This 2014 photo provided by NOAA shows the Arctic ice coverage. Earth’s icy northern region lost more of its signature whiteness that reflects the sun’s heat. It was replaced temporarily with dark land and water that absorbs more energy, keeping yet more heat on already warming planet, according to the Arctic report card issued Thursday, Dec. 17, 2014. (NOAA/Associated Press)
By Associated PressDecember 17
WASHINGTON — The Arctic and its future are looking dimmer every year, a new federal report says.
In the spring and summer of 2014, Earth’s icy northern region lost more of its signature whiteness that reflects the sun’s heat. It was replaced temporarily with dark land and water that absorbs more energy, keeping yet more heat on already warming planet, according to the Arctic report card issued Thursday.
Spring snow cover in Eurasia reached a record low in April. Arctic summer sea ice, while not setting a new record, continued a long-term, steady decline. And Greenland set a record in August for the least amount of sunlight reflected in that month, said the peer-reviewed report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies.
Overall, the report card written by 63 scientists from 13 countries shows few single-year dramatic changes, unlike other years.
“We can’t expect records every year. It need not be spectacular for the Arctic to continue to be changing,” said report lead editor Martin Jeffries, an Arctic scientist for the Office of Naval Research, at a San Francisco news conference Wednesday.
The report illustrates instead a relentless decline in cold, snow and ice conditions and how they combine with each other. And several of those have to do with how the Arctic reflects sun heat
The Arctic’s drop in reflectivity is crucial because “it plays a role like a thermostat in regulating global climate,” Jeffries said, in an interview. As the bright areas are replaced, even temporarily, with dark heat-absorbing dark areas, “That has global implications.”
The world’s thermostat setting gets nudged up a bit because more heat is being absorbed instead of reflected, he said.
The Arctic has been affected more by man-made warming than the rest of the globe, Jeffries and the report said. But it comes in spurts, pauses and drops. Not every year will be a record, Jeffries said.
For example, the Arctic sea ice’s lowest point this year wasn’t as small as 2012 and was only the sixth lowest since 1979. But the last eight years have all had the eight lowest amounts of summer sea ice on record, Jeffries said.
While Greenland’s ice sheet lost 474 billion tons of ice in 2012, it only lost 6 billion tons in the past summer, the report said. While the U.S. East Coast shivered during January’s cold snap from a polar vortex that slipped south, parts of Alaska were 18 degrees warmer than normal.
Polar bear populations in parts of the Alaska region were shrinking but elsewhere they were more or less stable, the report said.
“Eight years ago, 2014 would have been considered an alarming year,” said University of Colorado ice scientist Ted Scambos, who didn’t contribute to the report. “With 2007 and 2012 behind us, not so much now. The continued summertime darkening of Greenland, particularly in a year when surface melt did not reach record levels, is worrisome, and sets up the potential for record surface melting in future years.”
Malcolm Ritter in New York contributed to this report.
Seth Borenstein can be followed at http://twitter.com/borenbears
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
The federal government will allow a controversial form of energy drilling called fracking in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia, but it will sharply cut the amount of land on which fracking could occur.
The much-anticipated decision represents, in effect, a compromise between people who feared fracking would harm the 1.1 million-acre forest and industry representatives who said the drilling can be done safely.
“This is a decision about where it’s appropriate to do oil and gas,” said Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s not a decision about how you do it.”
The USDA includes the U.S. Forest Service, which runs the George Washington in west-central Virginia. About 10 percent of the forest lies in West Virginia. It’s a place where people hike, hunt and watch birds and where loggers cut trees, among other uses.
Streams in the forest lead to rivers that supply drinking water for more than 4 million people, including residents in the Richmond and Washington regions.
The decision to allow fracking lies within a new management plan that will guide activities in the forest for the next 10 to 15 years. The plan is being released today.
Before today, about 995,000 acres in the forest were available for drilling. Under the plan, that shrinks to 177,000 acres.
Those 177,000 acres cover 10,000 that are under lease for drilling and 167,000 where private interests own the underground mineral rights, even though the Forest Service owns the trees and other resources above the ground.
That split ownership stems from cases years ago in which the federal government acquired land for the forest but some sellers wanted to retain their mineral rights.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, typically involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure to break up rocks that harbor gas or oil.
Critics say the process can pollute streams and underground water. In the national forest, they say, it would also conflict with the scenery and pastoral atmosphere. Opponents of fracking in the George Washington included Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Supporters say fracking is a safe method that, combined with horizontal drilling, has made once-hard-to-reach gas reserves accessible.
A draft of the forest plan in 2011 would have, in effect, banned fracking, but that option was reinstated after federal officials heard from industry representatives and others.
The George Washington lies on the southeastern fringe of the Marcellus Shale, a region rich in underground natural gas. But federal officials said that part of the shale region that lies in the George Washington is not particularly productive, and while some companies have acquired drilling rights, no one has drilled.
“Nothing has ever come together on the GW for gas,” said Ken Landraf, the forest’s planning officer.
The plan for the George Washington also calls for expanding natural buffers along streams to reduce pollution, increasing the area suitable for logging, adding two wilderness areas, and creating a 90,000-acre national scenic area on Shenandoah Mountain in Rockingham and Augusta counties.
The latter two actions require congressional action. Wilderness areas and scenic areas get extra protections.
Forest Service praised for drilling restrictions in G.W. National Forest
RICHMOND — Environmental groups and officials praised the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday for restricting future oil and gas drilling to a small portion of the George Washington National Forest, while some expressed disappointment that any fracking could be allowed.
A final plan released Tuesday allows all forms of drilling — including the controversial high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — in about 16 percent of the popular national forest, which comprises 1.1 million acres in Virginia and West Virginia.
Sarah Francisco, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, called the decision a good one that recognizes that most of the forest is “not appropriate for industrial gas development.”
“We think this decision shows the Forest Service listened to the local community, to the local citizens, to the local governments around the forest that felt strongly that the G.W. was not appropriate for industrial gas development,” she said on a conference call with reporters.
Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, called it encouraging that the Forest Service protected most of the forest from new leases “despite tremendous industry pressure to do the opposite.”
Widespread fracking could have led to the pollution of drinking water sources for much of the region, including Washington, and heavy truck traffic associated with large-scale industrial drilling could have marred the forest’s scenic beauty, he said.
“Unfortunately, these risks remain for the existing leases in the forest,” Besa said in a statement. “While the leases may be low value, they are certainly high risk. As the closest national forest to metropolitan Washington, D.C., the George Washington provides a unique outdoor experience for millions of people, one that can never be replaced. People don’t come to the George Washington National Forest to hike in an industrial park or to breathe polluted air.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has strenuously objected to fracking in the forest, but he praised the Forest Service on Tuesday for prohibiting fracking in most of it.
“I applaud today’s decision to effectively ban gas and oil drilling in the George Washington National Forest on all land under their control,” he said in a statement. “Over the past few months, I have communicated with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and top administration officials about Virginians’ concerns regarding proposals to open public lands in the forest to fracking activity, and I believe today’s unprecedented decision is evidence that our voices were heard.”
A preliminary proposal released three years ago would have made most of the forest available for leasing and gas drilling, but it would have specifically banned horizontal drilling, Francisco said.
The combination of horizontal drilling with high-volume fracking has made it possible for companies to extract natural gas from shale formations across the country. The process involves drilling a deep vertical well that is then drilled horizontally so millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals can be blasted into the ground to fracture shale, releasing the gas.
The draft proposal was widely praised. Of the 53,000 public comments that the Forest Service received on the draft plan, about 50,000 supported restrictions on fracking, according to the Shenandoah Valley Network, a land protection group.
That support “was based on the expectation that the horizontal drilling prohibition effectively would prevent shale gas drilling and fracking on the G.W. National Forest. Folks supported that prohibition because they believed it would protect the forest from the whole spectrum of impacts related to gas drilling and fracking,” Francisco said.
However, the draft plan would have allowed vertical drilling in most of the forest, she said. The final plan “takes a different approach but achieves a similar goal,” she said.
Instead of taking a stance on any specific fracking technique, the Forest Service said it will stop leasing additional land for development. Oil and gas companies already lease about 10,000 acres within the forest and own the underground mineral rights for an additional 167,000 acres. That land will remain open for drilling.
If a company wants to drill on land it leases, it must first obtain federal and state permits. A private owner of mineral rights must obtain only a state permit.
Asked whether the McAuliffe administration would issue the permits, the governor’s press secretary, Brian Coy, said the matter is under review.
U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) also praised the move to close most of the forest to all forms of fracking and said they have urged the agency to consider concerns about the potential impacts of horizontal drilling.
“We’re pleased that the Forest Service’s final management plan announced today for the George Washington National Forest closes the overwhelming majority of lands in the Forest to horizontal drilling activities, with the remaining portion comprising acreage that has been leased in the past but never developed,” the senators said in a joint statement.
The new policy is expected to take effect early next year; there is currently no gas drilling in the forest.
Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
Fracking in the George Washington National Forest: An Unnecessary Risk
Statement of Partnership for Policy Integrity Senior Counsel, Dusty Horwitt:
The Obama administration took an unnecessary risk with drinking water supplies today by allowing horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in a portion of the George Washington National Forest. While the Forest Service decision deserves some credit for placing most of the forest off-limits to drilling, there’s no reason to gamble with the rest. Every major water provider in the DC area located downstream from the forest has opposed such drilling until science can show that it can be done safely. Local governments and elected officials have taken similar positions, including the Arlington County Board, Falls Church City Council and Alexandria’s mayor in Virginia; Montgomery County Council and Prince George’s County Council in Maryland; Washington, DC’s mayor and city council, several jurisdictions near the forest, and Virginia’s Governor, Terry McAuliffe. The Forest Service itself identified serious risks of drilling in its decision as it did in a 2011 draft in which officials recommended a moratorium on horizontal drilling and fracking in the forest.
Yet to protect the public on lands that could be drilled and fracked, the Forest Service relies on a dubious combination of government oversight and the assumption that the industry is not currently interested in drilling in the forest. A recent GAO study documented that government oversight of drilling on federal lands has been poor, finding that between 2009 and 2012, the federal Bureau of Land Management failed to inspect more than 2,100 of 3,700 wells (57 percent) drilled on federal land that the BLM, itself, had designated as high risks for water pollution or other environmental harm. The BLM would be one of the major regulators of fracking in the George Washington forest, if it occurs. And while the drilling industry might not have much interest in drilling now with historically low natural gas prices, what happens when prices inevitably rise? With risks ranging from leaks and spills of radioactive wastewater to the use of secret and often toxic fracking chemicals, why roll the dice with drinking water supplies and the forest itself?
New U.S. Forest Service plan retreats from ban on fracking in national forest in Virginia
RICHMOND — The U.S. Forest Service has backed off a proposal to ban fracking in the George Washington National Forest, a move likely to upset conservationists who oppose the controversial drilling practice.
Under a final plan set for release Tuesday, the Forest Service will allow drilling on some land. That’s an about-face from a preliminary proposal released three years ago that would have prohibited fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, for oil and natural gas inside the popular national forest, which comprises 1.1 million acres in Virginia and West Virginia.
“The initial draft was one way to go at it, but our policy is we deal with surface issues and we do not get involved in how and what methodology is used to extract oil and gas,” said Tom Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service.
Instead of taking a stance on fracking, the Forest Service has decided to stop leasing additional land for energy extraction. Oil and natural gas companies already lease about 10,000 acres within the forest and own the underground mineral rights for an additional 167,000 acres, according to the Forest Service. That land will remain open for extraction.
The new policy, which is expected to take effect early next year, caps the amount of land available for drilling at about 16 percent of the forest.
The oil and gas industry has argued that it would be unfair for the government to “slam the door” on fracking in the forest for the 10- to 15-year life of the plan; energy companies have also pointed out that natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal.
Conservationists say the drilling method could contaminate water at its source. The process involves drilling a deep vertical well that is then drilled horizontally so millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals can be blasted into the earth, fracturing shale and releasing the gas trapped within it.
Officials say the new plan represents an attempt to satisfy both sides.
“We’ve had substantial public comments and concern from the local community about oil and gas on the national forest. We’ve tried to balance those interests with existing areas for oil and gas and think we’ve gone a good job,” said Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the Agriculture Department.
Bonnie said the new plan for the George Washington National Forest is not a departure from policy elsewhere.
“It makes no determination on how oil and gas is accessed. In other words, it doesn’t take a stance on horizontal fracturing or fracking. That’s something that we allow on other national forests across the country. We don’t take a stand one way or the other here,” Bonnie said.
It updates a plan adopted in 1993 that made almost all of the forest available for leasing and offered no restrictions on what methods could be used, said Tom Speaks, forest supervisor at the George Washington and Jefferson national forests.
None of the existing leases or privately owned mineral rights are actively being worked, a circumstance that Bonnie said speaks to the quality of the energy deposits.
“I think the most telling part is that there’s just not a lot of economic interest right now in the reserves, both on the forest and immediately off the forest, and we just think that’s indicative of the fact that these aren’t economic reserves right now,” Bonnie said.
The new policy does not guarantee the right to drill, even on land where leases are in place. If a company wants to drill on land it already leases, it must first obtain a federal permit from the Bureau of Land Management, which works with the Forest Service to determine whether to grant or deny permission, said Ken Landgraf, planning and forest ecology group staff officer for the George Washington and Jefferson national forests. Then the company must get approval from the state.
But if a company wants to drill on land where it already owns mineral rights, it can skip the federal process and simply go through the state, Landgraf said.
One company, R&R Royalty of Corpus Christi, Tex., controls all 10,000 acres under lease in the forest, Landgraf said.
The new plan appears to defy Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has vigorously opposed fracking in the national forest.
“They support me on what my decision is. I have told them they will not allow fracking in the national forest. I do not support fracking as governor of the commonwealth, and we’re in mutual agreement on that,” he told reporters after a meeting on climate change in September.
Environmental groups have criticized McAuliffe for supporting a proposed 550-mile natural gas transmission pipeline through Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. Some say the pipeline could indirectly encourage fracking from companies enticed by a cheap, quick way to get their product to market.
But McAuliffe said the pipeline would create jobs, prevent spikes in energy bills during severe weather and lure heavy manufacturing to the state.
The pipeline is undergoing the special-use permitting process, which Landgraf said is unchanged under the new plan.
While drilling concerns have dominated discussion around the new plan for years, Speaks noted that the bulk of the plan relates to uses for timber production, recreation, wildlife and roads.
Darryl Fears contributed to this report.
Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
Ashlawn Elementary fifth-graders Isabelle Bristol and Carolina Smiltneks enjoyed growing lettuce for the Lawns 2 Lettuce 4 Lunch program, and they also had fun eating it. (Sarah Kaplan/The Washington Post)
Seven-year-old Laura Sawicki inspects her salad cautiously.
“I don’t really like to eat vegetables at home,” the first-grader confides.
But these are not just any vegetables. The lettuce for Laura’s salad comes from her school’s front yard and from the yards of more than 100 people living around Ashlawn Elementary in Arlington, Virginia. She and her classmates helped plant the seeds, monitored their growth and made sure they got enough water and sunlight.
Knowing all the work that went into her salad, Laura spears a lettuce leaf with her spork and takes a tentative bite.
The verdict? “It’s a little chewy, but not that chewy. It tastes really good.”
More than 50 pounds of lettuce were grown in gardens and front yards around Arlington for Ashlawn Elementary's “salad fiesta.” (Sarah Kaplan/The Washington Post)
Laura munches on a second sporkful of salad.
“And I like it because my school helped grow it,” she adds.
Those are exactly the words Joan Horwitt wants to hear. She’s the mastermind behind the Lawns 2 Lettuce 4 Lunch program, which coordinates the planting of thousands of lettuce plants in yards around the neighborhood each spring and fall. Each grade at Ashlawn has a different responsibility in caring for the plants: For example, second-graders charted the growth of the lettuce and fourth-graders prepared the soil.
“When you’ve seen the process from start to finish, it makes an impression on you,” Horwitt says. “There’s a story connected with the food, something that makes it special, so you’re more willing to try it.”
In the Ashlawn cafeteria, students, teachers and volunteers are celebrating the end of two months of hard work with a “salad fiesta.” All the lettuce grown this fall — more than 50 pounds of leaves — has been washed, chopped and mixed with 12 toppings and a dressing chosen by Ashlawn students. The bounty could feed more than 700 people.
Some people eat more than others. During the fourth-graders’ lunch period, 9-year-olds Siddharth Advani and Jason Brown-Ford compete to see who can eat the most salad.
Siddharth likes nearly every part of the Lawns 2 Lettuce 4 Lunch program: gardening, harvesting, learning about soil and rainfall. (“Everything except for the bugs,” he says.) But the salad fiesta is what he looks forward to most.
“This is so delicious,” he says, then waves down a volunteer to ask for a fifth serving.
Given the program’s success at Ashlawn, Horwitt would like to see other Arlington schools implement it. She dreams of a day when every cafeteria gets lettuce from a garden tended by its own students.
Third-grader Wyatt Hogan says kids at other schools would probably be on board with the idea. “I really like nature and helping things grow,” he says. “I think other kids would like it, too.”
Fancy Vinaigrette Salad Dressing
Feeling hungry for some salad? Try it with this “fancy vinaigrette,” created by Ashlawn Elementary neighbor Ron Battocchi and selected by students as their favorite salad dressing. Refrigerate the leftover dressing in an airtight container for up to two weeks. Shake well before using.
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, pressed
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
Pinch of oregano
Salt and pepper, to taste
Whisk ingredients in a bowl until thoroughly combined. Using a ladle or a large spoon, put a small amount onto an individual serving of salad.