Human impact on world's rivers 'threatens water security of 5 billion'

Human impact on world’s rivers ‘threatens water security of 5 billion’ | Environment | The Guardian.

The world’s rivers are so badly affected by human activity that the water security of almost 5 billion people, and the survival of thousands of aquatic species, are threatened, scientists warned .

The study, conducted by institutions across the globe, is the first to simultaneously look at all types of human intervention on freshwater – from dams and reservoirs to irrigation and pollution. It paints a devastating picture of a world whose rivers are in serious decline.

While developing countries are suffering from threats to both water security and biodiversity, particularly in Africa and central Asia, the authors were surprised by the level of threat posed to wildlife in rich countries.

“What made our jaws drop is that some of the highest threat levels in the world are in the United States and Europe,” said Prof Peter McIntyre, one of the lead authors, who began the project as a Smith Fellow at the University of Michigan.

“Americans tend to think water pollution problems are pretty well under control, but we still face enormous challenges.”

Some of the worst threats to aquatic species in the US are in the south-eastern states. Prof Charles Vörösmarty of the City University of New York, lead author and an expert on global water, said the impact on wildlife in developed countries was the result of river systems that had been heavily engineered and altered by man. “With all the protection the EU has in place, it was surprising to see it was a hotspot for biodiversity loss. But for a long time Europeans have altered their landscapes, including the removal of 90% of wetlands and floodplains, which are crucial parts of river ecosystems,” he said.

The team behind the report, published in the journal Nature, examined datasets to produce a map of how 23 different human influences – such as dams, the introduction of alien non-native fish, and pollution – affect water security and biodiversity. Previous studies have tended to look at just one influence at a time.

Even the world’s great rivers, such as the Yangtze, the Nile and the Ganges, are suffering serious biodiversity and water security stress.

Despite their size, more than 30 of the 47 largest rivers showed at least moderate threats to water security, due to a range of human impacts such as pollution and irrigation. Even the Amazon, considered to be relatively pristine, still has human fingerprints on it, said Vörösmarty.

“While the Amazon is in generally good shape, in the upstream regions, such as Peru, there are many high density areas of people that inject threat into the system.

“The legacy of that human threat passes downstream into the remote forested areas of the river.”

Globally between 10,000 and 20,000 aquatic wildlife species are at risk or face extinction because of the human degradation of global rivers, the report said. The world’s least affected rivers, the authors found, were those furthest from populated areas, such as remote parts of the tropics, Siberia and elsewhere in the polar regions.

Vörösmarty said he hoped the global report would highlight the need to address the root causes of the degradation of rivers. “We’re spending trillions of US dollars to fix a problem we’ve created in the first place. It’s much cheaper to treat the causes rather than the symptoms, which is what we do in the developed world today,” he said.

In Britain rivers have been getting cleaner over the past decade. But a report by the UK’s Environment Agency last year admitted only five of 6,114 rivers in England and Wales were considered pristine and three-quarters were likely to fail new European quality standards for various reasons.

Genetically inserted insecticide contaminates U.S. waterways

Observations: Genetically inserted insecticide contaminates U.S. waterways.

Add another compound to the long list of agricultural pollutants in the nation’s streams, rivers and waterways: the Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt toxin, a protein crystal known as Cry1Ab that kills caterpillars and other agricultural pests. A wide variety of crops, including 63 percent of the corn planted in the U.S. in 2009, have been genetically engineered to build the bacterial protein in their leaves and stems.

Those roots and stems are apparently washing into the waterways of the Midwest; 86 percent of 217 streams in Indiana surveyed by scientists contained such detritus. And, according to the results of that survey published online September 27 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 23 percent of the streams had the Bt toxin floating in the water—six months after harvest.

All of the contaminated streams lay 500 meters or less from a corn field and, based on current maps of lands used for agriculture, the researchers estimate that 91 percent of waterways in the Midwest—Iowa, Illinois, Indiana—are within that distance from a corn field. The finding may also be the result of a practice known as “no-till” farming, in which the unused portions of the crop are left on the fields to minimize erosion, though the crop waste itself seems to end up in the adjacent streams.

Of course, these streams ultimately feed one of the great river systems of the planet—the Mississippi and Missouri river basin. Ultimately, those rivers terminate in the Gulf of Mexico, where runoff of agricultural fertilizers promotes algal blooms that end up creating vast “dead zones” of seawaters devoid of oxygen. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey found that levels of such fertilizer runoff have remained the same or even increased since the 1990s in a recent analysis.

It remains unclear what impact the Bt toxin may be having in any of these aquatic ecosystems, if any. But it is clear now that the insecticides genetically engineered into plants—like their manufactured chemical counterparts—are capable of traveling with the rain from field to stream.

UN warned of major new food crisis at emergency meeting in Rome | Environment | The Guardian

UN warned of major new food crisis at emergency meeting in Rome | Environment | The Guardian.

Environmental disasters and speculative investors are to blame for volatile food commodities markets, says UN’s special adviser

russia wildfires July’s wildfires in Russia have led to a draconian wheat ban, pushing up prices. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPAThe world may be on the brink of a major new food crisis caused by environmental disasters and rampant market speculators, the UN was warned today at an emergency meeting on food price inflation.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) meeting in Rome today was called last month after a heatwave and wildfires in Russia led to a draconian wheat export ban and food riots broke out in Mozambique, killing 13 people. But UN experts heard that pension and hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds and large banks who speculate on commodity markets may also be responsible for inflation in food prices being seen across all continents.

In a new paper released this week, Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on food, says that the increases in price and the volatility of food commodities can only be explained by the emergence of a “speculative bubble” which he traces back to the early noughties.

“[Beginning in ]2001, food commodities derivatives markets, and commodities indexes began to see an influx of non-traditional investors,” De Schutter writes. “The reason for this was because other markets dried up one by one: the dotcoms vanished at the end of 2001, the stock market soon after, and the US housing market in August 2007. As each bubble burst, these large institutional investors moved into other markets, each traditionally considered more stable than the last. Strong similarities can be seen between the price behaviour of food commodities and other refuge values, such as gold.”

He continues: “A significant contributory cause of the price spike [has been] speculation by institutional investors who did not have any expertise or interest in agricultural commodities, and who invested in commodities index funds or in order to hedge speculative bets.”

A near doubling of many staple food prices in 2007 and 2008 led to riots in more than 30 countries and an estimated 150 million extra people going hungry. While some commodity prices have since reduced, the majority are well over 50% higher than pre-2007 figures – and are now rising quickly upwards again.

“Once again we find ourselves in a situation where basic food commodities are undergoing supply shocks. World wheat futures and spot prices climbed steadily until the beginning of August 2010, when Russia – faced with massive wildfires that destroyed its wheat harvest – imposed an export ban on that commodity. In addition, other markets such as sugar and oilseeds are witnessing significant price increases,” said De Schutter, who spoke today at The UK Food Group’s conference in London.

Gregory Barrow of the UN World Food Program said: “What we have seen over the past few weeks is a period of volatility driven partly by the announcement from Russia of an export ban on grain food until next year, and this has driven prices up. They have fallen back again, but this has had an impact.”

Sergei Sukhov, from Russia’s agriculture ministry, told the Associated Press during a break in the meeting in Rome that the market for grains “should be stable and predictable for all participants.” He said no efforts should be spared “to the effect that the production of food be sufficient.”

“The emergency UN meeting in Rome is a clear warning sign that we could be on the brink of another food price crisis unless swift action is taken. Already, nearly a billion people go to bed hungry every night – another food crisis would be catastrophic for millions of poor people,” said Alex Wijeratna, ActionAid’s hunger campaigner.

An ActionAid report released last week revealed that hunger could be costing poor nations $450bn a year – more than 10 times the amount needed to halve hunger by 2015 and meet Millennium Development Goal One.

Food prices are rising around 15% a year in India and Nepal, and similarly in Latin America and China. US maize prices this week broke through the $5-a-bushel level for the first time since September 2008, fuelled by reports from US farmers of disappointing yields in the early stages of their harvests. The surge in the corn price also pushed up European wheat prices to a two-year high of €238 a tonne.

Elsewhere, the threat of civil unrest led Egypt this week to announce measures to increase food self-sufficiency to 70%. Partly as a result of food price rises, many middle eastern and other water-scarce countries have begun to invest heavily in farmland in Africa and elsewhere to guarantee supplies.

Although the FAO has rejected the notion of a food crisis on the scale of 2007-2008, it this week warned of greater volatility in food commodities markets in the years ahead.

At the meeting in London today, De Schutter said the only long term way to resolve the crisis would be to shift to “agro-ecological” ways of growing food. This farming, which does not depend on fossil fuels, pesticides or heavy machinery has been shown to protect soils and use less water.

“A growing number of experts are calling for a major shift in food security policies, and support the development of agroecology approaches, which have shown very promising results where implemented,” he said.

Green MP Caroline Lucas called for tighter regulation of the food trade. “Food has become a commodity to be traded. The only thing that matters under the current system is profit. Trading in food must not be treated as simply another form of business as usual: for many people it is a matter of life and death. We must insist on the complete removal of agriculture from the remit of the World Trade Organisation,” she said.

Food price graphs

BP spill: Scientists scramble to find out where the oil went

BP spill: Scientists scramble to find out where the oil went | Environment | The Guardian.

Researchers set off in search of data on oil discharged in Gulf of Mexico, and a slice of the $500m fund pledged by BP

The twin drilling platforms rising from the waters above BP‘s blown well look like the brooding guard towers of a lost ruin, which in a sense they are: the relics of a disaster zone now turned into an open-air science quest to claim a slice of $500m (£316.5m) in research funds.

Ten days after BP’s well was plugged with cement, teams of scientists are scrambling to set sail in the Gulf to collect baseline data on the oil before it biodegrades and changes, as well as get noticed by the distributors of the fund pledged by BP for research into the ecological consequences of the spill.

Below deck on the Arctic Sunrise, five miles off the BP well, Rainer Amon, an ocean scientist at Texas A&M University at Galveston is looking over data on hydrocarbon and oxygen levels generated by sensors lowered to depths of about 1,000 metres.

It’s his second trip to the waters around the well since the BP spill. In June, Amon was part of a Texas A&M team that made a crescent-shaped tour around the well, finding high concentrations of methane gas as well as oil.

Instead of today’s deserted seas, his photos from June show dozens of oil response boats, and thick clouds of black smoke billowing from the surface of the water.

On his return voyage he is encountering a void. “If that oil and gas had been consumed by bacteria you would expect to see more oxygen depletion than what we have seen,” he said.

“Was it just a fluke that we found it, or is there an oil carpet on the ground?”

So where is the oil? It’s been two months since any new crude from BP’s well entered the Gulf. Independent estimates suggest 4.4m barrels of oil spewed out into the Gulf of Mexico, but there is no scientific agreement on its fate. “You could say it’s a mystery,” said Amon.

Did the oil sink to the bottom? A University of Georgia research expedition earlier this month discovered a thick coating of oil on the sea floor, 16 nautical miles from the BP well-head.

Is it floating in the depths? One team of researchers reported finding a deep sea plume of oil and natural gas the size of Manhattan, that was slow to degrade. A second study of the plume found the oil and gas were quickly being gobbled up by microbes.

Federal government agencies, meanwhile, have been seen to play down the long-term effects of the oil.

“We still have not got to the bottom of where the majority of the oil went,” said Adam Walters, a Greenpeace scientist. “The work is sound but the conclusions are really clutching at straws.”

The uncertainty about the fate of the oil has deepened the sense of urgency among scientists to gather evidence from the deep water and the ocean floor, and to begin weighing the effects of the spill on marine life.

That in turn has scientists clamouring for the release of the BP research funds, the bulk of which have yet to be awarded.

Amon, who faced a long wait for grant money to come through, got out to sea again by jumping on board a Greenpeace ship. The campaign group has been offering the Arctic Sunrise to research scientists. That was a definite attraction for Amon, who was otherwise facing a seven-month wait for a research grant – by which time the processes governing the oil that entered the Gulf would be well advanced.

Another A&M researcher on board, Cliff Nunnally, is hoping to gather samples from the sea floor.

In addition to the headstart on research, there is a cost incentive. Research vessels, depending on their equipment, can cost upwards of $30,000 a day, the biggest single expense on a scientific mission. Then again, as Amon notes, on a fully staffed research voyage, he would not be personally overseeing the winch lowering his massive steel-framed device into the depths.

Other traditions are being challenged in these early days of the quest for oil, fuelling suspicions among some scientists that the White House and BP are trying to dictate the agenda for the next generation of Gulf research.

At first, BP intended to follow standard academic protocols and hand control of the fund, which will be awarded over 10 years, to a consortium of independent scientists to review research proposals.

But the White House later instructed BP to involve Gulf governors, who have been pushing to direct money towards in-state researchers over the more prominent and widely recognised ocean science institutions. There are also concerns that politicians, rather than scientists and other technical experts, could define the parameters of further study.

But even with those reservations, there is a sense in the scientific community that the catastrophe of the BP oil spill is opening up an entirely new frontier for research in one of the most highly industrialised, yet biologically rich, marine environments on the planet.

A decade ago, Nunnally, then working on his master’s degree, was part of an ambitious product to conduct a census of marine life, on the ocean floor and in the depths, from Texas to the Florida coast.

The project was commissioned by the Minerals Management Service, which was the government agency overseeing offshore oil drilling until it was reorganised following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The project took four years, but in all that time Nunnally said it never occurred to the scientists they would soon be out there again.

“For all the ship time and all the conversations that we had with our colleagues that is the one conversation we did not have: what will we do in 10 years’ time if there is an oil spill and we have to come out and do it all over again?”

20% of world's plants at risk of extinction

BBC News – One-fifth of world’s plants at risk of extinction.

Artemisia annua plant Plants such as artemisia sweet wormwood provide valuable drugs – in this case, for malaria

One-fifth of the world’s plants – the foundation of life on Earth – are at risk of extinction, a study concludes.

Researchers have sampled almost 4,000 species, and conclude that 22% should be classified as “threatened” – the same alarming rate as for mammals.

A further 33% of species were too poorly understood to be assessed.

The analysis comes from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the Natural History Museum and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

There are an estimated 380,000 plant species in all, and many are victims of habitat loss – typically the clearing of forests for agriculture.

Species in tropical rainforests are found to be at greatest risk.

The study, known as the Sampled Red List Index for Plants, is an attempt to provide the most accurate assessment so far.

Start Quote

Plants are the basis of all life on Earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel”

End Quote Stephen Hopper RBG Kew

Previous studies have focused on the most threatened plants or particular regions.

This one instead sampled species from each of the five main groups of plants, and its authors argue that as a result, their conclusions are more credible.

The report comes ahead of the UN Biodiversity Conference in Nagoya in Japan next month where ministers are due to discuss why conservation targets keep being missed.

Click to play

David Shukman visited the freezing seed bank at Kew’s Botanical Gardens

Launching the findings, Kew’s director, Professor Stephen Hopper, said the study would provide a baseline from which to judge future losses.

“We cannot sit back and watch plant species disappear – plants are the basis of all life on Earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel.

“Every breath we take involves interacting with plants. They’re what we all depend on.”

Medicinal properties

The study investigated the key types of plants, including mosses, ferns, orchids and legumes like peas and beans.

The fear among botanists is that species are being wiped out before they can be researched, potentially losing valuable medicinal properties.

Plant-based remedies are the only source of healthcare in the world’s poorest countries, and have proved essential in combating conditions including malaria and leukaemia.

Samples in freezer Seed and tissue banking is now a key conservation tool

Another concern is that we have become dependent on a narrow range of plants with a limited genetic base.

The report estimates that 80% of the calories consumed worldwide are derived from just 12 different species.

The findings add urgency to the work of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst in Sussex, which has now gathered some 1.8 billion seeds from around the world.

The samples are catalogued and stored in underground cold rooms as a safeguard against future losses.

The collection includes seeds from plants that have already been judged extinct, including a species of tree from Pakistan and an orchid from Ecuador.

Another victim is a species of olive tree from the South Atlantic island of St Helena.

The only traces of its existence are a few dried pressings of its leaves, and a tiny sample of DNA kept in a plastic test-tube in a freezer.

Tropical Storm Karl hits Mexico

Tropical Storm Karl hits Mexico | Reuters.

Main Image
Main Image

A fallen palm tree is seen on a street in Chetumal as Tropical Storm Karl hits Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, September 15, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

CANCUN, Mexico | Wed Sep 15, 2010 5:59pm EDT

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Karl hit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on Wednesday and could reach hurricane strength once it enters the Gulf of Mexico, where it could swing past major Mexican oil installations.

Hundreds of mostly Mayan villagers were evacuated as Karl dumped rain and brought strong winds to the Yucatan, civil protection authorities said.

The storm also knocked out power to tens of thousands of people throughout the mainly rural area. Majahual, home to a large cruise ship port, bore the brunt of the storm as it made landfall but no serious damage was reported.

Mexico‘s state-run oil giant Pemex has not curtailed any operations but said it would monitor Karl’s progress as it approached operations in the Bay of Campeche, where the bulk of Mexico’s 2.55 million barrels per day of oil is produced.

The storm was a minor factor for oil traders on Wednesday as prices fell on the repair of a major U.S. pipeline.

Karl lost strength as it moved inland and had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph at 4 p.m. local time (2100 GMT), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

By late afternoon it was 95 miles southeast of Campeche on the west coast of the Yucatan peninsula and was expected to weaken to a tropical depression before it entered the Gulf of Mexico.

Karl is then forecast to regain strength and become a hurricane as it crosses the southern Gulf of Mexico before making landfall again on Saturday near the Mexican port of Tuxpan, where Pemex unloads much of the gasoline it imports.

CANCUN SPARED

Cancun, a top beach destination for U.S. and European tourists, was untouched by the storm, which was also likely to pass far south of U.S. oil and natural gas platforms in the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico.

Two hurricanes, Igor and Julia, also raced across the Atlantic Ocean but posed no immediate threat to land or energy interests along their projected tracks.

Igor, described by the Miami-based hurricane center as “large and powerful,” was 1,015 miles southeast of Bermuda with 135 mph winds, making it a dangerous Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

Julia weakened to a Category 3 storm, with 125 mph winds, 665 miles west-northwest of the Cape Verde Islands and was moving northwest.

The 2010 hurricane season has been more active than average with 11 named storms so far, including four major hurricanes, but damage has been relatively limited as several storms have fizzled out in the Atlantic Ocean.

The rapid early strengthening of many storms this year near the coast of Africa has pushed them on northwest tracks away from vulnerable areas. But with two months left in the hurricane season it is too early to say there will not be another dangerous storm, hurricane expert Rick Knabb with The Weather Channel told Reuters.

“We need to wait until the season is over, before we can make a judgment on the forecasts,” Knabb said.

(Additional reporting by Cyntia Barrera Diaz in Mexico City and Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Writing by Robert Campbell; Editing by Vicki Allen)

Republican Economics as Social Darwinism

t r u t h o u t | Robert Reich | Republican Economics as Social Darwinism.

Really good Op-Ed

by: Robert Reich  |  Robert Reich’s Blog | Op-Ed

John Boehner, the Republican House leader who will become Speaker if Democrats lose control of the House in the upcoming midterms, recently offered his solution to the current economic crisis: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmer, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. People will work harder, lead a more moral life.”

Actually, those weren’t Boehner’s words. They were uttered by Herbert Hoover’s treasury secretary, millionaire industrialist Andrew Mellon, after the Great Crash of 1929.

But they might as well have been Boehner’s because Hoover’s and Mellon’s means of purging the rottenness was by doing exactly what Boehner and his colleagues are now calling for: shrink government, cut the federal deficit, reduce the national debt, and balance the budget.

And we all know what happened after 1929, at least until FDR reversed course.

Boehner and other Republicans would even like to roll back the New Deal and get rid of Barack Obama’s smaller deal health-care law.

The issue isn’t just economic. We’re back to tough love. The basic idea is force people to live with the consequences of whatever happens to them.

In the late 19th century it was called Social Darwinism. Only the fittest should survive, and any effort to save the less fit will undermine the moral fiber of society.

Republicans have wanted to destroy Social Security since it was invented in 1935 by my predecessor as labor secretary, the great Frances Perkins. Remember George W. Bush’s proposal to privatize it? Had America agreed with him, millions of retirees would have been impoverished in 2008 when the stock market imploded.

Of course Republicans don’t talk openly about destroying Social Security, because it’s so popular. The new Republican “pledge” promises only to put it on a “fiscally responsible footing.” Translated: we’ll privatize it.

Look, I used to be a trustee of the Social Security trust fund. Believe me when I tell you Social Security is basically okay. It may need a little fine tuning but I guarantee you’ll receive your Social Security check by the time you retire even if that’s forty years from now.

Medicare, on the other hand, is a huge problem and its projected deficits are truly scary. But that’s partly because George W. Bush created a new drug benefit that’s hugely profitable for Big Pharma (something the Republican pledge conspicuously fails to address). The underlying problem, though, is health-care costs are soaring.

Repealing the new health-care legislation would cause health-care costs to rise even faster. In extending coverage, it allows 30 million Americans to get preventive care. Take it away and they’ll end up in far more expensive emergency rooms.

The new law could help control rising health costs. It calls for medical “exchange” that will give people valuable information about health costs and benefits. The public should know certain expensive procedures only pad the paychecks of specialists while driving up the costs of insurance policies that offer them.

Republicans also hate unemployment insurance. They’ve voted against every extension because, they say, it coddles the unemployed and keeps them from taking available jobs.

That’s absurd. There are still 5 job seekers for every job opening, and unemployment insurance in most states pays only a small fraction of the full-time wage.

Social insurance is fundamental to a civil society. It’s also good economics because it puts money in peoples’ pockets who then turn around and buy the things that others produce, thereby keeping those others in jobs.

We’ve fallen into the bad habit of calling these programs “entitlements,” which sounds morally suspect – as if a more responsible public wouldn’t depend on them. If the Great Recession has taught us anything, it should be that.anyone can take a fall through no fault of their own.

Finally, like Hoover and Mellon, Republicans want to cut the deficit and balance the budget at a time when a large portion of the workforce is idle.

This defies economic logic. When consumers aren’t spending, businesses aren’t investing and exports can’t possibly fill the gap, and when state governments are slashing their budgets, the federal government has to spend more. Otherwise, the Great Recession will turn into exactly what Hoover and Mellon ushered in – a seemingly endless Great Depression.

It’s also cruel. Cutting the deficit and balancing the budget any time soon will subject tens of millions of American families to unnecessary hardship and throw even more into poverty.

Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon thought their economic policies would purge the rottenness out of the system and lead to a more moral life. Instead, it purged morality out of the system and lead to a more rotten life for millions of Americans.

And that’s exactly what Republicans are offering yet again.

Fracking for Natural Gas: EPA Hearings Bring Protests

t r u t h o u t | Fracking for Natural Gas: EPA Hearings Bring Protests.

by: Mark Clayton  |  The Christian Science Monitor | Report

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a controversial process for extracting natural gas from shale. Critics of fracking question the environmental and health effects of pumping thousands of gallons of water and chemicals underground.

Public hearings over hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” brought hundreds of protesters to Binghamton, N.Y., Monday, carrying signs and shouting slogans either opposing or favoring expansion of the controversial process for extracting natural gas from shale. [Editor’s note: Binghamton was misspelled in the original version.]

The Environmental Protection Agency’s public hearings are part of a broad investigation, begun in March, into the human health and environmental effects of fracking – focusing on air pollution and water pollution. The chemical effects that fracking fluids may have on water supplies after being injected into the ground to extract gas are a special focus.

But a new study conducted for the American Public Power Association (APPA) suggests that if wider use of natural gas in electric power production comes to pass nationwide – as many analysts now expect – such controversies may be just beginning.

“Even if fracturing continues, serving a much larger market will require even more drilling that is already at record levels,” the APPA study found.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, at least 1,600 fracking wells have been drilled with about 4,000 permits granted, the Associated Press reported Monday. But the new study suggests that as the flood of gas drives prices down, electric power generators will increasingly see it as a good alternative to burning coal. That, in turn, would mean vastly expanded fracking.

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Lying beneath New York, Pennsylvania, and other parts of the Northeast, the rich Marcellus shale beds could supply the region with trillions of cubic feet of natural gas for decades, according to some estimates. But opponents say the process that involves pumping tons of toxic chemicals into the ground under pressure can pollute groundwater and greatly increase air pollution.

Thanks to expanded use of fracking, however, US natural-gas reserves have soared. Proven natural gas reserves have increased by more than enough to cover annual production for each of the last 15 or so years, the APPA report says. Natural-gas reserves now total 245 trillion cubic feet – enough to meet 2009-level demand for more than 10 years, it says.

The APPA study also recounts environmental impacts found by other groups. It said a recent study by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, for instance, found that fracturing a single well could involve “pumping three to eight million gallons of water and 80 to 300 tons of chemicals” into it at high pressure over several days.

“Half or so of the injected solution returns back up the well,” the New York City study said. “The water that flows back up the well also tends to contain hydrocarbons and dissolved solids such that it must be disposed of via underground injection or industrial treatment.” Conventional wastewater treatment was “not feasible,” it said.

With injection water typically trucked in, the NYC study estimated “1,000 or more truck trips per well to haul in water and equipment and then haul out wastewater.” But that’s not the end of it, since as production falls off, the fracturing process is repeated on a well. Some shale gas wells need fracking every five years over a period of 20 to 40 years. The New York study calls fracturing “an ongoing process rather than something that occurs only when the wells are originally drilled.”

The EPA hearings are likely to increase debate as more information about the chemistry of the fracking process emerges, environmentalists and energy analysts say.

“They have never done a hydraulic fracking study as comprehensive as the one now beginning,” says Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser for the Environment Defense Fund. “The results of this study will inform future congressional decisions on whether to continue to exempt hydraulic fracturing from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Little is known about the chemical composition of fracking fluids – and the state of New York has held up permitting until more information emerges. While the natural-gas industry says many of the chemicals in such fluids can be found under a kitchen sink, the industry has long resisted identifying those chemicals. That could be changing soon, too.

That’s because the EPA hearings could cause Congress to require that fracking fluid chemicals be identified, and could remove fracking’s exemption from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to Kevin Book, an energy analyst with energy market research firm ClearView Energy Partners.

“On August 31, EPA quietly released interim results of its ongoing review of possible drinking water contamination at several sites near Pavilion, Wyoming,” he writes in a new analysis. “Although EPA’s latest data did not conclusively link contamination to fracking, EPA’s guidance that residents should avoid drinking their water may offer Congressional fracking opponents a valuable sound bite to use when calling for mandatory disclosure rules.”

While the Energy Policy Act of 2005 prevents the EPA from explicitly regulating fracking wells under the Safe Drinking Water Act, “the Agency already possesses considerable regulatory authority under other existing laws,” writes Mr. Book. As a result, he contends, even without Congressional action, the EPA could, under other federal laws, “investigate other reports of fracking-linked contamination.”

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Crowdsource project to help prevent firefly extinction

Extinction Countdown: Only you can help prevent firefly extinction.

Are fireflies disappearing? No one knows for sure, but based on anecdotal evidence firefly (aka lightning bug) populations appear to be fading, with fewer seen every summer. Unfortunately, the bioluminescent insects had always been so ubiquitous to backyards and campgrounds for so long that almost no one bothered to study them. Now the Museum of Science in Boston wants help finding out if any of the dozens of North American firefly species in the U.S. and Canada are in danger.

The museum, along with researchers from Tufts University and Fitchburg State University, is running Firefly Watch, a 10-year project (currently finishing its third year) where volunteers (such as you, dear reader), can observe fireflies in their backyards and upload the data to a Web site where scientists can use it to research population trends. (It’s not just scientists, by the way, the full data set for the first three years is online and available to all, so anyone is free to go in and examine the findings.)

Already the project has a few surprising results, like the fireflies that were spotted west of the Rockies, well outside their expected habitat. “What does that mean?” museum Vice President of Education Paul Fontaine, asked Canadian media Web site CTV.ca. “Is it something that requires further study? We’re hoping folks are intrigued by that and get outside and look more closely.”

Firefly season is pretty much over at this point (it usually runs from May to August), but you can still sign up, enter a description of your backyard habitat, and spend all winter looking at the data others have entered. You could look for fireflies now and report your findings, but chances are slim that any will still be present at this time of year.

To participate, volunteers need to spend just 10 minutes a week collecting data such as outdoor temperature, number of fireflies observed (even if that number is zero), local lighting conditions (light pollution is one possible cause of firefly declines), and the time of the observation.

While you’re waiting for next year’s firefly season, the Web site Firefly.org has a few tips on how you can spend the autumn make your backyard more hospitable to fireflies, including adding a pond, turning off outside lights, avoiding pesticides, mowing your lawn less and adding earthworms to your soil as a source of food for firefly larvae.

Photo: Firefly (Photuris lucicrescens), via Wikipedia