Shell Abandons Plans to Drill in the Arctic Ocean This Year

In great news for America's Arctic, Shell Oil has announced that it is abandoning plans to drill the Chukchi Sea this year. The company had hoped to begin drilling this summer, a move that would have jeopardized the area's delicate natural balance and the subsistence communities dependent on it.

In the announcement, Shell cited a recent ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that invalidated drilling leases in the Chukchi as one of the reasons for their decision. In response to a challenge from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, the court ruled that the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management had analyzed "only the best case scenario for environmental harm," far underestimating the environmental risks drilling actually poses.

And while critics are already disrespectfully arguing that Shell's decision not to drill in the Arctic results from "judicial overreach," a panel of three distinguished federal judges found that Shell's lease and the Bureau violated environmental laws, and faulted the agency for downplaying the potential harm of oil development. On matters like these federal appellate judges are far more trustworthy than the oil industry-- a fact bolstered by the fact that this is the second time a court has ruled that leasing in the Chukchi Sea has been illegally approved.

Drilling in the Arctic is a dangerous and risky business--for companies' bottom lines, for the environment, and for our climate. Downplaying those risks does not make them go away, as Shell's disastrous experience in 2012 demonstrated. Among the difficulties encountered by the company was the grounding of its Kulluk drillship, more than $1 million in pollution fines, and the failure of its oil spill containment dome during testing.  

It's clear that the Arctic Ocean is the last place we should be drilling for oil. The Arctic seas are home to a unique plethora of wildlife, including the entire US population of polar bears and serve as an important migration route for bowhead and beluga whales. They are also home to some of the most extreme and dangerous conditions on the planet, and to stores of carbon pollution that could dramatically alter our climate if released, negating positive steps to fight the climate crisis.  

While Shell won't be drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer, the threat of drilling remains. The Obama administration needs to step in and do a full environmental assessment of current Arctic leases, not just accept false industry promises of safety and best case scenarios.

It's clear that we can't make the needed progress in fighting the climate crisis and drill in the Arctic Ocean. An effective climate strategy will also require the administration to cancel lease sales tentatively scheduled for 2016 and 2017. It's time for America to look beyond an 'all of the above' energy policy, and start taking advantage of available clean energy and smart transportation alternatives.

-- Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club Alaska Program Director 

Fighting Illegal Logging with Numbers

Earlier this month, Congress did something it hasn’t done in years – pass a budget. Thankfully, now that funding levels have been set for 2014, members of Congress are already looking ahead to the budget for 2015. Much more than a bunch of numbers, the 2015 budget will provide Congress with an opportunity to address countless problems, and Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Dan Benishek (R-MI) want to use that opportunity to combat illegal logging around the world.

2827200314_9ca7dcda6a_bIllegal logging is a serious problem. It contributes to deforestation worldwide, which accounts for roughly 17 percent of global carbon pollution, harms indigenous communities, and funds underground crime. In the United States, the importation of illegal wood products artificially lowers prices of wood products by around $1 billion a year, threatening American jobs.

As I wrote last year, the United States has one of the most effective laws in the world to ban the trade of illegally harvested plants and animals -- the Lacey Act. First enacted in 1900 to ban the trade of poached wildlife between states, Congress amended the Lacey Act in 2008, making it illegal to import illegally harvested wood products. Now, companies that import wood products must declare what species of plant they are importing and where it came from. Those that break the law face fines and even jail time.

Already, the Lacey Act has already helped shift the trade balance in U.S. forest products from a $20.3 billion deficit in 2006 to a $600 million surplus in 2010. A report by Chatham House also credits the Lacey Act with keeping more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, some companies continue to import illegally logged wood. Just three months ago, federal agents raided the corporate offices of Lumber Liquidators, the top-selling flooring retailer in America, who may have imported wood illegally harvested from the Russian far east, home of the last 450 Siberian tigers in the wild.

This month, Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Dan Benishek (R-MI) wrote a letter to the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Sylvia Burwell, urging her to request increased funding for the enforcement of the Lacey Act. Increased funding would allow the Department of Agriculture to build an electronic database to more efficiently monitor import declarations, the Department of Interior to better deter companies from importing illegal wood, and the Department of State to educate businesses at home and abroad about the Lacey Act and its requirements.

Thanks to the Lacey Act, we’ve already made progress in slowing the trade of illegal wood products, but we still have a ways to go. It is critical that Congress follow the lead of Representatives DeFazio and Benishek and pass a budget that includes increased funding for the Lacey Act. To help, tell your Representative to support the Lacey Act.

--Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program

Protecting Public Lands: A Presidential Priority

Last night President Obama laid out his vision of opportunity for our nation and made it clear that our children will hold us accountable for the actions we take now; among them steps to permanently protect our public lands.

"My administration will keep working with the industry to sustain production and job growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, and our communities.  And while we’re at it, I’ll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations."

-- President Obama

During his tenure, President Obama has taken important steps to protect our outdoor legacy. He has designated nine new national monuments, honoring our country's history and safeguarding important natural areas. There has been strong support from local communities for these designations, and there are many more communities that hope to see their special places permanently protected as national monuments soon.

The time and effort invested by the administration in working with communities to protect special places is already paying off, as newly designated national monuments create jobs, boost economies, increase recreation, and safeguard natural treasures. Those benefits will carry on as future generations continue to reap the rewards of President Obama's ongoing conservation legacy.

With continued congressional inaction -- and often downright hostility -- on lands protection, it's clear that the Obama administration must step in to continue America's conservation legacy. It's heartening to see bold action on public lands is an administrative priority. The president's speech further affirms the commitment to act on public lands made by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in October.  Since then, the Secretary Jewell has followed words with action, holding public meetings in New Mexico on how best to protect the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and in California on Stornetta Public Lands. The overwhelmingly positive response at both public meetings is representative of the strong public support nationwide for permanently protecting our great outdoors.

As President Obama continues to act on public lands, we hope he will also act on climate. The two issues are intimately connected; a true commitment to act on climate, including an end to the flawed "all of the above" energy policy, will put the last pieces in place to fully protect our wild places. Future generations will hold President Obama accountable not just for his conservation legacy but for his climate legacy as well. 

-- Matthew Kirby, Sierra Club Senior Lands Protection Representative

Seeing the Forest for the Trees, Dead or Alive


                    photo by USFS Region 5

We now know that, according to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and local experts, the 2013 Rim Fire of Northern California burned somewhere between 250,000-270,000 acres of our public lands, including parts of Yosemite National Park. Reported by some as the third-largest fire in California history, the Rim Fire has become the focal point for highly controversial salvage logging legislation and, by contrast, a template for science-led grassroots collaboration. 

In the early weeks of post-fire landscape assessment, there was a keen desire to log up to 1 billion board feet off the burned forest. This desire turned into legislative language that, along with the USFS Rim Fire Recovery Project plans, has fueled intense debate among industry, lawmakers, conservationists, and scientists alike. 

The Sierra Club strongly supports embracing the region's best available post-fire science and ensuring that on-the-ground collaborative efforts have time to grow roots before legislative or misguided projects take off. The Sierra Club has a long history connected with Yosemite, going back to early outings lead by John Muir and the establishment of Sierra Club lodges to educate park visitors.  Naturally, it's in our ethos to ensure safekeeping of this treasured landscape.

The Yosemite region and Stanislaus National Forest are no strangers to fire. Much of the 2013 burn covered areas that have burned and reburned within the past 30 years. The Rim Fire presents, instead, an opportunity to revisit how we manage these fire-vulnerable landscapes, how we fight or embrace fire as a natural phenomenon, and how all of this changes in light of our rapidly changing climate. 

In fact, numerous studies have confirmed that fire can significantly benefit our natural environment, particularly in the early stages of the natural ecological succession of a landscape.  That is -- imagine the natural growth of a forest -- the early stages are incredibly important, and it turns out that fire is an important part of their development. 

The impact of moderate to severe fire on bird habitat is significant -- increasing nest cavities and abundance of species and their diversity, specifically in the Sierra Nevada ecosystem, site of the Rim Fire. And fire isn't just good for birds but also for shrubbery native to the regions prone to fire. IT is critical to the biodiversity of the region and the natural progression of the landscape. In the case of the Rim Fire, some feared that Yosemite's famous giant sequoia groves might be lost to fire. In fact no groves were damaged. Sequoias actually require fire to open their cones and allow for regeneration. National Park Service ecologists regularly set prescribed fires among sequoias to protect them and to allow for regeneration.  

Unfortunately, hysterical fire rhetoric during and immediately after a blaze usually refers to "devastation," "destruction," and "scorched" landscapes. A calmer scientific review usually concludes that most fires kille very little wildlife and that new plants quickly respond and wildlife soon reoccupies burned areas.  

In the post-fire world, the timber industry suggests that salvage logging will protect the forest.  But science does not back up those claims. In fact, post-fire logging does more damage than good -- causing long-lasting harm to plants, wildlife habitat, water quality, and other natural functions of our forests.  Certainly a case can be made for the removal of post-fire hazard trees that threaten existing roads and structures, but even this action should be a relatively modest operation.

Today, we have the chance to create new science and management norms for landscapes like those in the Rim Fire, both before, during, and after fire.  Post-fire planning allows us to reemphasize the need to concentrate forest management on best available science, not plantation-style reseeding, and focus fire-prevention dollars on clearing defensible space close to dwellings as a way of reducing fire risk.  Unfortunately, not all feel the same way.  Shortly after the Rim Fire, California Congressman Tom McClintock introduced legislation to rapidly salvage log the affected area. 

As noted in our Lay of the Land blog in October 2013, HR 3188, the "Yosemite Rim Fire Emergency Salvage Act" mandates damaging logging with no notice, public input, or environmental protections, and waives all administrative and judicial review. This bill would effectively suspend every federal law, including the National Forest Management Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other critical federal laws are also waived under the broad brush of HR 3188. 

In response to HR 3188, the USFS issued a statement strongly opposing the bill, recognizing its exemption of public involvement, judicial review, and more. While the USFS' opposition to egregious bills like HR 3188 is reassuring, the USFS-guided Rim Fire Recovery Project planning hasn't quite hit the mark either. In early December the USFS announced the Rim Fire Recovery Project's Notice of Intent to prepare an environmental review. In our comments with coalition partners, we noted several concerns with the proposed action. These include: no clear requirement in the plan to use the best available science, the allowance for salvage logging in areas near waterways, logging (by helicopter) of steep ground, construction of nearly 30 miles of new roads, and much more.

Our community sees this upcoming management plan as an opportunity -- one to steer us clear of industrial reforestation and short-sighted planning, and toward the USFS new Forest Planning Rule, the incorporation of the best available science information in the field, and a long-term management paradigm for the next 50 to 100 years. In addition, this provides a chance for real conversation about how we manage fires. Long-held notions of fire suppression are now being reconsidered. 

In addition to comments, our allies are hard at work with fellow conservationists, USFS personnel, and scientists on the ground to establish a collaborative process that will inform the environmental review and overall management of the Rim Fire landscape. Moving forward, we hope that all lawmakers will take pause at the good work happening on-site, that USFS will similarly yield to collaboration among their own in the Stanislaus, and that we'll see a new day for fire management in an ever-changing climate and West.  

Sierra Club Joins the Partnership for a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, Supports Secretary Jewell’s Youth Vision

Serve OutdoorsServe Outdoors event at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell took a major step forward this week in achieving her goal to connect tens of millions of young people with opportunities to play, learn, serve and work in the great outdoors. At the memorial of Franklin D. Roosevelt, founder of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Jewell announced a $1 million commitment from American Eagle Outfitters, Inc., to support the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC). The 21CSC is a national effort to put thousands of America’s youth to work protecting, restoring, and enhancing America’s public and tribal lands and waters.

Sierra Club has been a long-time supporter of the conservation corps experience.

“The Sierra Club commends Secretary Jewell on her commitment to connecting youth to the outdoors,” said Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. “In a world where many young people have never had the opportunity to explore and enjoy the natural world, the Corps is a valuable tool for connecting youth to our public lands and opening up a new generation to the value of conservation.”

That’s why we are proud to announce that the Sierra Club has officially joined the national partnership for the 21CSC. Sierra Club supports the 21CSC in its nationwide plan to reach 100,000 new corps members each year by 2018. Through the national partnership, we will help engage a cross-section of America’s youth with service, training and work opportunities outside. Together, we will empower the next generation to connect with special places outdoors, to improve their health and wellbeing, and to develop a sense of stewardship and a conservation ethic for our nation’s public lands. And, we’ll begin to whittle away the backlog of preservation and maintenance projects that are piling up on our public lands.

Continue reading "Sierra Club Joins the Partnership for a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, Supports Secretary Jewell’s Youth Vision" »

14 Reasons We All Need Nearby Nature in 2014

NN blog 1-6

Participants in the Sierra Club's Washington, D.C., Inner City Outings program explore nearby nature along the Billy Goat trail in the D.C. Metro area.

Everyone deserves access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, many communities do not have nearby nature or safe places to explore and enjoy the natural world close to where people live, learn, work, worship, and play. Only one in five kids can safely walk to a park or a playground, and access is even less available in low-income communities. Individuals and communities with inadequate opportunities to experience nature are missing out on a host of benefits.

That is why the Sierra Club recently launched a Nearby Nature initiative, protecting and establishing parks and green spaces in urban and suburban communities to ensure that access to nature is increasingly equitable. There are many reasons why we all need nearby nature. Here are 14 for 2014:

Continue reading "14 Reasons We All Need Nearby Nature in 2014" »

Local Elected Officials Urge BLM to Strengthen Proposed Fracking Rule

Last week, a group of lawmakers from Ohio, Michigan, and Colorado urged the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to toughen its proposed rule for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on federal land, calling it essential to protecting the public and the environment.

Four Ohio state legislators, nine Michigan state legislators, and 22 Colorado state legislators and local elected city officials signed letters to President Obama calling for the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management to strengthen its proposed rule on hydraulic fracturing on public lands, "Oil and Gas; Hydraulic Fracturing on Federal and Indian Lands." The rule, which is expected to be finalized in early 2014, will regulate fracking on over 750 million of acres of public land (including national forests, wildlife refuges, and BLM-managed public wildlands and habitats), tribal, and even private lands.   

Colorado lawmakers highlight that out of the 750 million acres of public land that would be affected by the BLM rule, about 23 million of those acres are in Colorado. And in February 2013 alone, the BLM leased over 88,000 acres in Colorado to oil and gas operators.  

In Ohio, 256,960 acres of public land would be affected by the BLM rule. In Michigan, 3,679,970 acres of public land would be affected. And in September 2013 alone, the BLM leased over 27,815 acres in Michigan to oil and gas operators.

In their letters, the elected officials make a compelling argument for a more stringent BLM rule: "While the proposed rule is a significant step forward, there are a number of essential features missing from the BLM proposal, many of which have already been enacted by states without opposition from industry." The rulemaking was originally initiated to provide much-needed guidelines for drilling activities on federal and tribal land under BLM jurisdiction. However, as the lawmakers point out in their letters to President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, "the BLM yielded to industry pressure and weakened the rule in its second version."

Continue reading "Local Elected Officials Urge BLM to Strengthen Proposed Fracking Rule" »

Happy Birthday Endangered Species Act

  Grizzly USFWSGrizzly bear, courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

What do a green sea turtle, a brown pelican, a gray wolf, a humpback whale, and a grizzly bear all have in common? On first glance, not much. But they are all, in fact, success stories of the Endangered Species Act. All of these species were at some point on the brink of extinction in the continental United States. But thanks to the protections and recovery plans put in place by the Endangered Species Act, their populations have rebounded dramatically and, in many cases, they are thriving. They all tell the story of one of our nation's and the world's most successful laws.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Endangered Species Act. When President Nixon signed the act into law on December 28, 1973, he didn’t know that it would come to be the most effective tool we have to conserve species and biodiversity in our country. The law has been more than 99 percent successful at preventing the extinction of wildlife under its protection. And the bipartisan support shown for the Act is difficult to imagine in today's political climate. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and with only a few dissenting votes in the House of Representatives.

And yet today, despite decades of success and saving icons of our natural heritage such as the bald eagle from near certain extinction, the Endangered Species Act is under attack as never before. Just a few short years ago, Congress made the unprecedented decision to intervene and legislatively remove gray wolves in Montana and Idaho from the Endangered Species list. That same year, House Republicans voted to forbid any additions to the list. And now, Senate Republicans have introduced the Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act. This radical bill would allow states to simply opt out of wildlife protection regulations if they wanted to and would remove species from the list after five years, regardless of whether they are recovered.

Over the last 40 years, we have shown that we as a country value and have the ability to protect our most important and iconic wildlife. Now we must act to ensure that our children and our grandchildren can experience the wonder of hearing a wolf howl in places like Yellowstone National Park and witness flocks of brown pelicans in Florida. It's time to work together to ensure that the Endangered Species Act is just as strong 40 years from now as it is today. 

-- by Matt Kirby

Hetch Hetchy and a Century of Environmentalism

Scb_viii_plate_lv_gleasonArchival photo of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Photo by Herbert Gleason, courtesy Restore Hetch Hetchy. 

Yosemite. Yellowstone. The Grand Canyon. The Great Smoky Mountains, and so many more.

It's hard to imagine the United States of America without our national parks.  But in the late 19th century, preserving public land in its natural state was a new and provocative idea. It was also too late for many European countries, whose lands had already been fully developed.

It all started when President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation to preserve Yosemite Valley in faraway California for "public use, resort and recreation ... inalienable for all time." Shortly afterward, Yellowstone National Park was created -- our nation's, and the world's, first wilderness park.  Yosemite, Sequoia, Mesa Verde, and Mount Rainier came soon after.

But 100 years ago, we took a step backward. San Francisco, in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated the city, campaigned to build a dam in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley, one of two iconic glacier carved valleys in the park.  More than 200 newspapers nationwide rose in opposition to the idea that a single municipality could take over land that had been "preserved in perpetuity" for all Americans. After extensive deliberation, however, the Raker Act was passed by Congress, allowing the dam to be built. It was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on December 19, 1913.

Continue reading "Hetch Hetchy and a Century of Environmentalism" »

A New Playing Field for Tomorrow's Energy Game

Believe it or not, back before the government shutdown, before Ted Cruz became a household name, before talks of default, before the "defund Obamacare" chants, there were other issues concerning the 2014 federal budget. Fossil fuels and renewable energy were once part of this discussion.

Let's start with a new report by the International Monetary Fund. It reveals that in 2011 global fossil fuel direct, "pre-tax" subsidies (where governments just hand out money) totaled $480 billion. "Post-tax" subsidies including negative externalities totaled $1.4 trillion, or, a whopping 2 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP). Negative externalities are things that one benefits from at the cost of another, and those that benefit don't have to compensate those that lost. These damages are sometimes called the social cost of fossil fuels. These costs are paid by our environment and health resulting from the spills, the fires, the air and water contamination, and the disease caused by extracting and burning dirty fuels. The United States led the world in pre and post-tax totals, with a total $502 billion in subsidies. This is followed by China at $209 billion. Again, at least (I say least because some, like David Roberts over at take it a step further, here.) 2 percent of global GDP is dedicated to propping up dirty fuels.

President Obama has stated, "As we continue to pursue clean energy technologies that will support future economic growth, we should not devote scarce resources to subsidizing the use of fossil fuels produced by some of the largest, most profitable companies in the world." He subsequently looked to repeal over $4 billion in direct subsidies for these companies.

Continue reading "A New Playing Field for Tomorrow's Energy Game" »

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