Wednesday, December 17, 2008

OKC Schools: no recycling program

By John Sutter

Oklahoma City public schools don't have a standard recycling program, and only about half of the district's schools do any recycling at all. In my article in this week's Oklahoma Gazette, I met up with some high school students at Northwest Classen who started an environmental club called the Green Knights (here's their Web site). A faculty member drives the plastic bottles they collect to Edmond so they can be recycled--since the city doesn't have a system set up for them. Oklahoma City recycling trucks pass by the school every week, but the municipal recycling program only covers residences, not schools or businesses.

Here's a video interview with one of the students at Northwest Classen:

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christian Science Monitor on Tar Creek

By John Sutter

This Christian Science Monitor story
talks about the many things on environmentalists' holiday wish lists. At the top for Rebecca Jim is a healthy Tar Creek:

An enormous environmental tally awaits the incoming Obama administration. After an eight-year pitched battle with the Bush administration, environmentalists see a golden opportunity
to begin making progress on issues ranging from climate change and water pollution to mountaintop-removal coal mining and energy efficiency in autos and buildings.

The massive environmental mountain awaiting Mr. Obama’s administration is chronicled in a 359-page wish list of hundreds of problems the environmental community is eager to start addressing once President Bush leaves town.

Inhofe and warming ... again

By John Sutter

The Oklahoman put out an editorial today supporting U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe's increasingly marginalized stance that climate change isn't the result of human emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Inhofe says 650 scientists support his theories, which go against the global scientific community and United Nations reports. As Grist points out, Inhofe has a history of reshaping the climate change debate by tricking the media into ignoring sound science:

Deniers like Inhofe have a serious media problem -- an ever growing number of studies, real-world observations, and credible scientific bodies all point to human-caused emissions as the increasingly dominant cause of planetary warming and dangerous climate change.

What's a denier to do? The answer is simple: Repackage previously debunked disinformation, release it as a "new" so-called "Full Senate Report" full of hysterical headlines, push it through right-wing news outlets, and hope the traditional media bites. Why not? It worked before.

The Oklahoman (which, for point of disclosure, is my former employer) ends its editorial with a question:
With at least 58 Democratic senators, will Obama try to ratify the job-killing Kyoto global warming treaty?

He might, which makes it good to know Jim Inhofe will be waiting and ready.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

More on wind: Gazette story

Check out my story on wind power in this week's Oklahoma Gazette.

USATODAY: oklahoma schools with toxic environments

By John Sutter

In case you missed it, USA Today had a big cover story yesterday on the presence of toxic and sometimes cancer-causing chemicals outside the nation's public schools.

The story has a useful online component. You can search by state or city or school to see if your kids or the kids in your neighborhood are being exposed to toxins in their schoolyards.

Several schools in Sand Springs, Okla., were high on the list. If you click on a school name, the site shows you which companies most likely contribute to the pollution.

In the case of Central Elementary School in Sand Spring, they include:

Friday, December 5, 2008

Q&A: Oklahoman at Climate Talks in Poland

[photo from poland by eric pollard. see: for more photos]

By John Sutter

The world is talking about climate change at a meeting in Poland, and a representative from Oklahoma is in on the discussions.

Eric Pollard, of Norman, is representing a youth advocacy group called SustainUS, at the climate talks in Ponzan, Poland, where countries from around the world are trying to hammer out an international agreement to follow the Kyoto Protocol.

The talks are seen as a primer to the United Nations' Climate Conference, which will be held in Copenhagen next year.

Pollard is blogging about the current discussions, which have involved some heated debate between industrialized countries and those in the developing world, since the richer countries aren't ready to commit to specific reductions of heat-trapping gases by 2020. A Wall Street Journal blog says the talks resemble "a Mexican standoff more than anything else."

Pollard took time out of the action to answer some of my questions by e-mail. Here are excerpts:

Concrete Buffalo: How are you involved in the climate talks?

I am in Poznan, Poland for the talks representing SustainUS, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of young people advancing sustainable development and youth empowerment in the United States. My responsibilities here at the conference with SustainUS include following plenary discussion on technology transfer (how developed countries share renewable energy technology with developing countries) and I sit on the International Youth Actions Team which is responsible for planning events, rallies, demonstrations and other forms of outreach.

CB: What is the atmosphere like?

... To an extent the talks are a bit subdued because most major negotiations regarding commitments to emissions reductions will be made next year in Copenhagen and it is becoming clear that the official US delegation will not move away from the Bush Administrations' international climate policies from the last 8 years and Obama nor any of his transition team is either here or working with . However, the International Youth Delegation, including SustainUS and other US delegations, believe that needed action on the climate is urgent and that major progress at COP 14 must be made in order to come to an agreement next year.

CB: What role does Oklahoma have at a conference like this?

Oklahoma could play a huge role in the domestic advancement of action on climate change through renewable energy policy and infrastructure development in the US ... In the past, Senator James Inhofe has sent aides to UN Climate talks. Typically, his staff has spent most of their time at the conferences consulting with various buisness lobbyists, specifically those from oil and natural gas and coal interests. This just shows that Sen. Inhofe is commited to stopping any major progress both domestically and internationally not only on climate change mitigation but the development of the various renewable energy industries that will create millions of green jobs, save our economy, and our planet.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Video iview: President of The Nature Conservancy

By John Sutter

I interviewed Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, the largest conservation organization in the world, at the Oklahoma Wind Energy Conference today.

Tercek took his spot at the head of the organization earlier this year after spending more than 20 years at one of the world's largest investment firms, Goldman Sachs. There, he headed up an environmental investment team.

In this video interview, I ask Tercek what the credit crunch means for conservation and investment in renewable energy. He took a surprisingly positive view, saying these tough times are an opportunity for companies to reinvent themselves to become more environmentally friendly. He also saw a parallel between how the country got into this recession and how we got into so many environmental crises: we failed to look ahead.

Let me know what you all think.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Can you pick the state energy secretary out of a crowd?

By John Sutter

Well, now you can. In this video interview, I ask Oklahoma Energy Secretary David Fleischaker about wind power, renewable portfolio standards, the nation's power grid and more. Filmed between sessions at the Oklahoma Wind Energy Conference. Here's his Wikipedia entry if you want more background.

TB Pickens, king of the metaphor ...

By John Sutter

T. Boone Pickens addressed a crowd of Oklahoma reporters today wearing a charcoal suit and an orange tie. Handlers scurried about to keep him on schedule. Walking into the room he had a certain aura of importance about him.

Then he opened his mouth.

Instantly, the oil tycoon turned alt-energy advocate became just another guy.

"I don't have a handkerchief, so I'll need a napkin--or your tie," he said to one of his minions as they entered. Then, turning to reporters with a smile, he said, "With this wind blowing it really drives me crazy on allergies."

Nice intro to the topic of the day, and the topic of Pickens' year: wind energy. Pickens was scheduled to speak over lunch to a 1,000-person crowd at the Oklahoma Wind Energy Conference in Oklahoma City. (And, in case you've been asleep for six months, he's launched a major PR campaign to promote wind energy and natural gas).

Fielding reporters' questions before that engagement, Pickens slouched back on his heels, held the microphone limp on his chest and kept on hand in his pants pocket.

He took the questions with ease and invented metaphors along the way.

Asked by a television reporter what he thought plunging oil prices meant for wind power, Pickens said he had mixed feelings, "like if I saw my mother-in-law hauled off the edge of a mountain in a Cadillac."

He paused, then added: "I don't have a mother-in-law, so I can say that."

The reporters laughed.

Another asked how Pickens thought the country should deal with its shortage of compressed-natural-gas stations. Pickens channeled Kevin Costner:

"It'll happen over a period of time. The stations will come."

And then, channeling Randy Terrill, said:

"All I'm interested in is that it's American (fuel). Natural gas, battery, I only care if it's American."

(In case you're wondering, he drives a Honda Civic that runs on natural gas.)

Pickens said Oklahoma has more entrepreneurs per capita than any state in the nation. They will be able to figure out solutions to our nation's energy crisis, he said.

But, if the economy has anything to say about it, they may have to wait a bit on their investments. Pickens said he's having trouble getting credit for his wind farms in Texas. He delayed one project a year because of the credit crunch, he said.

He left reporters and investors with a word of advice for tough times: "Don't forget how to eat hamburgers."

Sure Oklahoma's windy, buuuut ...

By John Sutter

If the nation enacts policies that support wind energy, Oklahoma is poised to be the No. 1 wind-power state in the country by 2030, a federal researcher said this morning at a conference in Oklahoma City.

Larry Flowers, of the National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, Co., said if the United States uses wind for 20 percent of its energy by 2030, Oklahoma is expected to see $44 billion in economic development and an increase of 19,000 rural jobs.

But that future is far from certain, he said.

“In the end, it’s policy and the politicians that are going to determine what does happen,” Flowers said.

The remarks came at the first Oklahoma Wind Energy Conference, which continues today and tomorrow morning at the Cox Convention Center in Bricktown.

The lack of power lines used to move wind energy from the Great Plains to power-hungry cities is a major obstacle to Oklahoma future with wind energy, Flowers said.

Oklahoma’s energy secretary, David Fleischaker, echoed that sentiment.

“The wind tends to blow in places where we don’t have the large population centers,” he said. “So we have the problem--the challenge--of building transmission lines out.”

In an interview, Fleischaker said Oklahoma has been seen as an ant-alternative energy state until recently.

It’s working to change that image with conferences like this one. In recent years, utility companies and ranchers are warming to the idea of wind power.

Nationally, the United States has lagged behind other countries in terms of wind power development. Wind accounts for only 2 percent of the nation’s energy usage. Spain, for example, creates 12 percent of its energy from wind.

Flowers acknowledged the fact that Oklahoma’s wind industry has come a long way in a short time.

In 2000, the state didn’t produce any wind power, he said. Now the state has installed wind turbines to create up to 680 megawatts of power.

Fleischaker said if Oklahoma used only 10 percent of the available wind energy, it would have twice the power it needs for itself.

“You’ve come a long way Oklahoma … but there’s a long and big and spectacular future for you if you choose to follow that path,” Flowers said.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Coburn threatens filibuster on "open spaces" issue

By John Sutter

A number of state's have voted recently to increase money for open spaces, or land that's not eaten up by development. Environmentalists see a number of benefits to setting land aside--it lets biodiversity thrive, cleans groundwater and gives people a place to go outside of suburbia.

Opponents say open spaces are either a detriment to the economy or an example of the government taking too much control of how people use land.

In an editorial today, the New York Times, says the recent state votes amount to a rebuke of the Bush Administration's decision not to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which manages open spaces.

Sen. Harry Reid had wanted to bring up the open-spaces issue for debate at the end of this congressional session. According to the Times, Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, brought that move to a halt--at least until next session.

From the NYT editorial:

We had hoped that Congress would approve the legislation in the current lame-duck session. On Monday, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, withdrew it from the calendar after Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, threatened to filibuster the bill. Mr. Coburn called it a waste of money and an unnecessary expansion of federal control over public lands.

Mr. Reid said the Senate needed to focus on the economic crisis, but he promised to bring the measure up for immediate action early next year.

Old business tends to get lost in the early days of a new Congress, especially when there is a new administration. Come January, we will remind Mr. Reid of his promise and of the voters’ clear commitment to preserving open spaces.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Olympic swimmer weighs in on oceans/Oklahoma

By John Sutter

In an interview with MSNBC, Olympic gold medalist and ocean advocate Aaron Peirsol name-drops Oklahoma as he plugs the idea that all of the world's waters are connected. While the U.S. swimmer probably spends most of his time in a chlorinated pool, he's campaigning for all of us to do our part to protect the world's oceans--even if you live super-far from them.

Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Q: What needs to happen to clean them up? What can the average person do to help?

A: I believe it's a matter of collective involvement. What I said about the little things making a big difference; I believe that to be very true. I’m a part of a program called Toyota’s Engines of Change Program. The message is that anyone can make a difference in their community or for whatever cause they feel strongly about. Everyone can be an Engine of Change.

For me, I work with Oceana to help save the oceans. But anyone can help. The canvas bags at the grocery market; the buying of sustainable fish at the market; and even the knowledge that every river does lead to an ocean. It really is the easy things that can add up to be a lot. They don't cost a lot of money, just a little time, and a willingness to make a change. It doesn't matter that you live in Oklahoma or Iowa; everyone has a profound effect on the ocean, and the environment in general. (emphasis added) Recycling seems easy enough, but here in Austin we only just received recycling bins large enough to take all of our recyclables. There is still a long way to go.

Bode named head of national wind group

By John Sutter

Former Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Denise Bode has been named chief executive officer of the American Wind Energy Association.

The Republican had stepped down from her spot on the corporation commission to head up the American Skies Foundation. She will leave that position to become head of the national wind-power group on Jan. 2.

In a former life, Bode served for seven years as the president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Read more here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Chesapeake won't reveal "fracing" forumla

By John Sutter

To get natural gas out of the ground, natural gas companies like Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy inject millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth. This process, called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracing," dislodges natural gas so that the company can extract it and sell it to heat homes and make electricity.

The problem is that most natural gas companies won't say what they're injecting into the ground. An investigation by ProPublica, a non-profit journalism group, found that many of the chemicals used in fracing could contaminate groundwater. The federal government lists many as toxic, and in some instances the chemicals make the gas wells explosive. The EPA wrote a 2004 study saying the process is safe. But new criticisms of fracing are coming to the surface.

In its story, which you can read here, ProPublica finds that many natural gas companies won't reveal their recipes for these chemical and water injections. In most states, regulations don't require them to. Here's an excerpt from the story that concerns Chesapeake Energy's recipe:

"It is like Coke protecting its syrup formula for many of these service companies," said Scott Rotruck, vice president of corporate development at Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s largest gas driller, which has been asked by New York State regulators to disclose the chemicals it uses.

The issue is becoming more important as natural gas is talked about as a solution to the country's energy needs. Natural gas is cleaner burning than coal, which is the United States' most abundant energy source. It's also second in availability. But it appears that its extraction may come with environmental costs you don't hear talked about quiiiite as much as the Pickens Plan.

Oklahoma recycling pledges

By John Sutter

Recycle something and then get some more stuff for free (which you can recycle later, I suppose).

That's pretty much the idea behind the Oklahoma Recycling Association's annual recycling drive, which continues through Nov. 25.

Make a recycling pledge on their Web site. Choices include buying recycled-content products, recycling more often and volunteering with recycling groups. I might choose the "other" category. I need to get back to work on the compost bin. It's basically an unchanging heap of trash at the moment. Need to get those microbes in gear.

Those who enter have a chance to win one of several prizes, including an electric riding lawnmower and bicycles.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Water and climate change: a study comes to Oklahoma

[photo: Western Oklahoma: where there's circa no water ... Sorry, I don't have a picture of Lake Altus...]

By John Sutter

As the world gets warmer, water resources are sure to get weirder. Wet areas are expected to get wetter, and dry areas are supposed to get drier as humans continue to release huge amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

Now, a state and federal agency want to find out what climate change will do to Oklahoma's already stretched water resources. The state Water Resources Board and a branch of the U.S. Department of Interior announced yesterday a $100,000 study looking at changes to water resources in two watersheds -- one in Oklahoma and one in Texas.

The Oklahoma side of the study will focus on an area that includes Lake Altus, which is a major source of water used for irrigating cotton crops in the southern part of the state. The study will look at water availability and also the resource's impact on local ecology.

The study comes at a turbulent time for water law in Oklahoma. The state is in the process of writing a new water policy which will govern how Oklahomans use water for the next 50 years. The results of the study, to be finished by 2010, will be incorporated into the new water plan, officials said in a news release.

If you're interested, here's a schedule of upcoming water plan meetings. The process--which includes a bunch of community-level meetings in all corners of the state--is expected to be finished by 2011.

IN NATIONAL water news, the New York Times' blog Dot Earth notes that the Center for Biological Diversity may soon sue to force the federal government to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Water Act. Environmentalists are coming at carbon regulation from all angles--often trying to use existing environmental regulations, like the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, as reasons for the EPA to clamp down on emissions of heat-trapping gases. Using the Clean Water Act to this end would be new, though. The group may claim that the EPA must regulate carbon dioxide because it is making the oceans acidic, which is killing marine life.

In the blog, a White House spokesperson said such a move would create a "regulatory train wreck." The Bush Administration has opposed using existing environmental laws as reason to control carbon dioxide emissions.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

C.B. Podcast: American Indians and sense of place

By John Sutter

MIAMI, OK--Sometimes I think it's hard for transient people in urban areas, like me, to understand how connected someone can be to a particular patch of land. A reporter at the Navajo Times recently explained this connection to me as if the land were an heirloom. If you lose it, you can never replace it with something that would have the same meaning, even if it looks the same, she said.

The deep connections some American Indians feel for their environment was the focus of a recent conversation I had with Paul Barton, who works for the Eastern Shawnee Tribe in far northeastern Oklahoma. He told me about how American Indian people in northeast Oklahoma are worried that pollution from the lead and zinc mines at Tar Creek is altering their very way of existence. Some of the tribal ceremonies are changing partly because of metal contamination in the streams and sediment, he says. Berries that once were plentiful are now scarce. The land, in some places, has become a hazard instead of a provider.

I asked him to explain his connection to the local land for this edition of the concrete buffalo podcast. Click the play button to listen:

State to clean up (just of few) diesel buses

By John Sutter

I wrote a story in last week's Oklahoma Gazette about Oklahoma's efforts to clean up some of its dirty diesel school buses. The exhaust from the buses exacerbates asthma and could cause cancer, yet most of Oklahoma City's buses follow old standards and none have been upgraded so that they're healthier for kids -- at least not yet.

Check out the full story here.

And here's a video of a state Department of Environmental Quality staffer explaining a new federal grant program that is expected to clean up some of the emissions, making some kids' lungs a little less sooty:

Grassy cellulose on NPR

By John Sutter

If you haven't heard that some plants other than corn can be made into biofuels, check out this NPR story on efforts in California to turn prairie grasses into ethanol.

Similar research is going on in Oklahoma, and the Tulsa World reports that the state recently received a $15 million grant to research how exactly scientists will go about getting switchgrass ready for car engines. There's already a 1,000-acre switchgrass plot in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Environmentalists have pointed to a host of problems with corn ethanol, and that's made room for non-food crops to claim their spot as the "second generation" of the biofuels movement.

For evidence of this backlash, you need not look further than the SUV the state secretary of the environment drives for state business. GM donated the vehicle, which now is painted with nebulous planty designs (similar to the Hummer above, although that's not the actual vehicle). The old model was this wild yellow color and had corn all over it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Ozone meetings coming up

By John Sutter

Ever hear about air quality problems and think -- ah -- that's for place like California, not Oklahoma?

Well, think again. Much of the state is at risk for falling out of compliance with federal standards for ozone pollution, which causes asthma in people and stunts the growth of plants.

The state Department of Environmental Quality is holding two meetings on the issue. Here's some info on those, from the DEQ Web site:

    Tulsa - November 17, 2008, 3 to 6 p.m.
    Tulsa Metropolitan Library, Aaronson Auditorium, 400 Civic Center (5th and Denver), Tulsa, OK 74103

    Oklahoma City - December 3, 3 to 6 p.m.
    DEQ Multi-Purpose Room, 707 N Robinson, Oklahoma City, OK 73102

At the meetings, DEQ will discuss possible boundaries for "non-attainment areas," or the places that have air dirty enough to violate federal laws. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed its rules on ozone earlier this year, and some state regulators worry about how the laws will be implemented. There should be some interesting discussions if you're able to make it.

And a little background on ozone: It's good up high in the atmosphere, where it absorbs harmful radiation (think anti-aerosol campaigns and talk of the "ozone layer" in the 1990s). On the ground, it's bad. Ground-level ozone is cooked up by sunlight on hot, still days. Its main components come from car exhaust and factory emissions. In Oklahoma City, cars are mostly to blame for the ozone, which is also called smog. In Tulsa, industry has more of an impact.

Monday, November 3, 2008

State question: hunting rights

By John Sutter

I hadn't heard anything about State Question No. 742, which would amend the Oklahoma Constitution to list hunting and as fishing personal rights, until this morning, when I was listening to KGOU, the local NPR station.

The station pointed me to a voter's guide, by the League of Women Voters, which says animal rights groups oppose the amendment because it could limit the state's ability to preserve wildlife for uses other than food and sport. Proponents of the amendment fear animal rights people will try to strip them of their rights to hunt and fish.

Not that this sounds like a reliable source, but someone on at site called, which has a big ole' gun as its banner, says the measure, if passed, would provide a "permanent Constitutional safeguard against anti hunting efforts in the state of Oklahoma."

Let me know if you all have any thoughts. If I learn more, I'll add to the post.

Here's the text of the question, which will be on the ballot tomorrow:
This measure adds a new section to the State Constitution. It adds Section 36 to Article 2. It gives all people of this state the right to hunt, trap, fish and take game and fish. Such activities would be subject to reasonable regulation. It allows the Wildlife Conservation Commission to approve methods and procedures for hunting, trapping, fishing and taking of game and fish. It allows for taking game and fish by traditional means. It makes hunting, fishing, and trapping the preferred means to manage certain game and fish. The new law will not affect existing laws relating to property rights.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Short-term data: Oklahoma City already warming

By John Sutter

Climate change is a long-term phenomenon that plays out over many years. One cold winter, for instance, doesn't mean much if winters are getting milder and shorter over the course of decades. The changes also aren't expected to be uniform -- a few places may actually get cooler, but overall the climate will warm.

Those ideas play out in some government data crunched by a group called Environment America and recently released as a report called "Feeling the Heat."

Oklahoma City, like many other places, has warmed between 2001 to 2007. On average, temperatures during that period were 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than temps from 1971 to 2000. 2006 was the fourth hottest year in the city's history, according to the report, and that year was 2.2 degrees above the historical average.

Again, it's just a short-term look at a long-term trend. I still thought you all might find it interesting. Check out the report, and let me know what you think. Meanwhile, as temperatures drop this fall season, I'm sure we can expect some editorial cartoons in The Oklahoman poking fun at the idea of "global warming" when there's snow on the ground.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

More on sunspots: response to a comment

[slide: before getting thrown by this slide, read the post below ... i'll explain.]

By John Sutter

I think my last post may have left some undue confusion about the role of sunspots in temperatures here on Earth.

The post got this comment from a user who identified himself or herself as "skeptic":
If you plot the average mean temperature variance by decade alongside the average mean sunspot activity, you'll clearly see a correlation. I've plotted this data going back to 1890 and was shocked at how the averages moved in tandem.
I very much appreciate the comment and the opportunity for clarification. While there is some weak correlation between the absence of sunspots -- how blank the sun looks -- and increased temperatures way over here on our planet, the scales of both phenomenons don't match up. The amount of increased energy coming to the Earth from a blanker-looking sun is not nearly powerful enough to account for the increased temperatures that are being observed and projected. Something else has to be at play. Based on physical properties of heat-trapping gases like carbon-dioxide, and the massive quantities at which we're spewing them into the sky, scientists say these industrial emissions are by far the main cause of climate change.

The changes due to a doubling CO2 in the atmosphere (which is what we're doing) causes temperatures to rise 27 times higher than sunspots could account for, according to George Kling, a professor at the University of Michigan.

So, it's definitely a confusing point, but one that makes sense when you think about it. Sunspots can affect global temperatures, but their impact isn't strong enough to account for climate change. Hope that clears it up some. Let me know if you all have further questions. Also, if you have any good articles on this subject, I'd be interested to read them. Feel free to post in the comments section.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The sun is neat, confusing

By John Sutter

Check out these awesome pictures of the sun, from The Big Picture, on the Boston Globe's Web site. Pretty cool.

Of note is the fact that scientists don't know what the deal is sunspots lately. There appear to be fewer of them now than at any time since early in the 1900s. Some climate change skeptics have posited that the sun spots, instead of human emissions of heat-trapping gases, explain warming temperatures. Here's an NYT article about the uncertainty surrounding that claim. Another period of low solar activity coincided with global cooling and an Ice Age:
Scientists are not sure why this minimum has been especially minimal, and the episode is even playing into the global warming debate. Some wonder if this could be the start of an extended period of solar indolence that would more than offset the warming effect of human-made carbon dioxide emissions. From the middle of the 17th century to the early 18th, a period known as the Maunder Minimum, sunspots were extremely rare, and the reduced activity coincided with lower temperatures in what is known as the Little Ice Age.
A University of Michigan scientist I spoke with last week said that linking climate change to sunspots is misleading and irresponsible because the scale of the effects are so different and because sunspot patterns vary wildly over short periods of time. It's clear that heat-trapping gases emitted by our industries are to blame for climate change, he said.

Videos: rumored Chesapeake buyout; green energy editorial

By John Sutter

The Oklahoman has a couple of videos up today on the energy sector. In the first, the paper reports on a rumor that one of Oklahoma City's huge natural gas companies -- Chesapeake Energy -- will soon be bought out by investors. One of the company's officials reportedly denied a possible takeover. Chesapeake's stocks have been plummeting in tandem with natural gas prices. For a little background, Oklahoma is one of the top natural gas producers in the country, but only about a third of the gas produced here is actually used in-state.

Here's the video:

Here's another, an editorial in which Ed Kelley ponders the effect the national credit crunch will have on Oklahoma's alternative fuels industry. Wind power needs to be a priority in Oklahoma, he says, adding that the state could be the second or third biggest producer of wind power in the country within a decade if things go well. Still, for a little perspective, only 7 percent of energy used in the United States comes from renewable sources. And of that renewable piece of the pie, only 5 percent is wind power.

Oklahoma is one of the country's top energy users per capita. It ranks 11th for per person energy consumption, according to the Energy Information Administration, which is an independent branch of the U.S. Department of Energy. I'd be interested to hear any energy-saving tips you all might have.

Check out the editorial video below, and let me know what you think. I find it interesting that the editorial doesn't mention climate change, which, aside from the economic possibilities of green power and pollution issues associated with fossil fuels, is the big reason scientists and activists promote alternatives.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Tar Creek buyout to finish by Dec. 2009

Picher tornado
[photo: pieces of scrap metal are still bent around trees in picher, okla. they're somber reminders of a deadly tornado that hit more than four months ago. a pile of toxic mine waste is shown in the background.]

By John Sutter

State officials say the federal buyout of residents in a toxic mining site in the northeast corner of Oklahoma should be finished by December 2009. Here's the newsok story on the latest updates at the Tar Creek Superfund site.

From the story:
Osborn said that with some luck and another inflow of funds, the portion of the voluntary buyout dealing with residents and businesses within the northeastern Oklahoma Superfund site remains on track to be completed in 12 to 14 months.

"The funding stream will determine how fast we are able to go," he said. "The EPA is committed to giving us the money; it's a matter of how they can make that happen."

The trust already has spent or is encumbered to spend about $35 million on the buyout. It has about $9 million in pending deals and expects to need $12 million to $14 million in additional funds to complete the process, said J.D. Strong, Oklahoma's secretary of the environment.

If you haven't heard about Tar Creek, I think it's important to get some background. The toxic site is centered on Picher, Okla., which once was the heart of a huge lead and zinc mining district. The mines are underground, and, in 2006, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, passed a plan to start moving people out of the area, because a government study found many house and businesses to be at risk for sinking into the abandoned mining caves. Inhofe previously had opposed any buyout plans. The area has been on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of Superfund (toxic waste) sites since 1983. Huge mountains of gravel mine waste are piled up all around town, and kids in the area have tested for high levels of lead in their blood. In May, a tornado hit the town, leveling half of the buildings and killing six people.

For more background, see this recent story I wrote for The Oklahoman.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Cattleman on a kayak

[Video: How often to you get to interview a cattle rancher from a river kayak? Check out this clip with Robert Curd, a cattleman in Virginia who raises about 80 cattle on 300 acres. He's using state and county money to keep his cattle -- and their problem-causing poop -- out of the James River.]

By John Sutter

Standing on a bank of the James River with other members of the Society of Environmental Journalists, colorful leaves seemed to hang in the air before wandering into the water. David Sligh, the water keeper for this part of the river, told our group of canoeists and kayakers that the river we were about to journey onto represented far more than this picturesque scene. It's a machine, he said, and one made up of many parts. Small streams and creeks that cover a quarter of the land in Virginia feed these waters. In turn, the James dumps its contents off of the eastern shore of the United States, into the Chesapeake Bay. But this natural machine is about more than just water, Sligh urged. Trees that line its banks filter out pollution. Oysters, once prevalent on the riverbed and now conspicuously absent, act as filters, too. And the farmers and factories and coal trains and mines and cities and people that exist in the James' watershed are inextricable constituents of the quality of this water.

This full-circle view of nature seemed to me to be the main point of our group's four-hour trip down the river, from a drop-off point at a bridge in Buchanan, Va. (pronounced here: "Buck-An-An.") Along our way, we heard from several of the river's stakeholders. Each gave our group a window into the sources of water pollution that plague this river and so many others across the country.

After weaving through some small rapids with a canoe partner who had a much better sense of how not to crash than I, our boats pulled into a shady spot to hear from Amanda Gray, a water planning engineer with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Gray made many points, but perhaps the most useful was the fact that many of Virginia's waters (and many nationally, including most of those in Oklahoma) are not tested to see if they meet federal and state water quality standards. "The more we know, the worse it is," she said.

All states are required to submit reports on waters that are known to violate laws because their waters are impaired for some reason or another. Virginia, again, like many states, has a major backlog on those reports. Parts of the James River are listed as impaired, mostly because of E. coli and other bacteria, Gray said. The bacteria can make people who swim in the river sick. If a river meets water quality standards, the state government still expects about eight in 1,000 people who swim in it to become ill, she said, usually with a stomach ache or other digestion problems.

After some smooth paddling to a gravel bar, our next speaker, Anne Marie Clarke, of the Robert E. Lee Soil & Water Conservation District, told us about the sources of these and other pollutants on the James River. Leaky and outdated sewer systems and wild animals are much of the problem, she said, but cattle that graze on land in the watershed contribute as well. She pointed to county- and state-level programs that will pay cattle ranchers to essentially keep their animals from pooping in the river, or in places where it will get into the river. They're also paid to plant new trees along the banks of the water to stop erosion and so that fecal matter is filtered out before it hits the James. Nitrogen and phosphorus from the feces promote unhealthy levels of algae growth in the river, and that leads to ecosystem and water quality problems that can be felt all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.

Robert Curd, a cattleman, was up next. He has built fences along streams on his property and is trying to bring back forest. These measures improve his bottom line, he said, and make the soil, water and cattle healthier.

He urged government support for such measures, which, in his case, are fully subsidized. Without protection, farm land could go to development, which may pose greater threats to the environment, he said.

"We need to protect agriculture," he said. "You can do your best bang for your buck with agriculture, and get the best benefit in the water quality in the bay."

As we continued our paddle, I noticed how quiet and still -- seemingly natural -- parts of the river were, and how loud and industrial the atmosphere felt in other places. At one point, train tracks ran along both banks, and large engines carrying coal from the Appalachian Mountains clanged by, completely drowning out the lull of the rapids and the falling leaves. We stopped a few times, for lunch and a talk on sewer systems before coming to a final bank where we heard from Arthur Butt, a kayaker with a beard, a surfing history and a job at the Virginia DEQ.

Butt connected all of the dots for our group. He told us wow-factor stories about a time when these waters were full of oysters as big as his sandals, when the trees were much taller and older and when there were fish as big as our canoes. He again hit the point that everything here is connected -- so a farmer's methods in the mountains can have dire impacts on a fisher or crab trapper in the bay. The world's fisheries are under siege, he said, and it's "because we're putting so much pressure on them." The sea grasses that used to provide homes for crabs are gone from the river bottom, and oyster populations are 1 percent of what they would be if the river were healthy, he said.

For more on the James River, check out this video, where Butt explains where the water pollution comes from:

Inhofe and Rice on the environment

By John Sutter

Oklahoma's U.S. Senate race between Republican Jim Inhofe and Democratic challenger Andrew Rice has gotten attention for its implications for the country's environmental policy.

Inhofe famously has said global warming is the "greatest hoax ever perpetuated" on people. The high-ranking Tulsan has defended that comment this campaign season, despite a scientific consensus that the planet is warming and human emission of heat-trapping gases are at least partly to blame.

In an Associated Press article about cap-and-trade legislation to curb climate change, Inhofe said the country can't afford to tackle climate change in these hard economic times:
Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, in a blog entry this month criticized 152 House members for releasing a set of principles to tackle global warming in the midst of the economic turmoil.

"The current economic crisis only reinforces the public's wariness about any climate bill that attempts to increase the costs of energy and jeopardizes jobs," Inhofe said., a national environmental magazine online, pulled an October quote in which Inhofe defended his position that climate change is a farce:
"I think I was right on that ... It's not whether or not we're going into a global warming period. We were. We're not now. You know, God's still up there. We're now going through a cooling spell."
There are legitimate disagreements about what, if anything, should be done about climate change, but climatologists say it's misleading and inaccurate to inject doubt into the science on the subject. Three-thousand scientists from around the world released a major report in 2007 that said climate change is "unequivocal" and is very likely caused by human industry, which has been pumping carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates.

Rice told Grist that the election on Nov. 4 will be a referendum on Inhofe's stances on climate change. Rice has been behind in the polls, and his campaign has raised only a third of what Inhofe's campaign has, according to In his Grist interview, Rice said sounds unsure that climate change is an issue that average Oklahomans are willing to take up:
"The general public, local private interests, are already transitioning into meeting the needs of climate change. A lot of policy makers are slow to catch up. When I go travel, talking to people to find out what's going on, people are generally concerned about it. Does that mean your average Oklahoman readily agrees with all the measures an ardent environmentalist would suggest? Maybe not."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Practice phenology: more interesting than it sounds, and no one else in OK is ...

[photo: leaves start to change their colors this time of year as the green pigment chlorophyll stops working in the transfer of sunlight into food. other colors start to show through. have you noticed if leaves in your backyard are changing? scientists want to know. you can help them out at the project budburst web site.]

By John Sutter

Helping scientists figure out climate change could be as simple as walking out your back door and writing down whether or not the leaves you see are green.

That was the pitch this morning from Kirsten de Beurs, an assistant professor of geography at Virginia Tech who spoke at an environmental journalists' conference in Roanoke, Va. De Beurs is one of a host of scientists pairing images from satellites with observations from volunteers on the ground to try to see how the planet is changing.

De Beurs said Americans have been slow to enlist themselves as citizen phenologists, which is just a phrightening code word for someone who studies seasons and other periodic changes in nature.

"It's not that hard to collect phenological data. Anyone can go outside, look at their backyard, tell what is green and enter that in a database," she said, "Then, you're a citizen scientist."

Oklahoma and North Dakota as the only two states from which people haven't contributed to a national network of basic environmental observations. By posting to the site, people not only help out scientists who don't have the funding to make all the observations themselves -- they also gain a basic and needed understanding of the world, de Beurs said.

Some satellite images show that vegetation zones in North America are moving north as the climate warms. There's been some controversy over the U.S. Department of Agriculture's vegetation map, which hasn't been updated since 1990 and may not reflect changes in the climate as more heat-trapping gasses become part of the atmosphere. The Arbor Day Foundation made a new map in 2006 that shows a shift in the growing zones that are commonly listed on the backs of seed packets (go here for an animation of the two maps.)

Here's more on that from USA Today:
The map doesn't show, for example, that the Southern magnolia, once limited largely to growing zones ranging from Florida to Virginia, now can thrive as far north as Pennsylvania. Or that kiwis, long hardy only as far north as Oklahoma, now might give fruit in St. Louis.
When looking at such changes, it's important to take many factors into consideration, de Beurs said. For instance, changes to agricultural land could be the result of government policies or economic conditions, not just changes in weather or climate. More satellite images are needed to draw some long term conclusions, she said, adding that there's no better way to strengthen the data than to contribute to it. Europe has had a hearty group of citizen scientists trolling for observations since the 1700s, she said. In the United States, it may be catching on just now.

Let me know by commenting on this page if you all decide to help out with Project BudBurst. The site has some information on plant identification and instructions with out to enter your observations so that scientists can use them. I'll e-mail de Beurs and let her know that she can cross another state of her list if any Oklahomans decide to contribute. You also might check out Oklahoma's Blue Thumb program, which lets volunteers supply state government with water quality samples. About 300 people who work with the program have become watchdogs for the streams and rivers they live near and care about.

Proponents of Blue Thumb say it's important since most of the state's rivers aren't monitored. There are some concerns that citizen-collected data isn't as reliable as data collected by trained scientists, but de Beurs told me that the observations are genuinely useful for researchers.

Land use: do we need new highways?

By John Sutter

I was struck by the degree to which environmental issues overlap and feed into each other at a panel of environmental journalists and activists I attended last night in Roanoke, Va.

Cat McCue, from the Southern Environmental Law Center, made the interesting and often-overlooked connection between paved surfaces and water quality. According to government studies, she said, a paved city block creates nine times the runoff the same area would if it were covered in trees. Sediment-laden runoff from cities and construction sites ends up in waterways, making them more prone to flooding and widening their banks, so that they're less hospitable to fish, especially those species that like to live in deep, cool water.

McCue said policy makers should set an "extremely high bar for proceeding with road projects," because of the impact paved surfaces have on the environment. This is particularly pressing in the southeastern United States, she said, because there are so many proposed highways. Atlanta, for example, plans to expand I-75 so that it's more than 20 lanes wide. Other roads are planned through the Appalachain Mountains, and environmentalists say those projects will harm species in the area and worsen water quality.

Behind the expansions, McCue said, is the fact that people are driving further to work, and require more land area per person to live. Those trends must change in favor of "smart growth," she said.

As you may know, Oklahoma City is one of the largest cities by land area in the county. Last I saw it ranked third. Much of the city isn't paved -- I used to see cows grazing from the parking lot of my first apartment complex here. But it will be interesting to find out from city leaders about the scope of new road projects, per capita, and the expansion of the suburbs around the city. Those issues doubtlessly have some affect beyond the state's pocketbook.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Parts of Oklahoma "abandoned" because of climate change

By John Sutter

A British research group released a report this week saying that parts of Oklahoma, Austrailia and rural China will be abandoned later this century because of water shortages associated with climate change.

The report, by Forum for the Future, lists Oklahoma as one of three places in the world where some land has been "more or less abandoned" because of the water shorages. It says people are moving to cities, where governments adapt to the situation using "novel infrastructure innovations" that provide water.

I found the story on the site for the Telegraph, a British newspaper. I'm not sure which parts of the state they're talking about, but I do know that the Oklahoma Panhandle experienced one of the worst droughts in its modern history this spring. Some farmers there told me conditions were more severe than in the 1930s Dust Bowl. Of course, the Dust Bowl covered a much larger area of the Great Plains, and lasted for a longer period of time. (See my former blog for a podcast with a 95-year-old farmer who was harvesting his wheat during the drought.)

Climate scientists in Oklahoma have said climate change likely will make droughts here longer and more severe. While they can make predictions like that in the long term, it's pretty much impossible to say that a specific drought -- like this one this year -- is directly tied to the warming climate.

Studies have shown that farmers in western Oklahoma are drawing down the Ogallala Aquifer by using deep wells to irrigate their crops. The wells keep getting deeper, and at these rates it's beleived that the groundwater source could run dry sometime this century.

A scientist speaking at a conference here in Virginia today (I'm writing this on a break) said that water is one of the more uncertain pieces of climate change models. Scientists are more certain about predicting future temperatures, but then they have to figure out how water bodies will react.

Friday, October 10, 2008

State government without energy savings plan

[video: OK Environment Secretary J.D. Strong says energy efficiency is like an alternative fuel of its own.]

By John Sutter

Despite fragmented efforts to save energy and reduce spending, Oklahoma -- unlike many other states -- does not have a comprehensive plan for energy efficiency, Oklahoma Environment Secretary J.D. Strong said in an interview Friday.

The state could save an untold amount of taxpayer money if it developed a plan to retrofit state buildings with green technologies that reduce electricity use -- thereby saving money, working to curb climate change and improving air quality, he said.

"It's really the low-hanging fruit," Strong said of energy efficiency improvements. "It's something that could be started right away."

The state government is the largest employer in Oklahoma (Wal-Mart is second), and should do more to lead by example, Strong said.

Oklahoma is far behind other states in the area of energy efficiency. The Sooner State ranked 43rd of 50 states in a recent analysis of state energy plans. Still, there are signs that high energy prices and concerns about the environment are spurring consumers and businesses to drive less and use less electricity. In some circles, energy efficiency is talked about as a type of alternative fuel.

Strong said the state could adopt measures as radical as giving capitol or downtown employees bicycles instead of state cars -- or as simple as changing out light bulbs.

He said he hopes to quantify what savings Oklahoma state government could achieve by using green technologies. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Central Services said her office does not keep track of those numbers. A call to the state Finance Office was not immediately returned.

Some state agencies, like the Department of Environmental Quality, have energy reduction plans of their own. Central Services, for instance, has changed its lights to compact fluorescents (which use less energy) and has installed motion sensors that turn off the lights automatically when employees aren't working and moving around, said Gerry Smedley, the department's spokeswoman. The light changes alone save the state $50,000 per year, she said.

Toilets that use 1.2 gallons of water per flush instead of 4 have been installed in the 17 state buildings the department manages, she said. That saves the state 4 million gallons of water per year, she said.

In eight state buildings in Oklahoma City, thermostats let temperatures rise to 90 degrees at night in the summer and cool to 55 degrees during the winter, she said.

Environmentalists cheered during the last legislative session after the Green Building Act was passed by state legislators. That bill requires new state buildings and upgrades to meet certain green building standards. It doesn't apply to schools, though, and it also doesn't require upgrades to current buildings, Strong said.

That's where immediate savings could come in, he said.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What's in a name?

[photo: buffalo along broadway extension, near nw 36 in oklahoma city. sorry for the blur, but it's hard to shoot photos and drive at the same time ...]

By John Sutter

Drivers on Broadway Extension in north Oklahoma City may have noticed the herd of concrete buffalo running alongside them recently. The buffalo -- which are chiseled and painted into a barrier wall near NW 36 -- are part of a $30 million construction project, and new ones are popping up every day. Exit at NW 23 and you'll find statues of buffalo standing in prairie grasses that have been plugged into a field of mowed Bermuda.

It's a striking image, I think -- the buffalo and the prairie being brought into a new urban home. It seems that the more modern our society becomes, the more instinct we have to reach back to nature, letting it inform our decisions and our designs.

Oklahoma's going through a throwback of this sort right now. People are paying to go on tours of farms and making a vacation out of being able to pick blueberries and strawberries (check out the state's "agrotourism" site here). What once was work is now a stress reliever. People are riding bikes in bigger numbers. Home gardens are back. And, apparently, so are the buffalo.

A state you thought you knew: a reintroduction.

Lead hills in bloom

[photo: Wildflowers bloom this summer in front of a mountain of toxic mining waste in Picher, which is in the northeast corner of Oklahoma. The government is currently paying residents to relocate from the area.]

Welcome to Oklahoma's newest source for environmental news. I'm John Sutter, the author of this blog and the former environment reporter at The Oklahoman. (You may have seen my blog with the paper: Going Green.)

I'm starting this site because I believe that Oklahomans care about environmental news and issues, and they deserve to have a place to find stories on the topic. I am not an advocate or an environmentalist, but I do believe that decisions by government and business affect the environment. I'm here to make sure they're at least known and considered.

I also hope to use this site as a way to continue my interest in this state's diverse and endlessly interesting ecology. Even if you've lived here all of your life, you may not know that Oklahoma is actually home to more distinct ecological zones than any state but Alaska. Because of weird weather patters we see here -- with lots of wet air sweeping in from the Gulf of Mexico and lots of hot, dry air shooting north from Mexican deserts -- Oklahoma has swamps with alligators in the southeast and sees dust storms on the high plains in the northwest and in the Panhandle. It's a diverse and wild place. One worth exploring.

Many of the state's environmental issues are pressing, yet they're under-reported. The state Attorney General is suing poultry companies over their alleged pollution of the Illinois River in northeast Oklahoma. Tar Creek, a former lead and zinc mining site, has been listed as one of the most severe toxic waste sites in the nation. Thirty years after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started work there, it's still not cleaned up or safe, and now the government is paying people to move out because of safety and environmental hazards.

In northwest Oklahoma, the lesser prairie chicken -- a hilarious bird with a certain YouTube celebrity -- could be headed towards extinction because of wind farm expansion. And, really for the first time, alternative fuels like wind and prairie-grass biofuels are being talked about as viable alternatives to Oklahoma's oil-and-gas-driven economy.

This is an exciting and important time for environmental issues in the state. I hope you will join the conversation here and elsewhere. Check out the blogroll for ideas about other sites to visit, and let me know what you think of this one by commenting on stories, or sending me an e-mail at john.d.sutter [at] If you have a question you'd like me to answer or a topic you'd like me to write about, just let me know.