Thursday, May 14, 2009

Interior Sec. Salazar Responds to Sen. Bennett's Request

Utah via Washington, D.C. --

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has sent Utah Senator Bob Bennett an offer to review the 77 suspended oil-and-gas lease parcels that have been the subject of much debate in the west and in Washington. The hotly-contested matter has come to a head with Bennett's procedural delay of Sec. Salazar's undersecretary choice who requires senate confirmation.

Several of the controversial tracts can be seen from Utah's Arches National Park

Earlier, Sec. Salazar had nominated David Hayes as undersecretary, whom Bennett has admitted is "very qualified." But the process was held up this week by three votes in cloture, ostensibly because Bennett wanted more information and justification on the lease cancellations. In his formal response to Bennett dated this past Tuesday, May 12, Sec. Salazar indicated that his office has recently facilitated ten oil and gas lease sites covering more than 1.5 million acres of public lands within the United States and an additional 1.7 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are approximately 20 million acres of (BLM) public lands within the state of Utah, and only 77 leases have been cancelled by the Dept. of the Interior because of their proximity to National Parks and other sensitive areas. This concerned Senator Bennett from an ideological point-of-view, with many Utah state legislators joining the chorus.

When cabinet appointments were made by the incoming Obama administration, one of Sec. Salazar's first actions involved suspending the lease offerings in Utah's controversial and sensitive areas. Salazar, a former senator from Colorado, enjoyed a confirmation that was virtually free of objection or delay. He inherited a controversy from day one on the job with the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.

At the time they were offered for oil and gas leases, the tracts in Utah evoked rapid response from National Park officials, who claimed that the Bureau of Land Management hadn't contacted them prior to making the listings. Then, the National Park Service’s top official in Utah called the leases “shocking and disturbing” and said his agency wasn’t properly notified. Environmentalists called it a “fire sale” for the oil and gas industry by the departing Bush administration accompanied by prior campaign chants of "Drill, baby, drill."

“We find it shocking and disturbing,” said Cordell Roy, the chief Park Service administrator in Utah. “They added 51,000 acres of tracts near Arches, Dinosaur and Canyonlands without telling us about it. That’s 40 tracts within four miles of these parks.” The leasing process had also been clouded by the actions of Tim DeChristopher, an environmentalist who joined the October, 2008 bidding for the questionable leases as a self-described "act of civil disobedience."

In Tuesday's response to Senator Bennett, Interior Secretary Salazar emphasized that his undersecretary nominee (David Hayes) would be directed to respond to the concerns of all of the "stakeholders" in a "community forum in Utah" within the first 10 days of Hayes' appointment. Additionally, Salazar said that Hayes would be directed to review the administrative record on the 77 parcels and tender a report to congress by May 29th. That timeline would likely be suspended due to the political manuevering of Bennett and fellow senate republicans. The confirmation process is still ongoing, with senate majority leader Harry Reid vowing on Thursday that Hayes will be seated. "If I have to wait, I will, but David Hayes will be confirmed," Reid said.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Carrizo Plain School to Fly Air Quality Flags

San Luis Obispo County -
Headed west from the sunburned California town of Maricopa, a traveler on the Cuyama Highway, (state route 166) passes by the windswept portions of the Los Padres National Forest, and the small agricultural towns which serve the growers and farmworkers of this central California area. Not too far from Interstate 5, past the town of Cuyama, the road rises into the hills above the Carrizo Plain, where ranchers and farmers work alongside oil and gas interests that dot the landscape. Occasional pumps tap wells that have been providing water and oil for decades. Under a cloudless, moonlit night during the summer, the air is often lifeless and hot, just as it was nearly 300 years ago, and a traveler might rely upon air conditioning from their vehicle to remain comfortable.

Springtime near Carrizo Plain Nat. Monument, San Luis Obispo County

This week, the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District began a program to alert their citizens of the level of air quality in this sparsely populated part of their county. What makes the program here on the Carrizo Plain so unique is that it is largely a rural portion of the state and county and includes only 175 homes and a population of less than 300 people. At the Carrizo Plain School, located one mile west of Soda Lake on state highway 58, a colored flag is now flying to indicate the level of the area’s air quality, which also covers Carrizo Plain National Monument. With levels of air quality represented by six colors, (green means good air; yellow is moderate air quality; orange is unhealthy for sensitive groups; red is unhealthy; purple means very unhealthy and maroon is hazardous air) the program began this week including additional information continually available on the county's air quality website.

APCD officials indicate that the flag program will expand throughout the coming year to include other locations within the county.

White House Eases Pressure for Environmental Regulations

Washington --
The Obama White House Office of Management and Budget has conducted an interagency review moderating the effort by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases too soon. On April 17, the Environmental Protection Agency under the newly appointed leadership of Lisa Jackson proposed an “endangerment finding” that carbon dioxide, the main emission of the combustion of fossil fuels, be included as one of the “greenhouse gases” to be regulated as pollutants. The proposal was widely anticipated by environmental activists and big coal interests alike.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

Citing concern that the EPA had not “undertaken a systematic risk analysis or cost-benefit analysis” when the proposed finding was released in April, the report from OMB said that “making the decision to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act for the first time is likely to have serious economic consequences for regulated entities throughout the U.S. economy, including small businesses and small communities.” The report signals the Obama administration’s understanding that regulatory “cap and trade” will have tremendous impact on the American economy.

The OMB’s review parallels Utah legislator Roger Barrus’ move earlier this year to amend his state’s energy policy “to determine the economic impacts of a proposed legislative or executive action involving climate change.” The Barrus bill was introduced because several districts in Utah include major coal mining interests concerned about potential impacts of the Western Climate Initiative and the development of alternative and renewable energy resources. When reached for comment, Barrus denied that his HB 412 would have provided a barrier to entry for green energy businesses in his state. “The bill was not primarily directed at the WCI,” said Barrus, “it was an effort to be certain that the state would not ‘rubber-stamp’ any regulation that would drastically change our energy security.”

Utah State Legislator Roger Barrus

The recent effort by President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget “certainly sends the message that, at this point in time, we have to pay close attention to the impacts of regulatory influence on the nation’s energy economy,” Barrus observed. He noted that in Utah, “…we have a significant portion of our economy that relies upon the development of coal and other fossil fuels for the nation’s energy needs.” He stated that before the introduction of his bill, the state may have been on a course to adopt specific regulations via the Western Climate Initiative that would have severely impacted some of the state’s energy businesses and local economies.

Barrus’ district 18 is north of Salt Lake City where a recent application for an emissions permit would have allowed a new power plant to burn refinery waste to generate electricity. That application received much opposition from the electorate and was recently withdrawn. Barrus’ House Bill 412 died a technical death in the waning days of the Utah legislative season, but proponents and other co-sponsors vowed to re-introduce it this fall, if required. With the recent acknowledgement of the Obama administration’s OMB, that may be less necessary now. “It’s important that each state have an opportunity to participate so that we have all the information to make correct decisions without regulatory disparities,” Barrus said.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Hunt for the New Ground Zero

La Gloria, Chignahuapan, Mexico

From the first reports, the outbreak was termed "swine flu," until policymakers began to receive complaints from pork producers. Presently, the official name of the level 5 epidemic is the "H1N1 virus" while the rest of the story continues to unfold in several places around the globe. In Atlanta, at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control, researchers are tasked to determine the virulence of the disease. Staff there also respond to incoming questions from public officials, health caregivers and the public and their ranks include other U.S. government agencies responsible for worldwide public safety and the health of their own employees.

A newmedia reporter named C├ęsar Chagoya uncovered a large and purportedly contaminated hog farm named Granjas Caroll near the village of La Gloria in southwest Mexico, where young Edgar Hernandez contracted the H1N1 strain.

video courtesy of the ASSOCIATED PRESS

While young Edgar Hernandez recovered, an additional 800 residents of La Gloria also contracted a mysterious flu just down the road from the object of Chagoya's investigation. Granjas Caroll is principally owned by U.S. based Smithfield Foods, one of America's largest supplier of pork products. The Granjas Caroll operation yields 950,000 hogs per year as reported on the company's website.

What Chagoya found upon visiting the mexican hog farm were deplorable conditions involving rampant filth and contamination resulting in hogs "unfit from excessive force feeding and drinking from a water source that contained their own blood and excrement." As the Associated Press video describes, the company countered a season of public complaint by claiming that since none of their hogs had been diagnosed with porcine flu, they couldn't be the source of any contamination or infection. Officials cite their technological advances as a reason why they couldn't be culpable for any public health concerns, including a "bio-digester" (where whole, rotting carcasses are disposed) that the company claims generates electricity for their plant. Raising pigs may be a dirty business by nature, but what Chagoya documented was contamination of the foulest kind, including photographs of the collecting ponds used for the massive herd's drinking water.

Backtracking the information, Chagoya discovered that Smithfield Foods had been the respondent in legal actions stemming from contaminated operations in Virginia. The people of La Gloria and others like Chagoya are asking questions about coincidence in disease and contamination and they say the two are linked. While it is true that people cannot be infected by eating pork or pork products, a mutating viral strain that genetically leaps from swine to people is of major concern to medical authorities, especially if it becomes a deadly mutation.

Health investigators are presently splitting their focus on both California and Mexico, saying that some children in California were identified with the N1H1 virus in March, several weeks before Edgar Hernandez fell ill in early April. But if a March increase in pneumonia (which can be caused by an influenza virus like H1N1) in and around La Gloria is found to be linked to the virus, Mexico's efforts to contain the outbreak, and the concern of La Gloria about their porcine neighbors, may prove to be even more important.

The CDC describes the real danger potential of the H1N1 virus as a future hybrid arriving after the first outbreak has been endured in the northern hemisphere. That scenario makes the murderous 1918 flu look like a foreshadowing of grave proportions, and the world awaits with baited breath.