Environment Forum

Group wants oil, gas drillers to follow rules in U.S. West

An environmental group this week issued a report saying oil and gas companies have enjoyed exemptions to common sense anti-pollution federal rules that govern companies in other industries. This has led, the Environmental Working Group claims, to fouled groundwater, creeks and acres and acres of formerly pristine land in the U.S. West.

The report, “Free Pass for Oil and Gas in the American West,” contains county-by-county maps of what it says are examples of mismanagement of the oil and gas industry.

“Drilling companies regularly complain that environmental standards deny them access to sites where they’d like to drill,” the EWG said. “But the cratered landscape tells a different story.”

The report claims that 270,000 oil and natural gas wells have been drilled since 1980, and 120,000 of them since 2000.  Most of those wells are for natural gas.

The EWG says that these well have been drilled with waivers to federal environmental laws including the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act.

Feinstein wants her desert and solar, too

California Senator Dianne Feinstein is fuming over a federal plan to use some Mojave desert lands to develop solar power plants and wind farms.

In a letter to Dept. of the InteriorSecretary Ken Salazar, Feinstein said she planned to introduce legislation that would protect the former railroad lands, thereby preventing the federal government from leasing them to renewable energy project developers. The 600,000 acres in question were acquired by and donated to the government’s Bureau of Land Management between 1999 and 2004 for the purpose of conservation.

“I have been informed that the BLM now considers these areas open for all types of use except mining.  This is unacceptable!” Feinstein wrote in a March 3 letter made public last week.

California’s green jobs start young

California’s green jobs program is off to the races with $20 million in state and fed funds for a 20-month program for some 1,000 ‘at risk’ young adults. The California Green Corps will have a little of everything — green job training, a stipend, educational requirement and community service. Whether green industry, which is much more battered by the recession than many had hoped, will be able to hire when the government tap turns off is still a subject of debate. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sure hopes so.

The state has high hopes for green — the folding kind — from green — the environmentally friendly kind. The state’s fact sheet linked above suggests 114,000 jobs and $25.3 billion in additional annual revenue from California green policies. Forecasting is tough, though, and estimates of what California’s global warming legislation will mean to the economy have been savaged. The state is pushing ahead with policies to combat global warming while acknowledging the economy might force changes.

Reuters pool photo

High and dry on the California farm

At lunchtime in California’s San Joaquin Valley, farmers meet up at Jack’s Prime Time Restaurant, where they can get a good, honest meal … just what one expects from an establishment smack dab in the middle of the most productive farming region in the world.

But the mood at Jack’s is decidely somber. A few days earlier, the farmers in these parts were told not to expect any federally supplied water this year due to a third year of drought and low levels in the reservoirs.  Without water, they can’t plant their lettuce and tomatoes, and they may lose parts of their precious almond and pistachio orchards.  All this land flourished with water brought from hundreds of miles away, snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada.

In reporting for our series on water scarcity in the U.S. West, I was amazed that the top farming region in the nation had not prepared itself better to deal with Mother Nature’s fickle ways with water. But many here feel they would have avoided this predicament were it not for the ”man-made drought” –  new regulations to save endangered fish species by sharply restricting water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. And there’s a lot of anger at environmentalists who want more water for wildlife habitat and less for farming.

Overcoming the ‘ick’ factor of wastewater recycling

After an hourlong tour of the world’s largest wastewater recycling plant, where 70 milion gallons of pre-treated sewer discharge is distilled daily to help replenish the underground drinking supply of Orange County, California, I was led to a sink with a faucet. There I was presented with a plastic cup and invited to take a sip.

Crystal clear and utterly tasteless, the sample was refreshing and perfectly safe for human consumption.  Some minerals are actually reintroduced to the water before it’s pumped back out of the ground for general consumer use.

Michael Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District and the chief engineer behind the plant, assured me that the water exceeds all government drinking standards, even though the state requires the county to put it into the local aquifer — for additional natural filtration — before offering it to the public.

For water, it’s still Chinatown, Jake

To help prepare myself for the water series we’ve been running, I went to the movies. Or brought home a DVD, anyway. I rented “Chinatown,” the fictional 1974 Roman Polanski movie with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, which is all about the growth of Los Angeles and the search/theft for water.

 Considering that the current Las Vegas water chief, one of the most respected urban conservation advocates, is working on a much-criticized pipeline to take water from Northern Nevada at the same time Las Vegas cuts water use , this old movie may still have something to teach.

Chinatown, where the main character Jake used to work, is reviled as a place that’s just too complicated and hard to understand. Thus the phrase “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” I took Chinatown as a metaphor for the obscurity of the water debate, and it is still complicated.

Is the U.S. West going the way of parched Australia?

The drought-induced infernos which ravaged parts of Australia earlier this year may be a harbinger of the water challenges coming to the American West.

 ”Think of that (Australia) as California’s future,” water researcher Heather Cooley of California’s Pacific Institute told my colleague Peter Henderson. You can see his report, part one of our series on water scarcity in the U.S. West, here.

Plush green golf courses in the desert, verdant boulevards in Los Angeles and fountains that dance 20 stories high in Las Vegas are very much part of today’s landscape and life in the American West.  As California author James Powell says: “Add water and you have the instant good life.”

Egg-shaped Aptera is no wallflower, but would you buy one?

Last week, we paid a visit to startup car company Aptera at its headquarters in Vista, California, just north of San Diego. Aside from talking to company executives, we also got to take a ride in the ultra-efficient, spaceage vehicle. Check out our complete coverage of Aptera here.

To say that the egg-shaped car, which the company will begin shipping to customers later this year, stands out on the road is a major understatement. Take a look for yourself in the video below, and let us know what you think.

Would you buy a car like this? The final price for the two-seater is expected to run between $25,000 and $40,000, and the all-electric version gets a 100 mile range per charge.

California climate chief has global warming plan

California looks ready to get the go-ahead to regulate greenhouse gases from cars, after President Obama on Monday told the EPA to reconsider a Bush administration refusal. California’s top climate official, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, last week predicted the okay would be ready to go by May. In the attached video, from the interview last week, she talks about California’s grand plans, which are the most aggressive in the United States.

For Reuters full environment coverage, check our stories here.

California wastes no time pressing new EPA

California wasted no time asking incoming U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson to reconsider a request to let the state impose stiff targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars.

 The state’s top air quality regulator sent a letter to Jackson on Wednesday, the Obama administration’s first full day at work. Jackson hasn’t even been confirmed as the new EPA administrator yet, but California isn’t beating around the bush.

Stephen Johnson, the EPA administrator under former President Bush, drew the ire of California and more than a dozen other states in 2007 when he denied the state’s request for federal permission to impose tough new standards on auto emissions. 

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