Thunderbird strike: environment in review
What’s up with Whitefish?
Though it’s very difficult to fathom, more than a month after Hurricane Maria, roughly 70% of Puerto Ricans are still without power. In its effort to remedy the situation, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) contracted back on September 26th with Whitefish Energy Holdings, a tiny utilities company based in the small town of Whitefish, Montana. The contract was enormous – worth more than $300 million – particularly for a company that, until recently, employed only two people full-time.
That was, it turned out, just the first red flag. As Laurel Wamsley reports at NPR, there were a number of fishy components to the contract – below are a select few:
- questionably high labor rates
- a clause denying rights by all government parties to “audit or review the cost and profit elements of the labor rates” – in other words, once the contract is signed, nobody can do anything about what Whitefish workers are paid.
- agreement by Whitefish to “use commercially reasonable efforts to perform the work in such a manner to meet scheduling expectations,” under the condition that PREPA waived all claims against the company “related to delayed completion of the work” – which translates to “we’ll try our best, but if we’re slow, you can’t do anything about it.”
The full contract, in all its sketchy glory, was leaked. You can read it here.
On Sunday, after PR Governor Ricardo Roselló demanded the contract be canceled, PREPA went ahead and did just that. But the Whitefish saga is not yet over: as Rene Marsh and Gregory Wallace report at CNN, the FBI has opened a preliminary inquiry into the matter, as has the Department of Homeland Security.
The White House has sought to distance itself from the fiasco, despite the entanglement of Ryan Zinke, the Trump administration’s Secretary of the Interior, who is, we all know by now, from Whitefish, Montana and is personally acquainted with Whitefish Energy Holdings’ CEO Andy Techmanski. Zinke, for his part, is denying that he had anything to do with the awarding of the contract, asserting – contentiously – that “any attempts by the dishonest media or political operatives to tie [him] to awarding or influencing any contract involving Whitefish are completely baseless.”
So how did this happen? How did a tiny company from a tiny town in Montana win a $300 million award to restore Puerto Rico’s electricity? Well, it’s pretty simple: PREPA is bankrupt. Ricardo Ramos, PREPA’s CEO, claimed he chose Whitefish over other, more experienced companies because it demanded no down payment and promised to handle logistics for the labor force (i.e., food and housing). And while Ramos could have hit up the American Public Power Association for resources, the states nearest to Puerto Rico were also dealing with the repercussions of natural disasters, and he was concerned the island would be left behind. Plus, as Donna Borak, Martin Savidge, and Greg Wallace report at CNN Money, “the bankrupt utility, which was wrestling with $9 billion in debt, also couldn’t afford to cover the costs of utilizing the network.”
In a more benign development, Tesla, as well as a handful of other companies and nonprofits, are stepping in to provide innovative – and renewable – solutions to restore power and rebuild the grid. While, historically, disaster relief depends heavily on the use of fuel, solar energy and microgrids provide new possibilities for recovery. The microgrid setups “can potentially take immediate effect, providing reliable electricity with no pollution. And, once installed, these self-contained systems could help eliminate the rolling blackouts that were a problem for Puerto Rico’s major utility even before Maria.”
Global warming #1: CO2 got you feelin’ blue? Same.
A brand new report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has some chilling news about global warming: Earth’s atmospheric CO2 levels spiked in 2016, which “risks making global temperature targets largely unattainable.”
In 2016, we experienced a 3.3 parts per million (ppm) CO2 growth rate, meaning average concentrations reached over 403ppm. To provide some context, 350 ppm is the supposedly “safe” upper limit for atmospheric CO2, and the pre-industrial CO2 content stayed below 280 ppm for the last 800 million years or so.
A choice excerpt from the new report:
“Rapidly increasing atmospheric levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases have the potential to initiate unpredictable changes in the climate system, because of strong positive feedbacks, leading to severe ecological and economic disruptions.”
Since there was no significant change to fossil fuel emissions from prior years, researchers attributed 2016’s astounding increase to El Niño weather – droughts restricted the role of plants in CO2 reduction and amplified emissions from sources like forest fires.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the WMO pegs 2016 as the warmest year on record (2017, as it stands, is second) for both atmospheric and ocean surface temperatures. We also hit record-high sea levels and record-low sea ice levels (for more details, check out this nifty interactive analysis).
Global warming #2: An update on the Clean Power Plan repeal
As you may have read in last week’s political roundup, the EPA recently moved to repeal the Clean Power Plan (CPP), an Obama-era regulation on the carbon output of power plants, which the current administration claims were biased against coal communities and exceeded the EPA’s authority. However, this past Thursday, nineteen Democratic senators banded together to question the repeal in a formal letter, questioning the EPA’s distortion previous research. A sample:
“Denying the science and fabricating the math may satisfy the agency's paperwork requirements, but doing so will not satisfy the requirements of the law, nor will it slow the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, the inexorable rise in sea levels, or the other dire effects of global warming that our planet is already experiencing.”
This letter focuses on the ways in which the proposed repeal has overstated the “cost of industry compliance,” and understated “the benefits that will be lost,” including the benefit of waylaying the extreme repercussions of pollution. The repeal itself claims that “there is significant uncertainty as to the current applicability of results from the 2015 CCP analysis, including the assessment of human health benefits.”
While some analysts claim the CPP was unconstitutional, and a way to pick “energy winners and losers with policy,” others have pointed out the blatant illegalities in Pruitt’s proposed repeal, including a lack of evidence to displace the CPP and lack of a replacement rule. We’ll just take a minute to remind everybody that the scientific consensus around climate change is nearly unanimous, and belies the Trump administration’s posturing on the issue.
Global warming #3: Scientists make mistakes, too (but this could be a big one)
A recent study by French and Swiss researchers reveals that the way we’ve been measuring ocean temperatures for the past 50 years could be unreliable. Measurements done on fossils from the last 100 million years show the ocean’s temperature falling by about 15 degrees over long stretch of geological time; however, this recent study reveals the means of examination to be inconsistent with temperature rise alone.
The researchers suggest that “paleotemperatures in the ocean depths and the surface of the polar ocean have been overestimated.” Basically, this means that our basis for understanding climate change is now shaky, as is our ability to predict its consequences, because, according to the researchers, it’s possible that “the current period of climate change may be unparalleled over the last 100 million years” (italics mine). Zoinks, Scoob! Looks like we’ve got another mystery on our hands.
Some other interesting things you might have missed this week:
The Republican bill to open a big chunk of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is currently being drafted, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) just announced that the bidding on 10.3 million acres of land on Alaska’s North Slope, a mostly-untouched natural area, will start in December.
- This massive Alaskan land-lease is accompanied by the Trump Administration’s announcement of its intention to make the largest oil lease sale in US history – 77 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico in March of 2018.
- Neither Alaska nor the Gulf of Mexico, by the way, have a great environmental track record when it comes to drilling (or cleaning up after themselves).
President Trump proposed a 12.9% budget cut to the National Park Service, which would drive up peak-season fees at 17 of the busiest national parks. Ryan Zinke claimed this fiscal restructuring is a way to ensure that parks are preserved, while Democrats reamed him out for this shift – weekly passes would increase from $25-30 to $70, completely abrading the concept most Americans have of “public space.’’ But Zinke, despite his Republican credentials, does not seem to mind passing bills along to fellow Americans: he has, after all, been taking a heckuva lot of chartered flights at the expense of the American taxpayer.
- This admission cost increase, if implemented, would be a large barrier to access for low-income individuals and families, who are already under-represented in outdoor spaces.
Representatives from the left and the right have come together to endorse The Alliance to Save Energy’s “50 by 50” Commission, which aims to cut energy use by the US transportation system in half by 2050. This project is the offspring of leaders from both the automotive and utility industries, who worked together to outline “recommendations for the federal government, automakers, cities and infrastructure providers to curb emissions holistically.”
The energy industry is fired up about a new 2D sidescroller game, Thunderbird Strike, in which players can both revive animals and destroy pipeline equipment. The game’s website also offers information to its visitors on the impacts of pipelines and some actions to take in support of indigenous land and peoples. Energy Builders President Toby Mack condemned the game, denouncing the pipeline-exploding-lightning-bolt-move as an “act of domestic terrorism.” The game is available now on Windows, and I would 200% be playing instead of writing this if I didn’t have a Mac.
header image: "whitefish montana," loco steve / flickr