Houston to protect more than 7,400 acres of nature preserves under new city ordinance

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Monday, October 17, 2022

City-owned land in a total of 26 parks will be protected under Houston's first land preservation ordinance, which aims to combat climate change along with improving air and water quality.
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The Obscure Maritime Law That Ruins Your Commute

“Ship American” might sound nice in theory. This is what it looks like in practice: not shipping much of anything in America at all.

What with everything going on in the world, stewing over an obscure, century-old maritime law might seem odd. But the Jones Act really does warrant such consternation. It’s not just a terrible law that hurts you, me, and everyone we know—especially if they live in Puerto Rico or drive to work on the East Coast. It’s also a cautionary tale against government industrial policies, which can have unintended consequences far beyond higher prices or budget overrun.The Jones Act, formally known as Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, was ostensibly intended to ensure adequate domestic shipbuilding capacity and a ready supply of merchant mariners and ships in times of war or other national emergencies. Today, it requires that any domestic waterborne shipping of goods be conducted on vessels that are built, owned, flagged, and crewed by Americans. As a result, the U.S. has one of the most (if not the most) restrictive shipping systems in the world.By effectively barring foreign competitors from transporting goods between U.S. ports, the Jones Act has predictably inflated the cost of shipping and shipbuilding in the United States. That’s the law’s seen cost, which many of its supporters acknowledge but claim is necessary for ensuring a thriving industrial base and sufficient supply of ships and mariners. But the unseen costs do the most notable damage and thus swamp any alleged benefits.[From the April 2023 issue: The age of American naval dominance is over]First, let me put the direct costs in perspective: We’re not just talking about a few extra bucks here and there. Building a container ship in the United States costs up to five times as much as it does abroad, and transporting crude oil on a Jones Act tanker can cost three times as much—an ever-expanding price differential driven by decades of insulation from foreign competition.Because ships and shipping are so expensive, few companies use this method outside routes that offer no other alternatives, such as between the continental United States and Puerto Rico or Hawaii. Instead, they use land-based transport—mainly trucks and trains—to deliver goods that could have traveled by sea between the approximately 360 U.S. ports to service the 130 million people that live near our 95,000-plus miles of coasts. (Many other countries do this kind of “short-sea shipping.”)  In fact, the Congressional Research Service reports that only about 2 percent of all U.S. freight is carried by ships, and that—despite the massive growth in coastal U.S. cities since the 1960s—coastwise shipping tonnage has actually declined by roughly 44 percent over the same period. All other modes of freight transport, including international shipping, have either increased or remained steady.“Ship American” might sound nice in theory. This is what it looks like in practice: not shipping much of anything in America at all.Heightened use of trucks and freight trains means more wear on aging U.S. infrastructure and more traffic, especially on roads running parallel to U.S. sea lanes. It means a higher risk of accidents involving dangerous materials in or around urban centers, such as the recent propane-car derailment near Sarasota, Florida. And it means increased environmental harms, because surface transportation emits more carbon and uses more energy than ocean ships and barges. The law thus forces unwitting northeasterners to be stuck on I-95 surrounded by smog-producing 18-wheelers hauling trailers that could have been traveling between the Ports of New York and Boston on compact, low-emission ships that the Jones Act has made cost-prohibitive.The expense of U.S. shipping and shipbuilding thus forces us to waste finite resources—work or leisure time, tax dollars, environmental efforts—that could be better used elsewhere.It also denies us many other types of ships. For example, the U.S. has a grand total of zero Jones Act–compliant liquefied natural gas tankers, because producing these massive, complex vessels here would be so expensive as to defy any economic sense. Consequently, transporting LNG in bulk to New England and Puerto Rico is impossible, and these U.S. regions suffer from diminished energy security. Last fall, several New England governors, alarmed by Ukraine-related depletion of local energy inventories, begged the Biden administration for a winter-long Jones Act waiver, and local utilities warned that an unseasonably cold winter could produce rolling blackouts across the region. (The waiver was never issued.) A lack of LNG, propane, and oil tankers also forces these areas to import energy from Nigeria, Oman, Spain, (pre-sanctions) Russia, and other faraway places, even as U.S. energy is exported from Texas to China and dozens of other countries. Not only is that economically nonsensical, but it also means higher shipping emissions.The environmental damage doesn’t stop there. The United States lacks specialized wind-turbine-installation vessels, used to build offshore wind projects, that meet Jones Act requirements. This means higher project and taxpayer costs, slower wind-energy deployment, and diminished progress on climate change. (The first Jones Act–compliant wind-turbine-installation vessel is supposed to be delivered in the fourth quarter of 2023 at a substantial cost, but we’ll still need four or five more to meet U.S. offshore wind goals. No other such vessels are in the pipeline.)Thanks to the Jones Act and another antiquated law (the Foreign Dredge Act of 1906), the U.S. fleet also suffers from a dearth of top-notch dredging vessels, which excavate seabed material for port expansions and other projects. (In fact, the largest hopper dredge in the United States wouldn’t crack Europe’s top 30.) Dredging U.S. ports and waterways is therefore costly and slow, imperiling much-needed projects that would boost supply-chain efficiency, job numbers, and economic growth.The general lack of Jones Act vessels also inhibits emergency-response efforts for Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, and other U.S. regions without easy land-based access. When Hurricanes Maria and Fiona devastated Puerto Rico in 2017 and 2022, respectively, more than 99 percent of the world’s cargo ships couldn’t immediately participate in the relief efforts, because they didn’t comply with the Jones Act’s restrictions. At one point last year, a tanker moving diesel from Texas to Europe rerouted to Puerto Rico to boost the island’s depleted fuel supply, but the Jones Act blocked it from offloading this much-needed cargo. The ship finally docked days later, but only after massive public outcry prodded the Biden administration to issue a legally dubious Jones Act waiver.  Bureaucratic delays and bottlenecks are costly annoyances in normal times, but they become life-threatening problems following a natural disaster, when every second counts.High costs mean not only fewer ships but also older ones, because they’re so expensive to replace. The average age of a Jones Act ship in 2019 was 20 years—more than seven years older than ships that don’t meet the law’s requirements. And the previous 15 Jones Act ships that were scrapped had an average age of 43. Having decrepit rust buckets cruising right off U.S. coasts raises more safety and environmental concerns.The Jones Act’s unintended harms even extend to the U.S. shippers and shipbuilders it’s supposed to protect. The law encourages American shipyards to turn away from the competitive international market and toward a captive, but much smaller, domestic one. Their reduced output (averaging just three oceangoing ships a year), in turn, means that high fixed costs are spread across fewer vessels, and that economies of scale, volume discounts from suppliers, and specialization are extremely limited. The result is a vicious cycle where prices go up and the quantity demanded goes down, placing further upward pressure on prices. Rinse and repeat until you have the zombie industry we see today.The Philly Shipyard offers a troubling example of this cost death spiral. In 2013, the shipping company Matson ordered two container ships from the shipyard for $209 million each; last year, Matson ordered three of the same ships from the same company for roughly $333 million each. Even accounting for inflation and some technological upgrades, this deterioration in competitiveness was so notable that it prompted a Danish maritime magazine to wonder whether the ships were going to be built with gold plates.[Derek Thompson: Don’t ‘buy American’]Supporters claim that reforming or repealing the Jones Act would destroy the domestic industry and imperil national security, but these doomsday scenarios are far-fetched. For starters, government orders account for almost all U.S. shipbuilding output and revenue, and repealing the law wouldn’t touch these transactions. The availability of cheaper and better vessels, moreover, would boost domestic demand for coastwise shipping, improving the industry’s financial prospects. A recent OECD study estimates, in fact, that nixing the Jones Act would increase domestic shipbuilding output and final value ​added by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.And it’s not like current law is doing a bang-up job protecting the industry. The Jones Act fleet has dropped from around 250 ships in the 1980s to just 91 today. No use protecting something that’s already dead.Industrial policy is once again hot in the United States. Federal subsidies and trade restrictions—fueled by pandemic- and China-related security risks and intended to boost strategic commercial industries such as semiconductors and batteries—have proliferated dramatically since 2020. Collectively, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act will funnel hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to favored companies in the United States, marking one of the biggest U.S. industrial-policy pushes since the ’80s.The ribbon-cutting ceremonies and golden shovels that will accompany commercial projects supported by these laws will make for great photo ops and generate lots of political excitement. But the cameras won’t catch the invisible knock-on effects and unintended harms. And if the Jones Act is any guide—which, really, it should be—they’re going to be worth stewing over.

‘Ukraine is a false justification’: America’s destructive new rush for natural gas

As the war in Ukraine sent natural gas prices skyrocketing, liquid natural gas (LNG) plants are springing up all along the fragile Gulf Coast – seriously harming not just local communities but the world’s ability to keep the entire climate crisis at bayAbout 30 miles south of New Orleans, a construction site visible from space is rising. Sandwiched between the Mississippi River and disappearing wetlands, the 256-hectare (632-acre) site is visited by a stream of tipper trucks and concrete mixers that stir up dust on Louisiana 23, the state highway that goes down to Venice, the last spot of land before the river’s water flows into the Gulf of Mexico.The wetlands protect the area from hurricane surge and provide critical habitat for fisheries. But when completed in 2025, the construction site here will host a series of tanks and pipes designed for one purpose: to supercool natural gas into liquid form, so it can be transported on giant tankers to sell around the world to the highest bidder. Continue reading...

As the war in Ukraine sent natural gas prices skyrocketing, liquid natural gas (LNG) plants are springing up all along the fragile Gulf Coast – seriously harming not just local communities but the world’s ability to keep the entire climate crisis at bayAbout 30 miles south of New Orleans, a construction site visible from space is rising. Sandwiched between the Mississippi River and disappearing wetlands, the 256-hectare (632-acre) site is visited by a stream of tipper trucks and concrete mixers that stir up dust on Louisiana 23, the state highway that goes down to Venice, the last spot of land before the river’s water flows into the Gulf of Mexico.The wetlands protect the area from hurricane surge and provide critical habitat for fisheries. But when completed in 2025, the construction site here will host a series of tanks and pipes designed for one purpose: to supercool natural gas into liquid form, so it can be transported on giant tankers to sell around the world to the highest bidder. Continue reading...

These Small States Punch Above Their Weight on Clean Energy

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. It’s not surprising that gigantic states like Texas and California are among the heaviest hitters in generating electricity from wind and solar. But what if we look at generation per square mile of land? Then, the leader is Iowa. Iowa […]

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. It’s not surprising that gigantic states like Texas and California are among the heaviest hitters in generating electricity from wind and solar. But what if we look at generation per square mile of land? Then, the leader is Iowa. Iowa generated 807 megawatt-hours per square mile in 2022 from wind and solar, most of which was from wind, based on data from the Energy Information Administration. Rhode Island was next with 627 mwh per square mile, most of which was from solar. Disclosure: I’m an Iowa native and will jump at any opportunity to talk about the virtues of the state. One of my first reporting jobs was covering Iowa politics in the early 2000s. The main reason for Iowa’s success is a resource that was a nuisance before it turned into a moneymaker. I got in touch with Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center and a member of the Des Moines City Council, to get a better idea of why the state has been so successful at developing wind energy. He credits a 2001 law signed by then-Gov. Tom Vilsack that encouraged utilities to build new power plants by making it easier to obtain regulatory approval to pass the plants’ costs on to customers. The law helped to set off a construction boom for wind farms, many of them developed by the state’s largest utility, MidAmerican Energy, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. “Gov. Vilsack really made a push on renewable energy, and so did Gov. (Chet) Culver after him,” said Mendelbaum, who joined Vilsack’s policy staff after the law passed in 2001. The state’s support for renewable energy was bipartisan and continued even after Vilsack and Culver, both Democrats, left office. Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, was governor from 1983 to 1999 and then had a second stint from 2011 to 2017, and he encouraged wind energy development, as did his successor, current Gov. Kim Reynolds, also a Republican. “Iowa touts its role as an energy provider,” Mandelbaum said. Just look at the state’s license plate, which includes a silhouette of a wind turbine. Renewable energy has been an economic boon for Iowa, with lease payments that provide additional income for rural land owners and property taxes for local governments. Companies have spent $22 billion to develop wind energy in the state, according to a fact sheet from the Iowa Environmental Council. But policy support isn’t the main reason for Iowa’s success in wind energy. The main reason is a natural resource—steady wind—that was a nuisance before it turned into a moneymaker. Iowa is part of a band of states extending from North Dakota and Minnesota in the north to Texas in the south that have some of the best wind resources in the country, as can be seen in maps from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Last year, Iowa’s 44,664 gigawatt-hours of generation from wind farms in 2022 ranked second only to Texas, which was way ahead with 113,880 gwh. (If we look at wind plus solar, Iowa had 45,058 gwh and Texas had 136,118 gwh.) I wrote last week about how Texas is the country’s leader in renewable and carbon-free electricity generation. And yet, Texas ranks fourth in generation per square mile, behind Iowa, Rhode Island and Oklahoma. (Texas has 4.6 times more land area than Iowa, 253 times more than Rhode Island, and 3.8 times more than Oklahoma.) Texas also trails in the percentage of its electricity generation that comes from wind and solar, ranking 12th with 26 percent. Rural communities have pushed back in recent years, claiming wind and solar projects harm property values. Who was number one? It was Iowa, with 63 percent. Next was South Dakota, the only other state to get half of its electricity from wind and solar, with 55 percent, essentially all of it coming from wind. Not all of that wind energy is getting used in Iowa and South Dakota. The electricity goes into a regional grid that covers much of the Midwest, and gets used wherever it’s needed, which is often in metro areas like Minneapolis-St. Paul. In recent years, rural communities across the country have been pushing back against renewable energy development, saying that wind and solar are ugly and harm property values. This is happening in Iowa too. And since the state leads the country in wind plus solar generation per square mile, it’s a good place to look at land use concerns. When I drive on I-80 through the state, there are several stretches in which the horizon is filled with wind turbines, and solar farms are an increasingly familiar part of the landscape. Several Iowa counties have passed moratoria or other limits on new wind or solar development. State lawmakers have introduced bills that would make it more difficult to get approval to build the projects, but so far none of the measures have passed. Mandelbaum said the state’s support for renewable energy remains bipartisan, but it’s not as overwhelmingly bipartisan as it was before, with some Republicans wanting to slow development. But he thinks concerns about the amount of wind and solar are at odds with the reality of how much open space the state has. The main caveat when looking at renewable energy relative to land area is that some states are not well-suited to building wind, solar or both, even if they have a lot of land. For example, California has weak winds across much of its land, while Maine has a combination of rugged terrain and a relative lack of sunshine. At the same time, Rhode Island ranks high in terms of renewables per square mile, even with very little developable land. The state doesn’t have any solar or wind projects that exceed 50 megawatts of capacity, but that’s about to change. This week, the wind developer Ørsted and the utility Eversource said they have jointly submitted a proposal to build an 884-megawatt offshore wind farm off of the Rhode Island coast, in addition to their existing plan to build a 704-megawatt project in the same area. “We’re ready to deliver even more good-paying jobs and affordable clean energy to the Ocean State,” said David Hardy, group executive vice president and CEO Americas at Ørsted, in a statement. “And we’re confident that our new proposal will advance Rhode Island’s climate goals while delivering on the promise of a sustainable economic engine rooted in thriving port facilities and powered by local union labor.” The lower end of first chart also tells a story. It’s not a surprise to see Alaska at the bottom, considering its vast land area. The others are a tour of underachievement in the South, as Kentucky and Louisiana sit just above Alaska. Kentucky and Louisiana both have some big solar projects that will be coming online, so their renewable energy generation is set to increase—but they have a lot of catching up to do to even get close to average. Meanwhile, Iowa continues to be a leader.

A Controversial Technology Is Creating an Unprecedented Rift Among Climate Scientists

Geoengineering our atmosphere to cool the planet has long been a taboo subject. But as the earth keeps heating up, that may now be changing.

If you can think of something, there’s probably a scientist studying it. There are researchers looking into naked mole rat breeding patterns, the aerodynamics of cricket balls, and that people tend to like pizza better than beans. But there are also certain experiments that scientists generally don’t do. They don’t, for instance, genetically modify humans, or clone them. They don’t conduct psychology experiments without subjects’ informed consent. And there’s a whole host of experimental medical procedures that could teach us a lot, but no one would ever be justified to try. [time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”] Many scientists have long thought of experiments to inject chemicals into the earth’s atmosphere in order to cool the climate, known as stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), as falling within that taboo category—arguing developing the technology could pose serious planetary risks. But some researchers have been working to alter that perception in recent years, splitting the climate science community. In recent months, the field has seen a surge in momentum: last month the U.N. Environment Programme called for more research into geoengineering, while reports emerged last summer that the Biden Administration has begun coordinating a five-year research plan. Rogue researchers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs meanwhile conducted small scale tests late last year and in February, despite condemnation from much of the scientific community. All that attention has added fuel to the smoldering disagreements among climate scientists, creating what is likely the most significant rift in the world of atmospheric science and climate studies in years. Academic factions have published a series of dueling petitions as part of an increasingly visible and contentious battle for control of the scientific narrative—and ultimately over how to tackle climate change as emissions continue to rise. One side says that humanity may doom itself by refusing to look into potential chemical means of cooling our atmosphere. The other claims that undertaking such research could lead to disastrous consequences that we can barely imagine. Read more: Inside a Controversial Startup’s Risky Attempt to Control Our Climate No one person or organization has a monopoly on decisions over what scientific questions are off limits for ethical reasons—the answers tend to come about from messy consensus among governments, scientific bodies, and individual researchers. And until recently, when it came to geoengineering our atmosphere, the majority agreed the risks outweighed the opportunity. There’s the risk that such geoengineering technology would be used by the wealthy and powerful at the expense of others—that we’ll use it to save coastal property from inundation by rising sea levels, but end up disrupting monsoons and causing famine in Southeast Asia in the process—or that disputes between nations over who gets to set the global thermostat could lead to war, or, in an extreme scenario, to nuclear armageddon. There’s the moral hazard argument: that if governments and industries begin to perceive SAI as a reliable plan B for climate change, they’ll use it as an excuse to hold off on making urgently-needed emissions cuts. And then there’s the Frankenstein’s monster aspect: that is, the deep unease that many people feel in altering what seems to be the natural order of things, and the foreboding sense that something will, almost inevitably, go terribly wrong. Solar geoengineering remained largely outside the scientific mainstream until the early 2000s, when influential scientists like David Keith, now a professor of applied physics at Harvard University, first started advocating for more study and discussion of using chemicals to cool the planet. A succession of papers, books, and philanthropic donations to support research followed over the course of the next two decades, particularly from tech billionaires like Bill Gates who became interested in the technology’s potential. By 2021, the momentum was shifting, with respected organizations like the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommending scientists “cautiously pursue” solar geoengineering research. Hansi Singh, a professor of climate dynamics at The University of Victoria in Canada says things have changed markedly. Back in 2016, she was interested in studying geoengineering after graduating from a PhD program, but was warned away from the field because it could taint her reputation. “There’s been enough negative sentiment that people … were afraid to go into that area,” she says. “There’s less of that now.” Advocates like Singh say that the turnaround is partly due to the worsening climate situation. With emissions still not falling nearly fast enough to avoid dangerous impacts, geoengineering seems more like an option that may one day need to be considered. But those opposed to geoengineering work are skeptical. They see the shift in favor of exploring this solution more as the result of a sustained lobbying effort. “A very small group of individuals with a lot of financing, they’re pushing for this,” says Jennie Stephens, a professor of sustainability science and policy at Northeastern University. “The advocates are very good fundraisers.” Read more: Why Billionaires are Obsessed With Blocking Out the Sun That growing support for research into geoengineering technology has led to a serious schism in the normally friendly world of climate science. “You think of polarization only in terms of Trump and Twitter, but it doesn’t come home to roost.” says Aarti Gupta, a professor of global environmental governance at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “We are friends—we know each other. And then suddenly there’s this issue.” For opponents of geoengineering research, a 2021 article advocating for more study of the field in influential science journal Nature was an indication that the proponents were making headway, as was a plan that year by Keith’s Harvard research group to test SAI technology in the skies over northern Sweden. That project was later canceled due to opposition from environmentalists and local Indigenous groups. But Frank Biermann, a professor of global sustainability governance at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, says that the fact that Keith’s project got as far as it did sent shockwaves through the broader environmental sciences community. “It was a signal that these folks are serious,” he says. Biermann helped organize a letter in response to those developments. It was published in January 2022 and signed by dozens of scientists and climate researchers, with the goal of making it clear that the academic community didn’t want governments to develop solar geoengineering technologies. He says it’s a sign that anti-geoengineering scientists are getting more organized. Today, more than 400 academics have signed the letter, including influential climate scientists like Michael Oppenheimer, a professor at Princeton University and one of the original voices who warned about the danger of global climate change. “So many people have ignored this debate for a long time,” Biermann says. “They’re now getting a little bit into the fray because they are concerned.” Many of those involved in studying geoengineering saw the letter as a direct attack. Daniele Visioni, a researcher at Cornell University, immediately began discussing ways to counter calls to restrict such research. To him and other proponents of studying geoengineering, to avoid working in the field was to lose out on a chance to better understand the risks and potential benefits of a technology that is likely to be on the table in the future. “You cannot say we shouldn’t be studying this because someone somewhere in the future might misuse it,” Visioni says. “You are making the decision for other people, and for people that maybe don’t exist yet.” Eventually, they settled on the idea of producing their own letter that would show support for geoengineering research. “People that do [geoengineering] research are always on the defensive,” he says. “There’s been a realization that we need to be more forceful.” Visioni’s letter, published late last month, gathered more than 100 signatories, largely from European and international researchers, as well as other prominent scientists like James Hansen, a professor at Columbia University and another of the original scientists who called for action on global warming. It emerged alongside another similar U.S.-focused call for support for geoengineering research, published around the same time. Researchers who work on geoengineering often emphasize that such climate interventions are no substitute for emissions reductions, and stress the need for global agreement and fair governance in how the technology might be used. Other potential players, like private business, might not be so scrupulous. Singh, who signed on to the second pro-geoengineering research letter, says that reports in December of a controversial series of test flights by geoengineering startup Make Sunsets helped to galvanize their side of the debate—it was a clear sign that if researchers and government bodies didn’t start studying geoengineering seriously, someone else might take matters into their own hands, with unpredictable consequences. “There’s no research body that has come to any sort of general agreement, and so within the vacuum, anybody can come in and claim that they’re going to do some smoke and mirrors and cool the planet,” Singh says. For those opposed to researching geoengineering, though, those controversial experiments have been a sign of exactly the opposite. The pro-geoengineering research faction may be adamant about the ethics of how the technology should be deployed, but once those scientists lay the scientific groundwork, the decision of how the technology is used might be out of their control. Biermann, of Utrecht University, says the pro-geoengineering researchers don’t understand that—he calls it “Captain Kirk syndrome.” “The idea is there is this kind of [global] President who behaves like Captain Kirk, and the scientists are like Mr. Spock, the person who has absolute logic,” he says. “[But] Captain Kirk is not real life. There is no Captain Kirk.”

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