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Drought-Parched Lake Mead Could Leave Seven States High and Dry

Historic-low water levels in the Colorado River Basin's biggest lake spells trouble, and potential water restrictions, throughout the West.

Apr 29, 2015

Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, reached historic low levels over the weekend, another indication of the persistent drought that grips the American West.

Saturday night, even after a prolonged rainstorm, the gauges at Lake Mead settled out at 1,080.13 feet. It's the lowest recorded lake elevation since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s, said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency that oversees water resources.

And it didn't stop there. By mid-afternoon Tuesday, the lake was at 1,079.76 feet. If lake levels are projected to fall below 1,075 feet in January 2016, it will trigger restrictions on the amount of water than can be drawn from the lake. Additional restrictions would follow if levels reach below 1,050 feet and 1,025 feet.

The city of Las Vegas, which gets 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, is so concerned about falling reservoir levels that it is building a new intake pipeline deeper within the lake, to ensure it will be able withdraw water even if lake levels continue to decline.

Lake Mead is part of the Colorado River Basin, which provides a crucial source of water to seven states and Mexico. The region is in the midst of a 15-year drought, while the state of California is in its fourth consecutive dry year.

Texas Family Still Waiting for $2.9 Million Fracking Verdict

A year after a jury found the Parrs were sickened by Aruba Petroleum's nearby wells, the appeal remains in limbo.

Apr 28, 2015

A year after a Texas jury awarded $2.9 million to a family who claims to have been sickened by gas and oil wells, the case remains in limbo because critical court documents needed for an appeal have not been prepared.

The landmark case is being anxiously watched by industry and environmentalists for the legal precedent it may set. The verdict, if upheld, would open the door to other lawsuits against industry by people living nearby oil and gas production, according to legal experts.

"There is a lot on the line in this case," said Thomas McGarity, a University of Texas law school professor who specializes in environmental and administrative law.

Last April, a Dallas County jury found that Aruba Petroleum "intentionally created a private nuisance" that affected the health of Bob and Lisa Parr and their daughter, Emma. The jury concluded the family was made sick by emissions generated by Aruba's 22 gas wells surrounding the family's ranch in Wise County, and awarded the damages.

The award appears to be the largest against the oil and gas industry in a lawsuit alleging that toxic air emissions sickened residents. Aruba, a Plano, Texas company, immediately appealed the decision.

Lisa and Bob Parr, with their daughter Emma, at the family's Decatur, Texas ranch. Credit: Lisa Parr

Hydropower, the Unloved Renewable, Shows Potential for Growth

An Energy Department report shows that while hydro can be finicky, it could be a bigger part of a carbon-reduced future.

Apr 28, 2015

Since the days when Woody Guthrie sang that Uncle Sam needed the Columbia River to "do some work for me," hydropower has been a part of the country’s energy landscape. But according to a new Energy Department report, hydro still has more work to do.

Standing Up by Sitting Down: Student Sit-Ins Demand Divestment

Swarthmore and nine other colleges with endowments totaling $72 billion have been beset by sit-ins since January, escalating the fossil-free movement.

Apr 27, 2015

Last month, more than 30 students at Swarthmore College tried an increasingly popular tactic to pressure their school to divest its $1.9 billion endowment of fossil fuels: a sit-in in the hallway of the administration's office.

Thirty-two days and more than 200 protesters later, officials at the 151-year-old liberal arts college near Philadelphia finally agreed to discuss divestment at a board meeting in May.

Since January, Swarthmore and nine other schools with endowments totaling more than $72 billion have been beset with campus sit-ins. Those students are urging their universities to join the 30 schools worldwide—along with 41 cities, 72 religious institutions, 30 foundations and hundreds of individuals—that have divested or pledged to divest from fossil fuels. Most recently, the staff at SOAS, University of London pledged April 24 to divest their fossil fuel holdings over the next three years.

These so-called "escalation" efforts, according to those involved with the campaigns, have involved thousands of students, alumni and community members in eight states over 70 days.

"We were pleased with the movement on the Swarthmore campus, but not surprised," said Jenny Marienau, the U.S. divestment campaign organizer at the green group 350.org that’s helped the movement grow. For the last three years, the student divestment group Swarthmore Mountain Justice has been building support from students, alumni, faculty and the community, she said.

The primary argument for divestment is: "If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage," according to 350.org's website. Divestment involves selling off stocks and bonds tied to oil, natural gas and coal companies, and can take months to years.

Coal Faces a Day of Reckoning in New Mexico

Decision over the future of the San Juan coal plant could reverberate through the entire coal industry and could also steer debate over renewables.

By Zahra Hirji and Naveena Sadasivam

Apr 24, 2015

As a bitterly fought case over the future of New Mexico's largest coal-fired power plant nears a climax, the outcome has the potential to reverberate through the faltering U.S. coal industry. It could also steer the debate over how soon and at what cost renewables are embraced as the country's energy future.

That landmark moment could come any day, when New Mexico regulators decide whether to accept a utility's controversial plan to close only two of its four coal-fired units, replacing them mainly with natural gas and nuclear energy. The Public Regulation Commission's regulatory panel could deny the request, potentially forcing the plant to shut down and opening the door for renewable replacement power.

San Juan is one of the largest––and most polluting––power plants among the hundreds facing retirement amid the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's crackdown on coal pollution and the boom in natural gas production that has undercut coal prices. The case has drawn attention nationwide as it could influence the fate of middle-aged and younger plants and possibly accelerate the power industry's pivot to climate-friendly energy sources.

The San Juan decision "carries with it potentially precedent-setting and national implications for how to deal with current haze and future carbon regulations," said Robb Hirsch, executive director of New Mexico Independent Power Producers, a trade group of workers in renewable energy, natural gas or transmission lines.

New York Mayor Champions Economic Justice in Sustainability Plan

Mayor De Blasio offers a visionary roadmap to lift 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty through environmental action. Can it work?

Apr 24, 2015

Environmental justice advocates may have found a climate champion in Mayor Bill De Blasio, who this week made income equality the centerpiece of his sweeping sustainability plan for New York City.

The plan, known as OneNYC, is a rebranding and revamping of the city's eight-year-old sustainability agenda PlaNYC, but the emphasis on economic justice came as an unexpected swerve. Urban development and environmental experts told InsideClimate News that OneNYC is the most ambitious strategy in the nation to link the fight against income inequality with climate action and may inspire officials in other municipalities to follow.

De Blasio's plan is a municipal-level equivalent to the thorny discussions between rich and poor nations over an international climate deal. There is now growing recognition that a climate deal that fails to lift poor nations out of energy poverty would not succeed. Guaranteeing people access to clean electricity would promote economic development, uplift the lives of the poor—and address the economic justice issues that have plagued climate progress.

Thawing Permafrost: the Arctic's Slow, Giant Carbon Release

As the Arctic melts and organic matter decays, vast stores of carbon in the permafrost will be released triggering an unstoppable feedback system.

Apr 23, 2015

Permafrost—a vast, frozen subsurface layer of soil—covers nearly a quarter of the land in the northern hemisphere. It contains centuries worth of carbon in the form of plants that have died since the last ice age but remained frozen rather than decomposing.

Now scientists are learning that the "perma" part of its name may no longer be accurate.

Obama: Climate Change 'Can't Be Edited Out'

President uses Earth Day remarks to call out Republican politicians and make climate denial a political liability.

Apr 22, 2015

Standing in Everglades National Park Wednesday, President Barack Obama called out Republican politicians for their continued denial that climate change is happening, is man-made and will pose serious risks to millions of Americans in coming decades.

Climate change "can't be edited out," Obama said. "It can no longer be omitted from the conversation, and action can no longer be delayed." The comment was in reference to Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott's decision to ban state employees from using global warming-related terms in official communications, according to published reports.

"This is not a problem for another generation," Obama said. "Not anymore. This is a problem now, and it has serious implications for the way we live right now."

The President's comments are part of a White House plan to make denial of climate change a political liability for Republicans heading into the 2016 political campaigns.

After Years of Inaction, EPA Tightens Toxic Air Standard for Oil Refineries

Lawsuit helped force an update of emissions standards for dangerous chemicals that went unchanged nearly 30 years.

By Lisa Song and David Hasemyer

Apr 22, 2015

The federal government has issued new guidelines to correct the chronic underestimation of toxic air pollutants emitted from oil refineries and petrochemical plants.

The Environmental Protection Agency late Monday released a revised set of "emission factors"—mathematical formulas used by industry to estimate the amount of air pollutants coming from their facilities.

The new emission factors acknowledge that refinery and chemical plant flares release four times as many volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than previously thought. VOCs are dangerous chemicals that can cause cancer and other illnesses. Emissions of hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous gas that attacks the nervous system, were underestimated by a factor of 10 from refineries' fluid catalytic cracking units—equipment used to make gasoline and other fuels.

The new EPA guidelines have wide implications for public health and for an industry regulated by air permits. Facilities that emit a certain amount of pollutants must apply for air permits, and these new guidelines may mean facilities not previously required to have a permit now must comply with regulatory emission limits.

Emission factors are also used to report annual emissions, to calculate overall air quality and to determine if facilities comply with regulations, said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), an advocacy group whose lawsuit prompted the revised guidelines.