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Elizabeth McGowan's articles

Amid Cheers, NASA Chief Is Arrested at Oil Sands Pipeline Protests

James Hansen, the 70-year-old renowned climate scientist, was the 112th of 140 arrested on day 10 of the Keystone XL pipeline sit-ins

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Aug 30, 2011
James Hansen

WASHINGTON—A few minutes after 11 a.m. Monday, climate scientist James Hansen sits down on a patch of sidewalk in front of a green banner proclaiming "Witness for Climate and Creation." The White House looms in the background.

The head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City pulls his tan fedora snug around his ears to block the sun and hugs his knees to his chest. Then he opens his mouth to harmonize with a chorus of 160-plus voices blending on chants that included "Heal the Planet," "Stand Together," "Not in Our Name" and "Keep Your Promises."

Hansen is the center of attention on day 10 of a two-week peaceful sit-in to protest a Canadian company’s proposal to construct a $7 billion, 1,702-mile pipeline to pump diluted bitumen—a particularly dirty type of heavy crude—from the oil sands mines of Alberta to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
At 1:20 p.m., a U.S. Park Police officer beckons to the suit-clad Hansen with his index finger. The 70-year-old grandfather arises to cheers and applause from the fellow 30 or so demonstrators still left on the sidewalk and the hundred-plus still singing, hollering and strumming a guitar across the street in Lafayette Park.

Hansen—the 112th of the 140 arrested Monday, many from the faith community—extends his hands behind his back so the police officer can cinch the black plastic handcuffs around his wrists. Then, he stands with his brown dress shoes spread several feet apart while another officer frisks him. At least a dozen photographers document the scene.

Five minutes later, Hansen emerges from a white tarpaulin where his mug shot was snapped. Somebody yelled "Thank you, Jim." As Hansen holds his fedora aloft and cracks a smile, protesters in the park break into a verse of "We love Jim Hansen" and "Don't want no pipeline" to the tune of the traditional gospel song "Down by the Riverside." Then he ducks, climbs into the awaiting paddy wagon and disappears.

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House Republicans Seek to Remove U.S. Funding for UN Climate Efforts

Their primary targets are the IPCC and UNFCCC, key programs designed to educate policymakers about climate science and slow warming worldwide

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Aug 26, 2011
Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.)

WASHINGTON—House Republicans are applying a search and destroy tactic to international funding for global warming this budget season. It goes like this: Ax any line items with the words "climate change."

Their primary targets are a pair of crucial United Nations initiatives designed to slow warming worldwide and educate policymakers about the evolving science of climate change.

On the chopping block for 2012 are millions in funding for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world's leading scientific advisory body on global warming. The IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Al Gore in 2007, and governments often use its periodic reviews of climate risks to set targets for reducing carbon emissions.

The GOP-led effort would also cut all U.S. funding for the 19-year-old U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the main forum for the global effort to limit emissions of heat-trapping gases. UNFCCC climate treaty talks are mired in longstanding rich-poor rifts and mistrust of the United States for its refusal to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and accept binding emissions limits.

Those who support the cutbacks say they are a sign of severe belt-tightening times. But critics say Republicans are using the budget crisis to hide their loathing of any kind of climate initiative.

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Keystone XL Protesters Up Against Faded Interest in U.S. Climate Effort

Still, Bill McKibben and others leading the two-week D.C. sit-in remain intent on connecting the dots between the oil pipeline and climate danger

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Aug 24, 2011

WASHINGTON—Close to noon Tuesday, frustrated tourist Ron Higgins of Los Angeles tries to maneuver a classic, dead-on shot of the north side of the White House with his digital camera.

But he isn't having much luck. U.S. Park Police officers have erected metal barriers entwined with yellow caution tape to cordon off most of the prime real estate—a wide swath of the sidewalk and abutting roadway—to accommodate demonstrators chanting anti-oil sands slogans and displaying banners in front of the iron fence surrounding Pres. Obama's home.

"They say this protest is about a pipeline," says Higgins, visiting the nation's capital with this family before dropping off son Ryan at Virginia's Hampton University. "I don't know what pipeline they're talking about. I just want my son to see the White House."

In a nutshell, that unawareness is what activist Bill McKibben and his loyalists with Tar Sands Action are up against. The Vermont author, Middlebury College professor and founder of the advocacy organization 350.org has instigated a summer sit-in geared at halting the flow of a particularly dirty and corrosive type of heavy crude from Canada to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.

Higgins, however, is likely representative of most Americans. He's never heard of TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Climate change is not a top-of-the agenda worry for him. And while he doesn't begrudge activists a chance to speak up at the White House, the connection between harvesting diluted bitumen in the province of Alberta and warming the entire planet just doesn't resonate with him.

Undoubtedly, it's difficult for anybody to energize the masses about global warming in these seemingly post-climate times. Congress has brushed it aside, many Republican presidential candidates dismiss the science and much of the fractured media is asleep at the climate wheel.

Despite that malaise, McKibben is intent on connecting the dots between Keystone XL—a $7 billion, 1,702-mile pipeline that a Canadian company wants to bury beneath six states in the nation's heartland—and its designation as a gargantuan carbon bomb. Due to the international nature of the project, the State Department is tasked with granting the final "yes" or "no." Department authorities are scheduled to release a final environmental evaluation of the project any day now.

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Climate Scientist Sees No Choice but to Risk Arrest at Keystone XL Protests

Jason Box, known for his study of glaciers, says oil sands mining is a moral issue that he feels compelled to address. The two-week sit-in begins Saturday

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Aug 18, 2011

WASHINGTON—His climatology career at Ohio State University is advancing swimmingly. He's never had a brush with the law. And his wife is eight months pregnant with their first child.

So staying home for the next several weeks in Columbus, Ohio, rather than risking arrest in the nation's capital certainly seems the ideal choice for professor Jason Box.

But the 38-year-old has never reveled in the idea of an intellectual or physical comfort zone.

His natural inquisitiveness — plus a dose of idealism and commitment — is why Box is intent on participating in his first-ever act of civil disobedience. The cause? Trying to convince President Obama that approving the extension of a controversial oil sands pipeline — the proposed $7 billion, 1,702-mile Keystone XL — would be the equivalent of lighting a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.

It's not a single-handed effort on Box's part. But as of mid-week he's evidently the only climate scientist who has registered to join about 2,000 other like-minded thinkers to line the fences surrounding the White House — where peaceful arrests are not uncommon for protesters of all stripes.

They'll begin gathering Saturday and rotate through in waves of 75 to 100 daily through Sept. 3. Box is booked for a three-day stint at the tail end. 

"I couldn't maintain my self-respect if I didn't go," Box said Tuesday in a telephone interview about his decision to wade into the murky territory of activism where most scientists fear to tread. "This isn't about me, this is about the future. Just voting doesn't seem to be enough in this case. I need to be a citizen also, because this is a democracy after all, isn't it?"

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Oil Spills Inspire Bipartisan Surprise on Federal Pipeline Safety Reforms

Three bills moving through Congress would significantly strengthen federal oversight for pipelines like the proposed Keystone XL

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Aug 12, 2011
Silvertip Oil Spill

WASHINGTON—A series of headline-grabbing ruptures along the nation's 2.5 million-mile network of oil and gas pipelines is prompting a rare attempt at bipartisanship. Democrats and Republicans seem equally intent on significantly beefing up the pipeline safety standards that might have prevented some of these spills.

The timing of the legislation they're considering is especially vital because the State Department is in the midst of deciding whether a Canadian company should be allowed to expand its U.S. presence by building a $7 billion pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer and other fragile landscapes in the nation's heartland.

TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline would pump millions of gallons of diluted bitumen —a particularly dirty grade of heavy crude — 1,702 miles from the oil sands mines of Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Three bills — two Democratic measures in the Senate and one cross-party initiative in the House — are now circulating. All of them would give federal regulators a bigger hammer to prevent pipeline leaks and accidents. Provisions include studying how diluted bitumen affects a pipeline's structural integrity, improving leak detection technology, increasing inspections, requiring steeper penalties for violations and mandating advances such as automatic shutoff valves and excess flow valves.

One unusual development is that industry groups and environmental and public interest advocates seem heartened by what they are hearing and seeing on the legislative front. The Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Wash.-based nonprofit whose sole mission is promoting fuel transportation safety, is also satisfied with where Congress is headed.

The Trust's executive director, Carl Weimer, and others from his organization have spent hours testifying before congressional committees.

"Before the rash of pipeline tragedies in the last 15 months, we'd be happy to have three of the 12 items on our laundry list in a bill," Weimer told SolveClimate News. "But this time around we've got most everything on our list in these bills.

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Loopholes Could Sap Potency of Obama Fuel Deal, Policy Experts Say

Concerns center around the formula used to reach the 54.5 mpg standard, the leniency granted to big trucks and how emissions for EVs will be counted

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Aug 3, 2011
President Barack Obama

WASHINGTON—Half-starved conservationists have been thrown so few crumbs by the Obama administration that it's tempting for some to praise the bread bits tossed their way as the most scrumptious they have ever feasted upon.

Take fuel economy standards, for instance.

When the president announced a Friday pact with 13 automakers that would force cars and light trucks to achieve 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, hallelujahs were emitted nationwide. It is being praised as a historic, job-creating, dollar-saving, air-cleansing, carbon-curbing savior.

The new round of standards, which covers model years 2017 through 2025, is heralded as a pathway for raising fuel economy 75 percent above 2010 levels. It has the potential to save more oil — 1.5 million barrels per day — than this nation now imports from Saudi Arabia and Iraq combined.

All of that red, white and blue pageantry, however, dwarfed the caution flags raised by transportation policy experts. Among those adding a hue of yellow to the conversation is think tank specialist Therese Langer, who saw plenty of space for loopholes when she lifted up the hood to examine the agreement.

"Don't get me wrong, I also think this is a big deal," Langer told SolveClimate News. "Getting to that level of 54.5 miles per gallon is an impressive achievement."

But Langer, transportation program director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, also sees some shortcomings in the way the proposal is being ironed out.

One, she fears the auto industry will try to water down regulations during the built-in "mid-course review." And, two, she is afraid the deal doesn't maximize the potential of advanced vehicle technology and includes provisions that could undermine economic and environmental benefits. Her specific concerns center around the formula used to reach the much-ballyhooed 54.5 mpg standard, the leniency granted to big trucks, and how emissions from electric vehicles will be counted.

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Can Obama's Plan to Green the Nation's Federal Buildings Deliver?

So far, only five agencies have shown significant progress toward making 15% of their buildings more sustainable by 2015

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Aug 1, 2011
Penn Quarter, Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON—The federal government counts so many buildings in its inventory that each of the 482,299 men, women and children who calls Kansas City, Mo., home could have the keys to separate edifices — and there would still be 20,000 buildings to spare. 

Those 502,000 structures that spread across the nation — 445,000 are owned and 57,000 are leased — add up to roughly 3.3 billion square feet of space.

Who knew?

Well, the General Services Administration (GSA), which oversees the business of the federal government, is a treasure trove of such data. And the cost of heating, cooling and lighting all of that square footage provided the momentum to guide yet another government agency — the White House Office of Management and Budget — in the crafting of a seven-part federal sustainability scorecard.

Scorecard results for fiscal year 2010 indicate that the one category where the government is falling short is on greening its half a million buildings. Only five agencies — the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agriculture, State and Treasury departments, and GSA — bare showing significant progress toward making 15 percent of their buildings more sustainable by 2015.

But Steve Goldman, a research and policy specialist at the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy, said that somewhat paltry progress thus far is no reason for despair.

"Maintaining mission integrity and meeting these goals takes resources and time," Goldman told SolveClimate News in an interview. "I absolutely don't believe this is a wild goose chase. There's never a downside to making facilities more livable and efficient."

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State Dept's Timetable for Keystone XL Pipeline Decision Irks Both Sides

The agency's plan to complete its pipeline review by year-end has left both critics — and the GOP supporters who want to fast-track the process — unhappy

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Jul 27, 2011
Keystone pipeline

WASHINGTON — Rep. Lee Terry and Sen. Mike Johanns might share some of the same constituents in Nebraska. But the two Republicans have mighty vast differences in their respective approaches to a controversial $7 billion oil sands pipeline seemingly destined to slice through the biological heart and lungs of their home state.

Terry's "fierce urgency of now" approach is reflected in a fast-tracked bill the seven-term lawmaker authored that would force the Obama administration to reach a decision about TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline by Nov. 1. It soared through the full GOP-majority House Tuesday evening on a 279-147 vote.

However, Johanns has predicted that the North American-Made Energy Security Act (H.R. 1938) doesn't have a prayer of sneaking through the upper chamber.

Alternatively, the rookie senator and former Agriculture Department secretary has politely but firmly coaxed the State Department to reconsider sullying Nebraska's fragile sandhills landscape and thirst-quenching Ogallala Aquifer with a 36-inch diameter underground pipeline.

Conservation organizations dismissed the House vote as a handout to the fossil fuels industry during a Tuesday teleconference with reporters.

It's one more indication that House Republican leadership is pushing harmful and destructive bills at the behest of Big Oil instead of becoming serious about solving the country's severe energy policy shortcomings, said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs with the League of Conservation Voters

The White House announced its opposition to Terry's bill Monday. A two-paragraph statement from the Office of Management and Budget labeled the bill as "unnecessary" because the State Department has already committed to reaching a decision by the end of this year.

"Further, the bill conflicts with long-standing executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the president and the secretary of state," the statement read. "[It] could prevent the thorough consideration of complex issues which could have serious security, safety, environmental and other ramifications."

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Congress Trying Again to Repeal Ban on Carbon-Heavy Fuels for Military

But numerous Dept. of Defense representatives say they oppose repealing 'Section 526' because of national security and economic concerns

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Jul 25, 2011
Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming

WASHINGTON—When chatter on Capitol Hill ramps up about kicking "526" to the curb, it doesn't mean legislators are intent on obliterating May 26 from the calendar.

Instead, it refers to a tiny but significant section of an overarching energy measure that has irked lawmakers from coal and oil states since it was signed by President George W. Bush in 2007.

Briefly, what's known as Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act blocks federal agencies from contracting for fuels that spew more carbon pollution than conventional petroleum.

As has been the case since its inception, representatives and senators are once again trying to dump the exemption via their respective chambers.

On the House side, for instance, several Department of Defense- and Department of Agriculture-related appropriations and authorization bills contain a provision to repeal Section 526. And Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming is looking for openings to tack a similar amendment onto legislation in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

While repeal proponents tout their efforts as being about freedom of fuel choices and not compromising military readiness, opponents frame it as an attempt to boost dirtier fuels such as heavy crude mined from the Canadian oil sands, and liquid coal and oil shale, and hinder biofuels, a growing sector of the American economy.

Climate watchdogs count it as one more assault among a lengthy list of initiatives with an anti-environment bent.

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