Tag Archives: drought

Will Obama Bring the “Dirtiest Oil on Earth” to Texas?

Lower Rio Grand Valley Sierra Club members at the rally against the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House

By Stefanie Herweck

In the coming weeks President Obama will make one of the most fateful decisions of his presidency: whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project.  The pipeline would transport liquefied tar sands across the United States for export on the Texas Gulf Coast.

On Sunday protesters formed a human chain around the White House in an effort to remind the president of his own words on the campaign trail: “Let’s be the generation that frees itself from the tyranny of oil.”

Tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil on Earth,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, and it is hard to imagine how mining, transporting, and burning it will help bring to life Obama’s words.  It is also hard to think of a project with more terrible consequences for Texas, and for the world.

A Canadian corporation, Transcanada, wants to build the 1,980 mile long pipeline from the tar sands oil mines in Alberta, Canada across the American heartland to the Texas Gulf Coast.  Because the pipeline crosses the U.S. – Canada border, it is up to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to approve or reject it.

The tar sands underlie 54,000 square miles of boreal forest that is prized for its biodiversity.  Every spring more than half of North America’s birds flock there to nest.  As a boreal forest, it is also uniquely suited to absorb carbon emissions, and it stores twice as much carbon as a tropical forest.

Since the tar sands lie near the surface, these forests are completely obliterated during the mining process.  As these forests are destroyed, critical habitat is lost and stored carbon is released into the atmosphere.  Where the forest once stood, companies dig massive open pit mines and create toxic tailing ponds so big they can be seen from space.  As of June 2009, 32,000 square miles of boreal forest had been leased to companies for tar sands extraction.

In the ground tar sands are a mixture of 90 percent sand, clay and water and 10 percent bitumen, a thick hydrocarbon liquid.  Steam is used to extract the bitumen, which requires 4 barrels of water and a significant amount of natural gas for every barrel of oil.  The lakes of waste water left over from this process cover 22 percent of the mined land and are so toxic that they have killed entire flocks of birds that were unlucky enough to land on them.

Because the bitumen is so thick – the consistency of peanut butter – it must be diluted with volatile natural gas compounds in order to make it flow through a pipeline.  It is heavier and more corrosive than conventional oil, so the Keystone XL pipeline would be far more likely subject to leak.  In fact, the first stage of the Keystone tar sands pipeline had 14 accidents in its first year of operation.

The pipeline’s path across the Ogallala aquifer makes the potential for leaks especially alarming.  More than a quarter of the water for crops grown in the United States comes from this aquifer, and millions depend on it for drinking water.  Nebraska’s Republican Governor, Dave Heineman, has called upon the State Department to deny Transcanada’s permit request out of fear that spills of tar sands oil could prove catastrophic for the state’s water supply.

The proposed path of the pipeline will also cross hundreds of heartland farms.  Transcanada is already suing landowners in Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas under eminent domain, even though the project has not been approved.  Many have questioned whether a foreign corporation can use eminent domain against U.S. citizens, but the flurry of lawsuits has not slowed.

When tar sands oil arrives at a refinery it is laden with toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, and metals like mercury, lead, nickel and vanadium.  Refineries in Port Arthur that process tar sands will therefore produce, and release, much more hazardous waste than conventional oil refineries.

According to the EPA, the entire process of extracting and refining tar sands oil from well to gas tank produces 82 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil.  Transporting and burning the Keystone XL pipeline’s tar sands would add 27 million tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere per year.

Beyond this, the sheer scope of the tar sands deposits make Obama’s pipeline decision a grave one indeed.  The tar sands are the second largest pool of carbon on the planet.  If we begin tapping them rather than switching to renewable energy sources, it would mean, in the words of James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “essentially game-over” for all hope of reversing climate change.

Thanks to the drought, we already have a taste about what out-of-control climate change could do to Texas.  Most climate projections show a continued decline in precipitation for Texas and an increase in temperatures.  This is likely to have serious economic impacts in a state with a $100 billion agricultural sector that employs 1 out of 7 workers.

Warming temperatures and thermal expansion of the ocean led to a tripling of sea level rise during the 20th century.  If greenhouse gas emissions continue to escalate, Gulf Coast waters could rise as much as 1 meter by 2100, a rise that could submerge Texas coastal communities and make others far more vulnerable to storms.  One study of the Houston-Galveston area found that sea level rise could displace 100,000 people over the next 100 years and mean a loss of $12 billion in infrastructure.  The beaches of South Padre Island could disappear beneath the waves.

Potential Inundation Along the Texas Coast from Sea Level Rise

Some are claiming that in these tough economic times, we should sacrifice the environment for energy security and economic benefits.  Unfortunately, the Keystone XL pipeline provides neither.

Reducing America’s reliance on Middle-eastern oil is one argument that Transcanada has repeatedly put forward.  Though they have denied that Keystone XL is an export pipeline, analysts have determined that the diesel fuel most easily refined from tar sands oil will only find lucrative markets in Europe and Latin America.  In fact, the published business model for the Valero refinery at the end of the pipeline explicitly states that the diesel would be exported to foreign markets, rather than put into U.S. gas tanks.

The United States won’t derive significant tax revenue from the tar sands oil before it heads overseas because the refineries at the pipeline’s end are located in Port Arthur, Texas.  Port Arthur’s designation as a foreign trade zone means that the refined diesel can be exported tax-free.  The benzene and other pollutants released by the refining process are all that will stay in Port Arthur.

Transcanada has claimed that 100,000 jobs would be created by its pipeline.  As pressure on the Obama administration to stop the pipeline has gone up, Transcanada’s job estimate has soared to as high as 250,000.  The American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies on behalf of oil corporations, has gone so far as to claim that, “U.S. jobs supported by Canadian oil sands development could grow from 21,000 jobs today to 465,000 jobs by 2035.”  Of course, these rapidly inflating numbers all come from the company who stands to reap huge profits from exporting tar sands oil oversees without paying any export taxes if they can sell the administration on their pipeline.

For those of us who do not serve on the board of directors of Transcanada or Valero, any economic benefits from the pipeline will be minimal.  An independent analysis of the economic impacts of the pipeline estimated that nationwide there would be between 500 and 1,400 temporary construction jobs would come from building the pipeline.  Once the pipeline is up and running those jobs would evaporate, and it would take as few as 50 full time employees maintain it.

While those 50 people may be happy to receive a paycheck, their side of the balance sheet is far outweighed by the health costs of those who will be exposed to toxic chemicals in Canada and Texas, not to mention the millions of coastal residents around the world whose homes and communities will be threatened by rising seas.

This is why the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Group is supporting protesters from the Rio Grande Valley who boarded the Rio Bravo Wildlife Institute’s vegetable-oil powered bus for the long drive to Washington DC.  They  joined thousands of other Americans to demand that President Obama uphold the vision and the promises that got him elected.

The ultimate decision will be President Obama’s.  Will he cave in to corporate pressure and approve the Keystone XL pipeline, or will he stand with the American people, and people around the world, who will suffer the terrible consequences if this pipeline is built?  This is not a political question to be decided by poll numbers and the next election.  President Obama’s decision will have a real impact on human lives, on human health, and on the world that our children grow up in.  This may be the most important decision that President Obama makes, and it is up to all of us to ensure that he makes the right choice.

Stefanie Herweck is chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Group.  She lives in McAllen.  This article originally appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian.

Thinking about drought “survival”

By our very own Margot Clarke, Vice Chair of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.  (Reposted from AustinEcoNetwork)

A couple of nights ago I finished reading Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained; it’s a novel about a West Texas rancher set during the years of the drought in the 1950s.

Thinking about what the ranchers, ranch hands, and business owners in the tiny town went through, and lost, as year after year brought no relief from the dry conditions, I remembered a couple of stories on NPR about the effects of this current drought in Texas. The first story, reported from a livestock auction in East Texas, had some similarities to the novel. Ranchers were selling off their herds, getting low prices for thin cattle, many with little hope of building up again at their age.

The second story was about the drought’s effects on Nature.  It was even grimmer stuff: oysters dying from high salinity due to low inflows to the bays; bats in peril from needing to fly longer and farther to find food; and then the descriptions of squirrels pushing their babies out of nests because they couldn’t be fed, and fawns abandoned for the sake of the does’ survival.

Which brings me back to our bustling and growing city.  For many years the patterns of water use in Texas have been changing, with more and more shifting from agricultural use to the municipal sector, as suburbs spread into fields formerly occupied by crops and livestock. This summer we have all groused endlessly about the drought (and the heat), wished for rain, and, hopefully, adjusted our water use patterns.  But clean water still comes out of our faucets and sprinklers, and surviving drought with our livelihoods, property, and families intact is not really an issue for us “city folk.”.

Except … The book didn’t mention wildfires but there is little doubt that the drought was a major factor in the terrifying destruction in Bastrop and elsewhere nearby.  So, maybe we ought to be thinking differently about our place in the natural world, and about actually adapting to changing conditions.   We might want to think, if nothing else, about how really lucky, comfortable, and perhaps heedless we truly are.  To hear people say, as I did on TV just tonight, that the state needs to build more reservoirs and that “we need more surface water in this state,” makes one wonder just where they think water comes from.  The water that is here is all there is, needed to support every living thing.  Building a reservoir does not make more water, there is no such thing as new water sources.  Come on, folks, let’s think!

Don’t cut off water to Galveston Bay, TCEQ Commissioners

The drought’s devastating impact on the Galveston Bay oyster industry has made national headlines. Chances are you’ve heard the news. Extremely salty conditions in the bay due to reduced river flows are causing oyster predators and disease to thrive, harming one of the state’s leading industries. However, this is only part of the story.

Read more here.

Friday, Norman Johns, with the National Wildlife Federation, Ken Kramer, with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, Scott Jones, with Galveston Bay Foundation, andTracy Woody, an oysterman with Jeri’s Seafood spoke out in a plea in the Houston Chronicle —  “Oystermen, seafood eaters, restaurant owners and anyone else who loves Galveston bay and relies on it for their livelihood should be warned.”

New TCEQ rules limiting environmental flows, unless revisited, will “allow water flowing into the bay to be reduced to a drought-level trickle on a regular basis.”  And they ask concerned Texans to get involved in the same rule-making process that has begun for the bays further south on the Texas coast.

Johns, Kramer, Jones, and Woody  ask —

So, where do we go from here?
First, TCEQ must revisit these rules and make them stronger.

Also, water rights holders should be encouraged to participate in voluntarily efforts to ensure sufficient water flows into Galveston Bay. Through strategies such as voluntary donation or sale of existing water rights to environmental purposes and dedication of wastewater return flows, we can make the best use of our existing water supply and protect the long-term health of the bay and our economy. We commend the city of Houston for its recent dedication of approximately half of its wastewater return flows to this purpose as a critical first step in this effort.

Secondly, TCEQ must not make the same poor decision as they did for the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers and Galveston Bay area by enacting insufficient flow rules in other Texas river and bay systems. In the coming months, the commissioners will consider regulations to protect fish and wildlife in Central Texas rivers and Matagorda, Lavaca, Mission, Copano, Aransas and San Antonio bays. We urge them to take this opportunity to protect these natural treasures by adopting strong environmental flow standards.

Please join us in delivering this message to the TCEQ – Chairman Bryan Shaw and Commissioners Carlos Rubinstein and Buddy Garcia.

Can you call or email the Commissioners today?

Chairman Bryan W. Shaw, Ph.D. 512-239-5510

Commissioner Buddy Garcia, 512-239-5515

Commissioner Carlos Rubinstein, 512-239-5505

Posted by Donna Hoffman, September 19, 2011

Sharing the Outrage

By our very own Margot Clarke, Vice Chair of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.  (Reposted from AustinEcoNetwork)

The point of last week’s Chronicle article (Sept. 2nd) about water (“Drought?  What Drought?”) slammed into me late last evening when I reached the paragraph fourth from the end. That’s where the Mayor’s quote dropped my jaw and made me gasp in outrage, though the subtitle of the article could have warned me. Referring to cities doing a better job of conservation than Austin, he said, “They don’t have enough water supply, so they have to conserve. That is not the case with us.”

There is so very much wrong with that statement that I am almost rendered speechless – note that I say almost. Instead, I came out with my first blog, in hopes of spreading the alarm.

Maybe it’s because, like many in today’s culture, my social circle includes mostly people who are, to a very great extent, like-minded, but I honestly thought that the mindset of “just use it up” was dwindling. At the very least I believed that here in Austin, after years of conservation programs and watering schedules, residents knew that being careful with water use was desirable and expected. And now, in the midst of a brutal drought that is reducing the flow of the very river our city depends on for our water supply, the mayor has apparently not learned that everyone, every place, has to conserve.

The realization of the value, criticality, and shortage of water has made “Water is the New Oil” a headline topic around the world. Of course, even that thinking is inadequate; water is not the new oil – water is life.

If we, as individuals, organizations, government entities, whatever, cannot figure out how to instill a water-consciousness into the general public’s daily lives, we will bequeath a vastly altered world to the next generations. Get this in your head, Mr. Mayor – water does not belong to me, or you, or Austin, or the LCRA, or the state. Water is the very essence of this planet, and we use it, like every other living thing, to stay alive. And yes, we absolutely, positively have to conserve. Period.

Wake Up and Stop Texas from Burning, Governor Perry

 Texas is in an unprecedented environmental emergency.

Eighty-one percent of the state is currently suffering exceptional drought.  It’s the worst one-year drought Texas has experienced in 116 years of state records. 

 Texas is literally on fire.  Over 3.6 million acres have burned in wildfires topping the record 1.8 million acres burned in 2010 with less than four months left.  There’ve been over 21,000 fires in Texas and wildfires in the state for 300 straight days. The Bastrop fire has been burning out of control for six days and nearly 1,400 homes have been destroyed 30 miles from the state capitol leaving Austin in clouds of toxic smoke. 

CLIMATE CHANGE Governor Perry has shown concern about the severe drought and wildfires.  Now it’s time for Perry to stop denying the root causes of climate change and take action to address those causes.

Climate change is caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.  Coal plants are the largest industrial source of carbon dioxide (CO2), the chief global warming gas.  Texas’ 19 coal-fired plants are the worst industrial cause of life-threatening, climate triggered perils that we are experiencing.  Texas coal-fired plants emit over 150 Million Tons of CO2 every year – over 99% of Texas coal plant air pollution — is currently unregulated.  Defended by Governor Perry, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and the Texas Public Utility Commission, the Texas coal plants are continuing to heat our atmosphere, fueling the drought conditions leading to wildfires and putting 24 million Texans in harm’s way.

Texans’ health and lives are at risk!  Governor Perry and his appointees who lead Texas state agencies must address the biggest root cause of climate change in our state – coal plant CO2 emissions.

 OZONE, TOO   Beside smoke from wildfires, 18 million Texans are breathing harmful ozone.  Ozone is caused when nitrogen oxide emissions from factories like coal plants mix with volatile organic compounds in sunlight creating ground-level smog.  According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Texans have suffered 56 bad air days in 2011 when the ozone levels were unsafe. 

 After cutting funds by 75% from the Texas Forest Service year, Governor Perry is now calling for help to fight wildfires from the same federal government that he attacked in law suits for trying to protect Americans air from unsafe coal plant pollution.  Perry enlisted the TCEQ, the Rail Road Commission, and the Texas PUC to fight new federal safeguards against both CO2 and ozone.

 By fighting federal safeguards against ozone, Governor Perry and state agency leaders are denying that serious problem too.  They need to wake up to the reality of our ozone problem and help, not hinder, efforts to clean up our air and cool the atmosphere.

 WHAT’S BAD FOR BUSINESS?  Perry, ERCOT – Texas’ electricity grid operator, and the PUC claims that Texas doesn’t have enough electricity sources in our state and that the better ozone standard would hurt business and cost jobs.  Yet, ERCOT’s own reports show that the grid was secure even when 5000 additional megawatts were forced off-line. 

 There are many non-polluting steps we can take to manage electricity demand more efficiently while generating lower pollution from Texas power plants.

 To Governor Perry, ERCOT, and PUC, we say: Wake up! 

 The price tag for drought and wildfire destruction is too high.  Losses to Texas’ agriculture alone were about $5.2 billion before the Labor Day weekend fires. We now face greater costs. Ignoring climate change and fighting, rather than supporting, clean energy solutions is costing Texans lives, homes, and jobs.

 FIRST RESPONDERS COMMITMENT  On the campaign trail, Governor Perry has repeatedly criticized public works programs like the New Deal, yet Texas firefighters fought to protect the beautiful cabins built by New Deal workers in Bastrop State Park this week.

 Perry, ERCOT, and the PUC need to respond like our brave fire fighters putting out the blazing wildfires across Texas.  The Governor and state leaders must recognize and extinguish the root cause of these problems – the massive burning of coal in coal-fired power plants in Texas.  There’s a safer, cleaner, cheaper way, Governor, and the stakes are too high to continue to allow the burning of dirty coal.

Neil Carman, PhD Chemist, Sierra Club Clean Air Program Director, September 9, 2011

All Dried Up? Ways to Survive the Texas Drought

The Guadalupe River is Dry above Canyon Lake!

We’ve all heard that Texas is in the grips of a severe drought and that people and wildlife are having a hard time as a result.  While we can’t control the weather, there are things that we can do everyday in our homes and businesses to help conserve water and ensure there is enough for people and the environment during these dry times.

We have assembled some of our favorite tips below.  Every drop of water saved is important and with no end in sight for this drought, it is necessary.  It all comes down to using only what you need.

This list is by no means exhaustive. There are plenty more things that you can do to conserve water.  Find out what methods work for you and your family and go for it!

Top 10 Tips to Conserve Water:

  1. Only run the dishwasher or washing machine with a full load.  If it is time to replace either of these appliances, check in with your utility about rebates for water-conserving versions and purchase those instead.
  1. Water your lawn on the right day.  Are you odd or even?  Most Texas cities restrict outdoor water use to one or two days a week during times of drought. Save water and avoid fines by learning and following your city’s schedule.
  1. Catch the condensation from your AC unit and use it in your yard.  Depending on how your air conditioner is programmed, it can produce gallons of water per day.  Catch that water in a bucket and put it on your garden, shrubs and trees.
  1. Turn the water off when you brush your teeth. This simple step can save up to 8 gallons of water per day.
  1. Fix leaky faucets.  Leaky faucets can waste up to 7 gallons of water per day.  To check for leaks at home, read your water meter and avoid using water for 2 hours.  Read the meter again after this period.  If the amount is different you have a leak.
  1. Fix running toilets.  Running toilets can waste a lot of water.  Fix these leaks as soon as you find them.  Check with the manufacturer of your toilet for the proper replacement “flapper” to ensure maximum efficiency.
  1. Inspect your irrigation system. Have your system inspected by your water utility or a certified irrigator to make sure it is operating correctly, identify any problems and help you set it to run more efficiently.  Many cities offer free inspections.
  1. Install faucet aerators and low-flow showerheads.  These water saving devices are cheap and easy to install.  Many utilities give them away to their customers.  Check with your utility and pick up a few extras to share with your neighbors!
  1. Install a high efficiency toilet. Toilets account for about 25% of water used in the home.  Depending on the age of your toilet, you can save up to 5 gallons per flush by replacing older models.  Check with your city for possible rebates.
  1. Make water conservation a whole-family activity.  Challenge your family members to think of new ways to save water and to be part of the solution

Want to learn more about water conservation?

Want to learn more about the drought? 

Posted by: Jennifer Walker, Water Resources Specialist, Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club

Water Conservation Program in Houston

The city of Houston is in the first period of a water program that was created to give incentive to multifamily properties to reduce water consumption.  Since water rates in Houston have risen recently, the program is designed to give money back to those consumers who are affected the most by water costs.  In order to make the program successful, the Houston Apartment Association (HAA) took an active role in advising the Multifamily Water Conservation Incentive Program.

Originally Houston wanted to give rebates for purchases of water reducing products, but HAA thought that would be unfair to multifamily properties who had already purchased products of this type.  Instead, the program will reward those who consume less water than they did the previous year.  The program began January 1st this year and will continue until December 31st in 2012.  Because the program is in the qualification stage in the first of four periods, it is not known whether or not the program has been affective in reducing water usage.  Those numbers should be known sometime in mid-July when the first period ends.  HAA was happy to report though that about 1200 properties had signed up in just the first period.  We will know in a few weeks whether or not the program is as successful in reducing water usage as it was in signing up multifamily properties.