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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why I Decided, 11 Years Ago, to Live Without Money

AlterNet.org

ENVIRONMENT  

My decision to live without money was conceived on a backpacking trip to Alaska in 1998.

 

For more than 11 years I’ve lived without money, government assistance, or conscious barter. I live primarily in a cave in a Utah canyon, when I’m not wandering. Occasionally I house-sit, though I never ask for house-sits; they just come to me. My food comes from what I find in dumpsters, wild edibles, and what people freely offer. My clothes are cast-offs.

My decision to live without money was conceived on a backpacking trip to Alaska in 1998. I camped on the Kenai Peninsula, surrounded by pine forests, fluorescent fireweed meadows, soaring bald eagles, spawning salmon, and moose and bears bearing babies. Every living thing displayed its glory that Alaskan summer. The symphonic harmony astounded me.

I honed in on the berry section of the orchestra. I noticed the berries along footpaths were more plentiful than elsewhere. Over a couple of weeks, I gorged on raspberries, noticing the ones near my tent becoming redder, plumper, and sweeter than the others. Natural selection, I figured. I’d always thought the idea of talking to plants and trees a bit hokey, but I couldn’t help but sense my raspberry neighbors speaking to me. They spoke through a language of color, size, smell, and sweetness: “Stay, eat!” Ripe raspberries, unlike greener ones, offered themselves, clusters easily pulling off branches as a woolen cap is pulled off the head when one comes inside from the cold. It was strange to feel intimacy from bushes, of all things. It was like Holy Communion: “This is my body. Take, eat.”

The raspberry bush expected nothing in return and I took from it without a sense of debt. Yet the bush and I mutually benefited in a perfect, pay-it-forward economy. Instinctually, I’d walk a good distance from my camp and poop. I realized pooping was a holy act, simply because it was ego-less, without a self-righteous sense of generosity. The bush paid it forward to me, I paid it forward to somebody else. My turds, revolting to me, were sweet manna from heaven to tiny populations in the soil. Not only that, but my manna included the bonus of seeds, propagating raspberry posterity.

There in the woods I felt a therapeutic relief absent in commercial civilization. I reaped what somebody else had sown, sowed what somebody else would reap. This was not the tedium of the sow-and-reap trade economy of commercial civilization – not barter, money, or conventional agriculture. In wild nature I witnessed no consciousness of credit and debt, no value judgments, no imbalance. I could see no difference between work and play.

Thus began a hypothesis of why wild nature’s economy is balanced while the commercial economy is not and can never be. I saw that nature is a constant free current – a true currency, that is. Money and possession represent our control, our interruption, of nature’s current, both in our minds and in our environment. Thus money is not a functional currency. Our belief in money represents our lack of trust in nature’s ability to balance positive with negative, credit with debt. Possession means control, and goes against the current. Free means without possession. Free market is an oxymoron.

I saw then that commercial civilization can never succeed in coming into balance with the environment. The more we try to create balance, the more imbalance we create. A martial artist, tightrope-walker, or dancer understands this principle. The more self-conscious you are, left foot conscious of right foot, the more you stumble. Only by freely giving and receiving – without self-credit (praise) or self-debt (guilt) – can balance come. This means giving up consciousness of credit and debt, not worrying who gets what credit, who owes what to whom. It means no more delusion of possession, property, and control. To be natural is to be graceful – to be in a state of grace, a word that comes from the same Latin root as gratis, or free.

After this Alaskan glimmer of wild nature, it would take me two more years to gain the courage to renounce money and conscious barter, to put my hypothesis to the test. I still find consciousness of credit and debt infecting my mind. But the longer I test my hypothesis, the less it is an experiment, the more it is a natural practice of true life, wild life.

Daniel Suelo’s unconventional lifestyle is the subject of the new book, The Man Who Quit Money, by Mark Sundeen.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Earth Will Not Be Saved by Hope and Billionaires



CommonDreams.org


World leaders at Earth summits seem more interested in protecting the interests of plutocratic elites than our environment

 
Worn down by hope. That's the predicament of those who have sought to defend the earth's living systems. Every time governments meet to discuss the environmental crisis, we are told that this is the "make or break summit", on which the future of the world depends. The talks might have failed before, but this time the light of reason will descend upon the world.

 
'To see Obama backtracking on the commitments made by Bush the elder 20 years ago is to see the extent to which a tiny group of ­plutocrats has asserted its grip on policy.' Illustration by Daniel Pudles

We know it's rubbish, but we allow our hopes to be raised, only to witness 190 nations arguing through the night over the use of the subjunctive in paragraph 286. We know that at the end of this process the UN secretary general, whose job obliges him to talk nonsense in an impressive number of languages, will explain that the unresolved issues (namely all of them) will be settled at next year's summit. Yet still we hope for something better.

This week's earth summit in Rio de Janeiro is a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago. By now, the leaders who gathered in the same city in 1992 told us, the world's environmental problems were to have been solved. But all they have generated is more meetings, which will continue until the delegates, surrounded by rising waters, have eaten the last rare dove, exquisitely presented with an olive leaf roulade. The biosphere that world leaders promised to protect is in a far worse state than it was 20 years ago. Is it not time to recognise that they have failed?

These summits have failed for the same reason that the banks have failed. Political systems that were supposed to represent everyone now return governments of millionaires, financed by and acting on behalf of billionaires. The past 20 years have been a billionaires' banquet. At the behest of corporations and the ultra-rich, governments have removed the constraining decencies – the laws and regulations – which prevent one person from destroying another. To expect governments funded and appointed by this class to protect the biosphere and defend the poor is like expecting a lion to live on gazpacho.

You have only to see the way the United States has savaged the Earth summit's draft declaration to grasp the scale of this problem. The word "equitable", the US insists, must be cleansed from the text. So must any mention of the right to food, water, health, the rule of law, gender equality and women's empowerment. So must a clear target of preventing two degrees of global warming. So must a commitment to change "unsustainable consumption and production patterns", and to decouple economic growth from the use of natural resources.
Political systems that were supposed to represent everyone now return governments of millionaires, financed by and acting on behalf of billionaires. The past 20 years have been a billionaires' banquet. At the behest of corporations and the ultra-rich, governments have removed the constraining decencies – the laws and regulations – which prevent one person from destroying another. To expect governments funded and appointed by this class to protect the biosphere and defend the poor is like expecting a lion to live on gazpacho.

Most significantly, the US delegation demands the removal of many of the foundations agreed by a Republican president in Rio in 1992. In particular, it has set out to purge all mention of the core principle of that Earth summit: common but differentiated responsibilities. This means that while all countries should strive to protect the world's resources, those with the most money and who have done the most damage should play a greater part.

This is the government, remember, not of George W Bush but of Barack Obama. The paranoid, petty, unilateralist sabotage of international agreements continues uninterrupted. To see Obama backtracking on the commitments made by Bush the elder 20 years ago is to see the extent to which a tiny group of plutocrats has asserted its grip on policy.

While the destructive impact of the US in Rio is greater than that of any other nation, this does not excuse our own failures. The British government prepared for the Earth summit by wrecking both our own Climate Change Act and the European energy efficiency directive. David Cameron will not be attending the Earth summit. Nor will Ed Davey, the energy and climate change secretary (which is probably a blessing, as he's totally useless).

Needless to say, Cameron, with other absentees such as Obama and Angela Merkel, are attending the G20 summit in Mexico, which takes place immediately before Rio. Another tenet of the 1992 summit – that economic and environmental issues should not be treated in isolation – goes up in smoke.

The environmental crisis cannot be addressed by the emissaries of billionaires. It is the system that needs to be challenged, not the individual decisions it makes. In this respect the struggle to protect the biosphere is the same as the struggle for redistribution, for the protection of workers' rights, for an enabling state, for equality before the law.

So this is the great question of our age: where is everyone? The monster social movements of the 19th century and first 80 years of the 20th have gone, and nothing has replaced them. Those of us who still contest unwarranted power find our footsteps echoing through cavernous halls once thronged by multitudes. When a few hundred people do make a stand – as the Occupy campers have done – the rest of the nation just waits for them to achieve the kind of change that requires the sustained work of millions.

Without mass movements, without the kind of confrontation required to revitalise democracy, everything of value is deleted from the political text. But we do not mobilise, perhaps because we are endlessly seduced by hope. Hope is the rope from which we all hang.

George Monbiot
George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order and Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. Visit his website at www.monbiot.com

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Earth Facing Imminent Environmental 'Tipping Point': Report


CommonDreams.org



Biosphere reaching an environmental 'state shift', says scientists

- Common Dreams staff 
 
Humankind is facing an imminent threat of extinction, according to new research released on Wednesday by the science journal Nature. The report Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere reveals that our planet's biosphere is steadily approaching a 'tipping point', meaning all ecosystems are nearing sudden and irreversible change that will not be conducive to human life.

 

"We have reason to believe the change may be abrupt and surprising," said co-researcher Arne Mooers, a professor of biodiversity at Simon Fraser University in Canada's British Columbia. (Photo: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory , NASA Johnson Space Center) The authors describe what they see as a fast paced 'state shift' once the tipping point is reached, which contrasts with the mainstream view that environmental change will take centuries. "It's a question of whether it is going to be manageable change or abrupt change. And we have reason to believe the change may be abrupt and surprising," said co-researcher Arne Mooers, a professor of biodiversity at Simon Fraser University in Canada's British Columbia.

"The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations," stated lead author Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California in Berkeley.
"My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the Earth's history are more than pretty worried," he said in a press release. "In fact, some are terrified," said co-researcher Arne Mooers, a professor of biodiversity at Simon Fraser University in Canada's British Columbia.

The report, written by 22 scientists from three continents ahead of this year's Rio+20 summit, claims that the 'state shift' is likely; however, humans may have a small window to curb over-consumption, over-population growth and environmental destruction, with drastic efforts to change the way we live on planet earth through international cooperation.

* * *
Agence France-Presse: Environmental collapse now a serious threat: scientists
Climate change, population growth and environmental destruction could cause a collapse of the ecosystem just a few generations from now, scientists warned on Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The factors in today's equation include a world population that is set to rise from seven billion to around 9.3 billion by mid-century and global warming that will outstrip the UN target of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
The paper by 22 top researchers said a "tipping point" by which the biosphere goes into swift and irreversible change, with potentially cataclysmic impacts for humans, could occur as early as this century. [...]

The Nature paper, written by biologists, ecologists, geologists and palaeontologists from three continents, compared the biological impact of past episodes of global change with what is happening today.

The factors in today's equation include a world population that is set to rise from seven billion to around 9.3 billion by mid-century and global warming that will outstrip the UN target of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

The team determined that once 50-90 percent of small-scale ecosystems become altered, the entire eco-web tips over into a new state, characterised especially by species extinctions.
Once the shift happens, it cannot be reversed.

To support today's population, about 43 percent of Earth's ice-free land surface is being used for farming or habitation, according to the study.

On current trends, the 50 percent mark will be reached by 2025, a point the scientists said is worryingly close to the tipping point.
If that happened, collapse would entail a shocking disruption for the world's food supply, with bread-basket regions curtailed in their ability to grow corn, wheat, rice, fodder and other essential crops.
"It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point," said lead author Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California in Berkeley.
* * *
Montreal Gazette: Earth reaching an environmental 'state shift': Report
Or, as Canadian co-author Arne Mooers, at Simon Fraser Univeristy in British Columbia, puts it: "Once the shift occurs, they'll be no going back."
The "ultimate effects" of a state shift are unknown, but the researchers suggest it could have severe impact on the world's fisheries, agriculture, forests and water resources. And they warn that "widespread social unrest, economic instability and loss of human life could result."
A shift or tipping point is "speculation at this point," Mooers told Postmedia News.

"But it's one of those things where you say: 'Hey, maybe we better find out,' because if it's true, it's pretty serious." [...]
The climate is warming so fast that the "mean global temperature by 2070 (or possibly a few decades earlier) will be higher than it has been since the human species evolved," they say.
And to support the current population of seven billion people, about 43 per cent of Earth's land surface has been converted to agricultural or urban use. The population is expected to hit nine billion by 2045 and they say current trends suggest that half Earth's land surface will be altered by humans by 2025.

That's "disturbingly close" to a potential global tipping point, Barnosky says in a release issued with the report. The study says tipping points tend to occur when 50 to 90 per cent of smaller ecosystems have been disrupted.

"I think that if we want to avoid the most unpleasant surprises, we want to stay away from that 50 per cent mark," Barnosky says.
The "ultimate effects" of a state shift are unknown, but the researchers suggest it could have severe impact on the world's fisheries, agriculture, forests and water resources. And they warn that "widespread social unrest, economic instability and loss of human life could result."
* * *
Live Science: Tipping Point? Earth Headed for Catastrophic Collapse, Researchers Warn
Barnosky and his colleagues reviewed research on climate change, ecology and Earth's tipping points that break the camel's back, so to speak. At certain thresholds, putting more pressure on the environment leads to a point of no return, Barnosky said. Suddenly, the planet responds in unpredictable ways, triggering major global transitions.

The most recent example of one of these transitions is the end of the last glacial period. Within not much more than 3,000 years, the Earth went from being 30 percent covered in ice to its present, nearly ice-free condition. Most extinctions and ecological changes (goodbye, woolly mammoths) occurred in just 1,600 years. Earth's biodiversity still has not recovered to what it was.

Today, Barnosky said, humans are causing changes even faster than the natural ones that pushed back the glaciers — and the changes are bigger.
# # #

Monday, May 7, 2012

How Biodiversity Keeps Earth Alive

Science News




News | Energy & Sustainability

How Biodiversity Keeps Earth Alive

Species loss lessens the total amount of biomass on a given parcel, suggesting that the degree of diversity directly impacts the amount of life the planet can support


california-meadow  
BIODIVERSITY: Native wildflowers add diversity to this prairie-like California grassland. Image: © David Hooper
In 1994 biologists seeded patches of grassland in Cedar Creek, Minn. Some plots got as many as 16 species of grasses and other plants—and some as few as one. In the first few years plots with eight or more species fared about as well as those with fewer species, suggesting that a complex mix of species—what is known as biodiversity—didn't affect the amount of a plot's leaf, blade, stem and root (or biomass, as scientists call it). But when measured over a longer span—more than a decade—those plots with the most species produced the greatest abundance of plant life.

"Different species differ in how, when and where they acquire water, nutrients and carbon, and maintain them in the ecosystem. Thus, when many species grow together, they have a wider set of traits that allow them to gain the resources needed," explains ecologist Peter Reich of the University of Minnesota, who led this research to be published in Science on May 4. This result suggests "no level of diversity loss can occur without adverse effects on ecosystem functioning." That is the reverse of what numerous studies had previously found, largely because those studies only looked at short-term outcomes.

The planet as a whole is on the cusp of what some researchers have termed the sixth mass extinction event in the planet's history: the wiping out of plants, animals and all other forms of life due to human activity. The global impact of such biodiversity loss is detailed in a meta-analysis led by biologist David Hooper of Western Washington University. His team examined 192 studies that looked at species richness and its effect on ecosystems. "The primary drivers of biodiversity loss are, in rough order of impact to date: habitat loss, overharvesting, invasive species, pollution and climate change," Hooper explains. Perhaps unsurprisingly, "biodiversity loss in the 21st century could rank among the major drivers of ecosystem change," Hooper and his colleagues wrote in Nature on May 3. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

Losing just 21 percent of the species in a given ecosystem can reduce the total amount of biomass in that ecosystem by as much as 10 percent—and that's likely to be a conservative estimate. And when more than 40 percent of an ecosystem's species disappear—whether plant, animal, insect, fungi or microbe—the effects can be as significant as those caused by a major drought. Nor does this analysis take into account how species extinction can both be driven by and act in concert with other changes—whether warmer average temperatures or nitrogen pollution. In the real world environmental and biological changes "are likely to be happening at the same time," Hooper admits. "This is a critical need for future research."

The major driver of human impacts on the rest of life on this planet—whether through clearing forests or dumping excess fertilizer on fields—is our need for food. Maintaining high biomass from farming ecosystems, which often emphasize monocultures (single species) while also preserving biodiversity—some species now appear only on farmland—has become a "key issue for sustainability," Hooper notes, "if we're going to grow food for nine billion people on the planet in the next 40 to 50 years."
Over the long term, maintaining soil fertility may require nurturing, creating and sparing plant and microbial diversity. After all, biodiversity itself appears to control the elemental cycles—carbon, nitrogen, water—that allow the planet to support life. Only by acting in conjunction with one another, for example, can a set of grassland plant species maintain healthy levels of nitrogen in both soil and leaf. "As soil fertility increases, this directly boosts biomass production," just as in agriculture, Reich notes. "When we reduce diversity in the landscape—think of a cornfield or a pine plantation or a suburban lawn—we are failing to capitalize on the valuable natural services that biodiversity provides."

At least one of those services is largely unaffected, however, according to Hooper's study—decomposition. Which means the bacteria and fungi will still happily break down whatever plants are left after this sixth extinction. But thousands of unique species have already been lost, most unknown even to science—a rate that could halve the total number of species on the planet by 2100, according to entomologist E. O. Wilson of Harvard University. Ghosts of species past haunt ecosystems worldwide, which have already lost not just one or another type of grass or roundworm but also some of their strength at sustaining life as a whole.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Report: Humanity Must Stabilize Population, Consumption or Face 'Downward Vortex' of 'Ills'

CommonDreams.org



It is urgent that humanity work towards equity of consumption and slow the growth of the world's population or we'll head towards a "downward vortex" of ruin, according to a report published today.
People and the Planet, the report from the Royal Society, is the result of a nearly two-year study.  It emphasizes that global population and consumption are linked and must be seen as such to work for the health of humankind and the planet.

Crowd 

Sir John Sulston: "We can choose to rebalance the use of resources to a more egalitarian pattern of consumption... or we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills..."(photo: James Cridland)
Sir John Sulston, Fellow of the Royal Society and Chair of the report working group, said, "We can choose to rebalance the use of resources to a more egalitarian pattern of consumption, to reframe our economic values to truly reflect what our consumption means for our planet and to help individuals around the world to make informed and free reproductive choices. Or we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future."
Among the report's key findings is that developed countries must decrease material consumption, and that reproductive healthcare and family planning must be funded. "To not provide family planning is an infringement of human rights," Sulston noted.
* * *
BBC: Population and consumption key to future, report says
Over-consumption in rich countries and rapid population growth in the poorest both need to be tackled to put society on a sustainable path, a report says.
An expert group convened by the Royal Society spent nearly two years reading evidence and writing their report.
Firm recommendations include giving all women access to family planning, moving beyond GDP as the yardstick of economic health and reducing food waste.
The report will feed into preparations for the Rio+20 summit in June.
"This is an absolutely critical period for people and the planet, with profound changes for human health and wellbeing and the natural environment," said Sir John Sulston, the report's chairman.
"Where we go is down to human volition - it's not pre-ordained, it's not the act of anything outside humanity, it's in our hands."
* * *
Royal Society calls for a more equitable future for humanity
The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise consumption levels, then reduce them, to help the poorest 1.3 billion people to escape absolute poverty through increased consumption. Alongside this, education and voluntary family planning programmes must be supported internationally to stabilise global population. The new report, People and the Planet, is the result of a 21 month study by the Royal Society, the UK’s 350 year-old national academy of science, on the issues around global population.
Sir John Sulston, Fellow of the Royal Society and Chair of the report working group, said: "The world now has a very clear choice. We can choose to address the twin issues of population and consumption. We can choose to rebalance the use of resources to a more egalitarian pattern of consumption, to reframe our economic values to truly reflect what our consumption means for our planet and to help individuals around the world to make informed and free reproductive choices. Or we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future."
"We call on all governments to consider the issue of population carefully at the Rio+20 meeting and to commit to a more just future based not on material consumption growth for their nations, but on the needs of the global community, both present and future." [...]
In addition to concluding that the consumption by those that consume most must be reduced and that health and voluntary family planning must be supported, the report features numerous other recommendations including:
  • Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues and demographic changes and the influences on them should be factored into economic and environmental debate and planning.
  • GDP is a poor measure of social well-being and does not account for natural capital. New comprehensive wealth measures should be developed that better reflect the value of a country’s assets.
  • New socio-economic systems and institutions that are not dependent on continued material consumption growth must be developed, which will lead to better targeted governmental policies that are not based on consumption of resources without consideration of wider impact.
  • Increasing population will lead to developing countries building the equivalent of a city of a million people every five days from now to 2050. Governments should plan for urban growth with reduced material consumption and environmental impact through the provision of well organised services.
* * *
Buy More Stuff, Black Friday 2009 
The wrong direction (photo: Michael Holden)
* * *
The Guardian: World needs to stabilise population and cut consumption, says Royal Society
The authors acknowledge that it would take time and massive political commitment to shift consumption patterns in rich countries, but believe that providing contraception would cost comparatively little. "To supply all the world's unmet family planning needs would be $6-7bn a year. It's not much. It's an extremely good investment, extremely affordable. To not provide family planning is an infringement of human rights", said Sulston.
The authors declined to put a figure on sustainable population, saying it depended on lifestyle choices and consumption. But they warned that without urgent action humanity would be in deep trouble. "The pressure on a finite planet will make us radically change human activity", said Pretty [,one of the working group of 22 who produced the report].
"The planet has sufficient resources to sustain 9 billion, but we can only ensure a sustainable future for all if we address grossly unequal levels of consumption. Fairly redistributing the lion's share of the earth's resources consumed by the richest 10% would bring development so that infant mortality rates are reduced, many more people are educated and women are empowered to determine their family size – all of which will bring down birth rates", said an Oxfam spokeswoman.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chorus of Anger says Little Learned from BP's Gulf Disaster

CommonDreams.org


Two years after Deepwater Horizon a culture of complacency has returned to offshore drilling

- Common Dreams staff
Two years since a blowout caused the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and spewed nearly  5 million barrels of oil and more than 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas into the Gulf of Mexico, few lessons have been learned, according to various environmentalists, experts, and Gulf coast residents. (Infographic: Hatty Lee / colorlines.com)
Though BP has agreed to pay billions of dollars in damages, most believe that accountability has been slim compared to the still untold damage that was caused -- much of which may not be fully realized for years to come. "BP has already tested the effectiveness of lesser consequences," says Abrahm Lustgarten, the Polk Award-winning environmental reporter for Pro Publica, "and its track record proves that the most severe punishments the courts and the United States government have been willing to mete out amount to a slap on the wrist."
Marine life in the gulf and the communities which dot its coast are rife with problems. As Phil Radford, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA and Aaron Viles, Deputy Director of Gulf Restoration Network write today: "Throughout the foodchain, warning signs are accumulating. Dolphins are sick and dying. Important forage fish are plagued with gill and developmental damage. Deepwater species like snapper have been stricken with lesions, and their reefs are losing biodiversity. Coastal communities are struggling with changes to the fisheries they rely upon. Hard-hit oyster reefs aren't coming back and sport fish like speckled trout have disappeared from some of their traditional haunts. BP's oily fingerprints continue to mar the landscape and destroy habitats."
“People should be aware that the oil is still there,” Wilma Subra, a chemist who travels widely across the Gulf meeting with fishers and testing seafood and sediment samples for contamination, told freelance journalist Jordan Flaherty. Subra thinks this what is now being seen in the gulf is just the "beginning of this disaster." In every community she visits, writes Flaherty, "fishers show her shrimp born without eyes, fish with lesions, and crabs with holes in their shells." According to Subra, tarballs are still washing up on beaches across the region.
And Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, says that the Gulf disaster has taught many lessons, but wonders if all the right people have learned them. Among them: "Giant corporations cannot be trusted to behave responsibly, and have the ability to inflict massive damage on people and the environment. We need strong regulatory controls to curb corporate wrongdoing. We need tough penalties to punish corporate wrongdoers. There is no way to do deepwater oil drilling safely. And it is vital that citizens harmed by corporate wrongdoers maintain the right to sue to recover their losses."
And lastly, writing for The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg explores the question, "How much is a dolphin worth?" as she explores the dilemma of monetizing an ecosystem ravaged by man's destructive hunt for energy resources.
*  *  *
The New York Times: A Punishment BP Can’t Pay Off by Abrahm Lustgarten
Two years after a series of gambles and ill-advised decisions on a BP drilling project led to the largest accidental oil spill in United States history and the death of 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, no one has been held accountable.
Sure, there have been about $8 billion in payouts and, in early March, the outlines of a civil agreement that will cost BP, the company ultimately responsible, another $7.8 billion in restitution to businesses and residents along the Gulf of Mexico. It's also true the company has paid at least $14 billion more in cleanup and other costs since the accident began on April 20, 2010, bringing the expense of this fiasco to about $30 billion for BP. These are huge numbers. But this is a huge and profitable corporation.
What is missing is the accountability that comes from real consequences: a criminal prosecution that holds responsible the individuals who gambled with the lives of BP's contractors and the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. Only such an outcome can rebuild trust in an oil industry that asks for the public's faith so that it can drill more along the nation's coastlines. And perhaps only such an outcome can keep BP in line and can keep an accident like the Deepwater Horizon disaster from happening again.
BP has already tested the effectiveness of lesser consequences, and its track record proves that the most severe punishments the courts and the United States government have been willing to mete out amount to a slap on the wrist.
*  *  *
Greenpeace USA and the Gulf Restoration Network: BP's Gulf of Mexico Disaster: Two Years Later, Where Is The Response?
As we look back and assess where we are today, a troubling picture is emerging from the Gulf.
Throughout the foodchain, warning signs are accumulating. Dolphins are sick and dying. Important forage fish are plagued with gill and developmental damage. Deepwater species like snapper have been stricken with lesions, and their reefs are losing biodiversity. Coastal communities are struggling with changes to the fisheries they rely upon. Hard-hit oyster reefs aren't coming back and sport fish like speckled trout have disappeared from some of their traditional haunts. BP's oily fingerprints continue to mar the landscape and destroy habitats.
With these impacts already here, some scientists are alarmed by what they're finding. Unfortunately their concerns are largely drowned out by BP and the "powers that be" shouting through very large megaphones that "all is fine, BP is making it right, come and spend your money." But the truth is far different. The Gulf of Mexico, our nation's energy sacrifice zone, continues to suffer.
*  *  *
Public Citizen's Robert Weissman, writing at Common Dreams: The Unlearned Lessons of the BP Gulf Disaster
"In a rational world, the Deepwater Horizon horror would have been another reminder of the imperative of a rapid transition from dirty fuels to the clean energy sources of the future. Unfortunately, the power of money is having more sway over policy than the power of common sense."
--Robert Weissman, Public Citizen

When it comes to energy policy, the real lesson from the BP disaster was that deepwater drilling will inevitably lead to catastrophic spills and blowouts. The drilling technology has simply far surpassed control technologies. Since the predictable catastrophes are unacceptable, there is a good argument that deepwater drilling itself should not permitted at all. At minimum, any company undertaking a deepwater drilling project should be exposed to unlimited liability for any damage it causes; it should be required to have a spotless, company-wide safety record as a condition of receiving a lease; and it should have a well-funded, proven disaster response plan in place.
In a rational world, the Deepwater Horizon horror would have been another reminder of the imperative of a rapid transition from dirty fuels to the clean energy sources of the future. Unfortunately, the power of money is having more sway over policy than the power of common sense.
After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the administration imposed a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf, but it was soon lifted, and deepwater drilling in the Gulf is proceeding apace. On the broader transition away from dirty energy, the administration has adopted important rules to improve auto fuel efficiency, but we are far off course if we are to avert the worst harms from catastrophic climate change.
*  *  *
Jordan Flaherty, also at Common Dreams: Two Years After the BP Drilling Disaster, Gulf Residents Fear for the Future
While it's too early to assess the long-term environmental impact, a host of recent studies published by the National Academy of Sciences and other respected institutions have shown troubling results. They describe mass deaths of deepwater coral, dolphins, and killifish, a small animal at the base of the Gulf food chain. "If you add them all up, it’s clear the oil is still in the ecosystem, it’s still having an effect,” says Aaron Viles, deputy director of Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental organization active in the region.
The major class action lawsuit on behalf of communities affected by the spill has reached a proposed 7.8 billion dollar settlement, subject to approval by a judge. While this seems to have brought a certain amount of closure to the saga, environmentalists worry that any settlement is premature, saying they fear that the worst is yet to come. Pointing to the 1989 Exxon spill off the coast of Alaska, previously the largest oil spill in US waters, Viles said that it was several years before the full affect of that disaster was felt. “Four seasons after Exxon Valdez is when the herring fisheries collapsed,” says Viles. “The Gulf has been a neglected ecosystem for decades – we need to be monitoring it closely.”
In the aftermath of the spill, BP flooded the Gulf with nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants. While BP says these chemicals broke up the oil, some scientists have said this just made it less visible, and sent the poisons deeper into the food chain.
*  *  *
The Guardian: Deepwater Horizon aftermath: how much is a dolphin worth?
At its most basic, the process now consuming teams of BP and government scientists and lawyers revolves around this: How much is a dolphin worth, and how exactly did it die?
"What dollar value do we place on a destroyed marsh or the loss of a spawning ground? What is the price associated with killing birds and marine mammals? Even if we were capable of meaningfully establishing a price for ecological harm, there is so much that we do not know about the harm to the Gulf of Mexico – and will not know for years – that it may never be possible to come up with an accurate natural resource damage assessment." --David Uhlmann, professor of law, Univ. of Michigan
How much lasting harm was done by the oil that still occasionally washes up on beaches, or remains as splotches on the ocean floor near the site of BP's broken well? What can be done to turn the clock back, and restore the wildlife and environment to levels that would have existed if there had not been a spill?
Wednesday's proposed $7.8bn settlement between BP and more than 100,000 people suing for economic damages due takes the oil company a step closer to consigning the spill to the past. BP is moving towards a settlement with the federal government and the governments of Louisiana and Mississippi. It could also face criminal charges.
But arguably the most difficult negotiation still lies ahead as BP and the federal government try to establish how much damage was done to the environment as a direct result of the oil spill, and how much the company will have to pay to set things right.
"It is extraordinarily difficult to monetise environmental harm. What dollar value do we place on a destroyed marsh or the loss of a spawning ground? What is the price associated with killing birds and marine mammals? Even if we were capable of meaningfully establishing a price for ecological harm, there is so much that we do not know about the harm to the Gulf of Mexico – and will not know for years – that it may never be possible to come up with an accurate natural resource damage assessment," said David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan and a former head of the justice department's environmental crimes section.
#  #  #

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Earth Sends Climate Warning by Busting World Heat Records

CommonDreams.org

Published on Saturday, March 24, 2012 by Common Dreams

First decade of 21st Century warmest on record; US locations break 7,000 temperature records in March

- Common Dreams staff

Accelarated climate change, driven by human activity, has led to soaring temperatures around the world and the decade between 2001 and 2010 was the warmest ever recorded in all continents of the globe, according to a new report released by the World Meteorological Organization.


Additionally, an 'unprecedented' heatwave in the United States "has set or tied more than 7,000 high temperature records" across the country, according to a report from Climate Central. "This heat wave is essentially unprecedented," said the media and research orgnanization's Heidi Cullen told Reuters. "It's hard to grasp how massive and significant this is."

The increase in global temperatures since 1971 has been “remarkable” according to the WHO's assessment. Atmospheric and oceanic phenomena such as La NiƱa events had a temporary cooling influence in some years, the report says, but did not halt the overriding warming trend.

The “dramatic and continuing sea ice decline in the Arctic” was one of the most prominent features of the changing state of the climate during the decade, according to the preliminary findings. Global average precipitation was the second highest since 1901 and flooding was reported as the most frequent extreme event, it said.

“This 2011 annual assessment confirms the findings of the previous WMO annual statements that climate change is happening now and is not some distant future threat. The world is warming because of human activities and this is resulting in far-reaching and potentially irreversible impacts on our Earth, atmosphere and oceans,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. "The world is warming because of human activities and this is resulting in far-reaching and potentially irreversible impacts on our Earth, atmosphere and oceans," he added.

* * *

Reuters: US Heat 'Unprecedented,' 7,000 Records Set or Tied

An "unprecedented" March heat wave in much of the continental United States has set or tied more than 7,000 high temperature records, and signals a warming climate, health and weather experts said on Friday.

While natural climate variability plays a major role, it is the addition of human-spurred climate change that makes this particular hot spell extraordinary, the scientists said in a telephone and web briefing. [...]

Since March 12, more than 7,000 high temperature records have been equaled or exceeded, Cullen said, citing figures from the U.S. National Climatic Data Center.

These records include daytime high temperatures and record-high low temperatures overnight, which in some cases are higher than previous record highs for the day, Cullen said.

"When low temperatures are breaking previous record highs, that's when you see this is incredibly special," she said.

* * *

From Climate Central: State-by-State Look at How Early Spring Has Arrived:Click for access to interactive map at Climate Central.

For most of the country spring has sprung earlier this year, but is this anything more than a single warm year? It seems that it is. During the past several decades, with the exception of the Southeast, spring weather has, indeed, been arriving earlier.

In the interactive above, you can see how much earlier spring has arrived state-by-state, measured by the date of "first leaf." As you hover over any state, it'll display two boxes: a gray box that represents the day spring used to arrive (based on the 1951-1980 average) and a colored box that represents how much earlier spring has arrived in recent years (based on the 1981-2010 average).

Nationwide, the date of “first leaf” has clearly shifted — arriving roughly three days earlier now on March 17th (1981-2010 average) from March 20th (1951-1980 average). This shift affects all sorts of biological processes that are triggered by warmer temperatures — not just flowering, but animal migration and giving birth and the shedding of winter coats and the emergence from cocoons. How much will an earlier spring disrupt the intricate natural balance between the tens of thousands of species that depend on each other for food, reproduction and ultimately, survival? No one really knows.

* * *

AFP adds:

"Most likely the weird weather arises from natural variation on top of a warming climate," said Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist at Princeton and a veteran participant in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "What we're seeing now is not surprising in the greenhouse world ... It's just the beginning of our experience with the new atmosphere."

Oppenheimer was a lead author of the panel's path-breaking 2007 report that analyzed research by hundreds of scientists and found there was a 90 percent probability that climate change is occurring and human activities contribute to it.

That report projected an increase in heat waves, droughts, floods, severe storms and extreme temperatures as a result of human-spurred global warming, caused in part by rising emissions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel burning.

* * *

The WMO report looks at the increased prevalence of extreme weather events around the world:

Numerous weather and climate extremes affected almost every part of the globe with flooding, droughts, cyclones, heat waves, and cold waves. Two exceptional heat waves hit Europe and Russia during summer 2003 and 2010 respectively with disastrous impacts and thousands of deaths and outbreaks of prolonged bush fires.

Flooding was the most reported extreme event during the decade with many parts of the world affected. Historical widespread and prolonged flooding affected Eastern Europe in 2001 and 2005, Africa in 2008, Asia (in particular Pakistan) in 2010 and India in 2005, and Australia in 2010.

A large number of countries reported extreme drought conditions, including Australia, eastern Africa, the Amazonia region and the western United States. Humanitarian consequences were significant in eastern Africa during the first half of the decade, with widespread shortage of food and loss of lives and livestock.

Forty-eight out of 102 countries (47 per cent) reported that their highest national maximum temperature was recorded in 2001-2010, compared to 20 per cent for 1991-2000 and around 10 per cent for the earlier decades.

The decade saw the highest level of tropical cyclone activity on record for the North Atlantic basin. In 2005 category 5 hurricane Katrina was the most costly hurricane to hit the United States, with a significant human toll of more than 1 800 deaths. In 2008, tropical cyclone Nargis was the worst natural disaster in Myanmar and the world’s deadliest tropical cyclone during the decade, killing more than 70 000 people.

# # #

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fracking: Health, Environmental Impact Greater Than Claimed

Dissident Voice: a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice

Fracking: Health, Environmental Impact Greater Than Claimed

Part 2 of 3

The natural gas industry defends hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, as safe and efficient. Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-industry non-profit organization, claims fracking has been “a widely deployed as safe extraction technique,” dating back to 1949. What he doesn’t say is that until recently energy companies had used low-pressure methods to extract natural gas from fields closer to the surface than the current high-pressure technology that extracts more gas, but uses significantly more water, chemicals, and elements.

The industry claims well drilling in the Marcellus Shale will bring several hundred thousand jobs, and has minimal health and environmental risk. President Barack Obama in his January 2012 State of the Union, said he believes the development of natural gas as an energy source to replace fossil fuels could generate 600,000 jobs.

However, research studies by economists Dr. Jannette M. Barth, Dr. Deborah Rogers, and others debunk the idea of significant job creation.

Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, says “no evidence directly connects injection of fracking fluid into shale with aquifer contamination.” Fracking “has never been found to contaminate a water well,” says Christine Cronkright, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Research studies and numerous incidents of water contamination prove otherwise.

In late 2010, equipment failure may have led to toxic levels of chemicals in the well water of at least a dozen families in Conoquenessing Twp. in Bradford County. Township officials and Rex Energy, although acknowledging that two of the drilling wells had problems with the casings, claimed there were pollutants in the drinking water before Rex moved into the area. John Fair disagrees. “Everybody had good water a year ago,” Fair told environmental writer and activist Iris Marie Bloom in February 2012. Bloom says residents told her the color of water changed (to red, orange, and gray) after Rex began drilling. Among chemicals detected in the well water, in addition to methane gas, were ammonia, arsenic, chloromethane, iron, manganese, t-butyl alcohol, and toluene. While not acknowledging that its actions could have caused the pollution, Rex did provide fresh water to the residents, but then stopped doing so on February 29, 2012, after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said the well water was safe. The residents vigorously disagreed and staged protests against Rex; environmental activists and other residents trucked in portable water jugs to help the affected families. The Marcellus Outreach Butler blog (MOB) declared that residents’ “lives have been severely disrupted and their health has been severely impacted. To unceremoniously ‘close the book’ on investigations into their troubles when so many indicators point to the culpability of the gas industry for the disruption of their lives is unconscionable.”

In April 2011, near Towanda, Pa., seven families were evacuated after about 10,000 gallons of wastewater contaminated an agricultural field and a stream that flows into the Susquehanna River, the result of an equipment failure, according to the Bradford County Emergency Management Agency.

The following month, DEP fined Chesapeake Energy $900,000, the largest amount in the state’s history, for allowing methane gas to pollute the drinking water of 16 families in Bradford County during the previous year. The DEP noted there may have been toxic methane emissions from as many as six wells in five towns. The DEP also fined Chesapeake $188,000 for a fire at a well in Washington County that injured three workers.

In January 2012, an equipment failure at a drill site in Susquehanna County led to a spill of several thousand gallons of fluid for almost a half-hour, causing “potential pollution,” according to the DEP. In its citation to Carizzo Oil and Gas, the DEP “strongly” recommended that the company cease drilling at all 67 wells “until the cause of this problem and a solution are identified.”

In December 2011, the federal Environmental Protection Agency concluded that fracking operations could be responsible for groundwater pollution.

“Today’s methods make gas drilling a filthy business. You know it’s bad when nearby residents can light the water coming out of their tap on fire,” says Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. What’s causing the fire is the methane from the drilling operations. A ProPublica investigation in 2009 revealed methane contamination was widespread in drinking water in areas around fracking operations in Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania. The presence of methane in drinking water in Dimock, Pa., had become the focal point for Josh Fox’s investigative documentary, Gasland, which received an Academy Award nomination in 2011 for Outstanding Documentary; Fox also received an Emmy for non-fiction directing. Fox’s interest in fracking intensified when a natural gas company offered $100,000 for mineral rights on property his family owned in Milanville, in the extreme northeast part of Pennsylvania, about 60 miles east of Dimock.

Research by a team of scientists from Duke University revealed “methane contamination of shallow drinking water systems [that is] associated with shale-gas extraction.” The data and conclusions, published in the May 2011 issue of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, noted that not only did most drinking wells near drilling sites have methane, but those closest to the drilling wells, about a half-mile, had an average of 17 times the methane of those of other wells.

“Some of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing—or liberated by it—are carcinogens,” Dr. Sandra Steingraber told members of the Environmental Conservation and Health committee of the New York State Assembly. Dr. Steingraber, a biologist and distinguished scholar in residence at Ithaca College, pointed out that some of the chemicals “are neurological poisons with suspected links to learning deficits in children,” while others “are asthma triggers. Some, especially the radioactive ones, are known to bioaccumulate in milk. Others are reproductive toxicants that can contribute to pregnancy loss.”

An investigation by New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, based upon thousands of unreported EPA documents and a confidential study by the natural gas industry, concluded, “Radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.” Urbina learned that waste water from fracking operations was about 100 times more toxic than federal drinking water standards; 15 wells had readings about 1,000 times higher than standards.

Research by Dr. Ronald Bishop, a biochemist at SUNY/Oneonta, suggests that fracking to extract methane gas “is highly likely to degrade air, surface water and ground-water quality, to harm humans, and to negatively impact aquatic and forest ecosystems.” He notes that “potential exposure effects for humans will include poisoning of susceptible tissues, endocrine disruption syndromes, and elevated risk for certain cancers.” Every well, says Dr. Bishop, “will generate a sediment discharge of approximately eight tons per year into local waterways, further threatening federally endangered mollusks and other aquatic organisms.” In addition to the environmental pollution by the fracking process, Dr. Bishop believes “intensive use of diesel-fuel equipment will degrade air quality [that could affect] humans, livestock, and crops.”

Equally important are questions about the impact of as many as 200 diesel-fueled trucks each day bringing water to the site and then removing the waste water. In addition to the normal diesel emissions of trucks, there are also problems of leaks of the contaminated water.

“We need to know how diesel fuel got into our water supply,” says Diane Siegmund, a clinical psychologist from Towanda, Pa. “It wasn’t there before the companies drilled wells; it’s here now,” she says. Siegmund is also concerned about contaminated dust and mud. “There is no oversight on these,” she says, “but those trucks are muddy when they leave the well sites, and dust may have impact miles from the well sites.”

Research “strongly implicates exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses, and wildlife,” according to Dr. Michelle Bamberger, a veterinarian, and Dr. Robert E. Oswald, a biochemist and professor of molecular medicine at Cornell University. Their study, published in New Solutions, an academic journal in environmental health, documents evidence of milk contamination, breeding problems, and cow mortality in areas near fracking operations as higher than in areas where no fracking occurred. Drs. Bamberger and Oswald noted that some of the symptoms present in humans from what may be polluted water from fracking operations include rashes, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and severe irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. For animals, the symptoms often led to reproductive problems and death.

Significant impact upon wildlife is also noted in a 900-page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) conducted by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and filed in September 2011. According to the EIS, “In addition to loss of habitat, other potential direct impacts on wildlife from drilling in the Marcellus Shale include increased mortality . . . altered microclimates, and increased traffic, noise, lighting, and well flares.” The impact, according to the report, “may include a loss of genetic diversity, species isolation, population declines . . . increased predation, and an increase of invasive species.” The report concludes that because of fracking, there is “little to no place in the study areas where wildlife would not be impacted, [leading to] serious cascading ecological consequences.” The impact, of course, affects the quality of milk and meat production as animals drink and graze near areas that have been taken over by the natural gas industry.

Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, calls for more research studies that “include all the ways people can be exposed [to health hazards], such as through air, water, soil, plants and animals.”

The response by the industry and its political allies to the scientific studies of the health and environmental effects of fracking “has approached the issue in a manner similar to the tobacco industry that for many years rejected the link between smoking and cancer,” say Drs. Bamberger and Oswald. Not only do they call for “full disclosure and testing of air, water, soil, animals, and humans,” but point out that with lax oversight, “the gas drilling boom . . . will remain an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale.”

Dr. Helen Podgainy, a pediatrician in Coraopolis, Pa., says she doesn’t want her patients “to be guinea pigs who provide the next generation the statistical proof of health problems as in what happened with those exposed to asbestos or to cigarette smoke.”

• Assisting on this series, in addition to those quoted within the articles, are Rosemary R. Brasch, Eileen Fay, Dr. Bernard Goldstein, and Dr. Wendy Lynne Lee.

Walter Brasch, during a 40-year work career in mass communications, has been a member of several unions, in both the private and public sectors. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of 16 books, including With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution. He can be contacted at: walterbrasch@gmail.com. Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.

Fracking: Pennsylvania Gags Physicians, Part 1

Dissident Voice: a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice

Fracking: Pennsylvania Gags Physicians

Part 1 of 3

A new Pennsylvania law endangers public health by forbidding health care professionals from sharing information they learn about certain chemicals and procedures used in high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing. The procedure is commonly known as fracking.

Fracking is the controversial method of forcing water, gases, and chemicals at tremendous pressure of up to 15,000 pounds per square inch into a rock formation as much as 10,000 feet below the earth’s surface to open channels and force out natural gas and fossil fuels.

Advocates of fracking argue not only is natural gas “greener” than coal and oil energy, with significantly fewer carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur emissions, the mining of natural gas generates significant jobs in a depressed economy, and will help the U.S. reduce its oil dependence upon foreign nations. Geologists estimate there may be as much as 2,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas throughout the United States. If all of it is successfully mined, it could not only replace coal and oil but serve as a transition to wind, solar, and water as primary energy sources, releasing the United States from dependency upon fossil fuel energy and allowing it to be more self-sufficient.

The Marcellus Shale—which extends beneath the Allegheny Plateau, through southern New York, much of Pennsylvania, east Ohio, West Virginia, and parts of Maryland and Virginia—is one of the nation’s largest sources for natural gas mining, containing as much as 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Each of Pennsylvania’s 5,255 wells, as of the beginning of March 2012, with dozens being added each week, takes up about nine acres, including all access roads and pipe.

Over the expected life time of each well, companies may use as many as nine million gallons of water and 100,000 gallons of chemicals and radioactive isotopes within a four to six week period. The additives “are used to prevent pipe corrosion, kill bacteria, and assist in forcing the water and sand down-hole to fracture the targeted formation,” explains Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research. However, about 650 of the 750 chemicals used in fracking operations are known carcinogens, according to a report filed with the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2011. Fluids used in fracking include those that are “potentially hazardous,” including volatile organic compounds, according to Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, a part of the federal Centers for Disease Control. In an email to the Associated Press in January 2012, Portier noted that waste water, in addition to bring up several elements, may be radioactive. Fracking is also believed to have been the cause of hundreds of small earthquakes in Ohio and other states.

The law, an amendment to Title 52 (Oil and Gas) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, requires that companies provide to a state-maintained registry the names of chemicals and gases used in fracking. Physicians and others who work with citizen health issues may request specific information, but the company doesn’t have to provide that information if it claims it is a trade secret or proprietary information, nor does it have to reveal how the chemicals and gases used in fracking interact with natural compounds. If a company does release information about what is used, health care professionals are bound by a non-disclosure agreement that not only forbids them from warning the community of water and air pollution that may be caused by fracking, but which also forbids them from telling their own patients what the physician believes may have led to their health problems. A strict interpretation of the law would also forbid general practitioners and family practice physicians who sign the non-disclosure agreement and learn the contents of the “trade secrets” from notifying a specialist about the chemicals or compounds, thus delaying medical treatment.

The clauses are buried on pages 98 and 99 of the 174-page bill, which was initiated and passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed into law in February by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

“I have never seen anything like this in my 37 years of practice,” says Dr. Helen Podgainy, a pediatrician from Coraopolis, Pa. She says it’s common for physicians, epidemiologists, and others in the health care field to discuss and consult with each other about the possible problems that can affect various populations. Her first priority, she says, “is to diagnose and treat, and to be proactive in preventing harm to others.” The new law, she says, not only “hinders preventative measures for our patients, it slows the treatment process by gagging free discussion.”

Psychologists are also concerned about the effects of fracking and the law’s gag order. “We won’t know the extent of patients becoming anxious or depressed because of a lack of information about the fracking process and the chemicals used,” says Kathryn Vennie of Hawley, Pa., a clinical psychologist for 30 years. She says she is already seeing patients “who are seeking support because of the disruption to their environment.” Anxiety in the absence of information, she says, “can produce both mental and physical problems.”

The law is not only “unprecedented,” but will “complicate the ability of health department to collect information that would reveal trends that could help us to protect the public health,” says Dr. Jerome Paulson, director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Dr. Paulson, also professor of pediatrics at George Washington University, calls the law “detrimental to the delivery of personal health care and contradictory to the ethical principles of medicine and public health.” Physicians, he says, “have a moral and ethical responsibility to protect the health of the public, and this law precludes us from doing all we can to protect the public.” He has called for a moratorium on all drilling until the health effects can be analyzed.

Pennsylvania requires physicians to report to the state instances of 73 specific diseases, most of which are infectious diseases. However, the list also includes cancer, which may have origins not only from chemicals used to create the fissures that yield natural gas, but also in the blow-back of elements, including arsenic, present within the fissures. Thus, physicians are faced by conflicting legal and professional considerations.

“The confidentiality agreements are worrisome,” says Peter Scheer, a journalist/lawyer who is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. Physicians who sign the non-disclosure agreements and then disclose the possible risks to protect the community can be sued for breech of contract, and the companies can seek both injunctions and damages, says Scheer.

In pre-trial discovery motions, a company might be required to reveal to the court what it claims are trade secrets and proprietary information, with the court determining if the chemical and gas combinations really are trade secrets or not. The court could also rule that the contract is unenforceable because it is contrary to public policy, which places the health of the public over the rights of an individual company to protect its trade secrets, says Scheer. However, the legal and financial resources of the natural gas corporations are far greater than those of individuals, and they can stall and outspend most legal challenges.

Although Pennsylvania is determined to protect the natural gas industry, not everyone in the industry agrees with the need for secrecy. Dave McCurdy, president of the American Gas Association, says he supports disclosing the contents included in fracturing fluids. In an opinion column published in the Denver Post, McCurdy further argued, “We need to do more as an industry to engage in a transparent and fact-based public dialogue on shale gas development.”

The Natural Gas committee of the U.S. Department of Energy agrees. “Our most important recommendations were for more transparency and dissemination of information about shale gas operations, including full disclosure of chemicals and additives that are being used,” said Dr. Mark Zoback, professor of geophysics at Stanford University and a Board member.

Both McCurdy’s statement and the Department of Energy’s strong recommendation about full disclosure were known to the Pennsylvania General Assembly when it created the law that restricted health care professionals from disseminating certain information that could help reduce significant health and environmental problems from fracking operations.

• Assisting on this series, in addition to those quoted within the articles, were Rosemary R. Brasch, Eileen Fay, Dr. Bernard Goldstein, and Dr. Wendy Lynne Lee.

Walter Brasch, during a 40-year work career in mass communications, has been a member of several unions, in both the private and public sectors. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of 16 books, including With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution. He can be contacted at: walterbrasch@gmail.com. Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.