markets (China and India) to sell their coal and export terminals on the West coast are currently too small to ship much coal. There are six proposed new ports that would ship 150 million short tons of coal per year. If we don't export the coal, it is more likely to stay in the ground. And, shipping cheap coal to China and India reduces their incentives to improve their energy efficiency and dependency on fossil fuels. I think Activists would get pretty excited about this one. But, despite the climate benefit, I don't think that Analysts will be too excited about it - it does nothing to directly reduce American fossil fuel demand. (Analysts 4, Activists 7)
  • Fossil fuel subsidies. This is my second favorite option. I think it has more appeal to Activists than power plant emissions standards (below), so, depending on how strong you think the movement is at this point, this could even be the best choice. People would be fired up about this - it has the same appeal as divestment. There would obviously be a lot of push back from the fossil fuel industry, but with the current political climate dominated by talk of the deficit, there might even be traction for this issue. Analysts like this idea too. (Analysts 6, Activists 8)
  • Emissions standards for power plants. This might be the best option. If the EPA regulates emissions from power plants, there would be significant climate benefit. It wouldn't get Activists as excited as something like Keystone, but coal plants are huge part of the problem and it would be pretty easy to paint them in a bad light and get people excited. (Analysts 8, Activists 6)

Looking at the graph, the sweet spot issues are in the upper right quadrant (power plant standards and fossil fuel subsidies). I think which issue you end up choosing depends on how far along you think the movement is (or if you agree with my ratings). Bill, I'm fine if you want to prioritize Activists over Analysts and choose coal exports or fossil fuel subsides over power plant standards. Ending fossil fuel subsidies is similar to the divestment campaign, while the coal exports issue shares some parallels with KXL. I think, at this point, the next issue has to be something in the right half of the graph, that keeps Activists fired up.

So Bill and other Activists/Analysts, I'd appreciate your input on what you think of my ratings and what other issues you think I should graph. Or what you think of this as a framework for analyzing original idea was to rate issues based on three criteria: feasibility, climate impact, and excitability (how much Activists get fired up by the issue).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

BP Civil Trial Kicks Off

Source: USGS
By Nick Cunningham

The civil trial for BP kicked off yesterday for the role it played in the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010.

To recap, on April 20, 2010, the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico experienced a blowout, resulting in the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig suffered multiple explosions, killing 11 workers, and sunk in a fiery blaze after two days. Oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days, spewing 4.9 million barrels of oil before the well was sealed. (I wrote a longer paper on how lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon incident raises red flags, and what that means for drilling in the Arctic. You can find the report at The American Security Project and The Arctic Institute).

BP already settled its criminal charges last November with the Department of Justice, agreeing to pay $4.5 billion. It has also paid out another $7.8 billion to businesses affected by the spill. The trial that began yesterday will weigh the civil charges.

At issue is whether or not BP (or its operators) were "grossly negligent," a finding that could force BP to pay another $17.6 billion. However, if it is found to have been merely "negligent," it will only have to pay one-fourth of that amount - $4.5 billion.

The federal government along with five coastal states have filed charges. The attorney speaking on behalf of the plantiffs at the trial stated that, "BP repeatedly chose speed over safety," and BP applied "huge financial pressure" on its operators to "cut costs and rush the job."

The causes of the blowout were multiple. For instance, regulation was lax from the former Minerals Management Service (MMS), with regulators having cozy relationship with offshore oil companies. So cozy, that several officials at MMS received gifts, bribes, free trips, as well as cocaine and sex with oil industry representatives. I'd say maybe there's a slight conflict of interest if the regulators are having cocaine and sex parties with the very industry it is supposed to regulate.

But, BP deserves much of the blame. The Macondo job was $50 million over budget. With rigs costing several hundred thousand dollars per day to rent, there was indeed "huge financial pressure" to cut costs, as the prosecution alleges.

BP, for its part, denies wrongdoing, and blames Transocean, the rig operator, and Halliburton, which was responsible for cementing the well. Immediately after the event, each of them pointed fingers at the other, and Transocean and Halliburton claim they were following BP's lead.

On top of the amounts mentioned above, BP will be forced to  pay out damages to affected businesses in the Gulf  under the Oil Pollution Act. The rich ecosystems of the Gulf provided ecosystem services (such as fisheries and tourism) that were the basis of people's livelihoods. The spill damaged those ecosystems and the benefits they provided to people. However,it can be difficult for some victims of the spill because the lost business must prove they have been 'directly' hurt by the oil spill, a high bar for businesses inland that are indirectly affected (say, a restaurant that used to serve workers in the fishing industry, but has suffered because of fisherman out of work).

From BP's point of view, they've paid enough. In fact, Bloomberg reported that BP may argue that local communities and governments may have actually benefited from the oil spill, because BP has paid out so much money that there has been a economic stimulus in the area. Such a claim would be hilarious if it wasn't so arrogant and reprehensible. For the largest environmental catastrophe in American history, it would be a travesty if BP did not pay the maximum penalty under the law.

However, even if it does pay, little has changed to prevent the next oil spill. Regulatory changes on safety have not been codified, and can easily be rolled back when a future oil-friendly President comes to office.

Also, the offshore oil industry still is incapable at dealing with a well blowout. Their drilling prowess is impressive, but their cleanup response is a joke - BP's spill response included using ineffective oil booms (floating tubes used to corral oil on the surface) and dousing the ocean with chemical dispersants, which arguably damaged ocean ecosystems more than the oil did. The inability to kill the wellhead for three months was pathetic, which included shooting trash and golf balls into the well to clog it. What happens when the next well blows out?

Yet, there is little appetite in Congress to address these issues. BP may pay big, but the drilling continues.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Fracking's Impact on Climate Change

by Duncan Gromko

Although the enviro community is currently arguing over the Keystone XL pipeline (my take on this disagreement), I think the biggest fight on the horizon is over fracking. On the one hand, burning natural gas is cleaner than burning coal, both in terms of local impacts and global greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas has been billed as a "bridge fuel" that will reduce emissions in the near term while renewables slowly replace fossil fuels. Per unit of energy, burning natural gas emits about half the carbon dioxide as coal. On the other hand, extracting the natural gas through fracking could endanger local water supply.

Source: Flickr.
While that is an important tradeoff that I will address at some point (and I think the ecosystem services framework is a great way to look at the issue), in this post I'm just going to stick to the global impacts of fracking and increased natural gas supply.

What is the impact of natural gas on climate change?

Well, unfortunately, this issue is complicated as shit. In the long term, the low cost of natural gas might be making renewables less competitive, ultimately undermining efforts to reduce GHG emissions in the power sector. There's already evidence that natural gas is undermining nuclear and wind power. Also, by investing in natural gas infrastructure, we may be locking ourselves into natural gas. Those issues are longer term and harder to predict.

Setting that argument aside, natural gas has been billed as a bridge fuel because energy produced from natural gas emits less carbon dixoide. Think Progress estimated that 6% of the recent CO2 emissions drop was due to the switch from coal to natural gas. The idea is that, while we're undergoing a long-term transition from fossil fuels to renewables, natural gas can help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a cost-effective way. If we're talking about reducing emissions by about 20% of 1990 levels by 2020, natural gas could play an important role.

However, there is a climate problem with fracking: methane leakage. Basically, while natural gas is being captured via fracking (let's be clear here, methane = natural gas), methane is released into the atmosphere. And methane has about 20 times the greenhouse gas effect as carbon dixoide. Even if natural gas production reduced CO2 emissions, it could have a negative impact on the climate if methane emissions offset this gain.

A PNAS/EDF paper says that as long as leakage is below 3.2%, the CO2 benefits of natural gas will offset the methane negatives. 3.2% leakage is kind of the climate tipping point for natural gas. If leakage is greater than 3.2%, the climate negative of the leaked methane will be greater than the climate benefit from lower CO2 emissions.

While everyone is getting excited about the US drop in CO2 emissions, my big question is: what has happened to methane emissions over the same time period? Have methane emissions (from fracking) been offset CO2 emissions?

It's tough to measure the leakage rate for the natural gas industry as a whole. Using EPA data, Richard Meyer estimated a leakage rate for the entire natural gas sector of about 1.2%. Using older data, Ramon Alvarez et al estimated 2.4%. Howarth et al estimated 3.85%. So there is significant disagreement. But the interesting question here is: what are the additional methane emissions from fracking? Howarth estimated that fracking leads to an additional 1.9% of leakage, but they used data from five gas formations, not the entire country. O'Sullivan estimated fracking leakage at 0.4-1.0%. As a new industry, I'm sure that leakage varies widely operation to operation. There is potential to reduce leakage with new technology and regulation.

Overall, US methane emissions have fallen by about 10% since 1990 because of improved technology; leakage during fracking isn't the only place for improvement.

And the situation in the US is different from Europe, China, Mexico, and Argentina, which also have large shale gas reserves. There might be more climate benefits in China, for instance, where 80% of electricity comes from coal and hundreds more coal plants are being built. However, China has greater problems with water scarcity, so watershed protection would be a greater concern.'s complicated and I don't think there is a straightforward answer. I hope that methane emissions are better understood before we commit to natural gas and fracking as a climate solution. Fortunately, the EPA has resolved to do just that and the Department of the Interior is looking into regulation possibilities.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Weekly News Roundup 2-24

Another week dominated by talk of Keystone XL. And some scary new climate/environment changes.
  • Inside Climate News: The biggest US enviro story of the week was the Keystone XL rally. "As many as 40,000 protesters from 30 states descended on the White House on Sunday and demanded that President Obama kill the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. By the estimates of organizers, it was the biggest protest march for climate change action in the nation's history."
  • Grist: David Roberts on the virtues of being unreasonable on KXL. "Intensity wins in politics, as I’ve said many times before, even if — [Michael] Levi’s unreasonable demand notwithstanding — its effects cannot be easily predicted. There are benefits to an activated, impassioned constituency and the social and political machinery that brings them together in large numbers. It’s what the right has: an intense core, fighting on behalf of the status quo (using the status quo’s money), that has captured one of America’s two political parties. It’s what the fight against climate change does not yet have: an intense core, fighting on behalf of social and political change, with at least one political party that is scared to cross it.
    Intensity is built through conflict, through the drawing of political and moral lines. That’s what activists like Bill McKibben are trying to do, with activist logic, not wonk logic, taking advantage of symbolism and opportunity. If there’s some other groundswell for change from which those efforts are 'distracting,' I haven’t heard about it."
  • Wonkblog: One more on KXL. Joe Nocera (NY Times op-ed writer) wrote a misguided defense of Keystone (which he later retracted). Brad Plummer of Wonkblog wrote a good reply to Nocera. OK, that's enough on KXL for now.
  • Xinhua: China announced a carbon tax. It is big news, but the tax would start off at 10 yuan per ton, or around $1.60. 
  • Discover: Drought in 2012 was bad: 

Source: USGS
  • NY Times: Unfortunately, the thin snowpack this winter means that drought might extend into 2013. "Lakes are half full and mountain snows are thin, omens of another summer of drought and wildfire. Complicating matters, many of the worst-hit states have even less water on hand than a year ago, raising the specter of shortages and rationing that could inflict another year of losses on struggling farms." Dire stuff.
  • Think Progress: Arctic ice volume is falling rapidly. "Death spiral" seems appropriate:

  • Wonkblog: More good stuff from Brad Plummer. US grasslands are being converted to farmland at the fastest pace since....the Dust Bowl. "U.S. farmers converted more than 1.3 million acres of grassland into corn and soybean fields between 2006 and 2011, a period of soaring crop prices and biofuel mandates (right)." Why can't we see how stupid biofuels from corn are?
  • AlertNet: Palm oil expansion is a big threat to African forests. Did you know that palm oil is actually native to Africa? Well now it's coming back in a big way. "Around 1.6 million hectares of new developments have been announced in the central African region since 2009, and palm oil companies are actively searching for bigger areas, the report said. Two thirds, or some 115 million hectares, of the total Congo Basin forest area is believed to have suitable soil and climate conditions for growing oil palms, it noted."
  • ICRAF: A little good news at the end, looks like Filipino households are willing to pay for watershed protection, a promising development. "The results showed that more than 50% of the respondents voted positively to pay a certain amount for the conservation of the Layawan watershed."

Thursday, February 21, 2013

REDD+ and People

by Duncan Gromko

The head of the World Bank's forest carbon division, Benoit Bosquet, recently wrote about the organization's efforts to include indigenous people in REDD+. REDD+ has gotten a lot of criticism for favoring governments and big corporations at the expense of local, forest-dependent people. To their credit, the World Bank has made a concerted effort to include these people in the decision-making process. According to Bosquet: "Indigenous Peoples have turned from critics of REDD+ to critical actors for REDD+."
Source: Σ64

REDD+ is an environmental economist's dream. The idea is to pay people for protecting forests and the ecosystem services they provide. Deforestation represents around 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions, so avoiding that deforestation provides a climate regulatory service. If trees are not cut down, climate change will be less severe. The original idea was that REDD+ would fit into a global climate change agreement, where rich countries with high emissions could pay developing countries to help reduce their emissions. Buying forest carbon credits was meant to generate an annual $40 billion for forest protection.

Hearing about this policy idea was one of the reasons that I chose to study environmental economics. It's a market solution to the environmental externalities that I wrote about in an earlier post. It solves a bunch of problems at once. Developing countries receive cash transfers. Local people can afford to protect their forests. And the whole world gets climate benefits at a price cheaper than other greenhouse gas reduction strategies. Win-win-win! In a time where there has been a lot of pessimism about climate change negotiations, this was one bright spot.

Unfortunately, there are several potential problems with REDD+ implementation:

1)The biggest problem is that land tenure is much less secure in developing countries; in some countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the state technically owns 100 percent of the forests. And now that the international community is putting a price on forests, there is an incentive for the state to take away land from people that don't have a legal document.

A story from Uganda offers a troubling example of the problems with a forest carbon price. More than 20,000 farmers from the Mubende and Kiboga districts of central Uganda were violently evicted from their land in 2010 by the Ugandan government. The land is now being leased to New Forests Company, a UK-based company that plants and harvests timber. The Ugandan government will profit from both the carbon credits generated by the timber plantations and from the sale of timber from the land. Ironically, REDD+ could create a policy environment where land occupied by local people is sold or leased to large corporations just as it was once granted to large timber corporations.

2) Even if land tenure wasn't a problem, the Munden Project points out another problem. The complex financial instruments involved in forest carbon trading would be difficult for the small land owners selling forest carbon credits to understand. On the other hand, finance institutions have significant experience in derivative trading. This information asymmetry will enable the buyers of carbon assets to capture most of the revenues from carbon trading.

3) There will be many sellers of forest carbon and fewer buyers – the market is a monopsony. Since there are fewer buyers of carbon credits, they might be able to collude and will likely have a stronger bargaining position. As REDD+ is meant to mobilize capital for forest investment (the sellers of carbon credits), this is potentially disastrous.

4) Paying for carbon means that other important forest benefits will be undervalued - not all forests are created equal. A eucalyptus plantation, for instance, sequesters a lot of carbon and provides the owner with revenue from sale of the wood. However, the plantation will require lots of fertilizer, thus it may be a negative for water supply. And a monoculture provides no habitat for species. If the profits generated from carbon credits and timber sale are the only incentives for land owners, we might end up with more forest monocultures because the other benefits of forests are not monetized.

5) It's really hard to measure and predict forest cover change. REDD+ is mostly paying people NOT to deforest. For instance, you make a deal with a country to reduce its deforestation by 50% by 2020. But how do you know what its deforestation rate would have been in 2020 without the payments? Using historical deforestation rates provides some clue, but data are unreliable and deforestation rates vary year to year. Should your estimate be based on 10 years of deforestation data or 5 years? The answer changes your prediction about 2020...and thus the amount of money being transferred to countries. There is also a perverse incentive at work here, where countries might want to have a higher deforestation rate before REDD+ is implemented in order to be able to sell more carbon credits.

6) Leakage. If some countries are covered by REDD+, but not all, maybe the deforestation and pressure on forests will just shift. If, for instance, Indonesian and Malaysian forests are protected under REDD+, what will this mean for Burmese forests?

So getting back to Mr. Bosquet's blog, I'm really glad that the World Bank and the rest of REDD+ community is engaging indigenous people and other vulnerable groups. I don't think the World Bank deserves all the criticism it has gotten; the people working there genuinely want to make a positive difference. But they're working in a tremendously difficult environment that is complicated by many factors, the least of which is some corrupt partner governments. Can REDD+ succeed in protecting forests and the people who depend on them? Everyone at the World Bank and other organizations working on REDD+ are well aware of these problems, but I'm not confident that some of them have been addressed.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fish-Farming: Needed to Feed the World?

By Nick Cunningham

Last week I wrote about Callum Roberts "The Ocean of Life," an interesting book on some of the big problems facing ocean ecosystems. I didn't intend to revisit it, but I came across a really fascinating section on fish farming that I think is worth its own post.

typical aquaculture 'raceway' in Korea (photo: NOAA)
As Roberts notes, global (wild) fish catches peaked in 1988 and have begun to decline, after thousands of years of rising. This is due to a variety of reasons - overfishing, pollution, climate change, invasive species - but the picture looks pretty bleak. Many fisheries are on the edge of collapse, including in both developed and developing countries. The collapse of the cod fishery near Nova Scotia is one infamous example.

So, in order to feed the 1 billion people around the world that rely upon fish for their main source of protein, a number that is rising everyday, one alternative is to breed and raise fish in farm-like conditions.

Known as aquaculture, farming fish is a bit like industrialized agriculture. It involves fish "pens" in which the fish are caged along the coast of the ocean, an estuary, or river. Since the ecosystem would not naturally support such high numbers of fish in such a small space, these fish must be fed. This is analogous to packing cows into a small space, and feeding them so that they get really fat really quickly. Since many of the farmed fish species are predatory fish, not vegetarians, they are fed sources of protein that are perfectly edible to humans, like anchovies or herring. As a result, it takes "several pounds of wild-caught fish to produce just one pound of farmed fish." Not a particularly efficient use of resources.

The impacts on the local ecosystem can be pretty ugly as well. With such a high density of fish, waste is a huge problem. Nitrogen and phosphorus from fish waste create algal blooms, depleting the waters of oxygen and contributing to dead zones.

When cows are packed into tight quarters they may develop diseases and require a heavy dose of antibiotics. Similarly, chemicals are sprayed in the waters of fish farms to rid the pens of diseases, devastating the marine ecology in and around the farm.

Roberts provides a cringing description of massive fish farms in China, in which fish pens are located next to each other as far as the eye can see. The waters smell putrid, and are dangerously contaminated (including from other industrial pollution), but 4 out of 5 fish eaten by the average Chinese person comes from a fish farm. China is also a major exporter of farm-raised fish.

Unfortunately, companies running fish-farming operations often clear vital ecosystems in order to raise fish. The expansion of the Thai shrimp industry provides a cautionary tale of the dangers of intensification. In the 1970s and 1980s, increases in shrimp farm productivity brought huge profits to farmers as international demand for shrimp soared. Mangrove forests were converted to shrimp farms and total mangrove area in Thailand decreased from 3,679 km2 in 1961 to 1,685 km2 in 1996. Mangroves provide critical ecosystem services - like erosion prevention, storm surge protection, and flood control. Clearing mangroves for aquaculture is not the direction want to be heading in.

With all of these nasty problems with aquaculture, it would seem obvious that we need to quickly move away from such an approach of sourcing our food. However, that would be pretty simplistic.

Just like the debate with intensification of agriculture, intensifying fish production does have benefits. With agriculture, packing animals into a small space relieves a huge amount of pressure on global forests. In Brazil, the largest source of deforestation is due to the conversion of forests for cattle pasture. Global beef demand is rising so quickly that land is more valuable for meat production than it is as forest. So, by intensifying cattle operations, there is an environmental benefit in land use.

So it is with aquaculture. Intensifying fish production can relieve pressure on other fisheries, including endangered species.

Moreover, with so many mouths to feed, maybe it is inevitable that we need to intensify fishing.

But, as Roberts notes, there are "better and worse ways of doing it." Choosing areas that don't jeopardize wetlands or mangroves is smart. Operating at less density may reduce the impact on local ecosystems. Finding alternative sources of food for feed, rather than other fish, would also be an improvement.

It's not easy. But, ultimately, aquaculture is here to stay.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Environmental Activism Works

Tar sands protest 2011 (photo credit: Sen. Sanders)
by Nick Cunningham

Polls suggest that a sizable majority of the American people support action on climate change. A recent poll from Duke University shows that 64% of Americans favor regulating greenhouse gases from power plants, factories, and cars, and also requiring utilities to generate power from clean energy.

Yet, public opinion has done little to shift the needle on Capitol Hill. Perhaps this is because members of Congress do not feel the heat on climate change. Perhaps it’s because they do not see people in the streets protesting.

If 2/3 of the public want action on climate change, why aren’t they in the streets? Well, I presume that the many of those people would like to reduce greenhouse gases, but don’t feel passionate enough about it to do something. After all, it takes effort to call up your representative, or attend a local meeting to voice an opinion, or attend a rally.

But, I do think that many more people would do such things if they felt that it could make a difference. If they felt that their voices were being heard, and their opinions affected public policy, they might take action.
A few recent conflicts that pitted conservationists against “development” offer evidence that, in fact, environmental activism can be remarkably successful.

The first is a case in Colorado. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is an agency under the Department of Interior that manages the nation’s public lands, and it often needs to decide whether or not to open up undeveloped land for oil and gas exploration. Recently, BLM decided to sell leases near Paonia, Colorado, a small town in the North Fork Valley full of organic farms, vineyards, as well as parks and outdoorsy-type businesses.

The decision to issue leases for oil and gas development sparked an uproar (good article from The New York Times.)  Local residents were enraged at the decision, fearing pollution from oil and gas rigs would damage their livelihoods.

Residents packed local meetings. Here’s the NYT on the scene:

"About 200 residents sat on the floor, lined the walls and spilled into the hallway, jeering and hooting as officials insisted — sometimes patiently, sometimes brusquely — that hydraulic fracturing was safe, and that there would be little environmental impact on the valley. They applauded as town council members pressed federal officials on drilling’s effect on the town’s air, water and economy — eliciting responses that were as unsatisfactory to the crowd as a bushel of mealy peaches.

'I can’t guarantee you there won’t be a spill,' Lonny Bagley, the land management agency’s deputy state director for energy and minerals, told the audience. 'I can’t guarantee there won’t be a blowout.'"

The public pressure worked. A few days later, BLM announced that it was removing the tracts of land from the lease sale, citing public opposition. The land wouldn’t be used for fossil fuel development.

Another example of environmental activism succeeding in recent weeks is the announcement by Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the largest paper companies in the world, that it would no longer clear cut forests for paper products.

clear cutting (photo credit: NOAA)
Clear cutting forest, particularly in Indonesia’s vast rainforests, is a destructive practice. Deforestation accounts for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than cutting forests that are centuries old and full of rich biodiversity, a much more sustainable practice to sourcing timber for paper products is from tree plantations. Fast growing trees can be planted on land that is already degraded, relieving pressure on primary forests. Moreover, once the trees are cut, there isn’t a net effect on the climate, since the trees absorbed carbon while they were growing.
Asia Pulp and Paper apparently felt compelled to reform its practices after intense pressure from environmental groups like Greenpeace. Here is New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin on Greenpeace’s achievement. The decision is a huge win for global forests and the climate.

Environmental activism also seemingly played a pivotal role in forcing President Obama to delay the Keystone XL pipeline a year and a half ago. In November 2011, Obama decided to push the decision until after the Presidential election under pressure from the public (which is why the decision is now expected soon). Before groups like made Keystone XL a monumental environmental cause, the project looked destined for approval.

This Sunday’s climate rally offers the opportunity for environmental activists – as well as a broad coalition of public health specialists, national security hawks, civil rights groups, and many more – to demonstrate their passion for climate action. As recent campaigns demonstrate, environmental activism, when strong enough, works.

News Roundup for the week Feb 15

  • Mongabay: The big story of the week was the State of the Union address and Obama's strong words on climate change. "The President surprised many by giving climate change a central role in his inauguration speech last month, and he followed-up in his State of the Union speech last night when he called on congress to 'pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change;' but added that the administration would take action itself if congress failed. 'For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change,' Obama said."
  • WRI: Since climate legislation is a political impossibility with climate deniers controlling the House, the question becomes: what can Obama do via executive order? According to WRI, the four greatest opportunities are: establish emissions standards for power plants, establish emissions standards to reduce methane leakage from natural gas, boost energy efficiency, and limit hydrofluorocarbons. Standards for power plants is the biggest game changer here, but I also like the methane leakage issue. While everyone is talking about fracking's positive impact on CO2 emissions, the change in methane emissions has been virtually ignored (which could offset fracking's climate benefits).
  • Grist: Another take on what Obama can do without Congress. Dave Roberts adds onto the WRI report with two more items: quit selling powder river basin coal for pennies on the dollar and stopping coal exports on the West coast. We'll likely be covering the latter in a post.
  • National Journal: Coral Davenport, the best climate reporter at the moment, gives her take on Obama's options: "So the administration’s energy and environment officials are gearing up to use the president’s executive authority to roll out powerful new EPA rules controlling carbon pollution from existing coal-fired power plants. Sources close to the EPA say they expect a proposed rule will be issued by the end of this year, and EPA officials are already thinking about how it can be crafted to have the biggest environmental impact, cause the least economic harm, and stand up to the tsunami of legal, legislative, and political attacks that are sure to follow. Obama and his team know full well that environmental regulations on energy are deeply politically unpopular – throughout his reelection campaign, he fought off a fusillade of attacks from Republicans slamming him for supporting so-called 'job-killing regulations.'”
  • Grist: Just when you started to get excited, the Whitehouse goes and bums you out. In an interview, deputy assistant to the President for energy and climate, Heather Zichal, responds to a question about using the EPA to regulate power plants: “We’re not in a position to say, ‘These are the 15 things we’re going to do,’” Zichal said, “but I think the point here is that we have demonstrated an ability to really use our existing authority — permitting-wise, what we can do through the budget — to make progress.” I recommend the whole article if you want to feel a little less hopeful.
  • The Hill: With Bill McKibben, the Sierra Club, Jim Hansen, and a bunch of other important people getting arrested at the Whitehouse today, protesting KXL, there is a great article justifying the need for civil disobedience. "Yet the power, wealth, and enormous political influence of the fossil fuel industry have kept our government from acting. And although President Obama has declared his own determination to act, much that is within his power to accomplish remains undone. Worse, he could make decisions, such as allowing the construction of a pipeline to carry millions of barrels of the most-polluting oil on Earth from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf Coast of the U.S. -- that would make it virtually impossible to stop climate disruption from spinning out of control and 'betray[ing} … [his word] future generations.' This is the moment that has chosen us. We must seize it. Though at times it tested his leadership to the utmost, Martin Luther King, Jr., successfully set the standard for effective civil disobedience: peaceful, principled, dignified, determined, and strategic. To stand before one's fellow citizens and declare, 'I am willing to go to jail to stop this wrong,' remains the most powerful expression of free speech we have. The environmental crisis we face today demands nothing less." Powerful stuff.
  • Media Matters: Continuing with the KXL theme, a great article laid out the most thorough defense I've seen of blocking the pipeline. Amongst many debunked arguments, here's one: "Energy experts agree that the Keystone XL pipeline would have little, if any, impact on gasoline prices. UC Berkeley's Severin Borenstein told Media Matters that the pipeline would 'bring additional oil to the world market, starting around 2020. The effect on oil prices then will be miniscule, the effect in the next couple years nonexistent.' Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council of Foreign Relations, agreed that the impact of Keystone XL on gas prices 'would be very small.'"
  • Think Progress on IEA Report: Admist all the natural gas hype, a sobering analysis of where fracking will get us on climate. The modeling scenario that includes massive natural gas expansion "puts CO2 emissions on a long-term trajectory consistent with stabilising the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse-gas emissions at around 650 parts per million, a trajectory consistent with a probable temperature rise of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius (°C) in the long term, well above the widely accepted 2°C target."
  • Mongabay: Last week Indonesia's largest pulp and paper company, APP announced a zero deforestation policy. This week Mongabay discusses the broader impact on the industry. "On Tuesday, WWF echoed Greenpeace's call for Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL) to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain. Like APP, APRIL has been linked to large-scale conversion of Sumatra's endangered rainforests for industrial tree plantations to produce pulp and paper."
  • Aurora Munoz: Finally, writing on Valentine's Day, I'd be remiss if I didn't give you a link for the funniest climate humor I've seen in a while. Kudos, mi amor. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Trending: Valentine's Day Climate Puns

by Aurora Munoz

Nothing says ardent love like puns, so today we're loving #climatechangevalentines

Here are some of my favorites (of course, accompanied by GIFs):

My love for you is like the climate, it keeps getting hotter and hotter  - @grist

You're so hot, you should climate model - @grist

Unlike the climate change bill, you won't be blocked in my house. - @RaptorH

You're fundamentally changing the way I've adapted to living on this planet -@evanlweber

You'll love my pipeline! It is fracking huge! - @UniverseWeAre

Natural Capital's Valentine's Day Card to the Earth:

The Impact of Blocking the Keystone XL Pipeline on Tar Sands Production

Tar sands processing plant (photo credit: The Interior)
by Nick Cunningham

A major climate rally will be held in Washington DC this Sunday, February 17. The primary focus of the protest is the Keystone XL pipeline, which will run from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico, carrying tar sands oil along the way. Tar sands release an estimated 20% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude oil. Environmentalists hope to block the pipeline. If they did, what would the effect be on the tar sands industry?

It has been a political hot potato, with both supporters and opponents trying to figure out when the State Department (but, ultimately the White House) will come to a decision on whether or not to approve the project.

Keystone supporters have dismissed the claims of environmentalists, saying that blocking the pipeline will do little to stop the production of Canadian tar sands. On its face, this argument seems credible. Blocking the pipeline does little to reduce oil demand, the ultimate driver of why and how much oil is produced. This argument is made compellingly by Michael Levi and Andrew Revkin in particular. If there is a market for the oil, it will somehow get extracted from the ground. Better to focus on cutting demand. 

Tar sands producers have said something to the effect of “if America doesn’t want the oil, we will send it to China.” To fulfill that promise, the tar sands industry has said they will build a pipeline to the west coast of Canada, and export oil from there. In other words, blocking the pipeline would be like squeezing a balloon, the oil would just go somewhere else.

However, in reality, the industry is hurting.

Just look at the discount that tar sands producers are selling their oil for relative to the WTI benchmark, which is the price for oil in the U.S. In January, Canadian crude sold at an astonishing $41 per barrel discount. What this means is that Canada can’t get its tar sands out, so it has a glut on its hands. It has recently turned to shipping tar sands oil by rail, a much pricier route than by pipeline. They are even considering shipping the oil north to the Arctic, and exporting it from there.

Price discounts are especially painful for tar sands (compared to conventional drilling) because profit margins are thin. Producing oil from tar sands and transforming it into something useful is expensive. It requires extracting lots of dirt and sands in what resembles an open pit mining operation. Lots of energy and water are used in the process. After refining the product you get something resembling heavy oil. Some estimates say that new tar sands project require oil prices over $80 per barrel to break even, meaning the current discounts are making projects unprofitable.

This is evidence that blocking the Keystone XL pipeline would have a measurable impact on tar sands production. If gridlock on the pipeline system is forcing discounts, that means producers operating on the margins are going to have to cut back. A significant portion of projects are not going to be profitable at these lower prices, so production will be shut in.

The bluster about sending it to China is just that. Residents of British Columbia are even more opposed to a pipeline than Americans, and tar sands producers also have to deal with native tribes fighting to defend their territory from being marred by a pipeline passing through it.

If TransCanada had easier options, they would not have spent over four years on permits and lobbying the U.S. government to get the Keystone XL route approved. This one pipeline would not be such a big deal to them. But, it is.

Blocking the pipeline could be a major blow to the tar sands. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Importance of Drylands Management

by Duncan Gromko

Nick and I went to an interesting presentation on drylands by UN Dryland Ambassador Dennis Garrity yesterday afternoon.

Source: UNDP
Dr. Garrity's talk focused primarily on drylands in Africa, particularly in North Africa, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. He set the stage by tying resource degradation in the region to conflict. From Mali to Algeria to Somalia, countries bordering the Sahara have been plagued by war and insecurity. There are are many good explanations for these conflicts, but declining natural capital is a big part of the story. It was good context because it showed how the environment should be a concern for the security community.

Another, more surprising connection that Dr. Garrity made was that between desertification and women's illiteracy....huh? Well there is an important intermediate variable here: women's fertility. Illiterate women tend to have more children, and a rapidly expanding, rural population puts added pressure on the environment. Niger, which is ground zero for desertification, also has the highest fertility rate in the world, at over 7 children per woman. This is an important point because it shows that more holistic strategies are needed to address the drivers of environmental degradation. At some point I'm going to do a population/health/environment post.

Source: Schmidt
So what is the immediate solution to degradation? For those who know me or this blog, the answer is obvious: more trees. There are few places in the world where trees can help more with the biggest obstacles to human well-being. Trees help cool the microclimate (heat is obviously an issue near the desert), regulate water supply (ditto), and fix nitrogen in the soil (soil degradation from overuse is another problem). Dr. Garrity had great photos of drylands where crops that were close to trees were growing substantially bigger than other crops. In addition to improving agricultural yields, trees also provide people with firewood and fodder for grazing animals. Different agroforestry methods - where trees and traditional agriculture grow side by side - such as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) and intercropping have increased productivity in these very marginal lands. FMNR is totally centered around getting native trees to grow in your fields. In a nutshell, by pruning saplings and bushes correctly and protecting them from grazing animals, trees grow naturally - there is zero capital investment. Then, these trees fix nitrogen and help protect the soil.

The amazing part about the use of agroforestry techniques in African drylands is how quickly they have spread through a grassroots movement. Most of the training has happened farmer to farmer. In Niger, where FMNR really got its start, over 5 million hectares of drylands have been restored. There has been some important NGO and multilateral support (by organizations like Dr. Garrity's) for agroforestry, but the real success is due to the grassroots effort. There is a cool video about "The Man Who Stopped the Desert."

This approach flies in the face of modern agriculture, which means that it is not universally accepted by agricultural development organizations or national governments. Modern agriculture says you should plant in monoculture, using fertilizer, a tractor, and in straight lines - trees are seen as competing with crops for water and nutrients. While this approach has helped the US produce a ton of food, it puts too much stress on the more marginal soils in drylands.

In fact, there was a funny/tragic story told by an audience member: it was only when the World Bank cancelled its agricultural extension program in Niger that the drylands became productive again. I wish Dr. Garrity had expanded a little more on how big organizations like the UN can positively support and engage grassroots movements because that seems to be a challenge.

It was a fascinating talk and I'm glad I went. This story is a great case study for the blog because of the obvious connection between human well-being and the ecosystem services supported by ecosystem restoration. I also like the story because this blog can kind of be a downer and this is a great success story, even if there is a lot of work still to do.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Book Review: The Ocean of Life

by Nick Cunningham

Photo: NOAA
Most of everyday discussion about climate change revolves around how many degrees the global temperature will rise over the coming decades, how severe and frequent the natural disasters will be, or how charismatic species like the polar bear will fare in a warming world.

Hurricanes and drought make it onto the front pages, but changes to the world's oceans often get overlooked. Considering that 1 billion people (1 out of every 7 people in the world) rely on fish for their primary source of protein, this is surprising.

I am currently reading a book that translates into accessible language some of the challenges ocean life faces due to climate change. The Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts made it onto my radar from The Economist, which named it one of the best books of 2012.  While there is too much to cover in one blog post, I'll cover a few of the sections that really struck me.

Getting through the beginning is a bit of a slog, as Roberts covers a gazillion years of ocean history. But, after the first chapter, the book becomes much more interesting and applicable to our current climate predicament.

For example, ocean chemistry and atmospheric chemistry tend to be linked, with gases in the air in equilibrium with gases absorbed in the ocean.  This means that all the carbon dioxide we are releasing into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is been taken up by the oceans. In fact, the oceans absorb about 30% of all the CO2 released. This helps us humans in terms of climate change - without that process we would be in much worse shape.

However, sucking up all that CO2 is making the ocean more acidic. On the pH scale, a measure of acidity, the ocean has dropped by 0.1 units to 8.1 since preindustrial times (pure water is 7.0 and is in the middle of the scale). So, the oceans are still pretty alkaline, but becoming much more acidic. This is already having dire consequences for ocean life. Acidity makes it difficult for 'calcifying organisms' - or anything that builds an external shell - to build their shells and skeletons. In other words, they are dying. This includes coral reefs, crabs, shrimp, lobsters, snails, other crustaceans, and countless other organisms. Much of the world's coral reefs are already becoming bleached from this process, and Roberts says some scientists are concerned that anything "built from calcium carbonate could cease to grow within our lifetimes."
Not as colorful as it used to be. (Photo: Bleached coral, NOAA)

Another troubling trend discussed by Roberts is the effect climate change is having on the flow of ocean currents, which plays a crucial role in determining the climate. The Gulf Stream brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico, up across the Atlantic Ocean to the the Arctic. This warm water is why Europe has a mild climate even though it is at high latitudes. Paris is farther north than Montreal, but is much balmier. I was familiar with this story, but didn't realize why it happened.

The water is flowing in that direction because there is a conveyor belt that carries water around the world in one continuous loop. The conveyor belt exists because of what is known as "thermohaline circulation" - that is, movement because of disparities in temperature and salinity. As it so happens, colder water is more dense and so it tends to sink. Salty water also tends to sink lower than fresh water.

The Gulf Stream brings water to the Arctic, at which point it cools down significantly.  This causes the water to sink. Since the ocean isn't getting any bigger, the enormous amount of water being pulled down in the Arctic is offset by water being pulled up in other places. This "upwelling" occurs in key spots around the world, creating thriving fisheries (more on that below). This ocean circulation process is continuous, and is one of the determining factors of why different places have different climates.
Photo: Smithsonian

So what, who cares? Well, scientists are concerned that the Arctic may warm to the point where ocean currents do not cool when they arrive in the north. This may mean the ocean conveyor belt gets disrupted. It's difficult to model what this change would mean for climate and no one really knows what the implications are.

The ocean conveyor belt is also critical for the world's fisheries. As Roberts explains:
The ocean has two layers, surface water and the deep sea...Surface waters are warmed by sunshine. Since warm water has a lower density than cold water, this layer tends to float on top of the much cooler deep waters. There is little mixing across the boundary between the two.
Mixing happens where there is "upwelling:" water from the deep moving up towards the surface. Again, this is caused by the ocean conveyor belt. Upwelling brings nutrients from down below up to the surface, which is critical for healthy fisheries. Upwelling only occurs over 1% of the world's ocean surface, but this area represents about half of the global fish catch.

Anchovies (Photo: NOAA)
The world's largest upwelling occurs off the coast of Peru, and it is no accident that Peru has an enormous fishing sector. Anchovies are the centerpiece of Peruvian fisheries, and Peruvian anchovies account for 1/10 of the entire global fish catch! Peruvian anchovies are ground up and made into fish meal to feed other fish (so that your salmon can grow nice and fat). Peru is the world's top producer of fish meal.

Back to climate change. Our inability to reduce carbon emissions from all the fossil fuels we consume is gradually heating the planet. This is causing disruptions in the complex marine ecosystems - acidification is gradually wiping out entire species. And warming waters may throw ocean currents out of whack, putting global fisheries - and the 1 billion people who depend on them - at risk.

Check out The Ocean of Life. Good book.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Why Don't We Value Resources Better?

by Duncan Gromko

There was a great article in the National Journal last week about the costs of climate change. Coral Davenport lays out a lot of estimates of what the impact of climate change will be on industry, business, and the general health of the economy. Putting the emphasis on dollar amounts is a great way to frame the debate because you can start to compare the cost of reducing carbon emissions to the cost of inaction. Solar may be more expensive than coal (although the cost difference is shrinking quickly), but using coal and other fossil fuels has other costs, the most alarming among them: climate change.

An example of the costs is the increase in insurance pay outs due to disasters. 2011 and 2012 were the most costly years, with annual losses of around $60 billion (compared to an average of $27 billion). However, that pales in comparison to estimates for 2025: $270 billion.

If there are such high costs to climate change, why aren't they accounted for in the market?

Adam Smith's idea of the "invisible hand" suggests that free markets are the most efficient way to allocate resources and maximize well-being. When an Arsenal fan like me buys one more Arsenal jersey, the price I pay represents how much I value the the jersey: the marginal social benefit (MSB). The price of the labor and materials it took to produce the jersey is the marginal social cost (MSC). So my Arsenal jersey is perfectly in equilibrium: its production costs society the same amount that society benefits.

In this idealized world, the prices set by markets reflect the social benefit (MSB) and social cost (MSC) of good consumption. 

But things are rarely this perfect...if we could all just be Arsenal fans. Now, take a Chelsea jersey factory that dumps its effluent into a nearby river (any surprise that a team with a racist captain who taunts Americans post-911 would also produce their jerseys in a terrible way?). The polluted river is now less productive for fishermen or is creating public health problems. The cost of pollution is borne by people who have nothing to do with the buying and selling of Chelsea jerseys - the costs are "externalized." The value, or benefit, of the jerseys produced is high, but it doesn't take into account the impact, or cost, of the effluent. A solution is to charge the Chelsea factory a fee for those costs. This would drive up the price, decrease demand, and probably lead to fewer jerseys being created (or maybe the factory would find a way to reduce its impact).

So this is how a market failure, like the Chelsea jersey factory, undermines the "invisible hand" utopia. The price of a good is supposed to take into account its cost. But if part of the cost is externalized, the price signal is wrong.

Source: Mr. Wood

This can put us in a situation where marginal private cost is lower than marginal social cost and we end up consuming and producing more than we "should."

Greenhouse gas emissions are the ultimate externality. The cost of emitting carbon isn't borne by those who use a local river, but by the entire world.

This is economists' take on why we value resources poorly. What was frustrating to me in my economics study is how externalities and other market failures are kind of an afterthought at the end of the textbook: externalities are acknowledged, but they're not big enough to undermine the model. But, if we're talking about global ecosystem services being worth $33 trillion per year, then clearly the market is missing an important signal. It's not just greenhouse gas emissions and their effect on climate that is "externalized;" there are a host of environmental services that are not priced by the market. If the market model is going to be a useful tool for making economic decisions, there has to be a lot more research like Coral's and the political will to incorporate these environmental services into the cost of goods. Otherwise the invisible hand is going to lead to some very bad outcomes. This sort of analysis is why a carbon tax appeals to many people as a solution to climate change. If you can value the social cost of carbon and add its price to carbon goods, you'd get closer to the market utopia.

Another aspect is that these costs are distributed unevenly throughout society. People who were hurt by Hurricane Sandy or farmers who saw their production plummet in the summer drought are affected by climate change much more than me. What I like best about Coral's article was how she brought a personal element to these costs:

"And Strickland [a businessman] fully expects someone, whether it’s him or taxpayers, to pay more in the future, as sea levels climb higher. 'In the last couple of years, we’ve seen more and more evidence of the waters rising,” the accountant says. “I’m just a small businessman. I’m looking at my building, on the impact of this on me and my employees; but other people are going to start thinking, am I going to want to relocate my business here?'"

(DISCLAIMER: I'm sure Arsenal and Chelsea jerseys are actually produced in the same factory and have the same environmental cost. But it's still fun watching their captain fall flat on his face).

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sally Jewel and the Nation's Public Lands

by Nick Cunningham

The overarching mission of this blog is to demonstrate not only the intrinsic value of the global environment, but also the real economic value of ecosystem services. For example, one estimate puts the value of nature's ecosystem services (providing clean water, clean air, agricultural productivity, tourism, flood control, forest products, fisheries, and much more) at $33 trillion.

These ecosystem services are often taken for granted. When an oil company wants to drill on public lands, often drillers, policymakers, and local communities get excited over the billions of dollars that will flow with the crude. Yet, they don't factor in the loss - a real loss, which can be counted in dollars - from destroying the local environment. If oil is extracted, but the local waterway is fouled, it's not a clear win for the local economy.  The public picks up the tab for higher expenditures on public health, lost economic activity from other businesses in the area that may be affected, as well as cleaning up the water supply.

The news that President Obama will nominate Sally Jewel, the head of REI, an outdoors retail giant, to lead the Department of Interior, is interesting and potentially promising news. DOI is responsible for the stewardship of the vast stretches of public lands, particularly in the west. Interior often has to decide how much of the nation's public lands it wants to lease out for drilling. Ms. Jewel, an outdoor enthusiast, hopefully will recognize the huge benefits that accrues to this nation from its public lands.

Timothy Egan has an excellent Op-Ed in The New York Times on Ms. Jewel and the outlook for her department. He first describes the distorted view of the past two Presidents towards our nation's public lands. Here is an excerpt:

For all the ranchers and wildcatters, the loggers and right-wing county commissioners who clamor for control of the nation’s public lands, the dominant user is an urbanite, who bikes, skis, rafts, climbs, hunts, fishes, watches birds, waits for sunsets with a camera or finds an antidote for “nature deficit disorder” in a weekend on a high plateau.  
Yet this silent majority is taken for granted. Obama, following down the ravaged path of George W. Bush, has made it easy for oil and gas drillers to industrialize huge swaths of land that are owned by every citizen. About six million acres have been leased to drillers in the last four years; a total of 44 million acres are under lease now.  
Bush made oil and gas drilling his number-one priority for Interior’s lands. Obama has not significantly altered that course.  
“We are drilling all over the place,” Obama said in defense of his policies during the presidential campaign. At the same time, less public land has been permanently protected under Obama than by any of the prior four presidents.  
Every time gas prices go up, some demagogue will say it’s because we aren’t sucking enough oil out of our shared setting, when in fact there is no connection between the global price of oil and annual output from government leases. But Obama has been afraid to rally the larger conservation and recreational-user coalition because he fears the wrath of the fossil-fuel crowd.  
In part, this is because those who value the prairies, canyons, mountains and grasslands of Interior for something other than extraction have been largely missing from the debate. They let buffoonish politicians from rural Western areas drone on about the need to put even more public lands under control of the oil industry. They allow corporate interests who are more at home on a Saudi golf course than in a slick-rock canyon in southern Utah to speak for the West.    
Just recently, that has started to change. The outdoor recreational industry directly supports three times more jobs than the oil and gas sector. People who play in the American outdoors spend $646 billion a year, responsible for 6.1 million jobs.
That last point is particularly interesting. Often conservation is put at odds with "economic development," with many thinking that if we set aside public lands for conservation we derive no value from it.
And on Ms. Jewel:

It’s not just that Jewell has climbed Mount Rainier, kayaked innumerable frothy waterways, skied and snowboarded double-diamond runs. Nor that, as chief executive of the nation’s largest consumer cooperative — Recreational Equipment Inc., the retailer known as REI — she knows that Americans spend more money on outdoor equipment than they do on pharmaceuticals or gasoline. 
But Jewell — a city-dweller, educated, articulate about the importance of nature in a modern life — is a prototypical citizen of the 21st century American West, still the geography of hope, in Wallace Stegner’s timeless phrase.
Jewell can be an exuberant evangelist on behalf of trying to get kids from the inner cities into the mountains. There is a profound disconnect, she often says, between modern life and the natural world. And those city dwellers without money are the ones missing out most.
How she approaches the job remains to be seen, but here's hoping.