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A Weak Link to Harvard-Smithsonian Gave Star Power to Climate Contrarian Willie Soon

Though employed by the prestigious institution, Soon had to attract outside funding for his research and entire salary to keep his job.

Mar 4, 2015

When Stephen Mulkey was an environmental scientist at the University of Idaho in 2010, he agreed to serve on a panel opposite Wei-Hock Soon, the scientist at the center of a scandal over fossil-fuel industry funding of climate research.

Mulkey, the head of the college's environmental science program, advanced the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by burning of fossil fuels. He had the vast majority of climate scientists worldwide on his side.

But Soon, who promotes discredited science that the sun is the primary driver of global warming, had something stronger on his side in that debate: the imprimatur of Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution.

Since 1997 Soon has been employed by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. And that's how Mulkey remembers Soon’s introduction to the crowd in Boise for the seminar on global warming arranged by the Idaho Council on Industry and Environment, a non-profit organization that urges "the use of sound science and facts in shaping public policy."

The gravitas of Harvard-Smithsonian's credibility versus the University of Idaho's was a mismatch, recalled Mulkey, who is now president of Unity College in Maine and recently authored a blog post on the imbalance.  

"The audience ate up what Soon had to say," said Mulkey, who described the group as pro-industry. "It's like, here's this Harvard scientist telling us all the other scientists are lying to us."

America's First Offshore Wind Farm to Start Construction This Summer

The small project to build five turbines secures full financing and approval, and breaks a barrier ahead of other projects mired in delay and controversy.

Mar 4, 2015

A small wind project in New England just made history. Deepwater Wind announced Monday that its Block Island wind farm is fully financed and on track to become the nation's first offshore wind project.

Set to go online toward the end of 2016, the more than $290 million project involves constructing five wind turbines off the southwestern coast of Block Island, which lies about 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island.

"In the minds of the general public and policymakers [offshore wind] is a very theoretical thing. That's the importance of Block Island: it will take offshore wind from theory to reality" in the United States, said Jeffrey Grybowksi, CEO of Providence-based Deepwater Wind.

According to the company, different parts of the turbines are already being built at fabrication plants in both Europe and the U.S., and the turbine foundations will likely be installed three miles off the Block Island coast this summer. 

Offshore wind farms are designed to harness the strong winds blowing over the sea and transform them into energy. The offshore turbines, each towering hundreds of feet into the air, generate power via the spinning of their massive blades. Generally, offshore wind turbines are bigger and can access faster winds than those onshore.

Can Fracking Pollute Drinking Water? Don't Ask the EPA

The EPA has been unable to collect the data it needs from the multibillion dollar oil and gas sector, which has stymied a five-year federal study.

Mar 2, 2015

Can fracking pollute drinking water?

The Environmental Protection Agency embarked in 2010 on what was intended to be a definitive study to find out. The answer could prove critical to future U.S. regulation of the multibillion-dollar fossil fuel sector and to ensuring water safety for millions of Americans.

But after five years of fighting with the oil and gas industry, the agency may still be unable to provide a clear answer when a draft of the study is published this spring, based on internal EPA documents and interviews with people who have knowledge of the study.

"We won’t know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago," said Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the EPA's 2011 Science Advisory Board, a group of independent scientists who reviewed the draft plan of the study.  "This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result."

More than a half-dozen former high-ranking EPA, administration and congressional staff members echoed Thyne's opinion, as did scientists and environmentalists. Nearly all the former government employees asked not to be identified because of ongoing dealings with government and industry. Two hundred pages of EPA emails and other documents about the study point to the same conclusions. The documents were acquired by Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information Act and shared with InsideClimate News.

(To view the emails and other documents, click HERE, HERE and HERE.)

The EPA's failure to answer the study's central question partly reflects the agency's weakness relative to the politically potent fossil fuel industry. The industry balked at the scope of the study and sowed doubts about the EPA's ability to deliver definitive findings. In addition, concerns about the safety of drinking water conflicted with the Obama administration's need to spur the economy out of recession while expanding domestic energy production.

For the study's findings to be definitive, the EPA needed prospective, or baseline, studies. Scientists consider prospective water studies essential because they provide chemical snapshots of water immediately before and after fracking and then for a year or two afterward. This would be the most reliable way to determine whether oil and gas development contaminates surface water and nearby aquifers, and the findings could highlight industry practices that protect water. In other studies that found toxic chemicals or hydrocarbons in water wells, the industry argued that the substances were present before oil and gas development began.  

2015: Oil Industry Off to a Rough Start

In the last two weeks, the industry has faced oil train accidents, a refinery explosion, a science scandal, Obama’s veto of the Keystone XL and more.

Feb 27, 2015

So far, 2015 has not been good to the oil industry. In just the last two weeks, the bad news included two fiery oil railcar accidents, a refinery explosion, a scandal involving an industry-funded climate skeptic, a high-profile setback for an oil-by-rail project, a big retrenchment in Canada’s oil sands, and the president's veto of the Keystone XL oil import pipeline.

And that’s not all. Those events have come on top of industry-wide ripple effects from the recent plunge in crude prices. In the last two months, a string of oil companies announced disappointing earnings, workforce layoffs and sharp spending cuts. On Feb. 1, union leaders began strikes at many U.S. refineries after contract talks stalled.

"It's a mess...it's like a perfect storm," said Fadel Gheit, senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. He expects even worse earnings and layoff news ahead if oil prices stay in its current range of around $50 per barrel. On Jan. 28, the price of U.S. benchmark crude closed at a low of $45.23 a barrel, down more than 43 percent since the end of October.

Anthony Swift, a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed with Gheit. "It's been a rough start to the year and an interesting confluence of events," he said.

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad EPA?

The agency's budget represents an almost invisible slice of the federal pie.

Feb 26, 2015

The Environmental Protection Agency has been accused of everything from running this country to waging an economy-destroying war on coal. But it turns out the GOP's prime target isn't that big after all.

The agency's budget represents an almost invisible slice of the federal pie—less than a quarter of a percent of Obama's proposed $4 trillion budget for the 2016 fiscal year. If approved, the EPA's budget next year would be 16.5 percent smaller than it was in 2010.

Why States Rejecting EPA's Clean Power Plan Could Face Bigger Rate Hikes

If the EPA is forced to impose a federal plan, it's going to limit options and be bad news for customers in that state.

Feb 26, 2015

Since the Obama administration announced its plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions and combat climate change last year, many states have been on the offensive. Some have sued the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that the agency has overstepped its authority. Republican leaders in Congress have vowed to dismantle carbon emission regulations. And state legislatures have set up numerous blockades to delay the Clean Power Plan.

Given the current political climate, it seems inevitable that at least a handful of states will continue to fight the EPA over the Clean Power Plan. Here's a rundown of what might happen if states refuse to cooperate––and why it might be in their best interest to comply with the EPA’s rules.

Will UN Climate Panel's Credibility Suffer From the Resignation of Its Chief?

Attacks on the IPCC over allegations of sexual misconduct come in the same week as scandal erupts over contrarian scientist Willie Soon.

Feb 25, 2015

In a week when the Willie Soon scandal broke and revealed the fossil fuel industry's footprint on contrarian climate research, embattled denialists went back on the offensive.

Critics are again trying to discredit the leading international scientific body on climate change after the organization's leader resigned over allegations he sexually harassed female coworkers at his research institute in India.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stepped down Tuesday, eight months before his planned departure. In his resignation letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Pachauri wrote that “the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion and my dharma."

Critics of the IPCC seized on his comment to paint the scientific body as biased. The panel is "led by an environmentalist on a mission...for whom protecting the planet is a religious calling,” wrote Donna Laframboise, a vocal climate denier, on her website, NoFrakkingConsensus. Marc Morano of Climate Depot asserted that the allegations of sexual harassment are the latest sign the IPCC was being led by a "political and ethical cancer."

Obama's Veto of Keystone XL Pipeline Probably Doesn't Mean the Endgame

Administration leaves unclear whether it would ultimately grant or refuse a permit to the cross-border pipeline, perhaps opening the door to bargaining.

Feb 24, 2015

President Obama on Tuesday briskly vetoed legislation to approve construction of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. The bill, which had easily passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate last month, was rejected within hours of its official delivery to the Oval Office.

The White House said Obama rejected the bill because it would have short-circuited his administration's prolonged review of the pipeline, a project that over the years has become a litmus test of his commitment to fighting climate change.

Willie Soon: 'Too Much Ice Is Really Bad for Polar Bears'

In return for undisclosed funding from a coal utility, the scientist delivered contrarian talks and papers on Arctic melting.

Feb 24, 2015

"Too much ice is really bad for polar bears," climate skeptic Willie Soon said in a 2008 speech titled, "Endangering the Polar Bear: How Environmentalists Kill."

Soon later cited the talk as a "deliverable" in return for a research grant from Southern Company Services, one of the largest U.S. coal companies. Under the same grant the contrarian scientist also published two papers questioning whether climate change was dangerous for polar bears and whether the Arctic was warming, without disclosing the fossil fuel companies that funded his work.

The polar bear theories advanced by Soon in these and other works have been discredited by scientists worldwide. Even so, the ideas have sowed confusion about the fate of an iconic species that biologists expect to experience widespread devastation as climate change worsens.

"It plants doubt in the minds of people because of the complex nature of the science," said Juscelino Colares, a professor of law and associate director of the Frederick K. Cox International Law Center at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland. "That's all the industry needs is doubt to delay action."

Soon works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. The center houses the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which employs Soon. The polar bear papers were among 11 he published in research journals that failed to disclose Southern Co.'s funding, according to documents made public Saturday. All the papers question the extent, severity, cause or existence of man-made climate change.

Read: A Guide To Willie Soon's Climate Research Funded by Fossil Fuel Companies

The information comes from a trove of public emails and documents obtained by Greenpeace through Freedom of Information Act requests. They were released by the Climate Investigations Center, a watchdog group that tracks the activities of companies and organizations that fight climate action.

Click to view image

Another Bid for Local Control Over Fracking Is Thwarted

But plurality decision in Ohio provides guidance to towns to try zoning, rather than permitting, to control oil and gas development.

Feb 24, 2015

Munroe Falls became the nation's latest community to lose a protracted legal battle over local control of oil-and-gas drilling, as the result of a recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling.

But there's a silver lining: Buried in the 31-page court decision is guidance for Munroe Falls and other Ohio towns trying to flex some muscle over the industry in the future.

On Tuesday, Feb. 17, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Munroe Falls lacks the authority to regulate permitting, location and spacing of oil-and-gas wells and related development.

Siding with Beck Energy Corporation, a company that has pursued drilling in this northeastern Ohio town of around 5,000 people, the court decision says that "sole and exclusive authority" falls to the state.

At first glance, the decision appears a major win for the oil-and-gas industry, which has challenged several towns over local control of fracking, from New Mexico to New York.

Industry trade groups such as the Ohio Oil and Gas Association and American Petroleum Institute have hailed the decision in recent days.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith Lanzinger sharply disagreed with the ruling. She wrote in her dissent: "There is no need for the state to act as the thousand-pound gorilla, gobbling up exclusive authority over the oil and gas industry, leaving not even a banana peel of home rule for municipalities." Home rule is a town’s ability to self-govern, within limits set by the state.