California governor Jerry Brown declared an emergency on Wednesday in a Los Angeles neighborhood where a blown-out natural gas well has been spewing record amounts of global warming pollution.
Ten weeks after the 23 October breach was detected, Brown ordered state agencies to make sure Southern California Gas Company, which owns the stricken natural gas storage facility, plugs the leak.
“All necessary and viable actions will be taken to ensure Southern California Gas Company: maximizes daily withdrawals of natural gas from the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility for use or storage elsewhere; captures leaking gas and odorants while relief wells are being completed; and identifies how it will stop the gas leak if relief wells fail to seal the leaking well, or if the existing leak worsens,” the order said.
The breach had released “major amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas” and caused widespread disruption to local people in the Porter Ranch area, the statement from Brown noted.
Experts said the break at the natural gas storage reservoir is the largest known occurrence of its kind.
Methane is dozens of times more warming than carbon dioxide, and the storage facility, which draws on about 100 other wells, is one of the largest in the state. Campaign groups say the broken well has been pumping out the equivalent in carbon dioxide emissions of 7m cars a day.
Thousands of people, including schoolchildren, have been evacuated from Porter Ranch to escape the rotten egg smell of the chemicals added to the gas.
The declaration follows Brown’s visit to Porter Ranch earlier this week, during which he met residents who have suffered nose bleeds, headaches and nausea from the smells. Such chemicals are commonly used to aid in leak detection.
Brown directed his administration to take “all necessary and viable actions” to make sure SoCalGas captures leaking natural gas and odorants. He also asked the company to spell out how it planned to plug the well if its current effort failed.
The order bans SoCalGas from injecting more natural gas into the storage site, and it calls for independent monitoring of air quality. Brown also ordered daily inspections and regular testing of natural gas storage wells in the state for leaks.
Brown has come under intense criticism from campaign groups for his slow response to the leak. On Wednesday, some of those groups now expressed relief.
“This is a hard-fought win for the residents of Porter Ranch and beyond affected by this noxious blowout,” Alexandra Nagy, an organiser for Food and Water Watch, said in an emailed statement. She called on Brown to shutter the storage facility for good.
Barack Obama has rejected a proposal from TransCanada to build the Keystone XL pipeline through the American heartland, the Guardian has learned, ending years of uncertainty about the project.
The US president made the announcement from the White House flanked by both secretary of state John Kerry and vice-president Joe Biden, declaring that Keystone “would not serve the national interests of the United States”.
Keystone XL was designed to pump crude from the Alberta tar sands for 1,700 miles and across six states to refineries on the Gulf coast. Over the years, the project has become a symbol of the greater political struggle surrounding Obama’s efforts to move away from fossil fuels and fight climate change.
But Obama said the project was neither “a silver bullet for the economy” nor “an express lane to climate disaster”. It would not meaningfully boost jobs or cut gas prices for US motorists, he said. And in a sweeping statement which became a global call to arms ahead of the UN climate talks starting in Paris later this month, he said it was time to stop using the argument over Keystone as a political cudgel.
Highlighting US progress in moving away from reliance on fossil fuels, he promised US global leadership in pursuit of an ambitious framework “to protect the one planet we have got while we still can”.
Earlier this week, TransCanada asked the State Department to put its US permit application on hold, which marked a shift for a firm that had spent seven years relentlessly pushing for approval of the project.
Prospects for Keystone XL have been receding over the last year because of low oil prices, which made the project uneconomical, and amid political shifts in the US and Canada.
Jane Fleming Kleeb, founder of the Bold Nebraska coalition of citizens, farmers and ranchers opposed to the pipeline, told the Guardian: “It’s a long time coming. I feel like, honestly, the boots have beaten the big oil suits for the first time in the country’s history on a big major infrastructure project.
“I’m just proud, I can’t even believe it’s finally happening. The difference this time around was that farmers and ranchers were unified and stood up against the project – that made a huge difference. Something which would normally be decided in the halls of Congress was actually influenced by farmers and ranchers this time around.”
Scientists have confirmed what gardeners have long suspected: spring is coming much earlier in the US, with plants projected to bud three weeks earlier by the end of the century because of climate change.
By 2100 plants will green up 22.3 days earlier in much of the country, with the biggest jump on spring occurring in the western U.S.
In the Pacific northwest the researchers expected an even shorter winter with spring kicking in up to 28.5 days earlier by the end of the century.
The findings, published on Wednesday in Environmental Research Letters, suggest even bigger shifts in the plant calendar due to climate change than had been expected.
Earlier this year another team of researchers suggested that spring was arriving as much as 14 days earlier in most parts of North America because of climate change.
The researchers from the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Programme drew on thousands of records, from frog mating calls to bird migration patterns and tree and plant flowerings, to compare the shift in timing of natural events.
In some parts of the country, including Wisconsin, some flower species, such as wild geranium, were blooming 24 days earlier in 2012 than in 1945.
The newest group of researchers, from government scientific agencies as well as universities, combined historical records of lilac and honeysuckle growth with 19 climate models to project first leaf and first bud in the coming decades.
“We know spring is getting earlier. But we provide actual evidence for how much earlier,” said Andrew Allstadt, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was part of the research team.
The change would have far-reaching effects - both for farming and other industries and the natural world.
“The timing of events is important,” Allstadt said. “If plants are shifting earlier in the year, there is a worry that the animals that depend on the plants won’t keep up with those shifts.”
Those living in warmer parts of the US, such as the south, are unlikely to see as big a difference in the arrival of spring, because it is already so warm.
But much of the country will see a shorter winter, Allstadt said.
The biggest factor triggering the first green shoots of spring was the slow build-up of milder weather over the course of the year — rather than a burst of above-average days in February or March, he said.
That was especially the case at higher altitudes and across the wind-swept Great Plains, he said.
The researchers did not find a rise in false springs, or hard frosts that could damage or kill off a new season’s growth.
The United Nations Nobel-winning climate science panel – the ultimate authority tracking the extent of global warming and its consequences for humanity – has a new leader after 13 years.
In a vote in Dubrovnik on Tuesday, governments chose Hoesung Lee, the long-serving vice-chair of the climate panel, to replace Rajendra Pachauri, who was forced to step down after being accused of sexual harassment by a female employee at his research institute in India.
Pachauri, an engineer by training, denies the allegations.
He led the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for 13 years, from the glory of a Nobel Prize to the embarrassment of having to acknowledge a serious mistake in one of its landmark reports.
In a statement after the ballot, Lee said: “The IPCC remains deeply committed to providing policymakers with the highest quality scientific assessment of climate change, but we can do more.”
Lee, 69, is a professor dealing with the economics of climate change, energy and sustainable development at Korea University’s Graduate School of Energy and Environment in the Republic of Korea. He is currently one of the IPCC’s three vice-chairs.
The election of the new bureau, which will have 34 members including the chair, opens the way for work to start on the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, expected to be completed in five to seven years.
The IPCC completed its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in November 2014.
The key findings of the AR5 Synthesis Report are:
Human influence on the climate system is clear;
The more we disrupt our climate, the more we risk severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts; and
We have the means to limit climate change and build a more prosperous, sustainable future.
Lee takes over the U.N. climate science panel ahead of a critical meeting in Paris in December, which will seek to limit warming to two degrees celsius.
Two degrees celsius is the internationally agreed limit for catastrophic climate change – a figure determined in part by the deliberations of the U.N.’s climate science panel, in a massive volunteer scientific undertaking.
The IPCC is charged with producing blockbuster three-volume reports about climate change, its effects on humanity and the natural world, and potential solutions.
The reports, compiled by fleets of international experts all working on a volunteer basis, are seen as the gold standard of climate science. They are meant to provide the evidence to guide governments in finding answers to climate change.
Lee, a US-trained economist, beat out five other candidates – all men. His closest rival was Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a fellow IPCC vice-chair from Belgium who had said he would lobby governments for more funds. Chris Field of Stanford University and Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern, who are both considered leading experts on climate science, also stood for the post.
The chairs of the IPCC are chosen by a secret ballot among more than 190 countries, in a process where diplomatic jockeying counts as much as scientific expertise.
In a campaign statement, Lee said he would continue the IPCC’s course of collecting and reviewing previously published climate science.
The IPCC has been criticised for falling behind developments in the rapidly expanding fields of climate science, and consistently underestimating the speed and consequences of warming. The UN climate body has also been criticised for lacking transparency.
Some scientists have proposed that the UN climate panel move towards more targeted reports that could guide governments in the near term.
Lee, in his campaign statements, was non-committal about expanding the IPCC’s role. But he said he wanted to increase the participation of experts from developing countries, and devote more resources to studying the effects of climate change on global poverty.
The new IPCC chair also said he wanted to ensure that industrial and financial leaders – and not just governments – were drawing on the U.N. panel’s reports. “I will pay special attention to climate change issues associated with job creation, health, innovation and technology development, energy access and poverty alleviation,” Lee said in his campaign statement.
Lee’s election marks the first change of leadership at the IPCC in 13 years.
Pachauri was elected unchallenged for a second term in 2008, after the IPCC picked up a Nobel peace prize. Two years later, the IPCC was badly shaken by his handling of an error in its 2008 report, which made the false claim that Himalayan glaciers could melt away entirely by 2035.
Pachauri had been due to step down this year, but was forced to leave early because of harassment allegations.
ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company, knew as early as 1981 of climate change – seven years before it became a public issue, according to a newly discovered email from one of the firm’s own scientists. Despite this the firm spent millions over the next 27 years to promote climate denial.
The email from Exxon’s in-house climate expert provides evidence the company was aware of the connection between fossil fuels and climate change, and the potential for carbon-cutting regulations that could hurt its bottom line, over a generation ago – factoring that knowledge into its decision about an enormous gas field in south-east Asia. The field, off the coast of Indonesia, would have been the single largest source of global warming pollution at the time.
“Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia,” Lenny Bernstein, a 30-year industry veteran and Exxon’s former in-house climate expert, wrote in the email. “This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2,” or carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change.
Exxon said on Wednesday that it now acknowledges the risk of climate change and does not fund climate change denial groups.
Some climate campaigners have likened the industry to the conduct of the tobacco industry which for decades resisted the evidence that smoking causes cancer.
In the email Bernstein, a chemical engineer and climate expert who spent 30 years at Exxon and Mobil and was a lead author on two of the United Nations’ blockbuster IPCC climate science reports, said climate change first emerged on the company’s radar in 1981, when the company was considering the development of south-east Asia’s biggest gas field, off Indonesia.
That was seven years ahead of other oil companies and the public, according to Bernstein’s account.
Climate change was largely confined to the realm of science until 1988, when the climate scientist James Hansen told Congress that global warming was caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due to the burning of fossil fuels.
By that time, it was clear that developing the Natuna site would set off a huge amount of climate change pollution – effectively a “carbon bomb”, according to Bernstein.
“When I first learned about the project in 1989, the projections were that if Natuna were developed and its CO2 vented to the atmosphere, it would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world and account for about 1% of projected global CO2 emissions. I’m sure that it would still be the largest point source of CO2, but since CO2 emissions have grown faster than projected in 1989, it would probably account for a smaller fraction of global CO2 emissions,” Bernstein wrote.
The email was written in response to an inquiry on business ethics from the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University.
“What it shows is that Exxon knew years earlier than James Hansen’s testimony to Congress that climate change was a reality; that it accepted the reality, instead of denying the reality as they have done publicly, and to such an extent that it took it into account in their decision making, in making their economic calculation,” the director of the institute, Alyssa Bernstein (no relation), told the Guardian.
“One thing that occurs to me is the behavior of the tobacco companies denying the connection between smoking and lung cancer for the sake of profits, but this is an order of magnitude greater moral offence, in my opinion, because what is at stake is the fate of the planet, humanity, and the future of civilisation, not to be melodramatic.”
Bernstein’s response, first posted on the institute’s website last October, was released by the Union of Concerned Scientists on Wednesday as part of a report on climate disinformation promoted by companies such as ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Peabody Energy, called the Climate Deception Dossiers.
Asked about Bernstein’s comments, Exxon said climate science in the early 1980s was at a preliminary stage, but the company now saw climate change as a risk.
“The science in 1981 on this subject was in the very, very early days and there was considerable division of opinion,” Richard Keil, an Exxon spokesman, said. “There was nobody you could have gone to in 1981 or 1984 who would have said whether it was real or not. Nobody could provide a definitive answer.”
He rejected the idea that Exxon had funded groups promoting climate denial. “I am here to talk to you about the present,” he said. “We have been factoring the likelihood of some kind of carbon tax into our business planning since 2007. We do not fund or support those who deny the reality of climate change.”
Exxon, unlike other companies and the public at large in the early 1980s, was already aware of climate change – and the prospect of regulations to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, according to Bernstein’s account.
“In the 1980s, Exxon needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation that would affect Natuna and other potential projects. They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness. Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue,” he wrote.
“Natural resource companies – oil, coal, minerals – have to make investments that have lifetimes of 50-100 years. Whatever their public stance, internally they make very careful assessments of the potential for regulation, including the scientific basis for those regulations,” Bernstein wrote in the email.
Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University professor who researches the history of climate science, said it was unsurprising Exxon would have factored climate change in its plans in the early 1980s – but she disputed Bernstein’s suggestion that other companies were not. She also took issue with Exxon’s assertion of uncertainty about the science in the 1980s, noting the National Academy of Science describing a consensus on climate change from the 1970s.
The White House and the National Academy of Sciences came out with reports on climate change in the 1970s, and government scientific agencies were studying climate change in the 1960s, she said. There were also a number of major scientific meetings on climate change in the 1970s.
“I find it difficult to believe that an industry whose business model depends on fossil fuels could have been completely ignoring major environmental reports, major environmental meetings taken place in which carbon dioxide and climate change were talked about,” she said in an interview with the Guardian.
The East Natuna gas field, about 140 miles north-east of the Natuna islands in the South China Sea and 700 miles north of Jakarta, is the biggest in south-east Asia, with about 46tn cubic ft (1.3tn cubic metres) of recoverable reserves.
However, Exxon did not go into production on the field.
Bernstein writes in his email to Ohio University: “Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits, either current or future. They may take what appears to be altruistic positions to improve their public image, but the assumption underlying those actions is that they will increase future profits. ExxonMobil is an interesting case in point.”
Bernstein, who is now in his mid-70s, spent 20 years as a scientist at Exxon and 10 years at Mobil. During the 1990s he headed the science and technology advisory committee of the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group that lobbied aggressively against the scientific consensus around the causes of climate change.
However, GCC climate experts accepted the impact of human activity on climate change in their internal communications as early as 1995, according to a document filed in a 2009 lawsuit and included in the UCS dossier.
“The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes, but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change,” the advisory committee said.
The 1995 primer was never released for publication. A subsequent version, which was publicly distributed in 1998, removed the reference to “contrarian theories”, and continued to dispute the science underlying climate change.
Kenneth Kimmel, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said ExxonMobil and the other companies profiled in its report had failed to take responsibility about the danger to the public of producing fossil fuels.
Keil, the ExxonMobil spokesman, confirmed that the company had decided not to develop Natuna, but would not comment on the reasons. “There could be a huge range of reasons why we don’t develop projects,” he said.
Full text of scientist’s email
Below is the text of an email from Lenny Bernstein to the director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University, Alyssa Bernstein (no relation), who had asked for ideas to stimulate students for an ethics day announced by the Carnegie Council.
Alyssa’s right. Feel free to share this e-mail with her. Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits, either current or future. They may take what appears to be altruistic positions to improve their public image, but the assumption underlying those actions is that they will increase future profits. ExxonMobil is an interesting case in point.
Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia. This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2. That CO2 would have to be separated to make the natural gas usable. Natural gas often contains CO2 and the technology for removing CO2 is well known. In 1981 (and now) the usual practice was to vent the CO2 to the atmosphere. When I first learned about the project in 1989, the projections were that if Natuna were developed and its CO2 vented to the atmosphere, it would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world and account for about 1% of projected global CO2 emissions. I’m sure that it would still be the largest point source of CO2, but since CO2 emissions have grown faster than projected in 1989, it would probably account for a smaller fraction of global CO2 emissions.
The alternative to venting CO2 to the atmosphere is to inject it into ground. This technology was also well known, since the oil industry had been injecting limited quantities of CO2 to enhance oil recovery. There were many questions about whether the CO2 would remain in the ground, some of which have been answered by Statoil’s now almost 20 years of experience injecting CO2 in the North Sea. Statoil did this because the Norwegian government placed a tax on vented CO2. It was cheaper for Statoil to inject CO2 than pay the tax. Of course, Statoil has touted how much CO2 it has prevented from being emitted.
In the 1980s, Exxon needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation that would affect Natuna and other potential projects. They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness. Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue. Natural resource companies – oil, coal, minerals – have to make investments that have lifetimes of 50-100 years. Whatever their public stance, internally they make very careful assessments of the potential for regulation, including the scientific basis for those regulations. Exxon NEVER denied the potential for humans to impact the climate system. It did question – legitimately, in my opinion – the validity of some of the science.
Political battles need to personify the enemy. This is why liberals spend so much time vilifying the Koch brothers – who are hardly the only big money supporters of conservative ideas. In climate change, the first villain was a man named Donald Pearlman, who was a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. (In another life, he was instrumental in getting the US Holocaust Museum funded and built.) Pearlman’s usefulness as a villain ended when he died of lung cancer – he was a heavy smoker to the end.
Then the villain was the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a trade organization of energy producers and large energy users. I was involved in GCC for a while, unsuccessfully trying to get them to recognize scientific reality. (That effort got me on to the front page of the New York Times, but that’s another story.) Environmental group pressure was successful in putting GCC out of business, but they also lost their villain. They needed one which wouldn’t die and wouldn’t go out of business. Exxon, and after its merger with Mobil ExxonMobil, fit the bill, especially under its former CEO, Lee Raymond, who was vocally opposed to climate change regulation. ExxonMobil’s current CEO, Rex Tillerson, has taken a much softer line, but ExxonMobil has not lost its position as the personification of corporate, and especially climate change, evil. It is the only company mentioned in Alyssa’s e-mail, even though, in my opinion, it is far more ethical that many other large corporations.
Having spent twenty years working for Exxon and ten working for Mobil, I know that much of that ethical behavior comes from a business calculation that it is cheaper in the long run to be ethical than unethical. Safety is the clearest example of this. ExxonMobil knows all too well the cost of poor safety practices. The Exxon Valdez is the most public, but far from the only, example of the high cost of unsafe operations. The value of good environmental practices are more subtle, but a facility that does a good job of controlling emission and waste is a well run facility, that is probably maximizing profit. All major companies will tell you that they are trying to minimize their internal CO2 emissions. Mostly, they are doing this by improving energy efficiency and reducing cost. The same is true for internal recycling, again a practice most companies follow. Its [sic] just good engineering.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down new rules for America’s biggest air polluters on Monday, dealing a blow to the Obama administration’s efforts to set limits on the amount of mercury, arsenic and other toxins coal-fired power plants can spew into the air, lakes and rivers.
The 5-4 decision was a major setback to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and could leave the agency more vulnerable to legal challenges from industry and Republican-led states to its new carbon pollution rules.
It was also a blow to years of local efforts to clean up dangerous air pollution.
The justices embraced the arguments from the industry and 21 Republican-led states that the EPA rules were prohibitively expensive and amounted to government overreach.
The decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, ruled that the EPA did not reasonably consider the cost factor when drafting regulation.
The Clean Air Act had directed the EPA to create regulations for power plants that were “appropriate and necessary”. The agency did not consider cost when making its decision, the court ruled, but estimated that the cost of its regulation to power plants would be $9.6bn a year.
Scalia was joined by the conservative members of the bench. The dissent, written by Elena Kagan, was supported by Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor.
The landmark decision closes a chapter on a two-decade-long effort to force stricter emissions standards for coal-fired power plants.
The regulation, adopted in 2012, would have affected about 600 coal-fired power plants across the country — many of which are concentrated in the midwest and the south.
It was already going into effect across the country. But Republican governors and power companies challenged the EPA’s authority, saying the agency had mishandled estimates of the cost of the new rules.
Leaders of the Catholic church in America took their “marching orders” from the pope’s encyclical on Thursday, fanning out to Congress and the White House to push for action on climate change.
The high-level meetings offered a first glimpse of a vast and highly organised effort by the leadership of America’s nearly 80 million Catholics to turn the pope’s moral call for action into reality.
“It is our marching orders for advocacy,” Joseph Kurtz, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archbishop of Louisville, said. “It really brings about a new urgency for us.”
Representatives of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said they would hold two briefings for members of Congress on Thursday and visit the White House on Friday to promote and explain the pope’s environmental message.
Those efforts will get a new injection of urgency, when the pope delivers a much-anticipated address to Congress during his visit to the US in September, church leaders said.
Church leaders rejected the accusations from some conservatives – including the Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush – that the pope had trespassed into the political realm.
Within the US, the pope’s call for climate action brought an outpouring of support from religious leaders, environmental, social justice and public health groups, scientists, and Democrats.
Religious leaders said the message from an extremely popular Pope Francis would add new urgency to the church’s existing support for a number of environmental measures in Barack Obama’s climate plan – including the new rules limiting carbon pollution from power plants, due to be finalised this summer.
“I believe this is potentially the game changer we have all been waiting for,” said the Reverend Canon Sally Bingham, founder of Interfaith Power & Light, which campaigns for action on climate change. “I really think it will change enough minds to get the critical mass we need to get our house in order and cut greenhouse gas emissions.”
The advocacy group, Presente.org, said the pope’s message hit close to home for Latinos in the US and elsewhere, who often live in poor and heavily polluted neighbourhoods.
The pope’s message also resonated strongly among activist priests and nuns, who have lobbied oil companies and called on their own parishes to divest. The encyclical puts the Vatican’s stamp of approval on years of effort, often at the side lines, and that on its own had galvanised campaigners, said Sister Joan Brown, a Franciscan in New Mexico who has worked on climate change for more than 20 years.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in the faith community or otherwise,” she said.
The release of the much-awaited climate message puts a trigger on a series of events that were more than a year in the planning.
In Atlanta, the archbishop’s office used the encyclical to sign up scientists and engineers to help parishes, and parishioners, reduce their carbon footprint. The bishop of Des Moines is planning to hold a press conference at a wind farm.
Meanwhile, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Climate Covenant were producing primers to help parish priests incorporate the pope’s environmental message in their Sunday sermons, church officials said.
Religious leaders deflected criticism from Bush that the pope had strayed too far from the pulpit.
“I don’t think he is presenting a blueprint for saying this is exactly a step-by-step recipe,” Kurtz said. “He is providing a framework and a moral call as a true moral leader to say take seriously the urgency of this matter.”
Richard Cizik, who was dismissed as lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals after calling for climate action, said the pope was simply doing his duty as a religious leader. “It is our responsibility to do what is right, even if it is unpopular,” he said.
Francis included a handwritten note on the embargoed copies of his letter that were distributed to bishops around the world – putting a further weight on the sense of urgency. The text also began with scientific data.
“It saves the encyclical from being dismissed simply as an abstract impression,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington. “What our holy father is lifting up is a series of acts that beg for some coherent moral analysis, some direction for the good of all on the planet and for the planet itself.”
The push for the pope’s climate message – as already defined by the US Conference on Catholic Bishops – includes support for three specific policy measures.
These include the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules for new power plants, which are vigorously opposed by the fossil fuel industry and Republicans, the Green Climate Fund for developing countries, also opposed by Republicans, and an energy efficiency bill before Congress, which has bipartisan support.
“That there ought to be a national carbon standard we think is a good thing because it would help protect the poor people who live near the power plants,” said Stephen Colecchi, director of the office of international justice and peace at the US Conference of Bishops.
Those efforts in the US could also boost prospects for the climate negotiations in Paris, he noted. “Adopting a national carbon standard and funding a Green Climate Fund are two things the US could put on the table which would help achieve a climate agreement,” he said.
Erniz Moniz, the energy secretary, said the pope’s call to action would also spur other countries to act on the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
“Pope Francis should inspire all countries to redouble the deployment of clean energy technologies and energy efficiencies and find the international will to significantly cut global emissions of heat-trapping pollution,” he said.
The World Coal Association – while refraining from the direct attacks on Francis made by coalmining companies in the US – called on the pope to endorse research on cleaner coal technologies.
Campaign groups said they hoped the pope’s intervention would reset the parameters of the discussion surrounding climate change, from narrow political agenda to broader morality.
“The pope’s message applies to all of us,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “He is imploring people of goodwill everywhere to honour our moral obligation to protect future generations from the dangers of further climate chaos by embracing our ethical duty to act,” she said.
Andrew Steer, the chief executive of the World Resources Institute, said the message was a call to action for world leaders ahead of the Paris climate talks. “The pope’s message brings moral clarity that the world’s leaders must come together to address this urgent human challenge,” he said.
Ray Bradley, the climate scientist, said: “He has no political agenda. He speaks from the heart. Who else can address this issue without the taint of politics.”
The Evangelical Environmental Network also came out strongly behind the pope.
More than 300 rabbis signed a letter calling on Jewish institutions and individuals to divest from “carbon Pharaohs” or coal-based electric power, and buy wind power instead.
The secretive funders behind America’s conservative movement directed around $125 million over three years to groups spreading disinformation about climate science and committed to wrecking Barack Obama’s climate change plan, according to an analysis of tax records.
The amount is close to half of the anonymous funding disbursed to rightwing groups, underlining the importance of the climate issue to U.S. conservatives.
The anonymous cash flow came from two secretive organizations – the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund – that have been called the “Dark Money ATM” of the conservative movement.
The funds, which when channelled through the two organizations cannot be traced to individual donors, helped build a network of think tanks and activist groups. These worked to defeat climate bills in Congress and are mobilizing against Environmental Protection Agency rules to reduce carbon pollution from power plants which are due to be finalized this summer. In many cases, the anonymous cash makes up the vast majority of funding received by beneficiaries – more than comes openly from the fossil fuel industry.
“The conservative think tanks are really the spearhead of the conservative assault on climate change,” said Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma who studies environmental politics. “They write books, put out briefings and open editorials, bring in contrarian scientists...They are an immense megaphone that amplifies very, very minority voices.”
Organizations funded through the secretive donors operations are also working to roll back measures promoting wind and solar power and block planning for future sea-level rise in state capitals.
To trace how the money was spent, the Guardian obtained annual tax filings made to the US Internal Revenue Service by the Donor’s Trust and Donor’s Capital Fund and cross-checked grantees with organizations associated with the climate change counter-movement.
In 2011, 42 percent of funding, or $35.7 million, went to groups promoting climate denial and opposed to environmental regulations, according to the tax filings.
In the last presidential elections in 2012, when Obama fended off a challenge from Mitt Romney, that figure jumped to 51 percent of the funds directed through Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund – a total of just over $49 million.
In 2013, the last year for which tax records are available, 46 percent of anonymous funding to conservative groups through the two Donors channels, or just over $41 million was spent that way.
Robert Brulle, a professor at Drexel University who first exposed the conservative network of think tanks and activist groups of the climate change counter-movement, said those funds helped hone opposition to regulations.
“It is a well-oiled, complicated, cultural and political machine of the right wing of the conservative movement,” he said.
In 2013, the two organizations took in just over $152 million, distributing $90m to a constellation of groups. However, the ultimate sources of those funds were untraceable, an important consideration for companies or individuals wanting to avoid bad publicity for rejecting the scientific consensus on climate change.
“All these corporations that were getting bad press realized they can still fund conservative think tanks,” Dunlap said. “Exxon or BP can still fund one of these things while doing all these great things on climate change to reduce emissions etc.”
Whitney Ball, the chief executive of Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, said the funds were set up to “promote liberty and help like-minded donors preserve their charitable intent”. She said that grants were made at the request of account holders, not the Donors Trust or Donors Capital Fund. “Our role is to ensure that recommended grants are to IRS-approved public charities, and we require that the charities do not rely on significant amounts of revenue from government sources,” she said.
Almost all of the think tanks and activist groups on the Donors rolls work on a broad range of topics – and in most cases there was no way of tracking what portion of funding went to climate change related work.
But all of the groups have a record of rejecting climate science and fighting environmental regulations.
“You don’t have to be an outright science denier to try to prevent action on climate change,” Brulle said.
“You’ve got gradation – it’s not real; it’s real but we are not sure how much humans are contributing to it; I am not a scientist. There are all sorts of strategies.”
Funds sent through Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund were allocated to 92 organizations that deny climate change or oppose environmental regulations – but only 24 organizations got donations of $1m or more over the past three years.
By far, the biggest overall beneficiary was the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which received $22 million over the three years.
According to its website, the center “trains and supports journalists working to detect and expose corruption and incompetence in government at the state and local levels”. It runs a network of online conservative websites in state capitals which are generally hostile to clean energy and pro-coal.
In 2011, the anonymous funding through Donors Trust amounted to 95 percent of Franklin’s budget, according to an investigation by the Center for Public integrity.
Erik Telford, the president, denied that there was a conflict between the Franklin Center’s watchdog mission, and its failure to disclose the ultimate source of its funds.
“As is the case with almost any news outlet in America, we have an editorial perspective, with a mission to expose government misdeeds, advance liberty, and look out for the taxpayers’ interest,” he said. “We welcome the support of citizens who believe in our mission, and afford them the right to privacy as established in the supreme court’s 1958 NAACP v Alabama decision.”
The Federalist Society, a networking group for conservative lawyers and justices which calls on states to reject the EPA authority to regulate carbon pollution, received $8.7 million over the past three years.
Another top recipient, the State Policy Network, a network of ultra-conservative think tanks, received a total of $8.2 million over the last three years.
Think tanks allied with the State Policy Network have worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a pro-business lobby, which has sought legislation to penalize homeowners who install solar panels.
The Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank whose climate expert opposes cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, took in $7.9 million over three years. The Heartland Institute, which sent a delegation to Rome in April to try to upstage meetings between the Pope and the United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon on climate change, received $3.8 million.
Another big beneficiary of the anonymous funds, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has received $4.3 million over three years, claims on its website that climate change is its biggest program.
“CEI questions global warming alarmism,” the website reads. Last year, CEI sued the White House over a video linking the chill Arctic blasts of the polar vortex to climate change. The CEI has also tried – unsuccessfully – to sue climate scientists.
The think tank would not respond to requests for comment.
The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, whose communications director is Marc Morano, took $3.7 million from donors in 2012 – its most ever. A year later, however, the organization received $325,000.
More than 100 leading U.S. and Canadian scientists called for a halt on future mining of the tar sands, saying extraction of the carbon-heavy fuel was incompatible with fighting climate change.
In a letter published on Wednesday, the researchers said tar sands crude should be relegated to a fuel of last resort, because it causes so much more carbon pollution than conventional oil.
The letter, released two days after G7 countries committed to get off fossil fuels by the end of the century, added to growing international pressure on the Canadian government, which has championed the tar sands and is failing to meet its earlier climate goals.
“If Canada wants to participate constructively in the global effort to stop climate change, we should first stop expanding the oil sands. More growth simply shows Canada has gone rogue,” Thomas Homer-Dixon, professor of governance innovation at the University of Waterloo, said in a statement.
The researchers included a Nobel prize winner, five holders of Canada’s highest national honor, and 34 researchers honored by Canadian and US scientific societies.
The researchers said it was the first time that scientists had come out as professionals in opposition to the tar sands. The letter offered 10 reasons for the moratorium call, ranging from extraction’s impact on local First Nations communities to destruction of boreal forests and climate change, and argued that foregoing tar sands production would not hurt the economy.
They said they hoped to present those findings to Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, who has lobbied hard in Washington and European capitals for the tar sands.
“We offer a unified voice calling for a moratorium on new oil sands projects,” the scientists said in the letter.
“No new oil sands or related infrastructure projects should proceed unless consistent with an implemented plan to rapidly reduce carbon pollution, safeguard biodiversity, protect human health, and respect treaty rights.”
They said the decisions made by Canada and the US would set an important example for the international community, when it comes to fighting climate change. “The choices we make about the oil sands will reverberate globally, as other countries decide whether or how to develop their own large unconventional oil deposits,” the scientists said.
Since 2000, Canada has doubled tar sands production, and Harper has lobbied Barack Obama to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would open up new routes to market for Alberta oil.
The crash of oil prices will likely put some future projects on hold, but are unlikely to affect current production, analysts said.
The organizers of the letter said all future projects should be shelved unless Canada put in place safeguards to protect local people and environment and prevent climate change.
“The oil sands should be one of the first fuels we decide not to develop because of its carbon intensity,” said Thomas Sisk, professor of environmental science at Northern Arizona University, and one of the organizers of the letter.
“It is among the highest emitting fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions…If we are trying to address the climate crisis this high carbon intensive fuel should be among the first we forego as we move to an economy based around cleaner fuels.”
Wednesday’s intervention deepens an emerging political and economic distinction around coal and tar sands among climate campaigners.
As a fossil fuel divestment movement moves from college campuses to financial institutions, a number of prominent supporters, such as Rockefeller Brothers Fund, moved swiftly to ditch coal and tar sands holdings, but plan more gradual moves away from oil and gas.
Scientists agree that two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves will need to stay in the ground to avoid warming above 2C, the internationally agreed threshold on catastrophic climate change.
The Guardian supports the fossil fuel divestment campaign, and has called on two of the world’s largest health charities, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, to rid its holdings of coal, oil, and gas.
The highest ranking woman in the Anglican communion has said climate denial is a “blind” and immoral position which rejects God’s gift of knowledge.
Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and one of the most powerful women in Christianity, said that climate change was a moral imperative akin to that of the civil rights movement. She said it was already a threat to the livelihoods and survival of people in the developing world.
“It is in that sense much like the civil rights movement in this country where we are attending to the rights of all people and the rights of the earth to continue to be a flourishing place,” Bishop Jefferts Schori said in an interview with the Guardian. “It is certainly a moral issue in terms of the impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable around the world already.”
In the same context, Jefferts Schori attached moral implications to climate denial, suggesting those who reject the underlying science of climate change were turning their backs on God’s gift of knowledge.
It’s hard work when you have a climate denier who will not see the reality of scientific truth.
“Episcopalians understand the life of the mind is a gift of God and to deny the best of current knowledge is not using the gifts God has given you,” she said. “In that sense, yes, it could be understood as a moral issue.”
She went on: “I think it is a very blind position. I think it is a refusal to use the best of human knowledge, which is ultimately a gift of God."
The sense of urgency around the issue has been deepened by Pope Francis forceful statements on global warming, which he is expected to amplify in a papal encyclical next month and during an address to the U.S. Congress in September.
In March, the Episcopalian Church laiunched a month-long action campaign designed to encourage church members to reduce their own carbon footprints and lobby government and international corporations to fight climate change.
An oceanographer before she was ordained at the age of 40, Bishop Jefferts Schori said she hoped to use her visibility as a church leader to help drive action on climate change.
As presiding bishop, she oversees 2.5 million members of the Episcopal Church in 17 countries, and is arguably one of the most prominent women in Christianity. The two largest denominations in the U.S., Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, do not ordain women.
“I really hope to motivate average Episcopalians to see the severity of this issue, the morality of this issue,” she said. “Turning the ship in another direction requires the consolidated efforts of many people who are moving in the same direction.”
She acknowledged that the challenge was deepened by the strain of climate denial in American politics, and by continued resistance to science in American classrooms.
“It’s hard work when you have a climate denier who will not see the reality of scientific truth,” she said.
However, she, like a number of church leaders, said they had seen an uptick in climate activism in recent months, spurred by the pope’s comments last January, and the conjunction later this year of United Nations conferences on development and climate change.
Evangelical churches – once seen as a conservative force – were now taking up the climate cause, largely because of growing awareness of its threat to the poor.
“One of the significant changes in particular has been the growing awareness and activism among the evangelical community who at least somewhat in the more distant past refused to encounter this issue, refused to deal with it,” Jeffers Schori said. “The major evangelical groups in this country have been much more forward in addressing this issue because they understand that it impacts the poor.”
A number of denominations have also joined the growing fossil fuel divestment movement which is encouraging organizations to move their investments out of coal, oil and gas companies. The United Methodist Church, the third largest denomination, dumped coal companies from its pension fund.
The Unitarian Church and the United Church of Christ have also voted to divest, according to Reverent Fletcher Harper of Green Faith. And the World Council of Churches has pledged not to invest in fossil fuels. A number of individual congregations have also divested from fossil fuels.
The Guardian has launched a campaign to encourage the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust to divest from fossil fuels.
The Episcopal Church has also come under pressure to withdraw its fossil fuel holdings. A number of diocese are pressing for divestment, and will bring the issue to a vote at the church’s annual convention this summer.
Jefferts Schori opposes fossil fuel divestment. “If you divest you lose any direct ability to influence the course of a corporation’s behavior,” she said. “I think most pragmatists realize that we can’t close the spigot on the oil wells and close the coal mines immediately without some other energy source to shift to.”
Over the last year, Berman has secretly routed funding for at least 16 studies and launched at least five front groups attacking Environmental Protection Agency rules cutting carbon dioxide from power plants, the Guardian has learned.
The rules, the centre-piece of Obama’s climate agenda, are due to be finalised in mid-summer. They have come under sustained assault from industry and Republican-controlled Congress – and Berman is right at the heart of it.
The attacks may be gaining traction. The EPA chief, Gina McCarthy, suggested in a speech this week the rules were likely to change in response to public comment.
From the offices of Berman’s PR firm in Washington, at least five new front groups have launched attack ads against the EPA, environmental groups, fishermen and sportsmen, and green building organisations. The groups all use Berman’s address.
The reports, claiming the power plant rules would lead to rolling blackouts, send electricity prices skyrocketing, and devastate local economies, are being published in 16 states by a network of pro-corporate and ultra-conservative thinktanks.
All of the reports were funded by EPI, according to Suffolk University, the host institution for Beacon Hill. Suffolk released a list of such grants.
Berman did not respond to requests for comment. However, a spokesman, Jordan Bruneau, confirmed that EPI was funding the analyses of the EPA regulations.
“Currently IPA is working with economists to determine the effects of certain EPA regulations on particular states,” he said in an email. He said the research was entirely funded by foundations but refused to identify those funders.
Those familiar with Berman say he is a prime example of a new industry strategy of bypassing traditional lobbying organisations, and using thinktanks, foundations, experts, and social media to shape the public conversation and – ultimately – legislation.
“Richard Berman is very well known for certain front groups and for taking money from anonymous sources to fund aggressive campaigns in the interests of the individuals and the corporations who fund him with the understanding that that funding will be kept secret,” said Nick Surgey, research director of the Center for Media and Democracy.
Indeed, Berman claims his ability to hide the funding sources for such campaigns as a particular expertise.
“People always ask me one question all the time: ‘How do I know that I won’t be found out as a supporter of what you’re doing?’” Berman told a conference of energy executives last year. The talk was secretly recorded and leaked to the New York Times.
“We run all of this stuff through non-profit organisations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us,” Berman told the energy executives.
He claimed at the time to have already collected six-figure sums from some of the companies in the room – and solicited $3m more to defeat opponents of fracking.
On such a scale, the funding for an economic study taking down the EPA rules appears relatively economical. Beacon Hill received $41,500 from the Employment Policies Institute for a study of the EPA rules, according to the grants list maintained by Suffolk University.
The funds were allocated to produce reports on the impact of the EPA rules in 16 states including: Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Washington Ohio, Alaska and Utah, a spokesman for Suffolk University said.
The university spokesman said in an email that the grants followed university protocol. “Suffolk does not accept research funds from unknown sources,” the spokesman said in an email.
Beacon Hill is associated with a network of ultra-conservative groups working with the American Legislative Exchange Council and funded by patrons of anti-government causes such as the Koch brothers and Searle Freedom Trust.
Its director, David Tuerck, appears on the roster of experts at the Heartland Institute, which adopts an extreme-sceptic position on the existence of human-caused climate change. Tuerck has also featured as a keynote speaker at Heartland’s climate conferences.
He told the Guardian he had mixed views on climate change. “I am not certain that those emissions are significant enough to offset other factor changing the climate,” he said. But he was categorical that efforts to cut emissions were “a waste of time”.
“We are just heaping unnecessary costs on the American economy,” he said. “It’s as obvious as the nose on anybody’s face these EPA regulations are inevitably going to drive up electricity rates.”
Over the years, BHI has been accused of using discredited economic models to exaggerate the costs and downplay the benefits of government regulations.
“I think what is dangerous about BHI is that on the face of it appears to be an academic institute producing independent reports but when you peel back the first layer of the onion you find that Beacon Hill often skews reports in favour of their funders,” Surgey said.
In 2013, Suffolk University publicly repudiated Beacon Hill after the Guardian reported the organisation told prospective funders its studies could undermine a regional climate change initiative. The claim did not follow Suffolk University rules for grant proposals, the university said.
Jay Duffy, a legal fellow at the Clean Air Task Force, said the current BHI analysis of the EPA rules did not meet the usual academic standards. “BHI’s interpretation of EPA’s analysis just doesn’t hold up,” he said. “BHI has skewed timelines, underestimated the social cost of carbon, and overestimated the effect on electricity prices. As a result, their study badly inflates the costs and minimises the benefits of EPA’s draft rules.”
BHI defended the study. “Our costs are within the broad range of costs that the EPA produces,” said Paul Bachman, who directly oversaw the study. “It’s just that we don’t include – we exclude – what they call the co-benefits of the proposal.”
Berman’s other forays into the environmental arena this year have been hard-hitting.
One prime example was the Environmental Policy Alliance – a mirror image of the government agency – which, according to the website, is “devoted to uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups and exploring the intersection between activists and government agencies”.
The group oversees four projects aimed at discrediting the government agency and environmental and conservation groups.
In a full page ad in Politico last year, one of the projects, EPA Facts, asked: “What would you call a radical organisation that threatens to shut down 25% of our electrical grid?” The ad crossed off responses including anarchist, terrorist and militia before coming to Obama’s EPA.
The outrageous claims are a key part of the strategy, Berman has claimed. “Berman and Company isn’t your average PR firm,” his company website said. “We don’t just change the debate. If necessary, we start the debate.”
The Obama administration and conservation groups launched a plan on Monday to halt the death spiral of the monarch butterfly.
The most familiar of American butterflies, known for their extraordinary migration from Mexico through the mid-west to Canada, monarch populations have plummeted 90% over the past 20 years.
Fewer than 50 million butterflies made it to Mexico last winter – a fraction of the population once estimated at one billion.
Those numbers mirror the sharp declines of honey bees in recent years.
“We need to turn that around,” Dan Ashe, director of US Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Guardian. “If you look at the 20-year trend definitely monarchs are at risk of vanishing.”
The USFWS will spend $2 million (£1.3m) and work with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to grow milkweed and other butterfly-friendly plants along the monarchs’ main migration routes from Minnesota to Mexico.
The initiative aims to restore more than 200,000 acres of habitat through the spring breeding grounds of Texas and Oklahoma and summer breeding areas in the Corn Belt, tracking closely to the I-35 highway from Austin, Texas to St Paul, Minnesota.
There are also plans to promote wildflowers such as goldenrod and aster along pipeline and electricity lines.
Monarch populations have fallen precipitously over the past 20 years because of changes in farming methods, and the destruction of milkweed that is the caterpillars’ main habitat.
The idea is to get populations back up to 1 billion.
Monarchs showed a slight rebound this year, because of good weather. “That’s a sign we haven’t yet reached any disastrous tipping point,” Ashe said. “If the habitat improves, if we make more habitat for them, then the population still seems to have the ability to respond.”
The Centre for Biological Diversity went to court last August to seek protection for the monarch under the endangered species act. Ashe said the petition presented “substantive evidence” for such protections, and the government was studying the case.
“I think it’s great that this voluntary stuff is going to happen,” said Tierra Curry of the Centre for Biological Diversity. “But if the monarch does get protected that will open up a lot more funding to protect habitat.”
She went on: “It’s going to take a massive amount of investment and a massive amount of milkweed to reverse the decline.”
Two young children in Pennsylvania were banned from talking about fracking for the rest of their lives under a gag order imposed under a settlement reached by their parents with a leading oil and gas company.
The sweeping gag order was imposed under a $750,000 settlement between the Hallowich family and Range Resources Corp, a leading oil and gas driller. It provoked outrage on Monday among environmental campaigners and free speech advocates.
The settlement, reached in 2011 but unsealed only last week, barred the Hallowichs' son and daughter, who were then aged 10 and seven, from ever discussing fracking or the Marcellus Shale, a leading producer in America's shale gas boom.
The Hallowich family had earlier accused oil and gas companies of destroying their 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania and putting their children's health in danger. Their property was adjacent to major industrial operations: four gas wells, gas compressor stations, and a waste water pond, which the Hallowich family said contaminated their water supply and caused burning eyes, sore throats and headaches.
Gag orders – on adults – are typical in settlements reached between oil and gas operators and residents in the heart of shale gas boom in Pennsylvania. But the company lawyer's insistence on extending the lifetime gag order to the Hallowichs' children gave even the judge pause, according to the court documents.
The family gag order was a condition of the settlement. The couple told the court they agreed because they wanted to move to a new home away from the gas fields, and to raise their children in a safer environment. "We need to get the children out of there for their health and safety," the children's mother, Stephanie Hallowich, told the court.
She was still troubled by the gag order, however. "My concern is that they're minors. I'm not quite sure I fully understand. We know we're signing for silence for ever but how is this taking away our children's rights being minors now? I mean my daughter is turning seven today, my son is 10."
The children's father, Chris Hallowich, went on to tell the court it might be difficult to ensure the children's absolute silence on fracking – given that their ages and that the family lives in the middle of a shale gas boom.
"They're going to be among other children that are children of people within this industry and they're going to be around it every day of their life, that if they in turn say one of the illegal words when they're outside of our guardianship we're going to have difficulty controlling that," he said. "We can tell them, they can not say this, they can not say that, but if on the playground....."
The court transcripts were released in response to an open records request by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which first reported on the children's lifetime gag order. The newspaper has been fighting for the release of all documents in the Hallowich settlement.
Campaigners say the secrecy has helped the industry resist more stringent environmental and health controls – by burying evidence of water contamination and health problems associated with natural gas operations. The Hallowichs' lawyer, Peter Villari, told the court he had never seen a gag order imposed on children in his 30 years of practicing law, according to the released transcript.
During the proceedings, the attorney representing Range Resources, James Swetz, reaffirmed the company sought the gag order on the children. "I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family. We would certainly enforce it," he told the court.
Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream and MarkWest Energy were also defendants in the case.
However, once that gag order came to light, two years after the August 2011 proceedings, the company told reporters it did not agree with Swetz's comments. "We don't believe the settlement applies to children," a Range Resources spokesman told the Gazette. He went on to tell the paper that there was no evidence that the Hallowich family was affected by exposure to gas development.
The symbolic doomsday clock moved to three minutes before midnight on Thursday because of the gathering dangers of climate change and nuclear proliferation, signaling the gravest threat to humanity since the throes of the cold war.
It was the closest the clock has come to midnight since 1984, when arms-control negotiations stalled and virtually all channels of communication between the US and the former Soviet Union closed down.
The move came as scientists sounded a warning about climate change for the second time in three years. The last move of the clock hands, from six minutes to five minutes to midnight, in 2012, was also because of climate change.
But the scientists suggested that the greater danger lay in the failure of leaders to recognize and act on climate change.
“Stunning government failures have imperiled civilizations on a global scale,” Benedict said. “World leaders have failed to act on a scale or at a speed to protect humanity from catastrophe.”
The greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change have risen more since 2000 than in the three previous decades combined, Richard Somerville, a research professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said. Even so, he observed, negotiators had steadily lowered their ambitions for a global climate deal.
Meanwhile, the scientists said, global efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals have slowed since 2009, and all of the nuclear powers were expanding reactors and weapons programs.
But it was now moving closer to the apocalypse because of climate change. “We are not saying it is too late to take action, but the window to take action is closing rapidly,” Benedict said.
Barack Obama will unveil a plan to cut methane emissions from America’s booming oil and gas industry by as much as 45% over the next decade in an attempt to cement his climate legacy during his remaining two years in the White House.
The new methane rules – which will be formally unveiled on Wednesday - are the last big chance for Obama to fight climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency is aiming to cut methane emissions by up to 45% from 2012 levels by 2025, White House officials told campaigners during a briefing call.
But it was not clear whether the new rules would apply to existing oil and gas installations, in addition to future sources of carbon pollution, which could weaken their effectiveness in fighting climate change.
“It is the largest opportunity to deal with climate pollution that this administration has not already [been] seized,” said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air programme at the Natural Resources Defence Council.
Methane is the second biggest driver of climate change, after carbon dioxide. On a 20-year timescale, it is 87 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas.
US officials acknowledge that Obama will have to cut methane if he is to make good on his promise to cut US greenhouse gas emissions 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, and by 26% to 28% by 2025.
“It is the largest thing left, and it’s the most cost-effective thing they can do that they haven’t done already, and all the signs are there that they intend to step forward on that,” Doniger said.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to roll out a combination of regulations and voluntary guidelines for the oil and gas industry, people familiar with the plan said.
The rules represent Obama’s first big climate push on the oil and gas sector, after moving to cut emissions from power plants and, during his first term, cars and trucks.
But the clock is ticking. Any new EPA regulations would have to be finalised by the end of 2016 – and Republicans in Congress and industry lobby groups are already mobilising to oppose the standards.
Methane accounts for about 9% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. The biggest share of this by far comes from the oil and gas industry, which has exploded over the last decade.
The US is now the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and is on track to become the world’s largest oil producer in 2015.
Most of those greenhouse gas emissions are from leaky equipment – faulty casing on newly fracked wells, but also millions of miles of pipelines and ageing infrastructure.
The EPA had originally promised to announce a new methane plan by the end of last year.
The agency administrator, Gina McCarthy, indicated that the agency would combine regulations with voluntary guidelines for industry.
Unlike the power plant rules, which left industry a fair amount of latitude in cutting emissions, the methane standards are believed to be tightly focused on plugging leaks.
The new rules could directly target leaking valves and other equipment that allow methane to escape from wells, pipelines and other infrastructure.
The new rules could also be backed up with voluntary guidelines for other types of air pollutants that would also lower methane emissions.
“If you take steps to reduce volatile organic compounds, those steps would automatically have the secondary benefit of reducing methane emissions,” said Sandra Snyder, an environmental attorney at the Bracewell Giuliani law firm.
Three hundred professors at Stanford, including Nobel laureates and this year’s Fields medal winner, are calling on the university to rid itself of all fossil fuel investments, in a sign that the campus divestment movement is gathering force.
In a letter to Stanford’s president, John Hennessy, and the board of trustees, made available exclusively to the Guardian, the faculty members call on the university to recognise the urgency of climate change and divest from all oil, coal and gas companies.
Campus divestment campaigns have spread to about 300 universities and colleges over the last few years, but are largely dominated by students. The Stanford letter was initiated by faculty, and signed by the first female winner of the prestigious Fields prize in mathematics, Maryam Mizarkhani, as well as the Nobel laureates Douglas Osheroff and Roger Kornberg, Paul Ehrlich, a population analyst, Terry Root, a biologist and UN climate report author, and others – 300 faculty members in total.
The letter calls on Stanford to pull out of all fossil fuel investments, not just coal. “The urgency and magnitude of climate change call not for partial solutions, however admirable; they demand the more profound and thorough commitment embodied in divestment from all fossil-fuel companies,” the letter says.
“The alternative – for Stanford to remain invested in oil and gas companies – presents us with a paradox: if a university seeks to educate extraordinary youth so they may achieve the brightest possible future, what does it mean for that university simultaneously to invest in the destruction of that future? Given that the university has signalled its awareness of the dangers posed by fossil fuels, what are the implications of Stanford’s making only a partial confrontation with this danger?”
Elizabeth Tallent, an English professor and one of the organisers of the letter, said she saw the campaign as a natural extension of her work as a professor. “I think if you want what you do to matter, and not only for a moment in the classroom, you think: how can students make use of this in 10 years or 20 years? If you are imagining the future of youth in 20 years, then you run into the problem of what the world will look like.”
Ehrlich, known for his warnings about overpopulation, said Stanford had an obligation to protect its endowment. “It’s crystal-clear that fossil fuels, most of them, are going to have to remain in the ground if we are going to avoid a real catastrophe and of course the value of stock is tied to that,” he said. “If we are not going to be able to use those fossil fuels, the stock is going to tank and places like Stanford have a fiscal responsibility to maintain the endowment. Having an investment in fossil fuels is a very bad investment.”
Stanford would not comment directly on the petition. But a spokeswoman, Lisa Lapin, said in an email that Stanford had completely withdrawn its investments from coalmining companies.
She said an advisory panel was studying the feasibility of further fossil fuel divestment. “Stanford takes all concerns raised with the university about the nature and impact of its investments very seriously,” Lapin said.
The fossil-fuel divestment campaign has grown rapidly over the past few years, driven by the deepening awareness that most of the world’s coal, oil and gas reserves must stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change. According to the world’s leading climate scientists, those safety limits could be breached within 30 years if the world goes on burning fossil fuels at the current rate,
Last September, the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune withdrew their $860m philanthrophic fund from investments in tar sands, coal, and oil. Campaigners claimed at the time to have persuaded 800 investors – foundations such as the Rockefeller brothers, religious groups, healthcare organisations, cities and universities – to withdraw a total of $50bn from fossil fuel investments over the next five years.
But Harvard rejected a campaign by students and 100 faculty to remove fossil fuel holdings from its $32bn endowment, claiming such a move would have only a negligible financial impact.
George Shultz, secretary of state under Ronald Reagan and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who has tried to push fellow Republicans to act on climate, said the university should think instead about imposing a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
“I am very much on the side of worrying about climate issues,” he said. But he did not support the divestment campaign, adding: “It’s mainly to make people here feel good.”
Ehrlich said it was important for leading universities such as Stanford to take a stand. “It is very important that educational institutions in particular and organisations that think of themselves as part of civil society make this important step,” he said. “It is symbolic. It is not going to instantly change the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, but it is damn important.”
The corporate lobbying network American Legislative Exchange Council, commonly known as Alec, is planning a new onslaught on a number of environmental protections next year when Republicans take control of Congress and a number of state legislatures.
The battle lines of Alec’s newest attack on environmental and climate measures will be formally unveiled on Wednesday, when the group begins three days of meetings in Washington DC.
Alec, described by its opponents as a corporate bill mill, has suffered an exodus of tech companies from its ranks recently because of its extreme positions – especially its promotion of climate denial.
Despite the setbacks, Alec remains focused on pushing back government regulation and blocking efforts to fight climate change in 2015, according to documents posted on its website in preparation for Wednesday’s gathering.
On the agenda for its environment and energy task force are draft model bills that will seek to disband the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), expand offshore oil drilling, and weaken environmental protections for smog and other air pollutants, as well as roll back protections for endangered species.
The top priority appears to be rolling back the main pillar of Obama’s climate action plan: new rules to limit carbon pollution from power plants now being rolled out by the EPA.
Under the most extreme proposal, Alec would urge Congress to gut the EPA entirely, cutting its environmental protection budget by 75%, and delegating its powers to 300 state agency employees.
Alec has also proposed two measures that would deter states from adopting EPA’s power plant rules.
“The goal is to clearly block any action whatsoever on climate change. It’s not to shape action on climate change,” David Goldston, head of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council told a conference call on Tuesday.
However, Alec is proposing bills that would roll back new ozone protections just announced last week, and vastly expand oil drilling off the Alaskan and Atlantic coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico.
Alec does not generally welcome media coverage of its activities. The group rejected the Guardian’s request to attend this week’s meeting.
But behind the scenes, the organisation has had a huge influence on conservative politics in the states – and in some instances has seen its proposed model bills adopted almost wholesale by Republican legislators.
Those model policies adopted at the conference in Washington will eventually be introduced as prospective pieces of legislation by state legislators and Alec members around the country.
Over the last year, the organisation pursued bills to overturn environmental protections and weaken state regulations promoting the use of renewable energy sources in more than a dozen states. The majority of those efforts were beaten back.
The coming year could be a banner year for Alec, with Republicans taking control of both houses of Congress in January. Republicans also gained ground in the states in the midterm elections.
For 2015, the NRDC said it expected the lobbying group to focus its anti-EPA efforts on coal-heavy states.
“Ohio, Missouri, Illinois – states where the coal industry is especially prevalent are places where I expect these things to come up,” said Aliya Haq, the NRDC’s climate change special projects director.
Biotech and supermarket giants are spending more than $25 million to defeat ballot initiatives in two western states that would require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms. In Colorado, DuPont and Monsanto food companies are outspending supporters of mandatory labeling by 22-1 ahead of the 4 November vote, according to state campaign finance records.
The heavy industry spending resembles the last-minute infusions of cash for television ads, direct mail, and campaign staff that helped defeat earlier campaigns for mandatory GM labeling in California and Washington state.
He said the pro-labeling campaign had raised $625,000 by Thursday afternoon. Cooper’s opponents, meanwhile, amassed $14 million, after DuPont this week gave an additional $3 million to the campaign, and were advertising heavily on local television.
“Why they put $14 million in Colorado to keep us in the dark really doesn’t make sense to me,” Cooper said. “The bottom line is that we really don’t know what is in our food. We are shopping blindly.”
Monsanto alone has spent $4.7 million to defeat the measure. Other top donors to the campaign to defeat pro-labeling Proposition 105 read like a grocery shopping list. They include: PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, General Mills, Hershey Company, Coca-Cola and Kellogg, and Flower Food, according to Colorado state campaign finance records.
The spending is much less lopsided in Oregon where opponents of the state’s Measure 92 labeling initiative have raised $11 million while supporters have $6 million.
Monsanto is a major force in both states. “We oppose state-by-state mandatory labeling laws like Measure 92 in Oregon and Proposition 105 in Colorado,” a company spokeswoman said in an email. “The reason we don’t support them is simple. They don’t provide any safety or nutrition information and these measures will hurt, not help, consumers, taxpayers and businesses.”
Unlike Colorado, labeling advocates in Oregon have attracted some big donors to their side, including $1 million from Dr Bronners’ magic soaps.
An heir to the Hormel meat-packing fortune. Thomas Hormel, who has no connection to the company and lives in Florida, gave $500,000, according to state campaign finance records.
The company immediately ramped up its own donations, giving a total of $85,000 to defeat the labeling initiative.
Kevin Glenn, a spokesman for Oregon Right to Know, said the pro-labeling side hoped to counter the financial advantage by grassroots organizing. He said the campaign had opened five field offices in the state, and was about to start canvassing door-to-door.
Scientists generally agree that foods containing GM ingredients are safe to eat, but the “right to know” has emerged as a hugely emotional issue for some Americans.
Pro-labeling campaigners say the public has a right to know exactly what they are eating. Opponents say labels make no sense if there are no real health concerns, and risks stigmatizing their products.
Dozens of America’s east coast cities face routine tidal flooding under climate change, researchers said on Wednesday.
Miami – where the habitues of South Beach are used to sloshing through water at high tide – will deploy new pumps this week to hold back the waters of the King Tides, the highest annual high tides, which are projected to crest at 3.5 feet (1.07m).
Other cities are going to have to undertake similar measures if they want to avoid soggy streets in the future, the researchers said.
The report, Encroaching Tides: How Sea Level Rise and Tidal Flooding Threaten U.S. East and Gulf Coast Communities over the Next 30 Years, from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), found most of the towns on America’s east coast will see triple the number of flooding events by 2030.
By 2045, those towns will see 10 times as many tidal floods – and those floods will seep further inland, and last longer, the researchers said.
Many coastal towns already see dozens of small tidal floods every year, typically lasting only a few hours.
But the frequency of such events is marching upwards because of sea level rise – which at some points along the east coast is more than twice the global average.
Some east coast towns have recorded four times as many flood days as in 1970, the report found.
Washington DC, which already experiences flooding from the Potomac river during hurricanes, will see chronic flooding – with 388 occurrences a year by 2045, according to the report.
Annapolis, Maryland, Lewisetta, Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, will see more than 300 tidal floods a year.
Miami – which now experiences about six tidal floods a year – will also get wetter.
“Further down the coast, Miami Beach, in 30 years, would experience more than 200 tidal floods a year,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a UCS analyst and co-author of the report. “ Some could affect much of the art-deco historic district of South Beach ... Without serious intervention, frequent flooding will start to disrupt daily life and change the way an area functions.”
The researchers used National Weather Service flood advisories and records from 52 tide gauges in coastal towns from Portland, Maine to Freeport, Texas to make their projections.
In nearly all of the towns, tidal floods will be a regular occurrence, they found. By 2030, most of the towns could expect to see flooding in some areas 24 times a year. Some of those towns would see 48 floods a year.
The frequency of those floods will worsen over time, the researchers said. By 2045, half of the towns can expect to see more than 100 tidal floods a year. Nine of those towns would see tidal floods 240 times a year by 2045.
Those cities can also expect to spend more time under-water. By 2045, flood-prone areas of Wilmington, North Carolina will spend more than 345 hours a year underwater.
Baltimore’s inner harbour is projected to be under water for more than 875 hours a year by 2045.
And the floods are also expected to worsen – with deeper waters penetrating further inland, and threatening more property, the researchers found.
The plight of thousands of walruses forced to crowd on to an Alaska beach because of disappearing sea ice has set off an all-out response from the US government to avoid a catastrophic stampede.
The Federal Aviation Authority has re-routed flights, and local communities have called on bush pilots to keep their distance in an effort to avoid setting off a panic that could see scores of walruses trampled to death, federal government scientists told reporters.
Curiosity seekers and the media have also been asked to stay away.
An estimated 35,000 walruses were spotted on the barrier island in north-western Alaska on 27 September by scientists on an aerial survey flight.
The biggest immediate risk factor for the walruses now is a stampede – especially for baby walruses – but they have been facing a growing threat from climate change, the scientists said.
The extraordinary sighting – the biggest known exodus of walruses to dry land ever observed in the Arctic under US control – arrived as the summer sea ice fell to its sixth lowest in the satellite record last month.
“Those animals have essentially run out of offshore sea ice, and have no other choice but to come ashore,” said Chadwick Jay, a research ecologist in Alaska with the US Geological Survey.
Until 2007, it was unheard of for walruses to leave the sea ice for dry land for prolonged periods of time. But the retreat of sea ice has seen “drastic changes” in behavior, Jay said. Walruses have struck out for beaches in six of the last eight years.
He said there was no doubt the migration – or “hauling out” as it is called – was caused by climate change.
“It is really a reduction in the sea ice that is causing the change in behavior, and the reduction of sea ice is due to global warming,” Jay said.
But the immediate concern was to avoid a stampede – a leading risk factor for walruses when they crowd onto beaches and barrier islands.
The FAA is asking pilots to remain above 2,000ft and half a mile away from the walruses. Helicopters – a bigger risk to the walruses because they are noisier – have been asked to remain 3,000ft up and a mile away. News crews, which have been clamoring to film the walruses, have also been asked to stay away. “The government and local communities are respectfully asking you to leave the haul-out alone,” Joel Garlich Miller, a Walrus biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters.
Walruses are naturally skittish animals, unused to being closely packed together. They also spend 80% of their time on water. Those in the Chukchi sea this time of year are generally females and juveniles and so at greater risk of being trampled to death.
“You have all these animals that are normally distributed on a flat surface. When they lose their sea ice habitat and come ashore in places that are accessible – like flat, sandy beaches – they gather in large numbers, and it becomes like a giant pig pile,” said Margaret Williams, managing director for the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program. “When they are disturbed it can cause stampedes in large numbers.”
The walruses were first observed at Point Lay on 12 September, the scientists said. Since that initial sighting of an estimated 10,000 walruses, their numbers have fluctuated – falling to as few as 1,500 on 23 September. However, the scientists cautioned these were very preliminary estimates.
The survey flights have also spotted walrus carcasses on the beach – 50 last week, and another 36 on 27 September. There were signs of both brown bears and polar bears in the area.
Hauling out of walruses have become increasingly frequent since 2000 – as warming creates bigger expanses of open water in the summer months. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is considering expanding protections for walruses as an endangered species.
The sea ice was especially low this year, off Alaska and eastern Siberia, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Summer sea ice cover fell to 1.94m square miles on 17 September, according to the NSIDC,forcing the walruses on to land.
Those forays on to land have frequently proved deadly in the past, because of stampedes and competition for food. Scientists have recorded mass deaths of walruses due to stampedes following such landings in Russia.
“We have seen this phenomenon in terms of high concentrations of walruses that has been occurring on the Russian coast for some time in huge numbers. There are high rates of walrus mortality, especially in calves – babies,” said Williams.
In addition to the stampede risk, it is also much harder for the walruses to hunt from the beach. The walruses typically disperse over large expanses of water, uses ice floes as a platform to hunt for the clams and other shell fish that are their main food source.
Texas has proposed re-writing school text books to incorporate passages denying the existence of climate change and promoting the discredited views of an ultra-conservative think tank.
The proposed text books – which come up for public hearing at the Texas state board of education on Tuesday – were already attracting criticism when it emerged that the science section had been altered to reflect the doctrine of the Heartland Institute, which has been funded by the Koch oil billionaires.
However, as the analysis noted, there is no scientific disagreement about the causes of climate change. The report said the entire section was misleading. “Scientists do not disagree about what is causing climate change, the vast majority (97%) of climate papers and actively publishing climatologists (again 97%) agree that human activity is responsible,” the report said.
Minda Berbeco of the NCSE said that the disinformation was a disservice to a new generation of Texans who will have to deal with climate change. “Climate change will be a key issue that future citizens of Texas will need to understand and confront, and they deserve social studies textbooks that reinforce good science and prepare them for the challenges ahead,” she said in a statement.
Kathy Miller, the president of the Texas Freedom Network, suggested that the proposed text books had been deliberately aligned with the political ideology of the rightwing Tea Party. A majority of Republicans in Congress deny the existence of global warming or oppose action on climate change.
The NCSE reviewers also found disinformation on climate change in the proposed 5th grade text books. The passage reads: “Some scientists say it is natural for Earth’s temperature to be higher for a few years. They predict we’ll have some cooler years and things will even out.”
But the centre said that was incorrect. “We are not aware of any currently publishing climatologists who are predicting a cooling trend where ‘things will even out.’”
The reviewers said the proposed 6th and 8th grade texts also contained false statements on the causes for the thinning of the ozone layer.
But the researchers said there was no direct causal relationship with fracking itself.
“Our data do not suggest that horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing has provided a conduit to connect deep Marcellus or Barnett formations directly to surface aquifers,” the authors wrote.
Instead, the researchers said the leakage was due to faulty cement casing on natural gas wells.
The finding was in line with a number of earlier studies on leaks in the cement casing of natural gas wells.
In Pennsylvania, state inspectors found about 9% of steel and cement casings on wells drilled since the start of the natural gas boom were compromised. There was an even higher risk on newer wells drilled since 2009, especially in the north-western part of the state, the inspectors found.
Scientists from Cornell University – who have often led research onto environmental problems associated with fracking – have said in the past the problems with well construction were due to installation as well as faulty cement mixing.
Earlier this year, the Cornell researchers also found higher rates of methane leakage from natural gas wells.
Researchers from Duke University meanwhile have suggested that the higher failure rate for hydraulically fractured (fracked) wells could be due to longer distances, or the horizontal orientation, which adds to pressure on the casing.
Monday’s study was conducted by scientists from Ohio State University,Stanford University, Dartmouth College, and the University of Rochester as well as Duke.
The researchers took water samples seven locations around gas drilling regions in the Pennsylvania and Texas, and analysed them for traces of methane gas.
In some cases, the gas come from shallow formations unrelated to fracking, but travelled up through the gas well and leaked into the groundwater from there because of faulty casing.
Half of North America’s bird species, from common backyard visitors like the Baltimore oriole and the rufous hummingbird to wilderness dwellers like the common loon and bald eagle, are under threat from climate change and many could go extinct, an exhaustive new study has found.
Seven years of research found climate change the biggest threat to North America’s bird species.
Some 314 species face dramatic declines in population, if present trends continue, with warming temperatures pushing the birds out of their traditional ranges. Ten states and Washington DC could lose their state birds.
“The scale of disruption we are projecting means that many familiar sounds, and many familiar birds that people may see in their backyards and on their walks, that help them define a place for them, may no longer be there.”
The outlook was far bleaker than a US government report just a few years ago on the fate of North America’s birds under climate change. That report, in 2010, projected ocean and Arctic birds would be most vulnerable to climate change.
An updated version of that report is also due out on Tuesday.
The Audubon researchers found that by mid-century, 126 of the 588 bird species in the study would lose more than half of their traditional ranges, and would go into decline. An additional 188 species would lose their range by 2080, according to the study.
Maryland would lose the Baltimore oriole, the mascot for the baseball team as well as the state bird, which would no longer be able to breed in the mid-Atlantic. Lousiana would lose the brown pelican. Minnesota would lose the common loon, its state bird, which would be unable to survive in the continental United States.
Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, and Washington DC would also lose their state birds.
The bald eagle, once considered a success story for American conservation, could lose 75% of its range by 2080. Some birds, such as the trumpeter swan, would lose virtually all of their range towards the end of the century, according to the projections.
The study found 274 birds would maintain or increase their range under climate change. But Langham said that was not an automatic guarantee for survival. Even if the birds find more room to expand, they could face renewed competition from other species, as well as new predators.
The researchers drew on more than a century of observations from birders as well as a 40-year historical record from the US Geological Survey, combining the data with 17 climate models.
The Audubon’s chief executive, David Yarnold, described the findings as a “call to action”.
The group is calling for cuts to the carbon emissions that cause climate change, as well as measures to preserve more habitat and give the birds a better chance of survival.
But the findings, though grim, may underplay the threat to survival of North America’s birds.
Langham said the study did not take into account other factors associated with climate change – such as sea level rise, which can flood marshes and other bird habitat with salt water; drought, which can kill off insects and other food sources, or extreme storms. As a result, it was likely a conservative look at the fate of birds, he said.
The first decade of the 21st century saw 3,496 natural disasters from floods, storms, droughts and heat waves. That was nearly five times as many disasters as the 743 catastrophes reported during the 1970s – and all of those weather events are influenced by climate change.
The bottom line: natural disasters are occurring nearly five times as often as they were in the 1970s. But some disasters – such as floods and storms – pose a bigger threat than others. Flooding and storms are also taking a bigger bite out of the economy. But heat waves are an emerging killer.
1) We're going to need a bigger boat – or flood defenses
Flooding and mega-storms were by far the leading cause of disaster from 2000-2010. About 80% of the 3,496 disasters of the last decade were due to flooding and storms. Seas are rising because of climate change. So are extreme rain storms. There is growing evidence that warming temperatures are increasing the destructive force of hurricanes.
2) Heat waves are the new killer
Heat waves didn't even register as a threat in the 1970s. By 2010, they were one of the leading causes of deaths in natural disasters, along with storms. In Russia alone, more than 55,000 people died as a result of heat wave in 2010.
3) Floods are getting more costly
Disasters were about 5.5 times more expensive by 2010 than they were in the 1970s, and most of that was because of the rising losses due to floods. The cost of disasters rose to $864bn (£505bn) in the last decade.
4) Nearly all of the 8,835 disasters – about 89% - were due to flooding and storms
Oklahoma has had about 240 magnitude 3.0 or higher earthquakes just since the start of the year. The state now has twice the number of 3.0 earthquakes as California.
Before 2008, when the oil and gas boom got underway, the state averaged about one a year.
The researchers from Cornell University and other institutions traced a large number of earthquakes through 2012 to just four wells, south-east of Oklahoma city.
Those wells were pumped with significantly higher volumes of fracking wastewater and chemicals than the thousands of other disposal wells in the state.
The findings were the first to show such waste wells can trigger earthquakes up to 40kms away from the injection site.
They are bound to further deepen the controversy surrounding fracking, which has vastly expanded America's oil and natural gas production, but with rising consequences for health, safety and the environment.
Another Cornell-led team this week found that 40% of the fracked wells in north-eastern Pennsylvania were at risk of leaking methane into groundwater and air.
The researchers said faulty cement casings could be responsible.
In Thursday's study, researchers found a suite of wells around Oklahoma city, which collectively were pumped with nearly 5m barrels a month of waste, caused the swarm of earthquakes.
“These really big wells have the biggest impacts on the system,” said Geoffrey Abers, a professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and one of the authors of the study.
The biggest of the disposal wells was pumped with up to 1.6m barrels a month of fracking waste.
“The earthquakes themselves seem to occur on small discrete faults. As the pressure builds up in the sedimentary formation that they are pumped into ... They put that fault over the edge by jacking up the pore pressure.”
He ruled out a natural explanation for the spike in earthquakes. “This many earthquakes over and over again is not really something we have seen in a natural system,” he said.
Instead, the researchers found the earthquakes over the last five years were triggered by a relatively small number of the thousands of injection wells drilled across the state to dispose of the mix of water and chemicals used by drillers to flush oil and gas from layers of rock.
The researchers said the four Oklahoma city wells raised underground pressures, triggering a swarm of earthquakes across nearly 2,000 square kilometres.
In some instances, the earthquakes were more than 30km from the disposal site – much farther than researchers had expected.
The first earthquakes known to be caused by a fracking waste disposal well, occurred in Youngstown, Ohio. Scientists registered at least 109 earthquakes after the injection well came into operation in December 2010 until it was shut down a year later, following an earthquake that registered a magnitude of 3.9.
Those earthquakes were localised, however, the researched noted.
In their study, earthquakes travelled great distances from the disposal sites. There was also a time lag.“This is a situation where the pumping starts months or a couple of years before the earthquakes are observed at all,” Abers said.
The researchers found the areas of underground pressure continually expanded, increasing the likelihood of encountering bigger faults, and the risks of triggering higher-magnitude earthquakes.
The Oklahoma regulator has no rules limiting the pressure or volume of fracking waste that can be pumped into such disposal wells.
The authors refused repeated requests to identify or discuss the four high-volume wells responsible for a large volume of the earthquakes.
The biggest such well was owned and operated by New Dominion LLC, according to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
At least four other high-volume wells belonged to a now bankrupt company, Beard Oil.
Herb Mee, Beard's president, told the Guardian the company filed for bankruptcy in October 2012, and the wells have been out of operation since December 2012. He noted earthquakes had increased this year - well after his disposal wells shut down.
“We've got earthquakes every day, but they are much worse now than they were then,” he said. “We don't have any operations. If they were trying to pin anything on us, they are barking up the wrong tree.”
Jack Money, a spokesman for New Dominion, said the findings were "irresponsible" and based on "certain false assumptions", and that the company was seeking legal counsel.
In an emailed statement, Money said the company had not had enough time to study the findings but "an initial review reflects it is premised on certain false assumptions".
The statement added that the company operated its four wells in the Oklahoma city area safely and in co-operation with state regulators.
The statement added: "At best these incorrect assumptions are irresponsible".
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which is charged with overseeing the safety of oil and gas operations, said it could not yet comment on the findings.
President Barack Obama will unveil a plan on Monday that will cut carbon pollution from power plants and promote cap-and-trade, undertaking the most significant action on climate change in American history.
The proposed regulations Obama will launch at the White House on Monday could cut carbon pollution by as much as 25% from about 1,600 power plants in operation today, according to those claiming familiarity with the plan.
Power plants are the country's single biggest source of carbon pollution – responsible for up to 40% of the country's emissions.
The rules, which were drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency and are under review by the White House, are expected to do more than Obama, or any other president, has done so far to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions responsible for climate change.
They will put America on course to meet its international climate goal, and put US diplomats in a better position to leverage climate commitments from big polluters such as China and India, Obama said in a speech to West Point graduates this week.
“I intend to make sure America is out front in a global framework to preserve our planet,” he said. “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example. We can not exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else.”
It won't be without a fight. Obama went on in his remarks at West Point to take a shot at Republicans who deny climate change is occurring, and the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, on Thursday accused critics of making “doomsday claims” about the costs of cutting carbon.
But the White House still showed some signs of nervousness about a political backlash, releasing a report about expanded oil and gas production on Obama's watch and adding to the furious spinning by environmental and industry groups about the potential costs and benefits of the EPA regulations.
“We actually see this … as the Super Bowl of climate politics,” said Peter Altman, director of the climate and clean air campaign for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which produced a model carbon-cutting plan that has helped guide the EPA regulations.
But if all unfolds according to plan, Obama will have succeeded in overcoming blanket opposition – and outright climate denial in many cases – from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress, an industry-funded misinformation campaign, and a slew of anticipated lawsuits.
Obama had originally hoped to cut carbon pollution by moving a bill through Congress. Four years after that effort fell apart, campaigners say the EPA rules could deliver significant emissions cuts – near the 17% Obama proposed at the Copenhagen climate summit – and the cap-and-trade programmes that were so reviled by Republicans.
The EPA, using its authority under the Clean Air Act, proposed the first rule phase, covering future power plants, last September.
In this the more politically contentious phase of the plan, it is widely believed the EPA will depart from the “inside the fence-line” convention of earlier environmental regulations for mercury and other pollutants, which focused on emissions-scrubbing on specific power plants.
The EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, is seeking steep reductions – as much as 25% – but she has hinted repeatedly that she will allow states latitude in how they reach those targets.
The plan would allow electricity companies to reduce pollution by shutting down the oldest and most polluting coal plants. They can install carbon-sucking retrofits. They can expand wind and solar energy, upgrade the electrical grid, encourage customers to update to more efficient heating and cooling systems, or more efficient appliances and lightbulbs.
“They have recognised huge emissions reductions opportunities are often cheaper than trying to do it all inside the plant,” said David Doniger, who heads the climate programme at the NRDC. “If you want to get substantial reductions and you want to get it economically, you have to take into account a system-wide approach.”
The EPA to expected to try to soften the impact of the regulations by coming out with a range of targets, taking account of the energy mix in different states, and by allowing a two-step phase-in of the targets, with steeper cuts delayed until 2030.
But campaigners and industry are bracing for a fight.
The Chamber of Commerce, one of the major opponents of the environmental regulations, said in a report on Wednesday the EPA regulations would cost $51bn a year in higher electricity prices and lost jobs and investment – but those figures were disputed.
Coal mining companies, power plant operators that are heavily dependent on coal, attorney generals in about a dozen Republican-controlled states, and conservative think tanks also argue the system-wide approach oversteps the EPA's authority, and are lining up for legal challenges.
“I suspect we will see more environmental litigation as it relates to CO2 emissions going forward from a variety of sources,” said Karen Harbert, who heads the Chamber's energy institute.
America's carbon dioxide emissions have been falling over the last few years to the lowest levels since the 1990s, because of a switch from coal to cheaper natural gas, and on a smaller scale increased investment in renewables. The economic downturn also reduced demand for electricity.
The White House said those changes – which were mainly market-driven – showed the EPA regulations would not hurt the economy as critics claim.
“We can transform our energy system to be less carbon intensive while still growing the economy,” Obama's counsellor, John Podesta, told a conference call.
The EPA rules would fix those reductions in place and – as several campaigners and energy analysts noted – be a relatively easy reach for a large number of states which have already moved to cut emissions and expand wind and solar power.
More than 30 states already have regulations promoting renewable energy. Minnesota and Colorado are pledged to get 30% of their power from renewables by 2020.
Meanwhile, nine north-eastern states and California are already rewarding power companies which cut carbon through operating cap-and-trade systems.
Those changes in the energy landscape – and an intense outreach campaign by McCarthy and other officials – could defuse of the opposition, said Paul Bledsoe, an energy consultant who served on Bill Clinton's climate change task force. “I think there is a divide between the companies,” he said. “Coal heavy companies are going to fight it tooth and nail, especially behind the scenes, legally. The more gas, nuclear and renewable-heavy companies are going to be more sanguine about it.”
The EPA rules could also end up vastly expanding regional cap-and-trade programmes. Kelly Speakes-Backman, who heads the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the north-east, said she had already had quiet approaches from a number of state officials.
She said the nine states in RGGI had already cut carbon dioxide emissions 40% from 2005 levels, and were aiming to halve carbon pollution by 2020. The new EPA rules would be a “game-changer” for cap-and-trade.
Once Obama makes his announcement on Monday, the clock starts ticking. The EPA will have one year to take public comment from anyone from Greenpeace to Peabody Coal before finalising the new standards in June 2015.
Once those rules are final, the states will have one year, or until June 2016, to submit their plans for meeting the new EPA targets.
With Obama's term ending in January 2017, those are tight deadlines – especially with the legal and political battles ahead. But it does put Obama in position to fulfill the promises he made on climate change when he was first elected in 2008.
“This whole suite of policies is getting us within shooting range of where we could have been with a cap-and-trade bill,” said Vicki Arroyo, who heads the climate centre at Georgetown University law school. “If the EPA is really restructuring programmes to take advantage of systems wide benefits … then that is just huge.”
Climate change has moved from the corners of the earth into the American backyard, the country's leading scientists warned on Tuesday, saying they hoped a landmark report they prepared for the Obama administration would spur action to deal with the challenge.
The National Climate Assessment, compiled by 300 leading scientists and experts and weighing in at more than 800 pages, was adopted by scientists on Tuesday morning and formally released by the White House. Once a distant threat, climate change is a present-day danger, the report warns in stark language.
The scientists singled out sea-level rise, especially in Miami, drought and wildfires in the south-west, and heavy downpours as the biggest threats confronting Americans. The report, intended to be the definitive account of the effects of climate change on the US, is expected to drive the remaining two years of Barack Obama's environmental agenda.
“What this report shows is that climate change is happening now in our own backyards,” Thomas Karl, the director of the climatic centre at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Guardian. “There are a number of changes that have become faster and more apparent and stronger than we first anticipated.”
The White House is overseeing a series of events on Tuesday and later in the week to amplify the report's findings – including a series of interviews of President Barack Obama by television meteorologists – in an effort to drive the administration's climate agenda.
“This is actionable science,” the White House adviser, John Podesta, told reporters.
Scientists who worked on the report said they hoped the findings would focus Americans on the need to cut emissions that cause climate change, and to plan for the future consequences of climate change.
“I think maybe this report will be the turning point when people finally realise that this is about them,” said Susan Hassol, the chief science writer on the repor. “It's about them and their lives … Earlier, they had seen it as a distant threat – distant in time, distance in space, this is about poles, this is about island nations. They haven't seen it as a threat in their own backyard.”
The language of the report was deliberately straightforward. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved into the present,” the report begins. “Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter … winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours.”
The report is a compilation of published peer-reviewed science of the last several years, and details the effects of climate change on eight regions in the US. It notes that average temperature in the US has increased by about 1.5F (0.8C) since 1895, with more than 80% of that rise since 1980. The last decade was the hottest on record in the US.
Temperatures are projected to rise another 2F over the next few decades, the report says. In northern latitudes such as Alaska, temperatures are rising even faster.
Record-breaking heat – even at night – is expected to produce more drought and fuel larger and more frequent wildfires in the south-west, the report says. The north-east, midwest and Great Plains states will see an increase in heavy downpours and a greater risk of flooding.
Those living on the Atlantic seaboard, Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska who have weathered the effects of sea level rise and storm surges can expect to see more. Residents of coastal cities, especially in Florida where there is already frequent flooding during rainstorms, can expect to see more. So can people living in inland cities sited on rivers.
Some changes are already having a measurable effect on food production and public health, the report said.
In California, warmer winters have made it difficult to grow cherries. In the midwest, wetter springs have delayed planting. Invasive vines such as kudzu have spread northward, from the south to the Canadian border.
Some of the effects on agriculture, such as a longer growing season, are positive. But Takle said: "By mid-century and beyond the overall impacts will be increasingly negative on most crops and livestock."
Scientists said the findings confirmed earlier research. “What is new over the last decade is that we know with increasing certainty that climate change is happening now,” the report said. “Observations unequivocally show that climate is changing and that warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.”
The findings are expected to guide Obama as he rolls out the next and most ambitious phase of his climate change plan in June – a proposal to cut emissions from the current generation of power plants, America's largest single source of carbon pollution.
The assessments are the American equivalent of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. This year's report for the first time looks at what America has done to fight climate change or protect people from its consequences in the future.
Nearly half of all Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to an American Lung Association (ALA) report released Wednesday.
Nearly 148 million people live in areas where smog and soot particles make it unhealthy to breathe the air, according to the ALA's annual study on US air quality.
The report, which is based on data collected between 2010 and 2012, found smog, or ozone, had worsened in 22 of the 25 biggest US metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, Houston, Washington-Baltimore, New York City and Chicago – and said there was a high risk of more high-ozone days because of climate change.
"Weather played a factor," the report said. "The warmer summers in 2010 and 2012 contributed to higher ozone readings and more frequent ozone days. Sunlight and heat create conditions that increase the risk of high ozone levels."
Smog, or ozone, which is the most widespread air pollutant, forms more readily in hotter temperatures, and is expected to increase under climate change. "It's going to make it harder to clean up air pollution," said Janice Nolen of the ALA. "Days that wouldn't ordinarily have high ozone levels are going to have them."
She added: "It's going to be much harder to keep ozone pollution down to the levels that we should be breathing."
There is growing concern globally – including in the US – about the health risks of air pollution. The report's release comes a day after the supreme court endorsed the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to deal with smog and soot that travel across state lines. The ALA had joined that case on behalf of the EPA. The group has also been pushing hard to tighten air pollution standards, and has supported the EPA's moves to force power plants to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
Scientific research shows that smog and soot are far more harmful at lower levels than previously thought. A growing body of research over the last decade has connected air pollution to increased deaths from heart disease and respiratory illnesses. The World Health Organisation said last autumn that particulate pollution causes lung cancer.
Air pollution in New Delhi rose to record levels in winter, triggering a debate about whether the Indian capital had now caught up with Beijing. Britain was on smog alert earlier this month after recording very high levels of air pollution.
Meanwhile, California's pollution control officers warned this month that extreme heat and wildfires could set back decades of improvements in air quality, boosting smog formation and spewing dangerous smoke into the air.
Eighteen of the 25 US cities with the worst particulate pollution saw a drop in year-round particle pollutants because of cuts in emissions for coal-fired power plants and other measures. Thirteen of them, including Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Atlanta, registered their lowest ever levels. But the report said those cities still failed to meet national standards for year-round particle pollution.
It is already taking shape as the 21st century urban nightmare: a big storm hits a city like Shanghai, Mumbai, Miami or New York, knocking out power supply and waste treatment plants, washing out entire neighbourhoods and marooning the survivors in a toxic and foul-smelling swamp.
Now the world's leading scientists are suggesting that those same cities in harm's way could help drive solutions to climate change.
A draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), obtained by the Guardian, says smart choices in urban planning and investment in public transport could help significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, especially in developing countries.
The draft is due for release in Berlin on Sunday, the third and final instalment of the IPCC's authoritative report on climate change.
"The next two decades present a window of opportunity for urban mitigation as most of the world's urban areas and their infrastructure have yet to be constructed," the draft said.
Around 1 billion people live in cities and coastal areas at risk of sea-level rise and coastal flooding – and those figures are expected to rise in the coming decades.
Most of the high-risk areas are in Asia, but the US east coast, where the rate of sea level rise is three or four times faster than the global average, is also a "hotspot", with cities, beaches and wetlands exposed to flooding.
But those at-risk cities also produce a large and growing share of emissions that cause climate change – which makes them central to its solution.
"They are at the frontlines of this issue," said Seth Schultz, research director for the C40 group of mega-cities taking action on climate change. "And on the whole cities have extraordinarily strong power to deliver on these things."
Even in America, where Republican governors and members of Congress deny the existence or have rolled back action on climate change, cities are moving ahead.
South-east Florida faces a triple threat – flat, built on porous rock, and in line for high sea-level rise. Planners in four south-eastern counties are preparing for 24 inches of sea-level rise by 2060 – which could put a large area around Miami underwater.
Beaches and barrier islands are already starting to disappear. Miami and other towns flood during heavy rain storms and full-moon high tides, and saltwater is already seeping into the network of canals in the Everglades.
"Sometimes it is tempting to think those impacts just occur in small coastal areas, but they are more extensive than that," said Jennifer Jurado, director of natural resources for Broward county.
Her nightmare scenario in a future of rising sea level would be flooding from both directions – the coast and inland – with saltwater contaminating groundwater reserves, and saturating farmland.
Jurado and officials in three other south-eastern counties of Florida have teamed up on a plan to cut emissions and protect populations from future sea-level rise.
Officials started with computer modelling to draw up details plans of what Florida would look like under future sea-level rise.
Broward county is now restricting development in areas at risk of two feet of sea-level rise. Water districts in Sweetwater and other towns south of Miami are installing pumps at $70m each to divert storm run off water and pump it back into the ocean.
And while Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, has put climate change efforts on hold, Broward county last month committed to getting 20% of electricity for county from renewable sources and increasing energy efficiency by 20%. Homeowners are being offered rebates on their property taxes to install solar panels.
The county has also pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.
Across the country in another Republican-controlled state, Salt Lake City in Utah has also been dealing with climate change.
Salt Lake City, which is at risk of running out of water because of climate change, set ambitious targets to cut emissions, and was the first city in America to commit to offsetting emissions from official travel.
Meanwhile, Utah's state legislature this month passed bills offering new financial incentives for solar panels and plug-in vehicles. The bills also require Utah to convert 50% of state transport vehicles to alternative fuels or plug-ins by 2018.
Such initiatives are becoming more common across America as city officials take future climate change into account for planning, zoning and land use, said Christina DeConcini, director of government affairs for the World Resources Institute.
"I think there is a growing focus on climate change," she said. "A lot of cities have sustainability departments and people focusing on it, and more and more of the work they are doing is focused on climate and climate impacts."
The reason, she said, was transparent. "Cities that are more at risk are definitely paying more attention."
Climate change has already cut into the global food supply and is fueling wars and natural disasters, but governments are unprepared to protect those most at risk, according to a report from the UN's climate science panel.
The report is the first update in seven years from the UN's international panel of experts, which is charged with producing the definitive account of climate change.
In that time, climate change has ceased to be a distant threat and made an impact much closer to home, the report's authors say. "It's about people now," said Virginia Burkett, the chief scientist for global change at the US geological survey and one of the report's authors. "It's more relevant to the man on the street. It's more relevant to communities because the impacts are directly affecting people – not just butterflies and sea ice."
But it was the finding that climate change could threaten global food security that caught the attention of government officials from 115 countries who reviewed the report. "All aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change," the report said.
The scientists said there was enough evidence to say for certain that climate change is affecting food production on land and sea.
The rate of increase in crop yields is slowing – especially in wheat – raising doubts as to whether food production will keep up with the demand of a growing population. Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns could lead to food price rises of between 3% and 84% by 2050.
"Climate change is acting as a brake. We need yields to grow to meet growing demand, but already climate change is slowing those yields," said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton professor and an author of the report.
Other food sources are also under threat. Fish catches in some areas of the tropics are projected to fall by between 40% and 60%, according to the report.
The report also connected climate change to rising food prices and political instability, for instance the riots in Asia and Africa after food price shocks in 2008.
"The impacts are already evident in many places in the world. It is not something that is [only] going to happen in the future," said David Lobell, a professor at Stanford University's center for food security, who devised the models.
"Almost everywhere you see the warming effects have a negative affect on wheat and there is a similar story for corn as well. These are not yet enormous effects but they show clearly that the trends are big enough to be important," Lobell said.
Wheat is the first big staple crop to be affected by climate change, because it is sensitive to heat and is grown around the world, from Pakistan to Russia to Canada. Projections suggest that wheat yields could drop 2% a decade.
The report explored a range of scenarios involving a temperature rise of two degrees or more that saw dramatic declines in production in the coming decades. Declines in crop yields will register first in drier and warmer parts of the world but as temperatures rise two, three or four degrees, they will affect everyone.
In the more extreme scenarios, heat and water stress could reduce yields by 25% between 2030 and 2049.
The report acknowledged that there were a few isolated areas where a longer growing season had been good for farming. But it played down the idea that there may be advantages to climate change as far as food production is concerned.
Overall, the report said, "Negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts." Scientists and campaigners pointed to the finding as a defining feature of the report.
The scientists also detected climate having an effect on heatwaves, droughts and flooding across the globe, and warned that those events would take a disproportionate toll on poor, weak and elderly people. The scientists said governments did not have systems in place to protect those populations. Warming of more than two degrees would increase the risks of "severe, pervasive and irreversible" consequences, the report said.
The report also warned for the first time that climate change, combined with poverty and economic shocks, could lead to war and drive people to leave their homes. "Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts," the report said. It also warned that hundreds of millions of people in south Asia and south-east Asia will be affected by coastal flooding and land loss by 2100.
"The main way that most people will experience climate change is through the impact on food: the food they eat, the price they pay for it, and the availability and choice that they have," said Tim Gore, head of food policy and climate change for Oxfam.
Friends of the Earth's executive director, Andy Atkins, said: "We can't continue to ignore the stark warnings of the catastrophic consequences of climate change on the lives and livelihoods of people across the planet.
"Giant strides are urgently needed to tackle the challenges we face, but all we get is tiny steps, excuses and delays from most of the politicians that are supposed to represent our interests.
"Governments across the world must stand up to the oil, gas and coal industries, and take their foot of the fossil fuel accelerator that's speeding us towards a climate disaster."
The White House on Friday opened the way to cutting emissions of methane from the oil and gas industry, saying it would study the magnitude of leaks of the powerful greenhouse gas.
The announcement seemed designed to please the international community – which is meeting in Yokohama to finalise a blockbuster climate report – as well as environmental groups suing to force the Obama administration to regulate the oil and gas industry.
The new strategy announced by the White House on Friday did not immediately direct the Environmental Protection Agency to begin drafting new climate regulations for the oil and gas industry.
Instead, the White House said the EPA would undertake a series of studies to determine the magnitude and prevalence of methane leaks from fracking sites, compressors, and gas pipelines.
The agency would decide by the autumn of 2014 whether to propose new controls on the industry. “In the fall, we will determine the best path forward to get reductions,” a White House official told a conference call with reporters.
If the EPA does go ahead and propose new rules, the White House official said the agency would aim to complete the process by the time Obama leaves office.
Methane – the primary component of natural gas – is more than 80 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. Oil and gas sites are the biggest industrial source of methane.
The gas accounted for about 14% of US climate pollution in 2013, according to the EPA's greenhouse gas inventory, and that share is expected to grow.
Environmental groups have been pressing Barack Obama for months to come up with a plan to cut methane.
Without those controls, Obama cannot meet his commitment to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 17% from 2005 levels.
There are big political risks in taking on America's powerful oil and natural gas interests.
Obama has embraced “natural gas” as part of his all-of-the-above energy strategy, arguing that the shale revolution would help move the US away from more heavily polluting coal. But there is growing evidence methane leaks are far more pervasive than originally thought.
Methane is escaping into the atmosphere from all along the supply chain – from flaring gas wells that light up the night sky in North Dakota to ageing pipes in the north-east.
A study published by the National Academy of Sciences last November found that the Environmental Protection Agency had grossly under-estimated methane releases from gas drilling.
Ninety environmental groups wrote to the EPA last December demanding the agency introduce new regulations on the oil and gas industry.
Methane pollution is projected to increase to a level equivalent to over 620 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution in 2030 without additional action to reduce emissions.
The White House said the EPA would propose new rules for future landfills in the summer of 2014, and was considering new regulations on existing landfills.
The Department of Energy will meanwhile begin exploring the potential of capturing and storing methane in underground waste dumps.