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Fracking tsar quits after six months and blames eco activists

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The government’s fracking tsar has quit the post after just six months, claiming policy relating to the controversial process means there is “no purpose” to her job.

Natascha Engel told the business secretary, Greg Clark, that developing the industry would be “an impossible task” despite its “enormous potential”. In her resignation letter, she said environmental activists had been “highly successful” in encouraging the government to curb fracking.

Engel, a former Labour MP, wrote the letter following two weeks of protests by the Extinction Rebellion group, which brought parts of London to a standstill with demands to cut emissions to zero by 2025.

She wrote: “A perfectly viable and exciting new industry that could help meet our carbon reduction targets, make us energy secure and provide jobs in parts of the country that really need them is in danger of withering on the vine – not for any technical or safety reasons, but because of a political decision.”

Engel complained that a traffic light system that halts fracking when a tremor with a magnitude of 0.5 is recorded “amounts to a de facto ban”.

“The UK could be on the cusp of an energy revolution the like of which we have not seen since the discovery of North Sea oil and gas,” she wrote.

Protesters stand outside Cuadrilla’s Preston Road fracking site near Blackpool.

Protesters stand outside Cuadrilla’s Preston Road fracking site near Blackpool. Photograph: Hannah Mckay/Reuters

, she said, had the potential to create jobs, economic security and provide a cleaner alternative to coal and biomass.

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Critics say the amount of water needed for fracking is damaging to the environment and claim it releases dangerous chemicals. They also say governments should focus on renewable energy.

Engel’s resignation letter said: “The UK is currently spending £7bn a year on importing gas – money that is not being used to build schools, hospitals or fix the potholes in our roads. Developing our own shale gas industry would mean money going into the Treasury rather than out.”

She added: “We know shale gas can be extracted safely. We have the best regulations and regulators in the world. We know the positive impact it has on local communities, but we are choosing to listen to a powerful environmental lobby campaigning against fracking rather than allowing science and evidence to guide our policy making.”

She said “apart from its uniquely awful name” the process is “materially no different” from other methods of hydrocarbon extraction.

“We are listening to a small but loud environmental movement that opposes in principle all extraction of fossil fuels,” Engel wrote. “The campaign against fracking has been highly successful in raising the profile and filling the coffers of some NGOs, but they do not represent local residents nor the wider population.”

In a statement following her resignation, Engel said: “I hope there will be a rethink sooner rather than later which will see policy guided by science, rather than fear-mongering.

“There is much to be optimistic about how developing technologies – including fracking – can help us accelerate the reduction in CO2 and grow our economy. Sadly today only those who shout get heard.”

At this critical time…
… we can’t turn away from climate change. The Guardian’s environmental coverage reports the scientific facts, social consequences and political choices that are shaping the fate of our planet. As the world’s leaders turn their backs on the environment, we are at a crisis point. Individual consumer choices are important, but we need collective action to achieve the systemic change that will really make a difference. Our pioneering and our fearless reporting on the environment can play a vital role in that. But we need our readers’ support.

More people are reading and supporting our independent, investigative reporting than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we have chosen an approach that allows us to keep our journalism accessible to all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford.

The Guardian is editorially independent, meaning we set our own agenda. Our journalism is free from commercial bias and not influenced by billionaire owners, politicians or shareholders. No one edits our editor. No one steers our opinion. This is important as it enables us to give a voice to those less heard, challenge the powerful and hold them to account. It’s what makes us different to so many others in the media, at a time when factual, honest reporting is critical.

Every contribution we receive from readers like you, big or small, goes directly into funding our journalism. This support enables us to keep working as we do – but we must maintain and build on it for every year to come.

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Environment

North American drilling boom threatens major blow to climate efforts – report

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More than half of the world’s new oil and gas pipelines are located in North America, with a boom in US oil and gas drilling set to deliver a major blow to efforts to slow climate change, a new report has found.

Of a total 302 pipelines in some stage of development around the world, 51% are in North America, according to Global Energy Monitor, which tracks fossil fuel activity. A total of $232.5bn in capital spending has been funneled into these North American pipeline projects, with more than $1tn committed towards all oil and gas infrastructure.

If built, these projects would increase the global number of pipelines by nearly a third and mark out a path of several decades of substantial oil and gas use.

In the US alone, the natural-gas output enabled by the pipelines would result in an additional 559 million tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide each year by 2040, above 2017 levels, according to Global Energy Monitor, citing International Energy Agency figures.

This surge in emissions is set to take place at a time when scientists have warned of punishing heatwaves, floods and economic damage if greenhouse gases are not drastically cut. A landmark UN report released last year warned that global emissions must be halved by 2030 and essentially nullified by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

“This is a whole energy system not compatible with global climate survival,” said Ted Nance, co-author of the Global Energy Monitor report. “These pipelines are locking in huge emissions for 40 to 50 years at a time, with the scientists saying we have to move in 10 years. These pipelines are a bet that the world won’t get serious about climate change, allowing the incumbency of oil and gas to strengthen.”

New gas pipelines outnumber oil pipelines by around four to one, bolstered by a glut of abundant natural gas that is swiftly replacing coal as the leading electricity source for US homes and businesses.

The most active area for pipelines is the Permian basin in west Texas, a sprawling formation that contains huge deposits of oil and gas. Other active zones include the shale formations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, and the Canadian tar sands of Alberta.

Several of these pipeline projects have spurred bitter protests from climate and indigenous activists, such as the Dakota Access project, which resulted in violent clashes at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. The extension to the Keystone pipeline, which would link the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, has also aroused opposition that Donald Trump has vowed to sweep aside by pushing the project forward.

While domestic energy use increased last year – Americans consumed 4% more energy than in 2017, according to US government figures – the boom in oil and gas pipelines is largely set to cater for the US’ increasing role as an energy exporter. Nance said there are “unrealistic expectations” over exports of liquified natural gas to Asia, in particular, due to an increase in gas production there and concerns over climate change.

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International goals to limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius (3.6F) above pre-industrial times will be “difficult or impossible to achieve” with the completion of the new pipelines, according to Heidi Peltier, an energy expert at the University of Massachusetts, who was not involved in the new research.

“From a climate perspective, this is very bad news,” she said. “What we need is increased investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, not increased investments in fossil fuel infrastructure.”

At this critical time…
… we can’t turn away from climate change. The Guardian’s environmental coverage reports the scientific facts, social consequences and political choices that are shaping the fate of our planet. As the world’s leaders turn their backs on the environment, we are at a crisis point. Individual consumer choices are important, but we need collective action to achieve the systemic change that will really make a difference. Our pioneering and our fearless reporting on the environment can play a vital role in that. But we need our readers’ support.

More people are reading and supporting our independent, investigative reporting than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we have chosen an approach that allows us to keep our journalism accessible to all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford.

The Guardian is editorially independent, meaning we set our own agenda. Our journalism is free from commercial bias and not influenced by billionaire owners, politicians or shareholders. No one edits our editor. No one steers our opinion. This is important as it enables us to give a voice to those less heard, challenge the powerful and hold them to account. It’s what makes us different to so many others in the media, at a time when factual, honest reporting is critical.

Every contribution we receive from readers like you, big or small, goes directly into funding our journalism. This support enables us to keep working as we do – but we must maintain and build on it for every year to come.


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Environment

This Activist Uses A Little Shaming And Lots Of Data To Clean Up Chinese Factories

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This story was produced and originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

One humid July day, the Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun stood in front of an alley sandwiched by two warehouses at the factory of an Apple supplier called Catcher, a two-hour bullet-train ride south of Beijing. He wore safety goggles and scribbled in a notebook. Two Apple executives flanked him.

Guides from Catcher toured Ma around towering black tanks and large sheds containing vats and pipes that disposed of the toxic chromium waste produced in manufacturing parts for iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks. Apple and Catcher said the state-of-the-art system processed the waste without any discharge. Ma’s group, the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), was considering writing a report on the technology, if it could verify the claim. After a tour of the nearly 500-acre facility, Ma and the executives adjourned to an office conference room on the campus. The atmosphere was cordial, one of partners rather than adversaries.

Apple’s meetings with Ma weren’t always like this. The first one, at its California headquarters in 2011, when he confronted the company about environmental problems at multiple factories, was tense. IPE had issued a damning report on the behavior of tech companies in China, and Apple took a year and a half to set up a meeting with IPE. The discussion lasted about five hours, with Apple ceding little beyond a vague statement about transparency. More than seven years later, IPE has helped audit many of Apple’s factories and suppliers in China, and the group now ranks the company first on its list of the most transparent companies.

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Apple isn’t the only company that Ma has helped push toward reform. Since IPE was founded in 2006, his team has gotten more than 1,300 factories to address environmental messes such as discharging waste into rivers. The secret to Ma’s success is a clever tool: IPE has compiled a database of more than 1.3 million environmental violations committed by Chinese factories. It publicly displays this information in online maps and apps, pushing factories and the brands they supply to clean up. Many of them do, agreeing to third-party audits approved by IPE and its partner organizations to clear their records from IPE’s database. With this, Ma has convinced two of the world’s most opaque institutions—international corporations and the Chinese government—that publicly monitoring pollution is in their interest. For his accomplishments, he has won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize and many other awards, making him a major face of China’s environmental movement.

Despite the accolades, Ma’s demeanor is humble and self-deprecating. He sees his work as an effort to help companies, not undermine them. His modesty is likely one of the reasons the Chinese government doesn’t feel threatened by him. “There were all these fire-breathing Greenpeace types,” one observer of the Goldman award ceremony told me. “And then there was Ma Jun.”

On smogless days in Beijing, the city’s west side is visible from IPE’s office tower. Ma Jun, 50, grew up there in the early years of the Cultural Revolution, born in 1968 to an engineer and government administrator. Mao Zedong had disbanded traditional schools, and Ma spent much of his childhood playing with crickets and beetles and exploring farmland. His childlike curiosity has stayed with him, though the fields have been overrun by Beijing’s sprawl. After graduating from college, he found a job as an assistant for the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English newspaper. He cut out every environmental story he found, studying what few articles he came across, and spent vacations reporting on water pollution in China. The country’s rivers, he discovered, were catastrophically polluted and overdrawn. He wrote a book about the issue that reached a wider audience than he’d expected, and soon, among global environmental circles, it began drawing comparisons to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

After the book’s publication, Ma worked for an energy consulting firm in Beijing and then left to study at Yale’s World Fellows program, which helps train up-and-coming leaders from around the world. He studied American environmental law, contemplating which regulatory tools could be best applied in China. By the end of his time in New Haven, he’d written a new book that argued for progressive legal reforms to Chinese environmental law, including ones that emphasized greater environmental transparency from both government and corporations along with remedies for the victims of pollution. Editors in China were afraid to publish it. “They told me I’d forgotten where I was,” he recalls. 

Instead of publishing the book, he decided to implement its ideas through a non-governmental organization. For its first project, in 2006, Ma’s three-person staff mined every available government record of water pollution in China, transcribing them by hand, then publishing a rudimentary interactive map online. “In the beginning, all that work felt useless,” says Wang Jingjing, one of IPE’s early staffers, and now married to Ma.) IPE’s first breakthrough came after Panasonic executives contacted it about one of their factories on the map. Together with IPE, they orchestrated a full cleanup. Soon, other companies began contacting IPE for help, often after journalists or activists used IPE’s map to expose factories’ environmental violations.

IPE’s reputation continued to grow within environmental circles, and in 2014, it released a pollution-tracking app now called the Blue Map. The app’s greatest success came amid somewhat awkward circumstances: in China’s most famous environmental documentary film, Under the Dome—which the government first promoted and then censored—Chai Jing, the film’s reporter-director, gave the app a shout-out, encouraging people to download it. The film received around 300 million views within a week of its release, and the app crashed. To get it back online, IPE turned to software engineers who manage train ticketing systems during China’s lunar new year, the greatest annual migration in the world, when 400 million people return home for the holidays.

For thousands of years, Chinese rulers have struggled to enforce laws passed in Beijing at the local level. “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away,” goes one proverb. Local officials are largely promoted based on economic growth, which makes them wary of enforcing costly environmental laws. It’s common, for example, for officials to tip off factories before environmental inspections occur, reminding them, say, to turn on the scrubbers that clean the emissions passing through a smokestack. Regulators and judges have limited power to prevent such moves, since they’re subordinate to these officials or can be easily ignored. In the short term, it’s often more effective for IPE to sidestep local governments and directly contact brands and factories about the information it’s collected. After seeing their records made public, factory owners often agree to address them. “What we’ve done is kind of like Chinese acupuncture,” Ma told me. “You press one spot in one place, and that causes a reaction in another.”

If IPE can persuade companies to behave better, Ma argues to skeptical officials, this makes the Communist Party look more effective and enhances social stability—the only performance metric the government considers as important as economic growth. It’s working: Over the years, as Ma has won the trust of China’s leaders, his access to them has increased. A few weeks after the Catcher visit, he spent two days in a neighboring province training local officials on the benefits of transparency. “It’s funny, local regulators love him,” says Alex Wang, a former lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who is on IPE’s board.

In China, environmental activism tends to be tolerated more than other types of advocacy, even under President Xi Jinping’s more repressive politics. Yet Ma is careful not to push the government too far. Scholars who study Chinese politics sometimes refer to its authoritarianism as strategically “consultative” of civil society; officials have actively asked for comment and feedback from grassroots groups and independent experts on major policies like the 2014 Environmental Protection Law. Influential public figures like Ma have developed a kind of expert status in official circles, and they’ve worked hard to keep the Chinese government open to allowing—and even inviting—such public feedback. Sometimes, maintaining that cooperation requires backpedaling and finesse. Once, a team from one of IPE’s partner NGOs was driving around the countryside with a camera, photographing factories with violations listed in IPE’s database. It posted the photos on social media, revealing the precise locations of the pollution. Ma received a firm order to halt the project, which was unnerving the government. He assented, knowing that alienating officials could result in IPE losing favor, or even being shut down.

Ma knows that this delicate dance means progress is slow. Moving hundreds of China’s millions of factories toward compliance, “is only a drop in the bucket,” he admitted to me. IPE, with 37 staffers, cannot monitor all of Chinese manufacturing on its own, and it will need more reform and resources from the government to scale up its approach. State-owned enterprises, too, will need to become more transparent.

At the Catcher tour, the wrap-up meeting in the conference room ended well. Ma smiled and said he was impressed with the factory’s efforts. There was just one matter left to be sorted out: At the end of the disposal system sat a white container about the size of a doghouse, holding the final waste product, which was shipped to a recycler. For Apple and Catcher to receive the zero-discharge rating they sought, IPE would have to confirm that the waste was being properly disposed of offsite. The executives promised to follow up on that, and the mood in the room remained jovial.

In the car ride back to the train station, Ma was reflective. A week earlier, in Beijing, Dell officials had arrived to discuss speeding up their environmental auditing process, challenging Apple for the top spot in IPE’s rankings. “To see what the best companies can do now,” he said optimistically, “it’s just incredible.”


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Environment

Elizabeth Warren On Climate Plan: ‘No Coal Lobbyists For Head Of EPA

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) promised to make the Green New Deal the centerpiece of her administration’s climate policy if she’s elected president. 

But that’d be a crowning legislative achievement. On her first day in the White House, Warren said, she’d halt mining and drilling leases on federal lands and set up a program at the Interior Department to create 10,000 jobs repairing infrastructure in national parks. 

Yet the biggest change might be who she would nominate to lead the agency President Donald Trump has zealously put in the hands of the industries it regulates. 

“No coal lobbyists for head of EPA,” Warren said at her CNN town hall Monday night. 

The remark is a reference to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who until mid-2017 worked as a top lobbyist for the influential coal baron Robert Murray. Warren has zinged him before. In a January Facebook post, she said the anti-corruption bill she unveiled last August would make it so Wheeler “wouldn’t be allowed to get anywhere near that agency — much less run it.”

The last presidential campaign cycle devoted less than six minutes of debate time to climate change. Since then, unprecedented storms and wildfires and increasingly dire warnings from the United Nations and federal scientists sent the issue surging to the top of voter priorities in surveys. It’s already becoming a bigger issue this election. Before facing a question on her climate plan, Warren raised the issue at least twice unprompted on Monday night. 

Warren hinted that climate change ― which she has yet to outline in as much detail as her proposals on student debt, housing and monopolies ― would take a lead role in her foreign policy. 

“The United States is a world leader on climate. We are. We’re just leading in the wrong direction right now,” she said. “It’s not just that we’re doing wrong … we’re giving cover to the rest of the world to everyone who doesn’t want to have to make changes in their economy.” 

She added: “We’re giving them cover. That stops on the first day of my administration.”

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