Concerns Over Air Pollution in Africa

Air pollution in Asia and Europe has grabbed headlines. But the problem is pervasive across Africa as well. Africa is urbanizing quickly, and pollution from sources like vehicle exhaust, wood burning and dusty dirt roads has reached worrisome levels in many cities. Equally or more troubling is air pollution inside homes, caused by cooking with wood or other sooty fuels. But few nations outside South Africa have imposed regulations to address the problem, and data on outdoor pollution is sparse.

Read more in my International New York Times Green Column

The Many Ways Chemical Companies Love Fracking

No doubt this is blindingly obvious. But when I was reading a news squib that said that the market for fracking chemicals would rise to $20.4 billion by 2018, it struck me that chemical companies must love the fracking boom in so many ways. Most coverage centers on the new cheapness of natural gas-derived inputs, like ethane, propane and butane, which go into making chemicals. But as the news squib reminded me, the chemical companies presumably  make…fracking chemicals! Undoubtedly it’s a tiny fraction of their vast business, because they churn out products for everything from shampoos to couches, but still — a growing market segment in the double-digit billions is nothing to scoff at. Finally, chemical companies must also benefit from cheap natural-gas power to run the plants.

So, in sum, here’s what’s going on: The companies use cheap fracking-linked power to make chemicals from fracking-related inputs—and some of those chemicals enable more fracking! Nice business model.

Groundwater and Surface Water: Linkages and Legal Cases

Many Western states, including California and Texas, regulate groundwater and surface water differently. Yet the two are interconnected because aquifers bleed into rivers and lakes—as several high-profile, ongoing legal cases suggest.

One of the most interesting right now is in Northern California on the Scott River. I’m no expert on this, but it appears that environmentalists are trying to force  authorities that oversee the river to also oversee nearby groundwater withdrawals as well. But, as reported by the Siskiyou Daily News, the county fears that a decision for the plaintiffs “will make every request to drill a well subject to an environmental review process.” There’s a hearing on April 11, but any resulting decision will likely be immediately appealed. If anyone has a sense of how wide-ranging the implications could be, by all means leave a comment.

Another case I’m familiar with is in the Texas-New Mexico spat, in which Texas accuses New Mexico farmers of depleting the Rio Grande as it flows into Texas, by (among other things) pumping water from wells near the river. It’s now with the Supreme Court (the lucky arbiter for many inter-state water disputes), and some fiery words have been flying: New Mexico’s attorney general Gary King accused Texas of “trying to rustle New Mexico’s water.” But the US Solicitor General submitted a brief to SCOTUS agreeing with Texas. New Mexico’s pecan farmers, profiled in the New York Times last week, have a lot at stake in this battle because some draw groundwater from near the Rio Grande.

There are other lively intra-Texas tussles over the groundwater-surface water interchange, as the Texas Tribune recently reported.

Moving now to Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes: a lawsuit was filed last year over the falling levels of White Bear Lake, northeast of Minneapolis St Paul. As reported by MNPR’s Ground Level blog, “Homeowners and businesses near the shrunken lake have sued the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, arguing it should not have been so free with allowing nearby cities to pull water from the ground, thereby sucking water away from the lake.”

So there’s a lot going on in the groundwater-surface water nexus. Other cases of interest, anyone?

Marine Conservation: A Tough Road Ahead

Much has been written about the problems with marine preserves, where fish can, in theory, swim relatively free from human threats. There are few of them, especially on the high seas outside of national jurisdiction; their quality is highly variable; and governments’ ability to enforce fishing restrictions is limited.

A new study to be published on Wednesday in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems hones in on another issue: that officials tend to create reserves in the least useful areas for conservation. For example, they may favor areas where biodiversity is relatively sparse so as not to hurt local fishing industries. As a result, hitting a target for the *amount* of ocean preserved can result in a “false sense of achievement for conservation,” the study warns. My International New York Times Green column has more on this subject.

I’ll be learning more about oceans this week at the Economist World Oceans summit in California.

Managing Wildfires: What the West Can Learn from the South

Much of this blog falls in the category of “features I’d write if only I had time.”

This one’s been on my list for months: What the West could learn about wildfire management from the South. As it turns out, Southern states oversee huge prescribed-burn programs, with private landowners often voluntarily burning their land every several years, in addition to government groups. “The Florida Forest Service boasts one of the most extensive prescribed burning programs in the nation,” Jim Karels, the head of the service, said recently. Winter is the season for it. A massive prescribed burn just began in the Everglades. The South, like the West, is timber country — recall the huge blaze three years ago in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp — so prevention is key.

Landowners have obvious concerns about liability lest a fire get out of control. And no one wants smoke blowing across a highway or settled area, which is an increasing challenge as people build homes deeper in the woods. But liability can be potentially limited if the landowners take certification courses on burns or have their burn supervised by someone who’s certified. These rules will vary state to state, and are often evolving. New Jersey, for example, is currently working on rules about liability and certification.

Differences between the South and the West abound, of course. Most significantly, the West has a lower percentage of private land. Doubtless there are important weather differences too. But as the Western wildfire season approaches — and it’s going to be a severe one, because of the big bad drought — perhaps federal land managers should study Florida’s example.

Coal v Oil: A Competition for Trains

One item caught my eye in the Casper Star-Tribune‘s rundown of coal’s 3% production drop in Wyoming in 2013. One of the key factors, besides the weather, was the rising number of oil-carrying trains. “Increasing oil shipments mean rail constraints [for coal] are expected to persist into 2014,” the Tribune reported.

There has been a lot of reporting on the hazards of oil trains. But this is a new angle — at least to me. Oil train shipments have risen by 40x since 2008. So how much are they crowding out other shipments, including different energy fuels like coal? How much are prices for rail transport rising?