Tag Archives: manmade disaster

How fracking caused earthquakes in the UK

How fracking caused earthquakes in the UK – environment – 02 November 2011 – New Scientist.

In April and May this year, two small earthquakes struck the UK near the town of Blackpool. Suspicion immediately fell on hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking – a controversial process to extract natural gas by fracturing the surrounding rock. A report has now confirmed that fracking caused the earthquakes.

New Scientist looks at what happened, and whether fracking is likely to cause more earthquakes.

When and where did the earthquakes happen?
A magnitude-2.3 earthquake occurred on 1 April, followed by a magnitude-1.5 quake on 27 May. Both occurred close to the Preese Hall drilling site, where Cuadrilla Resources was using fracking to extract gas from a shale bed.

Initial studies by the British Geological Survey (BGS) suggested that the quakes were linked to Cuadrilla’s fracking activities. The epicentre of the second quake was within 500 metres of the drilling site, at a depth of 2 kilometres. Less information was available on the first quake, but it seems to have been similar.

The link with fracking has now been confirmed by an independent report commissioned by Cuadrilla, Geomechanical Study of Bowland Shale Seismicity, which states: “Most likely, the repeated seismicity was induced by direct injection of fluid into the fault zone.”

The two geologists who wrote the report ran detailed models to show that the fracking could – and most likely did – provoke the quakes.

How did the fracking cause the earthquakes?
Fracking works by injecting huge volumes of water into the rocks surrounding a natural gas deposit. The water fractures the rocks, creating dozens of cracks through which the gas can escape to the surface.

The UK quakes were not caused by the violent rupturing of the rocks, as you might expect, but by the presence of water. This lubricates the rocks and pushes them apart, allowing them to slip past each other. “It’s a bit like oiling the fault,” says Brian Baptie of the BGS.

Seismologists have not been able to find the fault that moved, probably because it is tiny. Baptie says the surface area of the fault is likely to be just 100 metres by 100 metres, and that the rocks moved by about 1 centimetre – the seismological equivalent of a needle in a haystack.

So should we expect lots more earthquakes from fracking?
It’s difficult to say. Fracking has been going on in the US for decades, and has become much more common in recent years, yet evidence that it causes earthquakes has so far been elusive. “This is one of the first times felt earthquakes have been associated with fracking,” Baptie says.

The Cuadrilla report says the earthquakes occurred because of a rare combination of circumstances: the fault was already under stress, was brittle enough to fracture and had space for large amounts of water that could lubricate it. The report says this is unlikely to happen again at the Preese Hall site.

Baptie is not so sure. He says small faults are probably common in deep rocks, but go undetected because of their size. “It seems quite possible, given the same injection scheme in the same well, that there could be further earthquakes,” he says.

Cuadrilla is proposing to monitor seismic activity around its fracking site. If earthquakes begin to occur, it could reduce the flow of water into the well, or even pump it back out, preventing the bigger quakes. Baptie says such monitoring is now necessary to avoid further quakes at fracking sites.

Are these earthquakes dangerous?
Not particularly. Magnitude-2.3 earthquakes can shake the ground enough for people to notice, especially if they occur close to the surface, but damage is normally limited to objects falling off shelves.

According to Baptie, the UK gets an average of 15 magnitude-2.3 earthquakes every year, so the quakes produced by the fracking are not out of the ordinary.

Fallout forensics hike radiation toll

Fallout forensics hike radiation toll : Nature News.

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March released far more radiation than the Japanese government has claimed. So concludes a study1 that combines radioactivity data from across the globe to estimate the scale and fate of emissions from the shattered plant.

The study also suggests that, contrary to government claims, pools used to store spent nuclear fuel played a significant part in the release of the long-lived environmental contaminant caesium-137, which could have been prevented by prompt action. The analysis has been posted online for open peer review by the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Andreas Stohl, an atmospheric scientist with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research in Kjeller, who led the research, believes that the analysis is the most comprehensive effort yet to understand how much radiation was released from Fukushima Daiichi. “It’s a very valuable contribution,” says Lars-Erik De Geer, an atmospheric modeller with the Swedish Defense Research Agency in Stockholm, who was not involved with the study.

The reconstruction relies on data from dozens of radiation monitoring stations in Japan and around the world. Many are part of a global network to watch for tests of nuclear weapons that is run by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna. The scientists added data from independent stations in Canada, Japan and Europe, and then combined those with large European and American caches of global meteorological data.

Stohl cautions that the resulting model is far from perfect. Measurements were scarce in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accident, and some monitoring posts were too contaminated by radioactivity to provide reliable data. More importantly, exactly what happened inside the reactors — a crucial part of understanding what they emitted — remains a mystery that may never be solved. “If you look at the estimates for Chernobyl, you still have a large uncertainty 25 years later,” says Stohl.

Nevertheless, the study provides a sweeping view of the accident. “They really took a global view and used all the data available,” says De Geer.

Challenging numbers

Japanese investigators had already developed a detailed timeline of events following the 11 March earthquake that precipitated the disaster. Hours after the quake rocked the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, the tsunami arrived, knocking out crucial diesel back-up generators designed to cool the reactors in an emergency. Within days, the three reactors operating at the time of the accident overheated and released hydrogen gas, leading to massive explosions. Radioactive fuel recently removed from a fourth reactor was being held in a storage pool at the time of the quake, and on 14 March the pool overheated, possibly sparking fires in the building over the next few days.

Click for larger image

But accounting for the radiation that came from the plants has proved much harder than reconstructing this chain of events. The latest report from the Japanese government, published in June, says that the plant released 1.5?×?1016?bequerels of caesium-137, an isotope with a 30-year half-life that is responsible for most of the long-term contamination from the plant2. A far larger amount of xenon-133, 1.1?×?1019?Bq, was released, according to official government estimates.

The new study challenges those numbers. On the basis of its reconstructions, the team claims that the accident released around 1.7?×?1019?Bq of xenon-133, greater than the estimated total radioactive release of 1.4?×?1019? Bq from Chernobyl. The fact that three reactors exploded in the Fukushima accident accounts for the huge xenon tally, says De Geer.

Xenon-133 does not pose serious health risks because it is not absorbed by the body or the environment. Caesium-137 fallout, however, is a much greater concern because it will linger in the environment for decades. The new model shows that Fukushima released 3.5?×?1016? Bq caesium-137, roughly twice the official government figure, and half the release from Chernobyl. The higher number is obviously worrying, says De Geer, although ongoing ground surveys are the only way to truly establish the public-health risk.

Stohl believes that the discrepancy between the team’s results and those of the Japanese government can be partly explained by the larger data set used. Japanese estimates rely primarily on data from monitoring posts inside Japan3, which never recorded the large quantities of radioactivity that blew out over the Pacific Ocean, and eventually reached North America and Europe. “Taking account of the radiation that has drifted out to the Pacific is essential for getting a real picture of the size and character of the accident,” says Tomoya Yamauchi, a radiation physicist at Kobe University who has been measuring radioisotope contamination in soil around Fukushima.

Click for full image

Stohl adds that he is sympathetic to the Japanese teams responsible for the official estimate. “They wanted to get something out quickly,” he says. The differences between the two studies may seem large, notes Yukio Hayakawa, a volcanologist at Gunma University who has also modelled the accident, but uncertainties in the models mean that the estimates are actually quite similar.

The new analysis also claims that the spent fuel being stored in the unit 4 pool emitted copious quantities of caesium-137. Japanese officials have maintained that virtually no radioactivity leaked from the pool. Yet Stohl’s model clearly shows that dousing the pool with water caused the plant’s caesium-137 emissions to drop markedly (see ‘Radiation crisis’). The finding implies that much of the fallout could have been prevented by flooding the pool earlier.

The Japanese authorities continue to maintain that the spent fuel was not a significant source of contamination, because the pool itself did not seem to suffer major damage. “I think the release from unit 4 is not important,” says Masamichi Chino, a scientist with the Japanese Atomic Energy Authority in Ibaraki, who helped to develop the Japanese official estimate. But De Geer says the new analysis implicating the fuel pool “looks convincing”.

The latest analysis also presents evidence that xenon-133 began to vent from Fukushima Daiichi immediately after the quake, and before the tsunami swamped the area. This implies that even without the devastating flood, the earthquake alone was sufficient to cause damage at the plant.

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The Japanese government’s report has already acknowledged that the shaking at Fukushima Daiichi exceeded the plant’s design specifications. Anti-nuclear activists have long been concerned that the government has failed to adequately address geological hazards when licensing nuclear plants (see Nature 448, 392–393; 2007), and the whiff of xenon could prompt a major rethink of reactor safety assessments, says Yamauchi.

The model also shows that the accident could easily have had a much more devastating impact on the people of Tokyo. In the first days after the accident the wind was blowing out to sea, but on the afternoon of 14 March it turned back towards shore, bringing clouds of radioactive caesium-137 over a huge swathe of the country (see ‘Radioisotope reconstruction’). Where precipitation fell, along the country’s central mountain ranges and to the northwest of the plant, higher levels of radioactivity were later recorded in the soil; thankfully, the capital and other densely populated areas had dry weather. “There was a period when quite a high concentration went over Tokyo, but it didn’t rain,” says Stohl. “It could have been much worse.” 

Additional reporting by David Cyranoski and Rina Nozawa.

Worst Food Additive Ever is in Half of All Foods We Eat and Its Production Produces Collateral destruction and misery

Worst Food Additive Ever? It’s in Half of All Foods We Eat and Its Production Destroys Rainforests and Enslaves Children | Food | AlterNet.

The production of this ingredient causes jaw-dropping amounts of deforestation (and with it, carbon emissions) and human rights abuses.
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On August 10, police and security for the massive palm oil corporation Wilmar International (of which Archer Daniels Midland is the second largest shareholder) stormed a small, indigenous village on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They came with bulldozers and guns, destroying up to 70 homes, evicting 82 families, and arresting 18 people. Then they blockaded the village, keeping the villagers in — and journalists out. (Wilmar claims it has done no wrong.)

The village, Suku Anak Dalam, was home to an indigenous group that observes their own traditional system of land rights on their ancestral land and, thus, lacks official legal titles to the land. This is common among indigenous peoples around the world — so common, in fact, that it is protected by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indonesia, for the record, voted in favor of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Yet the government routinely sells indigenous peoples’ ancestral land to corporations. Often the land sold is Indonesia’s lowland rainforest, a biologically rich area home to endangered species like the orangutan, Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, Sumatran tiger, and the plant Rafflesia arnoldii, which produces the world’s largest flower.

So why all this destruction? Chances are you’ll find the answer in your pantry. Or your refrigerator, your bathroom, or even under your sink. The palm oil industry is one of the largest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia. Palm oil and palm kernel oil, almost unheard of a decade or two ago, are now unbelievably found in half of all packaged foods in the grocery store (as well as body care and cleaning supplies). These oils, traditional in West Africa, now come overwhelmingly from Indonesia and Malaysia. They cause jawdropping amounts of deforestation (and with it, carbon emissions) and human rights abuses.

“The recipe for palm oil expansion is cheap land, cheap labor, and a corrupt government, and unfortunately Indonesia fits that bill,” says Ashley Schaeffer of Rainforest Action Network.

The African oil palm provides two different oils with different properties: palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil is made from the fruit of the tree, and palm kernel oil comes from the seed, or “nut,” inside the fruit. You can find it on ingredient lists under a number of names, including palmitate, palmate, sodium laureth sulphate, sodium lauryl sulphate, glyceryl stearate, or stearic acid. Palm oil even turns up in so-called “natural,” “healthy,” or even “cruelty-free” products, like Earth Balance (vegan margarine) or Newman-O’s organic Oreo-like cookies. Palm oil is also used in “renewable” biofuels.

A hectare of land (2.47 acres) produces, on average, 3.7 metric tons of palm oil, 0.4 metric tons of palm kernel oil, and 0.6 tons of palm kernel cake. (Palm kernel cake is used as animal feed.) In 2009, Indonesia produced over 20.5 million metric tons, and Malaysia produced over 17.5 million metric tons. As of 2009, the U.S. was only the seventh largest importer of palm oil in the world, but as the second largest importer of palm kernel oil, it ranks third in the world as a driver of deforestation for palm oil plantations.

Indonesia has lost 46 percent of its forests since 1950, and the forests have recently disappeared at a rate of about 1.5 million hectares (an area larger than the state of Connecticut) per year. Of the 103.3 million hectares of remaining forests in 2000, only 88.2 million remained in 2009. At that time, an estimated 7.3 million hectares of oil palm plantations were already established, mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Indonesia plans to continue the palm oil expansion, hoping to produce an additional 8.3 million metric tons by 2015 — this means a 71 percent expansion in area devoted to palm oil in the coming years.

At stake are not only endangered species and human lives, but carbon emissions. One of the ecosystems at risk is Indonesia’s peat swamps, where soil contains an astounding 65 percent organic matter. (Most soils contain only two to 10 percent organic matter.) Laurel Sutherlin of Rainforest Action Network describes the draining and often burning of these peat swamps as “a carbon bomb.” Destruction of its peat swamps as well as its rainforests makes Indonesia the world’s third largest carbon emitter after the U.S. and China.

Among the horror stories coming out of Southeast Asian palm oil plantations are accounts of child slave labor. Ferdi and Volario, ages 14 and 21, respectively, were each met by representatives of the Malaysian company Kuala Lampur Kepong in their North Sumatra villages. They were offered high-paying jobs with good working conditions, and they jumped at the opportunity. According to an account by Rainforest Action Network: “The two worked grueling hours each day spraying oil palm trees with toxic chemical fertilizers, without any protection to shield their hands, face or lungs. After work, Ferdi and Volario were forced inside the camp where they’d stay overnight under lock and key, guarded by security. If they had to use the bathroom, they’d do their best to hold it until morning or relieve themselves in plastic bags or shoes.” They escaped after two months and were never paid for their work.

What is the industry doing about such horrific claims? It has established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Kuala Lampur Kepong, Wilmar International, and Archer Daniels Midland are all members, and so are their customers, Cargill, Nestlé and Unilever, as well as environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International. But, according to Sutherlin, membership in RSPO means nothing — other than that an organization paid its dues. “That’s the first level of greenwash,” says Sutherlin.

RSPO certifies some products and companies, and Sutherlin says that does have some meaning, but leaves major loopholes open. For example, there are no carbon or climate standards, and there have been problems with the implementation of social safeguards. “It’s been a spotty record about their ability to enforce the standards for how people are treated and how communities are affected,” notes Sutherlin. Yet, he says, RSPO is “the best game in town.”

Rather than simply relying on RSPO’s certification, Rainforest Action Network has focused its campaign on the U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill, which has a hand in fully 25 percent of palm oil on the global market. Rainforest Action Network is asking Cargill to sign on to a set of social and environmental safeguards and to provide public transparency on its palm oil operations. If Cargill cleans up its act, perhaps it will help put pressure on other major multinationals like Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé, which also source palm oil from unethical suppliers like Wilmar International.

Journalists have also criticized environmental groups for “cozy relationships with corporate eco-nasties.” The World Wildlife Fund has come under attack for its partnership with Wilmar, the corporation that attacked a Sumatran village. Its involvement in RSPO serves as a reminder of the accusations in a 2010 Nation article, which claimed that “many of the green organizations meant to be leading the fight are busy shoveling up hard cash from the world’s worst polluters–and burying science-based environmentalism in return.” (WWF says it received no payment from Wilmar in this particular case.)

The ugly issue of palm oil even touches the beloved American icon, the Girl Scout cookie. When Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen began a project to save the orangutan for their Bronze Awards, they discovered the link between habitat loss and palm oil. Then they looked at a box of Girl Scout cookies and found palm oil on the list of ingredients. The two 11-year-olds — who are now ages 15 and 16 — began a campaign to get the Girl Scouts to remove palm oil from its cookies.

It took five years to get a response from the supposedly wholesome Girl Scouts USA (whose 2012 slogan is “Forever Green“). While the organization ignored its own members for several years, it was unable to ignore the coverage the girls received from Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and several major TV networks. Once the story was so well-covered by the media, Girl Scouts USA responded, promising it would try to move to a sustainable source of palm oil by 2015. In the meantime, it would continue buying palm oil that could have come from deforested lands or plantations that use child slave labor, but would also buy GreenPalm certificates, which fund a price premium that goes to producers following RSPO’s best practice guidelines.

So what should consumers do? For the time being, avoiding products containing palm oil is probably your best bet. Since palm oil is so ubiquitous this will likely mean opting to buy fewer processed foods overall. Don’t forget to check your beauty and cleaning products, too. In a handful of cases, such as Dr. Bronner’s soaps, palm oil comes from fair trade, organic sources. But this is hardly the norm, and with the immense amount of palm oil used in the U.S., it’s unlikely that sustainable sources could cover all of the current demand.

MIT economist: Wall Street created worst recession since WWII

MIT economist: Wall Street created worst recession since WWII | The Raw Story – Digg.

rawstory.com — MIT economics professor Simon Johnson said on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show on Wednesday night that Wall Street “blew itself up,” which lead to the “most severe recession since World War II.” The former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund added that the enormous economic damage was “a direct consequence of what the biggest banks did and were allowed to get away with.” Watch video, courtesy of MSNBC, below: Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, […] 1 day 8 hr ago

MIT economist: Wall Street created worst recession since WWII | The Raw Story

Slovakia blocks euro rescue fund

Slovakia blocks euro rescue fund | Reuters.

BRATISLAVA/ATHENS | Tue Oct 11, 2011 7:39pm EDT

(Reuters) – The parliament of tiny Slovakia stalled the expansion of a bailout fund to rescue the euro zone from its debt crisis on Tuesday, but international lenders said they were likely to grant a loan to Greece next month, buying time for a broader response.

European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet said the debt crisis had become systemic and must be tackled decisively.

Slovakia is the only country in the 17-member currency zone that has yet to approve giving new powers to the European Financial Stability Fund. The expansion was agreed by euro zone leaders in July but must be ratified by each country.

The EFSF is Europe’s main weapon to respond to a debt crisis that threatens the European common currency, the region’s banks and potentially the global financial system.

The government of Slovak Prime Minister Iveta Radicova fell on Tuesday after a small party in her ruling coalition refused to back the plans. The outgoing government still expects to be able to enact the measure as a caretaker administration by the end of this week with support from an opposition party.

“There is an assumption that the EFSF, one way or the other, will be approved by the end of the week,” Finance Minister Ivan Miklos told parliament ahead of the vote.

The failure in the Slovak parliament underlines the difficulty of forging a united response to the worsening debt crisis in a currency zone where all 17 member states must act in concert, and voters are increasingly angry at the growing costs.

Leaders are struggling to find a response that would protect euro zone banks if Greece defaults on its debts.

For now, Athens needs an immediate infusion of cash within weeks just to meet state payrolls. A loan programme has been held up while the European Union and IMF assess whether Greece is doing enough to get its finances in order.

After a weeks-long review of Greece’s finances, inspectors from the European Union, IMF and European Central Bank, known as the troika, said an 8 billion euro loan tranche should be paid in early November. It still requires approval by euro zone finance ministers and the IMF.

MORE REFORMS NEEDED

The troika warned that Greece had made only patchy progress in meeting the terms of a bailout agreed in May last year.

“It is essential that the authorities put more emphasis on structural reforms in the public sector and the economy more broadly,” the troika said in a statement.

It said additional measures were likely to be needed to meet debt targets in 2013 and 2014, and a privatization drive and structural reforms were falling short.

Germany, the euro zone’s biggest economy, said a decision on whether to make the aid payment was still open.

A German Finance Ministry spokesman said the troika’s verdict showed “both light and shadows”:

“We’ll wait and look at the report, analyze it and then decide what will happen with the sixth tranche.”

That money would anyway only buy Greece and its euro zone partners a small amount of time.

Germany and France, the leading powers in the 17-nation euro zone, have promised to propose a comprehensive strategy to fight the debt crisis at an EU summit delayed until October 23.

After Athens admitted it would not meet its deficit target this year, there is a growing acceptance that a second Greek bailout agreed in July with private bondholders’ participation may need to be renegotiated. A rush is now on to beef up the currency bloc’s rescue fund and bolster its banks.

Europe’s top financial watchdog warned that the euro zone’s sovereign debt crisis threatened global economic stability.

Trichet issued the dramatic warning as chairman of the European Systemic Risk Board, created to avoid a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, amid growing fears that Greece will default on its massive debt.

“The crisis is systemic and must be tackled decisively,” Trichet told a European Parliament committee in his final appearance before retiring at the end of the month.

“The high interconnectedness in the EU financial system has led to a rapidly rising risk of significant contagion. It threatens financial stability in the EU as a whole and adversely impacts the real economy in Europe and beyond.”

NEW BANK DATA SOUGHT

European banking regulators meanwhile asked banks across the continent to provide updated data on their capital position and sovereign debt exposures to help reassess their need for recapitalization.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the EU executive would present proposals for bank recapitalization and other aspects of the crisis response on Wednesday.

Industry sources said the EU banking regulator had demanded lenders achieve a core capital ratio of at least 7 percent in a new round of internal stress tests, and banks that failed to reach that mark would be asked to bolster their capital.

That would mean some 48 banks would be required to raise a total of 99 billion euros in capital, according to a Reuters Breakingviews calculator using data from previous stress tests. Greek banks would need nearly a third of the total.

For a comprehensive deal to come together, the bloc’s leaders must resolve differences over how to recapitalize banks, whether to force a Greek debt restructuring or stick to the existing voluntary deal with private bondholders, and how to use the euro zone’s rescue fund.

Europe’s inability to draw a line under the crisis has caused growing international alarm, with Japan weighing in on Tuesday after the United States and Britain pressed EU leaders to take decisive action.

Tokyo said it would consult with Washington before it considers buying more euro zone bonds. Finance Minister Jun Azumi urged Europe to restore market confidence in the run-up to a Group of 20 finance leaders’ meeting in Paris this week.

Interbank lending rates in Europe continued to rise amid growing concern over European banks’ ability to operate, despite the prospect of massive ECB liquidity support.

Some European banks voiced concern at the prospect of being forced by governments to raise additional capital that some say they do not need, possibly by taking public money. One senior banker said that could lead to legal challenges in Germany.

Germany’s BDB banking association said Europe should look at recapitalization on a case-by-case basis rather than taking a blanket approach apparently envisaged by Berlin and Paris.

The director of the association, Michael Kemmer, also told ARD television that politicians should stick to a July agreement on private bondholder involvement in a rescue plan for Greece, which called for a 21 percent writedown.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and the chairman of euro group finance ministers, Jean-Claude Juncker, have said that figure may no longer be sufficient and the talks may have to be reopened.

Speaking on Austrian television late on Monday, Juncker refused to rule out a mandatory debt restructuring for Greece, which many market analysts and economists say is bound to happen in the coming months. Many analysts see the rush to recapitalize European banks as a prelude to an enforced write-down of 50 percent or more on their Greek debt holdings.

(Additional reporting by Michael Winfrey and Martin Santa in Bratislava, Paul Carrel, Jonathan Gould, Philipp Halstrick, Edward Taylor and Sakari Suoninen in Frankfurt, and Huw Jones in London; Writing by Paul Taylor, Mike Peacock and Peter Graff)

New bankruptcy ripples may emerge

Insight: New bankruptcy ripples may emerge | Reuters.

<span class="articleLocation”>Three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers touched off a tidal wave of bankruptcy filings, corporate failures may be about to pick up again, with some big-name companies among those struggling for survival.

Companies in a range of businesses, including hair salons, restaurants, renewable energy, and the paper industry, have tumbled into Chapter 11 in the past few months.

The weak economy, lackluster consumer spending, a shaky junk-bond market and increasingly tight lending practices are also threatening struggling companies in industries as diverse as shipping, tourism, media, energy and real estate.

AMR Corp’s American Airlines may need to go to court to restructure its labor contracts, though a spokesman for the airline reiterated on Monday that bankruptcy is not the company’s goal or preference.

Kodak confirmed that a law firm known for taking companies through bankruptcy has been advising on strategy as attempts to overcome the loss of its traditional photography business falter. It has denied any intention of filing for bankruptcy.

Some bankruptcy and restructuring experts warn a fresh U.S. recession could trigger a string of failures to rival the one that followed Lehman Brothers, which in 2008 filed the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

“It’s getting busier for everyone I know,” said Jay Goffman, global head of the Corporate Restructuring Group at law firm Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “I think 2012 will be a busy year and 2013 and 2014 will be extraordinarily busy years in restructuring.”

No one is currently predicting a second Lehman-type collapse. Its $639 billion bankruptcy came after a loss of confidence in the investment bank as asset values plummeted, leading to the drying up of credit lines.

In fact, predicting a bankruptcy wave at all is a tricky task, experts say. It could depend on several unknowns: how much money banks and other institutions are willing to lend troubled companies, whether the economy lands in a double-dip recession and what happens in the European debt crisis.

The sovereign debt crisis in Europe could be the most important X factor. Even the experts who say that a bankruptcy crisis is not coming because current low interest rates make it easy for companies to get cash to finance their way out of trouble, say that the euro zone’s problems could trigger defaults here.

“It is possible that one or two sovereign debt defaults would increase the pressure we’d feel in the U.S. credit market. Then we might see an environment like we had in 2008,” said Peter Fitzsimmons, president for North America for turnaround advisory firm AlixPartners LLP.

MORE FILINGS

Chapter 11 filings are picking up, bankruptcy data show. Ten companies with at least $100 million in assets filed for bankruptcy in September, the most since 17 filed in April, which was the busiest month since 2009, according to Bankruptcydata.com.

For a graphic click here link.reuters.com/nuw34sp:

Recent failures included renewable energy companies Evergreen Solar and Solyndra. The latter collapsed in a politically-charged bankruptcy after taking a $535 million loan from the federal government.

Other recent bankruptcies include glossy magazine paper manufacturer NewPage Corp, which was the largest bankruptcy of the year and the largest non-financial company filing since 2009; Graceway Pharmaceuticals, which makes skin creams; Hussey Copper Corp., which makes the copper bars used in switchboards, and the Dallas Stars of the National Hockey League.

So far this month, five companies with more than $100 million in assets have filed, including the Friendly’s ice cream chain – and wireless broadband company Open Range Communications Inc.

It is difficult to predict trends in filings. For example, experts who focused on macroeconomic credit indicators and default projections in 2006 or 2007 wouldn’t in many cases have been prepared for the severity of failures that followed.

In 2009, General Motors, Chrysler Group, LyondellBasell Industries and General Growth Properties all filed for bankruptcy, contributing to a record number of filings and topped the list of largest bankruptcies ever.

At the same time, some experts were predicting an even deeper and longer list of corporate collapses. But within a year of bankruptcy filings breaking records, banks and other financial institutions were buying debt and lending, making it easy for companies to finance their way out of trouble.

Two months after Lehman failed, the U.S. Federal Reserve slashed rates to near zero. Once confidence began to return to the debt markets, investors flocked to high-yield bonds sold by ailing companies, allowing them to refinance.

Other failing companies were able to “amend and extend” – or to critics, “amend and pretend” – by striking new borrowing terms with lenders that delayed debt maturities in the hopes the economy would rebound smartly and business would pick up.

Those measures often avoided operational overhauls, creating what some experts called “zombie companies” that cut staff and prices to survive, but were too sick to invest in new projects.

Bankruptcy court allows troubled companies to shed debt and also become more operationally efficient as they renegotiate labor contracts, as airlines have done, or reject pricey store leases, which retailers often do.

But these changes do not always work, especially when companies find little support among suppliers or creditors for their turnaround plans. Bankrupt book chain Borders, for instance, recently closed its doors after failing to find a buyer.

In addition, confidence in the economy and easy access to debt allowed companies to complete restructurings in 2009 and 2010 with business plans and debt loads that were based on an economic pickup that has now faltered. That could create the potential for trouble at companies that have already restructured once.

SIGNS OF TROUBLE

Restructuring advisers agree that a dimming economic outlook will force lenders to make some tough calls about troubled companies. Those who see a broader wave of bankruptcies expect the economy to dip back into recession as the U.S. government cuts spending and Europe’s debt problems worsen.

They also look beyond the equity market for less visible signs of trouble. They see a junk-bond market that has suffered its worst sell-off since the Fed cut rates to near zero in 2008 and falling loan market prices as lenders reduce their exposure to weak borrowers.

There are even troubling signs coming from otherwise sanguine rating agencies that assess corporate debt. Moody’s noted that the number of downgraded liquidity ratings for troubled companies rose for a third straight month in September, an ominous sign that was similar to the third quarter of 2007 when the economy last slid into recession.

Indeed, one analyst said the Evergreen Solar bankruptcy as well as the recent filing of restaurant operator Real Mex Restaurants Inc show that weak companies are finding it hard to borrow. Both failed to reach the kind of refinancing deal with creditors that until recently was saving many troubled companies from Chapter 11.

“The idea that a couple of companies can’t even go to existing lenders for a real lifeline is quite telling right now,” said Kevin Starke, an analyst with CRT Capital Group, a brokerage that specializes in distressed securities.

LACK OF HOME RUNS

Still, not everyone is convinced more bankruptcies are on the way. Jim Hogan, the head of GE Capital’s restructuring finance unit who works with a lot of medium-sized companies, said he expects only a gradual increase in business, limited to the weakest industries.

“I’m not telling anyone internally I’m expecting some big home runs for us,” Hogan said.

Some said the current rise in bankruptcy filings is routine as fatigued lenders pull the plug on deadbeat companies. While debt and equity markets may have recently been in a swoon, many credit indicators generally show Corporate America to be in decent health.

For example, corporate balance sheets are stuffed with cash, and the rate of corporate loan defaults is expected to end the year at 0.23 percent, well below the historical average of 3.57 percent, according to Standard & Poors.

One of the biggest concerns of recent years, a looming “wall of maturities” of bonds that come due in the next few years, has largely been refinanced, according to Moody’s.

Despite this, the level of debt held by consumers, the federal government and the corporate sector weighs heavily on the economy and will likely spell trouble for some major companies.

“You have this huge overhang of debt. You don’t see a significant amount of improvement in the economy. How long can that continue?,” said Jay Indyke, chair of the bankruptcy and restructuring practice at law firm Cooley LLP.

(This story corrects Jay Goffman’s title in paragraph 7 to head of restructuring, from co-head)

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, Susan Zeidler in Los Angeles, Caroline Humer in New York; Additional reporting by Nick Brown in New York; Editing by Martha Graybow and Martin Howell)

Chronicling the Ecological Impact of C. Columbus

Chronicling the Ecological Impact of Columbus’ Journey | Magazine.

Columbus’ discovery of the New World unleashed centuries of geopolitical turmoil. But humans weren’t the only creatures whose fortunes were forever altered. Entire species of plants and animals either thrived or suffered as well. In the book 1493, author (and Wired contributor) Charles C. Mann traces the far-reaching biological consequences of Columbus’ journey across the ocean blue. “There is a Rube Goldberg aspect to this,” Mann says. “Things are connected in ways that you would never expect.” And just as with human societies, some organisms came out on top, while others were radically subjugated. Here are a few key flora and fauna and how they weathered the storm.

  1. PLANTAINS ENABLE FIRE ANTS. The African plantain is plagued by insects called scale. Back in Africa, however, predators help combat these scavengers. But when the fruit was brought to Hispaniola, it received no such aid. So the bugs proliferated—along with fire ants, which fed on the other insects’ sugary excrement. Both pests thrived until their unchecked appetites destroyed the local plantain crop.
  2. RUBBER CONQUERS ORCHIDS. For centuries, orchids thrived in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The damp terrain and omnipresent mist provided the perfect environment for the moisture-loving epiphytes. But when rubber trees from the Amazon rain forest were imported to southern China, their thirst for water dried out the soil. The once-plentiful morning fog began to disappear. Soon the orchids started to as well.
  3. EARTHWORMS STARVE TREES AND POWER UP MAIZE. Before being brought to the US, the common earthworm aided farmers in England by humbly tilling their soil. But once transplanted, the wrigglers’ tu nneling disrupted the nutrient-absorbing fungi on the roots of sugar maples, causing the trees’ decline. And by aerating the newly cleared land, the worm allowed crops like maize to grow year-round.
  4. POTATOES BATTLE NEW FOE. In its Andean motherland, the resilient potato grew in all shapes and sizes. But as the mighty tuber spread across the globe, its varieties dwindled to a monoculture—an easy target for opponents in adopted lands. None was quite so vicious as the Colorado potato beetle. Carried to North America in the manes of traveling horses, the bug became a permanent scourge to the plant in regions around the world.

Beyond the Worst Case Climate Change Scenario

State of the Science: Beyond the Worst Case Climate Change Scenario: Scientific American.

Or, ‘expecting what is likely to actually happen’; an OLD article but still relevant

Climate change is “unequivocal” and it is 90 percent certain that the “net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) —a panel of more than 2,500 scientists and other experts—wrote in its first report on the physical science of global warming earlier this year. In its second assessment, the IPCC stated that human-induced warming is having a discernible influence on the planet, from species migration to thawing permafrost. Despite these findings, emissions of the greenhouse gases driving this process continue to rise thanks to increased burning of fossil fuels while cost-effective options for decreasing them have not been adopted, the panel found in its third report.

The IPCC’s fourth and final assessment of the climate change problem—known as the Synthesis Report—combines all of these reports and adds that “warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change.” Although countries continue to debate the best way to address this finding, 130 nations, including the U.S., China, Australia, Canada and even Saudi Arabia, have concurred with it.

“The governments now require, in fact, that the authors report on risks that are high and ‘key’ because of their potentially very high consequence,” says economist Gary Yohe?, a lead author on the IPCC Synthesis Report. “They have, perhaps, given the planet a chance to save itself.”

Among those risks:

Warming Temperatures—Continued global warming is virtually certain (or more than 99 percent likely to occur) at this point, leading to both good and bad impacts. On the positive side, fewer people will die from freezing temperatures and agricultural yield will increase in colder areas. The negatives include reduced crop production in the tropics and subtropics, increased insect outbreaks, diminished water supply caused by dwindling snowpack, and increasingly poor air quality in cities.

Heat Waves—Scientists are more than 90 percent certain that episodes of extreme heat will increase worldwide, leading to increased danger of wildfires, human deaths and water quality issues such as algal blooms.

Heavy Rains—Scientific estimates suggest that extreme precipitation events—from downpours to whiteouts—are more than 90 percent likely to become more common, resulting in diminished water quality and increased flooding, crop damage, soil erosion and disease risk.

Drought—Scientists estimate that there is a more than 66 percent chance that droughts will become more frequent and widespread, making water scarcer, upping the risk of starvation through failed crops and further increasing the risk of wildfires.

Stronger Storms—Warming ocean waters will likely increase the power of tropical cyclones (variously known as hurricanes and typhoons), raising the risk of human death, injury and disease as well as destroying coral reefs and property.

Biodiversity—As many as a third of the species known to science may be at risk of extinction if average temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Sea Level Rise—The level of the world’s oceans will rise, likely inundating low-lying land, turning freshwater brackish and potentially triggering widespread migration of human populations from affected areas.

“As temperatures rise, thermal expansion will lead to sea-level rise, independent of melting ice,” says chemical engineer Lenny Bernstein?, another lead author of the recent IPCC report. “The indications are that this factor alone could cause serious problems [and] ice-sheet melting would greatly accelerate [it].”

Such ice-sheet melting, which the IPCC explicitly did not include in its predictions of sea-level rise, has already been observed and may be speeding up, according to recent research that determined that the melting of Greenland’s ice cap has accelerated to six times the average flow of the Colorado River. Research has also shown that the world has consistently emitted greenhouse gases at the highest projected levels examined and sea-level rise has also outpaced projections from the IPCC’s last assessment in 2001.

“We are above the high scenario now,” says climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, an IPCC lead author. “This is not a safe world.”

Other recent findings include:

Carbon Intensity Increasing—The amount of carbon dioxide per car built, burger served or widget sold had been consistently declining until the turn of the century. But since 2000, CO2 emissions have grown by more than 3 percent annually. This is largely due to the economic booms in China and India, which rely on polluting coal to power production. But emissions in the developed world have started to rise as well, increasing by 2.6 percent since 2000, according to reports made by those countries to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also recently argued that U.S. emissions may continue to increase as a result of growing energy demand.

Carbon Sinks Slowing—The world’s oceans and forests are absorbing less of the CO2 released by human activity, resulting in a faster rise in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. All told, humanity released 9.9 billion metric tons (2.18 X 1013 pounds) of carbon in 2006 at the same time that the ability of the North Atlantic to take in such emissions, for example, dropped by 50 percent.

Impacts Accelerating—Warming temperatures have prompted earlier springs in the far north and have caused plant species to spread farther into formerly icy terrain. Meanwhile, sea ice in the Arctic reached a record low this year, covering just 1.59 million square miles and thus shattering the previous 2005 minimum of 2.05 million square miles.

“The observed rate of loss is faster than anything predicted,” says senior research scientist Mark Serreze of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. “We’re already set up for another big loss next year. We’ve got so much open water in the Arctic now that has absorbed so much energy over the summer that the ocean has warmed. The ice that grows back this autumn will be thin.”

The negative consequences of such reinforcing, positive feedbacks (white ice is replaced by dark water, which absorbs more energy and prevents the formation of more white ice) remain even when they seemingly work in our favor.

For example, scientists at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Kiel in Germany recently discovered that plankton consumes more carbon at higher atmospheric concentrations of CO2. “The plankton were carbon-enriched,” says marine biologist Ulf Riebesell, who conducted the study. “There weren’t more of them, but each cell had more carbon.”

This could mean that microscopic ocean plants may potentially absorb more of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, other research (from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) has shown that such plankton does not make it to the seafloor in large enough amounts to sequester the carbon in the long term.

Further, such carbon-heavy plankton do not begin to appear until CO2 concentrations reach twice present values—750 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere compared with roughly 380 ppm presently (a level at which catastrophic change may be a certainty)—and they are less nutritious to all the animals that rely on them for food. “This mechanism is both too small and too late,” Riebesell says. “By becoming more carbon-rich, zooplankton have to eat more phytoplankton to achieve the same nutrition” and, therefore, “they grow and reproduce more slowly.”

The IPCC notes that there are cost-effective solutions, such as retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, but says they must be implemented in short order to stem further damage. “We are 25 years too late,” Schneider says. “If the object is to avoid dangerous change, we’ve already had it. The object now is to avoid really dangerous change.”

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The real Greek tragedy may be the climate

The real Greek tragedy may be the climate – opinion – 14 October 2011 – New Scientist.

Greece’s debt crisis threatens more than the collapse of the euro and the European Union – it would also be a climate disaster

GREECE is going to default, one way or another, that much is clear. The bigger question is whether it will also leave the euro and what that would mean. What is so far underappreciated is that a Greek exit would have appalling consequences for the climate.

Just three months after a second bailout, Greece is failing to deliver its end of the bargain and bond markets are signalling that it will not repay all its debt. The International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank are struggling to deliver a third rescue package.

Even if that succeeds, the wild card remains Greek politics. The country is wracked with strikes, riots and protests. Deep cuts to jobs, wages and pensions were passed by a slender majority, and it would not take much of a political shift for Greece to abandon its debts – and the euro.

Departure would be economic suicide, though. Paul Donovan, a London-based economist at UBS investment bank, calculates the Greek economy would shrink by half in the first year. Moreover, a Greek exit would likely trigger a domino effect. Ireland, Portugal, Spain and even Italy could go too. It would be a short step to the break-up of the euro and a continent-wide credit crunch.

The climate always takes a back seat when economies turn sour, but the impact of a euro break-up would be profound. Any country leaving the euro would also breach the treaties of Maastricht, Lisbon and Rome, and therefore be forced to leave the EU. A euro break-up is likely to shatter the EU, and with it the hard won architecture of climate policy.

For a start, the Emissions Trading System would be unlikely to survive. True, the ETS has been widely criticised as ineffectual, but the system at least imposes an international framework which could be strengthened and expanded. That would all be swept away, along with any obligation for countries to deliver their 2020 targets on emissions, renewables and energy efficiency.

On one level that matters little. Given the scale of the likely economic collapse, emissions would fall far below the targets and could stay low for years. The collapse of the EU, so long in the vanguard of climate policy, could ironically be seen as a desirable outcome. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Emissions might fall dramatically, but so would our ability to do anything about the remainder.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says holding global temperature increase to 2 °C means cutting emissions by up to 85 per cent by 2050. That would require an investment of $18 trillion by 2035, according to the International Energy Agency. It is hard to imagine governments in the midst of a depression mobilising anything like enough money or political will.

There is much more riding on the outcome of the Greek crisis than the future of Europe or even the world economy. The danger is that a euro collapse could destroy the capital and institutions needed to combat climate change.

It is bitterly ironic that the meltdown of a minor economy that has little to sell but sunshine could condemn the planet to uncontrollable global warming.

David Strahan is a former BBC business correspondent and author of The Last Oil Shock (John Murray, 2008)

The Problem with the Nation's Drinking Water Standards

Is It Safe to Drink? The Problem with the Nation’s Drinking Water Standards: Scientific American.

More than 6,000 chemicals pollute U.S. drinking water, yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has added only one new pollutant to its regulatory roster in the past 15 years. Environmental groups have long raised questions about this track record, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently joined the chorus, releasing a report that charges the agency with taking actions that have “impeded … progress in helping assure the public of safe drinking water.”

Among other things, the GAO report says, the EPA relies on flawed data. To determine the level of a particular pollutant in drinking water—which the EPA does before making a regulatory ruling on it—the agency relies on analytic testing methods so insensitive that they cannot identify the contaminants at levels expected to cause health effects. In addition, since 1996 the EPA has been required to make regulatory decisions about five new pollutants each year, ruling on those that might pose the biggest threats to public health. The GAO report asserts that the agency has been ruling only on the “low-hanging fruit”—contaminants for which regulatory decisions are easy rather than those that might be the most dangerous. “They’re not actually doing anything to protect public health,” says Mae Wu, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For its part, the EPA has pledged to review the nation’s drinking-water standards and to add at least 16 new contaminants to the list of those it regulates. This past February the agency reversed a long-standing decision to not regulate the rocket-fuel ingredient perchlorate, making the chemical the first new drinking-water contaminant to be regulated since 1996. In its response to the GAO, the EPA stated that “no action” was necessary to better prioritize the contaminants on which the agency will rule in the future, nor did it acknowledge the need for improvements in data collection. The agency did, however, agree to consider improving its methods for alerting the public when there are drinking-water advisories.