Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

I received some interesting reader responses to yesterday’s news that Riverside County was being demoted from the red, “Substantial” COVID-19 tier to the purple, “Widespread” tier. Here are three of those responses, slightly edited for style:

Gyms don’t make people sick; shitty food does, though. The fact that fast-food joints and cannabis shops are considered ESSENTIAL IS LUDICROUS. California invented the entire “fitness industry” and now they’re trying to destroy it. Why has no one in a position of leadership made any statement whatsoever about staying in shape and eating healthy—the most important things you can do?! Instead, people are told to stay home, order pizza and get fat.

I understand why you’re bummed about businesses closing—we all are. But you should point out there’s one person to blame for all of this: Trump. If he had properly led from the beginning and made sure everyone was on the same page with mask-wearing (after Fauci learned its importance), I believe most businesses would be open.

Business owners are venting at our responsible governor when he’s done everything he can to slow the spread. You can use this analogy with your readers: Trump is the divorced dad who has his kids on the weekend and never says no to them—including underage alcohol parties, wild sex and “screw the neighbors.” Newsom is the mom who has to be responsible in guiding her kids to make the right choices so they won’t harm themselves and succeed in life and don’t turn out to be delinquents.

“Dad” Trump will be gone after Jan. 21 while “mom” Newsom will be around at least until the next election, faced with cleaning up after the “dad’s” mess.

You said: “To those of you who look at this information and shout, ‘Lives are more important than businesses!’ You need to realize that lives and businesses are inextricably intertwined. Business are life-long dreams, sources of income, sanity-maintaining distractions and so much more, to so many people.” THANK YOU FOR UNDERSTANDING THIS! So many of us small business owners feel unheard and left behind.

If you value the journalism that the Independent provides—for free, both online and in print—please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent. Any amount of support helps us keep the figurative lights on; click here for more details. Thank you for reading.

News from the day:

• Example No. 244,851 of the importance of local journalism: The FBI raided the Borrego Community Healthcare Foundation as part of an investigation yesterday; you can read the San Diego Union-Tribune’s coverage of the raid here. The nonprofit medical provider—which has multiple locations in the Coachella Valley—started off in Borrego Springs, a small town in San Diego County south of Palm Desert and west of the Salton Sea, before expanding to become a behemoth provider in San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. So … what does this have to do with local journalism? The look into potential wrongdoing at Borrego appears to have started months ago, at the tiny Borrego Sun newspaper, which has a special page dedicated to its Borrego Community Healthcare Foundation coverage here. Props to the Borrego Sun for its work.

• An update on those shady ballot boxes put out by the California Republican Party, from the Los Angeles Times: “A Sacramento judge refused Wednesday to order the California Republican Party to disclose information about its ballot drop box program to state officials, rejecting an argument by Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra that the investigation was essential to ensuring ballots are being properly handled. The decision by Judge David Brown does not prevent Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla from returning to court over the matter but marks a significant victory for GOP officials who have insisted their ballot collection campaign is following state election law.

• President Trump sat down for an interview with 60 Minutes yesterday—and it apparently did not go well. According to CNN: “Trump walked out of the interview because he was frustrated with (Lesley) Stahl's line of questioning, one source said. Another person said the bulk of the interview was focused on coronavirus. On Wednesday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said there is a ‘high probability’ that the President will release footage of the interview before it airs Sunday, and accused Stahl of acting ‘more like an opinion journalist.’” Sigh.

The pope has come out in favor of civil unions for same-sex couples. According to The Washington Post: “Francis’s comment does nothing to alter Catholic doctrine, but it nonetheless represents a remarkable shift for a church that has fought against LGBT legal rights—with past popes calling same-sex unions inadmissible and deviant. Francis’s statement is also notable within a papacy that on the whole hasn’t been as revolutionary as progressives had hoped and conservatives had feared.

• And now we get to the portion of the Daily Digest where we say something positive about the president. Yes, really. The Washington Post ran a fascinating piece today discussing how truly, honestly close we apparently are to having a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Key quote: “‘Going from where we were in January and February—where we are going to be hit by this tsunami—to very likely having a vaccine, or more than one vaccine, that is proven safe and effective within a year, is staggeringly impressive, and would only have happened with strong and effective federal action,’ said Robert Wachter, the chair of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Wachter has strongly criticized the administration’s response to the pandemic, arguing it has cost tens of thousands of lives. But he called the vaccine effort ‘nearly flawless’ so far—words he said he found difficult to say.”

• Our partners at CalMatters are reporting that Gov. Gavin Newsom is about to get sued by environmental-group Center for Biological Diversity, because he continues to allow fracking permits. Key quote: “(Kassie) Siegel said the permits are ‘illegal’ and fail to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act. The Center for Biological Diversity warned Newsom on Sept. 21 of their intent to sue if his administration continued to issue fracking permits.

The Conversation takes a look at violence taking place against female political leaders—with male lawmakers often the perpetrators. Key quote: “On Sept. 24, House Democrats Rashida Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Jackie Speier introduced a resolution–a largely symbolic congressional statement that carries no legal weight but provides moral support on certain issues–recognizing violence against women in politics as a global phenomenon. House Resolution 1151, which is currently under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee, calls on the government to take steps to mitigate this violence in the United States and abroad.”

• Speaking of violence in politics: Some voters in Alaska and Florida have received emails threatening them to vote for Trump, “or we will come after you.” Some of the emails say they were sent by the Proud Boys, but NPR reports that seems unlikely, and the group is denying involvement—and in fact, NBC News says the FBI thinks Iran may be involved.

• The good news: NPR looks at increasing evidence that COVID-19 death rates are going down because medical professionals have gotten a lot better at treating the disease:Two new peer-reviewed studies are showing a sharp drop in mortality among hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The drop is seen in all groups, including older patients and those with underlying conditions, suggesting that physicians are getting better at helping patients survive their illness.

• The bad: There’s yet more evidence that the pandemic is taking more lives than those included in the official death counts for COVID-19. According to the CDC: “Overall, an estimated 299,028 excess deaths occurred from late January through October 3, 2020, with 198,081 (66%) excess deaths attributed to COVID-19. The largest percentage increases were seen among adults aged 25–44 years and among Hispanic or Latino persons.”

• More CDC-related news: The agency has released new guidance on what, exactly, it means to be in “close contact” with someone who has COVID-19. According to the Washington Post: “The CDC had previously defined a ‘close contact’ as someone who spent at least 15 consecutive minutes within six feet of a confirmed coronavirus case. The updated guidance, which health departments rely on to conduct contact tracing, now defines a close contact as someone who was within six feet of an infected individual for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, according to a CDC statement Wednesday.

If a voter shows up to a polling place without a mask on Election Day, they will not be turned away, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Do you subscribe to Quibi? No? Neither do I—and therefore it’s no surprise that the streaming service announced it was shutting down today, even though backers had raised $1.75 billion (!) to launch the company.

• And now for some happier, local entertainment news, from the Independent: “There has been almost no programming from the Coachella Valley’s theater companies since the pandemic arrived and ruined everything in March—with one notable exception: CVRep, and its Theatre Thursday virtual shows. And if the California Department of Public Health gives the OK, CVRep—in conjunction with Cathedral City—could become the first local theater company to bring live productions back to the Coachella Valley, starting in December.” Read what CVRep’s Ron Celona had to say here.

• And finally … I am sorry to put this mental picture in your head, but it appears Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character caught Rudy Giuliani doing something less than appropriate: “In the film, (slated to be) released on Friday (Oct. 23), the former New York mayor and current personal attorney to Donald Trump is seen reaching into his trousers and apparently touching his genitals while reclining on a bed in the presence of the actor playing Borat’s daughter, who is posing as a TV journalist.”

Again, thanks for reading. The Daily Digest will return Friday.

Published in Daily Digest

After one of the many attempts to plug the methane-leaking well at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in the Los Angeles suburbs, the thing erupted like a geyser, spewing not only natural gas, but also the muddy slurry that company technicians had pumped into the well.

It reminded me of a phenomenon that disrupted small-town life in southwest Colorado in the 1990s, during a coalbed methane boom. An abandoned natural gas well, drilled decades earlier, would periodically erupt, shooting natural gas, water and debris some 200 feet into the air. Locals dubbed it Old Faithful.

Aliso Canyon is a bit like a gigantic, catastrophic version of the geyser gas well of yore. Since the leak was first noticed in late October, some 4.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas have leaked into the atmosphere. Most of that is methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, along with smaller amounts of other compounds such as benzene, a known carcinogen, and mercaptan, a sulfur compound added as an odorant to the gas. The mercaptan, especially, has been hellish for nearby residents of Porter Ranch, and as many as 3,000 residents have evacuated.

Celebrity pollution activist Erin Brockovich and others have equated the Aliso Canyon leak to the BP oil spill, on land. Indeed, in infrared images, the methane plume does look like thick crude billowing into the sea. But the BP spill was a rare occurrence, while massive methane leaks are horribly common, happening in America’s oil and gas fields every day.

The aforementioned Old Faithful was in the San Juan Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, one of the most productive natural gas fields in the nation. Locals were more amused than alarmed by the gas geyser, even though it was within spitting distance of an old folks’ home. (Watching the earth projectile vomit was more entertaining than another Lawrence Welk re-run, apparently.) People around the area had bigger things to worry about back then: Dangerous levels of methane were showing up in crawlspaces and drinking-water wells, with occasionally disastrous results, and vast swaths of vegetation were dying off due to methane displacing oxygen.

Aliso Canyon’s leakage rate has averaged just less than 1,000 metric tons per day (a rate which slows over time as pressure on the reservoir is relieved). That qualifies it as thelargest point-sourcemethane emitter in the nation, leaking at about twice the rate of the Walter Energy coal mine in Alabama, which tops the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas inventory.

But add up all the oil- and gas-related methane point sources in one hydrocarbon-producing basin, and the story changes. San Juan Basin oil and gas facilities emitted 291,162 metric tons of methane during 2014, according to the EPA inventory. But the inventory doesn’t account for smaller producers—geologic seeps that have been exacerbated by oil and gas development, abandoned wells or undetected leaks. So actual emissions from oil and gas facilities far exceed the EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, as numerous studies have shown. Take all that into account, and the San Juan Basin’s total oil and gas emissions rate is probably closer to 500,000 metric tons per year, or 1,400 tons per day, a far higher rate than at Aliso Canyon.

The same sort of leakage is occurring in other hydrocarbon-producing basins, as well, from the Permian to the Piceance, impacting both the climate and the folks who live nearby. As atmospheric scientist Gabrielle Petron told me last spring: “Your air is being impacted. You live on the edge of the gas field.”

Which is not to say that the Aliso Canyon leak isn’t a big deal. It is. And a similar catastrophe could happen elsewhere, and probably already is, on a smaller scale. The Aliso Canyon storage facility is a huge, depleted oil field that enables Southern California Gas Company to store natural gas, much of it from the San Juan Basin and other gas fields in the interior West, and then withdraw it when needed. Another 415 or so of these underground facilities are scattered across the country. Some are in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, others in aquifers or salt caverns, and many are on the edge of urban or suburban areas. With a storage capacity of 86 billion cubic feet, Aliso Canyon is among the largest, but a depleted field near Baker, Mont., can store up to 164 billion cubic feet of gas.

Major incidents, at least ones that directly impact nearby populations, at underground storage facilities have been few and far between. When they do happen, though, they tend to be spectacular. In 2004, ignited gas spewing from a failed valve in Moss Bluff, Texas, created a 1,000-foot column of flames, and in 2001, explosions resulting from gas migrating from an underground storage reservoir in Kansas killed two. Surely many more climate-damaging methane leaks go unnoticed. In depleted oil fields, old wells (the bad one at Aliso Canyon was drilled in 1953) are prone to fail. Meanwhile, a 2013 study published in the Hydrogeology Journal found that in aquifer storage units “gas loss is a possibility via … faults, inadequate caprock seals, or improperly completed wells.”

These facilities fall in a regulatory gray area. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has jurisdiction over units that are used for interstate commerce, but the agency regulates rates and storage levels, not operations or safety. Others, like Aliso Canyon, are regulated by respective states, often inadequately. (The lack of a safety valve on the leaky Aliso well apparently did not violate California rules.)

New federal rules on oil and gas industry emissions from the EPA and the Bureau of Land Management may help the situation in the gas fields, but the rules will apply to few, if any, underground storage facilities. Colorado regulates oil and gas industry emissions, but not facilities “downstream” from processing plants, like underground storage. A pipeline safety bill introduced in Congress late last year would create minimum safety standards for all underground storage, but its chances of passing are limited.

As long as it is left unfettered, methane leakage, be it on a catastrophic Aliso Canyon-level or the everyday emissions from the gas fields, will continue to sully natural gas’ image as a climate-friendly fossil fuel. Still, it may take a while to catch up with coal, at least over the long term. The Aliso Canyon well is emitting methane at a rate equivalent to 32,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each day (using a formula based on an assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The Navajo Generating Station in northern Arizona, meanwhile, spews carbon dioxide at a rate of 47,000 metric tons per day. That’s like the climate’s version of the BP oil spill—and it’s happening round-the-clock, with no end in sight.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

When Sonoma State University professor Carl Jensen started looking into the new media’s practice of self-censorship in 1976, the Internet was only a dream, and most computers were still big mainframes with whirling tape reels and vacuum tubes.

Back then, the vast majority of Americans got all of the news from one daily newspaper and one of the three big TV networks. If a story wasn’t on ABC, NBC or CBS, it might as well not have happened.

Forty years later, the media world is a radically different place. Americans are now more likely to get their news from several different sources through Facebook than they would from CBS Evening News. Daily newspapers all over the country are struggling and, in some cases, dying. A story that appears on one obscure outlet can suddenly become a viral sensation, reaching millions of readers at the speed of light.

And yet, as Jensen’s Project Censored continues to find, there are still numerous big, important news stories that receive very little exposure.

As Project Censored staffers Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth note, 90 percent of U.S. news media—traditional outlets that employ full-time reporters—are controlled by six corporations. “The corporate media hardly represent the mainstream,” the staffers wrote in the current edition’s introduction.

“By contrast, the independent journalists that Project Censored has celebrated since its inception are now understood as vital components of what experts have identified as the newly developing ‘networked fourth estate.’”

Jensen set out to frame a new definition of censorship. He put out an annual list of the 10 biggest stories that the mainstream media ignored, arguing that it was a failure of the corporate press to pursue and promote these stories that represented censorship—not by the government, but by the media itself.

“My definition starts with the other end, with the failure of information to reach people,” he wrote. “For the purposes of this project, censorship is defined as the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method—including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship, which prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in the world.”

Jensen died in April 2015, but his project was inherited and carried on by Sonoma State sociology professor Peter Phillips and Huff.

Huff teaches social science and history at Diablo Valley College. Under their leadership, the Project has, at times, veered off into the loony world of conspiracies and Sept. 11 “truther” territory. A handful of stories included in the annual publication—to be kind—were difficult to verify. That’s caused a lot of us in the alternative press to question the validity of the annual list.

But Huff, who is now project director, and Roth, the associate director, have expanded and tightened up the process of selecting stories. Project staffers and volunteers first fact-check nominations that come in to make sure they are “valid” news reports. Then a panel of 28 judges—mostly academics with a few journalists and media critics—finalize the Top 10 and the 15 runners-up.

The results are published in a book that was released Oct. 6 by Seven Stories Press.

I’ve been writing about Project Censored for 25 years, and I think it’s safe to say that the stories on this year’s list are credible, valid—and critically important. Even in an era when most of us are drunk with information, overloaded by buzzing social media telling us things we didn’t think we needed to know, these stories haven’t gotten anywhere near the attention they deserve.

1. Half of global wealth owned by the 1 percent

We hear plenty of talk about the wealth and power of the top 1 percent of people in the United States, but the global wealth gap is, if anything, even worse. And it has profound human consequences.

Oxfam International, which has been working for decades to fight global poverty, released a January 2015 report showing that, if current trends continue, the wealthiest 1 percent, by the end of this year, will control more wealth than everyone else in the world put together.

As reported in Project Censored, “The Oxfam report provided evidence that extreme inequality is not inevitable, but is, in fact, the result of political choices and economic policies established and maintained by the power elite, wealthy individuals whose strong influence keeps the status quo rigged in their own favor.”

Another stunning fact: The wealth of 85 of the richest people in the world combined is equal to the wealth of half the world’s poor combined.

The mainstream news media coverage of the report and the associated issues was spotty, at best, Project Censored notes: A few corporate television networks, including CNN, CBS, MSNBC, ABC, FOX and C-SPAN covered Oxfam’s January report, according to the TV News Archive. CNN had the most coverage with about seven broadcast segments from Jan. 19 to 25, 2015. However, these stories aired between 2 and 3 a.m.—far from primetime.

Sources: Larry Elliott and Ed Pilkington, “New Oxfam Report Says Half of Global Wealth Held by the 1%,” Guardian, Jan.19, 2015

Sarah Dransfield, “Number of Billionaires Doubled Since Financial Crisis as Inequality Spirals Out of Control–Oxfam,” Oxfam, Oct. 29, 2014

Samantha Cowan, “Every Kid on Earth Could Go to School If the World’s 1,646 Richest People Gave 1.5 Percent,” TakePart, Nov. 3, 2014

2. Oil Industry Illegally Dumps Fracking Wastewater

Fracking, which involves pumping high-pressure water and chemicals into rock formations to free up oil and natural gas, has been a huge issue nationwide. But there’s been little discussion of one of the side effects: The contamination of aquifers.

The Center for Biological Diversity reported in 2014 that oil companies had dumped almost 3 billion gallons of fracking wastewater into California’s underground water supply. Since the companies refuse to say what chemicals they use in the process, nobody knows exactly what the level of contamination is. But wells that supply drinking water near where the fracking waste was dumped tested high in arsenic, thallium and nitrates.

According to Project Censored, “Although corporate media have covered debate over fracking regulations, the Center for Biological Diversity study regarding the dumping of wastewater into California’s aquifers went all but ignored at first. There appears to have been a lag of more than three months between the initial independent news coverage of the Center for Biological Diversity revelations and corporate coverage.

In May 2015, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page feature on Central Valley crops irrigated with treated oil field water; however, the Los Angeles Times report made no mention of the Center for Biological Diversity’s findings regarding fracking wastewater contamination.”

Sources: Dan Bacher, “Massive Dumping of Wastewater into Aquifers Shows Big Oil’s Power in California,” IndyBay, Oct. 11, 2014

“California Aquifers Contaminated with Billions of Gallons of Fracking Wastewater,” Russia Today Oct. 11, 2014

Donny Shaw, “CA Senators Voting NO on Fracking Moratorium Received 14x More from Oil & Gas Industry,” MapLight, June 3, 2014

Dan Bacher, “Senators Opposing Fracking Moratorium Received 14x More Money from Big Oil,” IndyBay, June 7, 2014

3. 89 percent of Pakistani drone victims not identifiable as militants

The United States sends drone aircraft into combat on a regular basis, particularly in Pakistan. The Obama administration says the drones fire missiles only when there is clear evidence that the targets are al-Qaida bases. Secretary of State John Kerry insists that “the only people we fire a drone at are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest levels.”

But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which keeps track of all the strikes, reported that only 4 percent of those killed by drones were al-Qaida members, and only 11 percent were confirmed militants of any sort.

That means 89 percent of the 2,464 people killed by U.S. drones could not be identified as terrorists. In fact, 30 percent of the dead could not be identified at all.

The New York Times has covered the fact that, as one story noted, “most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.” But overall, the mainstream news media ignored the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting.

Sources: Jack Serle, “Almost 2,500 Now Killed by Covert US Drone Strikes Since Obama Inauguration Six Years Ago,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Feb. 2, 2015

Jack Serle, “Get the Data: A List of US Air and Drone Strikes, Afghanistan 2015,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Feb. 12, 2015

Steve Coll, “The Unblinking Stare: The Drone War in Pakistan,” New Yorker, Nov. 24, 2014

Abigail Fielding-Smith, “John Kerry Says All those Fired at by Drones in Pakistan are ‘Confirmed Terrorist Targets’—But with 1,675 Unnamed Dead How Do We Know?” Bureau of Investigative Journalism,Oct. 23, 2014

Jack Serle, “Only 4% of Drone Victims in Pakistan Named as al Qaeda Members,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Oct. 16, 2014

Jeremy Scahill, “Germany is the Tell-Tale Heart of America’s Drone War,” Intercept, April 17, 2015

4. Popular resistance to corporate water-grabbing

For decades, private companies have been trying to take over and control water supplies, particularly in the developing world. Now, as journalist Ellen Brown reported in March 2015, corporate water barons, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, the Carlyle Group and other investment firms, “are purchasing water rights from around the world at an unprecedented pace.”

However, over the past 15 years, more than 180 communities have fought back and re-municipalized their water systems. “From Spain to Buenos Aires, Cochabamba to Kazakhstan, Berlin to Malaysia, water privatization is being aggressively rejected,” Victoria Collier reported in Counterpunch.

Meanwhile, in the United States, some cities—in what may be a move toward privatization—are radically raising water rates and cutting off service to low-income communities.

The mainstream media response to the privatization of water has been largely silence.

Sources: Ellen Brown, “California Water Wars: Another Form of Asset Stripping?,” Nation of Change, March 25, 2015

Victoria Collier, “Citizens Mobilize Against Corporate Water Grabs,” CounterPunch, Feb. 11, 2015

Larry Gabriel, “When the City Turned Off Their Water, Detroit Residents and Groups Delivered Help,” YES! Magazine, Nov. 24, 2014

Madeline Ostrander, “LA Imports Nearly 85 Percent of Its Water—Can It Change That by Gathering Rain?,” YES! Magazine, Jan. 5, 2015

5. Fukushima nuclear disaster deepens

Nearly five years after a tsunami destroyed Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant and causing one of the worst nuclear accidents in human history, radiation from the plant continues to leak into the ocean.

But the story has largely disappeared from the news.

As Project Censored notes: “The continued dumping of extremely radioactive cooling water into the Pacific Ocean from the destroyed nuclear plant, already being detected along the Japanese coastline, has the potential to impact entire portions of the Pacific Ocean and North America’s western shoreline. Aside from the potential release of plutonium into the Pacific Ocean, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) recently admitted that the facility is releasing large quantities of water contaminated with tritium, cesium and strontium into the ocean every day.”

We’re talking large amounts of highly contaminated water getting dumped into the ocean. The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, “admitted that the facility is releasing a whopping 150 billion becquerels of tritium and seven billion becquerels of cesium- and strontium-contaminated water into the ocean every day.” The potential for long-term problems all over the world is huge—and the situation hasn’t been contained.

Sources: “TEPCO Drops Bombshell About Sea Releases; 8 Billion Bq Per Day,” Simply Info: The Fukushima Project, Aug. 26, 2014

Sarah Lazare, “Fukushima Meltdown Worse Than Previous Estimates: TEPCO,” Common Dreams, Aug. 7, 2014

Michel Chossudovsky, “The Fukushima Endgame: The Radioactive Contamination of the Pacific Ocean,” Global Research, Dec. 17, 2014

6. The global impacts of methane and arctic warming

We all know that carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are a huge threat to climate stability. But there’s another giant threat out there that hasn’t made much news.

The arctic ice sheets, which are rapidly melting in some areas, contain massive amounts of methane—a greenhouse gas that’s way worse than carbon dioxide. And, as the ice recedes, that methane is getting released into the atmosphere.

Dahr Jamail, writing in Truthout, notes that all of our predictions about the pace of global warming and its impacts might have to be re-evaluated in the wake of revelations about methane releases:

“A 2013 study, published in Nature, reported that a 50-gigaton ‘burp’ of methane is ‘highly possible at any time.’ As Jamail clarified, ‘That would be the equivalent of at least 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide,’ noting that, since 1850, humans have released a total of about 1,475 gigatons in carbon dioxide. A massive, sudden change in methane levels could, in turn, lead to temperature increases of four to six degrees Celsius in just one or two decades—a rapid rate of climate change to which human agriculture, and ecosystems more generally, could not readily adapt.”

Jamail quoted Paul Beckwith, a professor of climatology and meteorology at the University of Ottawa: “Our climate system is in early stages of abrupt climate change that, unchecked, will lead to a temperature rise of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius within a decade or two.” Such changes would have “unprecedented effects” for life on Earth.

A huge story? Apparently not. The major news media have written at length about the geopolitics of the arctic region, but there’s been very little mention of the methane monster.

Source: Dahr Jamail, “The Methane Monster Roars,” Truthout, Jan. 13, 2015

7. Fear of government spying is chilling writers’ freedom of expression

Writers in Western liberal democracies may not face the type of censorship seen in some parts of the world, but their fear of government surveillance is causing many to think twice about what they can say.

Lauren McCauley, writing in Common Dreams, quoted one of the conclusions from a report by the writers’ group PEN America: “If writers avoid exploring topics for fear of possible retribution, the material available to readers—particularly those seeking to understand the most controversial and challenging issues facing the world today—may be greatly impoverished.”

According to Project Censored, a PEN America survey showed that “34 percent of writers in liberal democracies reported some degree of self-censorship (compared with 61 percent of writers living in authoritarian countries, and 44 percent in semi-democratic countries). Almost 60 percent of the writers from Western Europe, the United States … indicated that U.S. credibility ‘has been significantly damaged for the long term’ by revelations of the U.S. government surveillance programs.’”

Other than Common Dreams’ coverage, the PEN report attracted almost no major media attention.

Sources: Lauren McCauley, “Fear of Government Spying ‘Chilling’ Writers’ Speech Worldwide,” Common Dreams, Jan. 5, 2015

Lauren McCauley, “Government Surveillance Threatens Journalism, Law and Thus Democracy: Report,” Common Dreams, July 28, 2014

8. Who dies at the hands of police—and how often?

High-profile police killings, particularly of African-American men, have made big news over the past few years. But there’s been much less attention paid to the overall numbers—and to the difference between how many people are shot by cops in the United States and in other countries.

In the January 2015 edition of Liberation, Richard Becker, relying on public records, concluded that the rate of U.S. police killing was 100 times that of England, 40 times that of Germany, and 20 times the rate in Canada.

In June 2015, a team of reporters from the Guardian concluded that 102 unarmed people were killed by U.S. police in the first five months of that year—twice the rate reported by the government.

Furthermore, the Guardian wrote, “black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people.” The paper concluded that, “Thirty-two percent of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25 percent of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15 percent of white people killed.”

And as far as accountability goes, the Washington Post noted that in 385 cases of police killings, only three officers faced charges.

Sources: Richard Becker, “U.S. Cops Kill at 100 Times Rate of Other Capitalist Countries,” Liberation, Jan. 4, 2015

Jon Swaine, Oliver Laughland, and Jamiles Lartey, “Black Americans Killed by Police Twice as Likely to be Unarmed as White People,” Guardian, June 1, 2015

9. Millions in poverty get less media coverage than billionaires do

The news media in the United States doesn’t like to talk about poverty, but they love to report on the lives and glory of the super-rich.

The advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting analyzed the three major television news networks and found that 482 billionaires got more attention than the 50 million people who live in poverty.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who follows the mainstream media, or pays much attention to the world of social media and the blogosphere. The top rung of society gets vast amounts of attention, for good and for ill—but the huge numbers of people who are homeless, hungry and often lacking in hope just aren’t news.

“The notion that the wealthiest nation on Earth has one in every six of its citizens living at or below the poverty threshold reflects not a lack of resources, but a lack of policy focus and attention—and this is due to a lack of public awareness to the issue,” Frederick Reese of MintPress News wrote.

From Project Censored: “The FAIR study showed that between January 2013 and February 2014, an average of only 2.7 seconds per every 22-minute episode discussed poverty in some format. During the 14-month study, FAIR found just 23 news segments that addressed poverty.”

Sources: Steve Rendall, Emily Kaufmann, and Sara Qureshi, “Even GOP Attention Can’t Make Media Care about Poor,” Extra!, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, June 1, 2014

“Millions in Poverty Get Less Coverage Than 482 Billionaires,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, June 26, 2014

Frederick Reese, “Billionaires Get More Media Attention Than The Poor,” MintPress News, June 30, 2014

Tavis Smiley, “Poverty Less Than .02 Percent of Lead Media Coverage,” Huffington Post, March 7, 2014

10. Costa Rica is setting the standard on renewable energy

Is it possible to meet a modern nation’s energy needs without any fossil-fuel consumption? Yes. Costa Rica has been doing it.

To be fair, that country’s main industries—tourism and agriculture—are not energy-intensive, and heavy rainfall in the first part of the year made it possible for the country to rely heavily on its hydropower resources. But even in normal years, Costa Rica generates 90 percent of its energy without burning any fossil fuels.

Iceland also produces the vast majority of its energy from renewable sources.

The transition to 100 percent renewables will be harder for larger countries—but as the limited reporting on Costa Rica notes, it’s possible to take large steps in that direction.

Sources: Myles Gough, “Costa Rica Powered with 100% Renewable Energy for 75 Straight Days,” Science Alert, March 20, 2015

Adam Epstein, “Costa Rica is Now Running Completely on Renewable Energy,” Quartz, March 23, 2015

Tim Redmond, a longtime editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, is the founding member of the San Francisco Progressive Media Center and editor of that nonprofit organization’s publication 48 Hills.

Published in Features

On this week's lovable Independent comics page: This Modern World watches as the GOP reaches out to women; Jen Sorenson wonders why waste water from fracking is being used on crops; The K Chronicles looks for a good coffee shop; and Red Meat breaks the bad news to the staff.

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On this week's exciting Independent comics page: This Modern World deals with an alien invasion (but not very well); Jen Sorenson has a proposal for defenders of fracking; The K Chronicles packs up and moves cross-country; and Red Meat seeks some medicine, of sorts.

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The oil and gas industry has long claimed that there is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated drinking water. But a new, major Environmental Protection Agency assessment has determined that fracking and another widely used drilling technique called horizontal drilling have the potential to contaminate drinking water.

The study also identified the greatest risks to drinking water, including spills, water withdrawals, wastewater releases and migration of gas and oil underground.

The nearly 1,000-page EPA study—a draft awaiting public comment and scientific review—found no evidence that “widespread” pollution of drinking water has occurred from these drilling techniques, which have driven a renaissance of the U.S. oil and gas industries over recent years. The number of known cases of well contamination and other impacts to drinking water sources was small compared to the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 new wells that were drilled and hydraulically fractured between 2011 and 2014, and the many more older wells that also were fracked, the study states.

Industry groups say this conclusion confirms the safety of their operations. But the EPA study concedes that a lack of sufficient scientific research may explain why the agency failed to find widespread impacts.

“That means they don’t know how often these things occur,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford University environmental science professor.

Even after several years of work, the federal EPA failed to answer questions about the impacts of new drilling techniques that caused panic in communities across the country.

When the EPA launched its study of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water in 2011, scientists and environmental advocates expected it would fill in the knowledge gaps.

“This was supposed to be their job,” said Jackson, who is a leading researcher on the issue. “My frustration with the report is they left the difficult stuff out. They didn’t sink their teeth into the meat of this issue, into the controversial parts of this issue. That’s what we hoped EPA would do. Who else has the resource to do it?”

The study is less conclusive than originally envisioned, in part because the EPA failed to reach agreement with industry to do the kinds of studies scientists and the federal government believe are necessary. These studies would test drinking water sources before and after companies hydraulically fracture wells nearby. The EPA’s new assessment repeatedly cites the need for such studies.

Along the way, other significant efforts by the EPA to seek answers got derailed. The EPA investigated a possible case of well contamination in Pavillion, Wyo. But as reported, after EPA’s original findings linked hydraulic fracturing to water contamination, industry interests challenged agency scientists’ methodology and, in 2013, the agency abruptly dropped its research. The EPA backed out of investigations in Texas and Pennsylvania as well.

Still, the EPA’s new assessment, which draws from hundreds of reports and data sources, does have merit in pinpointing the riskiest steps for drinking water in modern drilling and production processes:

When companies withdraw large quantities of fresh water for hydraulic fracturing during times or in areas with low water availability.

When companies spill hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water. (In Colorado, the state with the second-most wells hydraulically fractured over the period the EPA studied, the spill rate was one every 100 wells.)

When companies fracture directly into underground drinking water resources.

When liquids and gases migrate below ground. (This can be caused by intense pressures used in hydraulic fracturing, poorly constructed wells, or when the casing or cement used in wells degrade.)

When companies fail to adequately treat or properly discharge of wastewater, including when, as reported, they release that wastewater directly onto the land or into streams.

These weaknesses were illuminated by retrospective studies the EPA conducted that examined suspected contamination of drinking water from hydraulic fracturing in five locations including the Colorado’s Raton Basin and North Dakota’s Bakken Shale.

In Killdeer, North Dakota, a blowout during the hydraulic fracturing of an oil well in 2010 caused the release of fracking fluids. Drinking water wells did not show signs of contamination, but two monitoring wells found both brine and tert-butyl alcohol in the Killdeer aquifer. An EPA analysis determined the only possible source of this contamination was the 2010 blowout.

The EPA failed to definitively link contamination to hydraulic fracturing in other cases. For instance, people in Colorado’s Las Animas and Huerfano counties had complained about a change of appearance, odor and taste of water from their wells. The EPA study showed levels of dissolved methane in domestic wells that were consistent with natural background levels in the area. However, in one sampling area, two years after hydraulic fracturing, gas migrated into a shallow aquifer used for drinking water. The EPA and other researchers have been unable to prove definitively that the gas migrated because of the hydraulic fracturing and not because of natural causes.

The new assessment repeatedly stressed how holes in research and data often make it difficult to make definitive conclusions. For example, the EPA analyzed 151 spills of hydraulic fracturing fluid in 11 states and found that the most common cause was equipment failure, particularly the failure of valves and blowout preventers, devices intended to prevent uncontrolled releases of oil and gas. However, EPA stressed data was lacking to analyze spills. For instance, only two states, Colorado and Pennsylvania, provided statistics on spill frequency.

Other gaps noted in the EPA report included the dearth of science on the fate of the vast quantities of fracking fluids that don’t flow back to the surface, and the lack of data on how much fracking takes place in formations that also contain drinking water.

Congress requested the assessment in response to communities’ concerns and questions about the safety of the industry. The EPA estimates that public drinking-water systems that serve more than 8.6 million people were located within a mile of at least one well hydraulically fractured in 2013 alone. That doesn’t include the many private wells located near such well sites.

Congressional Republicans said the study affirms that the industry needs no additional federal regulation.

“We all want clean water, and we all want affordable energy, and today, the administration confirmed we can have both,” said Fred Upton, R-Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The (Obama) administration should now reconsider the burdensome regulations it intends to place on hydraulic fracturing on federal lands, and should certainly refrain from any notion of broader federal involvement in an issue that states and communities are safely managing.”

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, took away another message: “Irresponsible oil and gas development puts water quality at risk for millions of Americans, and no amount of spin can change that.”

Environmental groups and scientists stressed that the report underscores how many questions remain. “We look at this report as very much the beginning of a process to understand what the impacts of unconventional oil and gas are to the water cycle,” said Mark Brownstein, of the Environmental Defense Fund.

EPA’s assessment is open for public comment while the document undergoes review by the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, which plans public teleconferences and meetings in September and October.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski opened her first legislative meeting as chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources by using talks on the Keystone XL pipeline to hint at a broader agenda.

The statement helps inaugurate the political season, with a new Congress controlled by Republicans, many of whom aim to upset President Obama’s climate and environment agendas. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee—which legislates energy development, mining, public lands, water and other resources—is a key front where that fight could take place, especially as far as Western lands are concerned, so Murkowski’s comments are worth reading for the upcoming season.

Putting Keystone XL aside, Murkowski, a longtime member of the committee who is considered one of the more progressive Republicans in Congress, told a Jan. 8 business meeting that she sees an opportunity “to embrace all aspects of the energy sector,” including nuclear-waste disposal, efficient energy infrastructure and grid security.

The statement was a nod toa larger project for Murkowski, who wants a comprehensive update to the nation’s energy policy, something that hasn’t happened since 2007.

Much of her thinking on energy can be found in a 2013 position paper, “Energy 20/20: A Vision for America’s Energy Future.” It’s a huge document, with an overall message to push for an energy mix that includes both hydrocarbons and renewables, and seeks greater development of U.S. resources—from oil shale to fracking to geothermal energy. The goal is to have energy independence by the year 2020—a different kind of goal than, say, reduced carbon emissions.

For Western states, that could mean Murkowski will push for deregulation, more fracking, more drilling—including offshore and in pristine parts of Alaska—and an attempt to cut through red tape. It could mean more hydropower, more nuclear and, according to Murkowski, a nuanced view of “clean” energy.

“Too often, ‘clean’ is treated as an absolute, but it is better regarded as a comparison,” Murkowski wrote in the paper. “A better definition of clean is: less intensive in global lifecycle impacts on human health and the environment than its likeliest alternative.”

Most of Murkowski’s Jan. 8 remarks had to do with this energy agenda. But also embedded in the statement was a hint at her attitude toward federal public lands. “It isn’t just natural resources that we deal with,” she told the meeting. “The public lands piece is huge. Especially for those of us in the West.”

Whether she was pointing toward a policy is unclear, but the fact that she mentioned the public lands at all is pretty interesting, because Murkowski, now in a position of power over Western issues, has shown at least some support for the movement to have federal lands transferred to the states.

In “Energy 20/20,” she noted federal lands are “now heavily restricted by regulation … which has caused significant harm to many rural communities.” Invoking some of the same rhetoric as the pro-transfer camp, Murkowski wrote: “At the same time, many of these communities are watching forests on public lands be destroyed by wildfires, insect epidemics and outbreaks of forest disease.”

“This causes the public to question if state or county governments wouldn’t be better stewards of the land,” she wrote.

However, she stopped short of calling for a transfer of lands, and instead pointed toward the need for policy shifts.

“It is imperative that (the Department of Interior) partner with states to achieve the best possible use of public lands,” she wrote. “Current federal regulations pit DOI against the states in never-ending legal and political battles over land use. This arrangement is wasteful and contrary to DOI’s mission. DOI should develop agreements with state and local governments to determine the best management practices to improve economic activity and development, where acceptable, in and around federal land units.”

In earlier speeches, however, she has nodded more deeply toward land transfers—or at least sought to wield them as a Plan B to failed federal reform.

“Federal government’s broke here,” she told Congress in 2013. “We can’t continue to pay counties to not utilize the lands within their boundaries. … We either need to use our federal lands to generate the revenue and the jobs for our rural communities, or we should divest the federal government of those lands and let the states, or the counties or boroughs manage them.”

To Daven Hafey, a spokesman for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Murkowski’s policies add up to a more extractive style of management that gives too little attention to other uses of the public lands and its resources.

“Since taking office, Senator Murkowski has been eager to give away the Tongass National Forest to state management and private business, for the purpose of increased clear-cut, old-growth logging,” he said in an email. “Senator Murkowski has the opportunity to focus her support on the real money-makers in Southeast Alaska—fishing and tourism. But given her repeated support for outdated logging practices, we’re geared up to protect the Tongass from rapid exploitation.”

It’s too early to tell what legislation will move and what won’t with Republicans in charge of Congress, but Murkowski has proven herself a good political operative with an ability to make deals, get bills sponsored and get bills passed. That much we do know.

This story was originally published by High Country News.

Published in Environment

On this week's dangerous Independent comics page: The K Chronicles ponders the difference between cartoonists and gays; Jen Sorenson examines a fracking ruling in the context of the Hobby Lobby case; This Modern World has a chat with a drone; and Red Meat visits a new type of petting zoo.

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Earlier this month, the Environmental Working Group—the D.C.-based nonprofit that helps the green-conscious decide which sunscreen to wear and what to wash their dishes with—was rallying California followers to contact state legislators in support of a bill to regulate fracking.

The sun was about to set on California’s legislative session without a single new law on the issue, despite an industry poised for potential boom on the Monterey Shale—1,750 square miles that extend from Central to Southern California containing two-thirds of the country’s estimated shale reserves. Two proposed bills had already died; one that would have imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing got just 24 votes in the 80-member Assembly.

Only Senate Bill 4 still had a chance; it had cleared the Senate and was headed for the Assembly. And though some moratorium-or-bust environmentalists thought the bill didn’t go far enough, EWG—whose staff had worked for four years on the legislation—remained ardently behind it.

So did several other large and influential environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the California League of Conservation Voters, and all for the same reason: “It will go farther than any other law or regulation in the country,” EWG president Ken Cook wrote in an email blast to subscribers. “The public will be able to see a list of the chemicals used, even if a drilling company claims it’s a trade secret.”

Plus, the bill had been authored by none other than State Sen. Fran Pavley, the legislator who, while in the Assembly, wrote two of California’s landmark climate laws: one, in 2001, set stringent emissions standards for cars and trucks; the another, the iconic AB 32, reduced greenhouse gases coming out of everything else. The Democrat from the north coast of Los Angeles County has a knack for realpolitik advances in environmental lawmaking; a bill with her name on it typically gets rubber-stamped with the environmental community’s blessing.

Less than a week later, however, everything had changed. SB 4 had gone into the Assembly and, under pressure from both the oil/gas industry and Gov. Jerry Brown, it came out an altered beast, apparently with a two-year grace period for any kind of well stimulation the oil and gas industry deemed necessary to force hard-to-access heavy oil from the Monterey Shale. By the time the amended bill went back to the Senate on Sept. 11, the EWG had withdrawn its support, as had every other environmental group that had backed it before. Pavley was now the proud sponsor of a fracking bill that every last environmentalist, save the ones in the Democrat-dominated Legislature, hated.

But it was one that the governor said he’d sign.

In a way, the trouble began when Pavley expanded SB 4 to regulate not just hydraulic fracturing, but another process more useful on the Monterey Shale called acid matrix stimulation. “Acidizing,” as the process is sometimes called, employs hydrofluoric acid to dissolve the rock instead of breaking it up. And if you thought fracking chemicals were bad, consider that a drop of hydrofluoric acid can penetrate your skin and kill you. As Briana Mordick writes on the NRDC’s Switchboard blog, “At low concentrations, such as those used in the oil and gas industry, the symptoms of exposure may be delayed by up to a day, meaning that extensive damage may be done before the person seeks medical attention.”

EWG’s man in Sacramento, Bill Allayaud, says that while the Western States Petroleum Association—the state’s busiest lobbyist in 2012—was always gunning for the bill (“they wanted to bust it open,” he says), lobbying activity picked up last summer when Pavley got wise to industry techniques and expanded it to include acid jobs.“ That struck a nerve,” says Allayaud, whose organization pointed out, in 2011, that neither fracking nor acidizing is a new thing in California. “It turns out that some companies have been acidizing wells like crazy,” Allayud says.

They’ve been fracking, too, with little oversight and even fewer rules. In 2011, EWG went to the state’s regulatory authority, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), and said, “Tell us where a well was fracked. Tell us when a well failed.” DOGGR—which everyone pronounces “dogger”—“could not do that,” Allayaud says. He points to Jeremy Miller’s 2010 reporting in High Country News as a demonstration of the data gaps. “Jeremy asked where does the water go, and where does it come from (in fracking operations)? He got pretty far, but it’s hard to go further, because the data doesn’t exist.”

Pavley’s bill was crafted to make sure that in the future, regulators could answer those questions, and many more—including exactly what chemical brews were being used in the process.

Some of that good stuff remains in the bill.

“The bill still has powerful components that make it the strongest fracking bill in the nation,” Allayaud says. “It requires public disclosure of trade secrets. It requires groundwater monitoring before and after both acid and frack jobs. It really does prevent DOGGR from being too tied to the industry; it forces them to represent the public and not just Chevron and Occidental.” It still calls for a comprehensive environmental review of well stimulation treatments by 2015, and the issuance of final regulations when that study’s done.

But now there’s also a fuzzy line stating that DOGGR “shall allow” fracking and acidizing until it issues final regulations in 2015, which, depending on your interpretation, may or may not mean that, for the next two years, oil and gas producers can proceed as usual.

“We thought it was potentially damaging enough that we wanted to send a message that we’re not happy,” Allayaud says.

The governor, on the other hand, is plenty happy. And Pavley is making the rounds with reporters defending a bill that, while far from perfect, at least brings into the open what’s been happening under the radar.

“Without SB 4, there will be no public disclosure of chemicals, no groundwater monitoring and no regulation of acidizing, and the oil companies will continue to be able to frack without a permit or any public accountability whatsoever,” she told E&E Energy Wire. “The world won’t be perfect” because of SB 4, “but it will be a whole lot better.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

This week on an explosive Independent comics page: Red Meat throws dynamite off a ferry; The City reminds us what's important regarding Chelsea Manning's conviction; The K Chronicles has wishes for a child's first day at school; and Jen Sorenson examines Obama's true record on energy.

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