Mining lead bullets, and coronavirus in the Arctic

Welcome to Climate Point, your weekly guide to climate, energy and environment news from across the Golden State and the country. From Palm Springs, Calif., I’m Mark Olalde.

It’s Friday the 13th, so let’s start with some spooky news. The coronavirus partially stalled China’s economy, leading to a decrease in the demand for fuel. At the same time, Russia and OPEC — the international oil cartel — entered an all-out price war. The result: The global oil industry cratered this week, immediately wiping many billions of dollars off balance sheets. The shaky American fracking industry, which is over-leveraged and has largely been operating on credit, faces dire risks as it struggles to compete in this tough environment.

Luckily for these companies, the Trump administration devised a plan to provide government aid to the already heavily subsidized industry, although The Washington Post quickly discovered the idea. Dubbed #ShaleOut to mock another industry bailout, the plan was immediately met with opposition. On Friday, the president announced the federal government would make a huge purchase of crude oil as a response to the ongoing pandemic.

Here’s some other important reporting …


Mining for bullets. Here’s a strange one for you. While many Southern California job-seekers hunt through bins and alleyways for recyclable materials to sell, some have turned to “mining” a dry wash to dig up lead bullet fragments and buckshot deposited there by sport-shooters from a nearby shooting range. Some of the miners say they’re not only earning cash; they’re removing a poisonous material from a protected waterway. But observers question whether their methods are hurting the ecosystem. This much is clear: This is what happens when a local environmental and health issue is forgotten in a regulatory black hole.

Renewable energy or water threat? With the support of the world’s biggest wind and solar operator, one man wants to turn a dis-used iron mine near Joshua Tree National Park into a pumped storage plant, the Los Angeles Times reports. Proponents say the project would act as a giant, renewable battery to store energy until it’s needed, but those against the idea worry what its large water needs would mean for the desert.

Indiana’s energy future. Sarah Bowman at the Indianapolis Star is out with several pieces this week that dive deeply into the Hoosier State’s recent fossil fuel-friendly decision-making. First, with some savvy political maneuvering, state Republicans are sending to the governor a bill that could lengthen coal-fired power plants’ lives by a year. Then, she found that a highly polluting coal-to-diesel plant the state recently approved falls into a frightening pattern. The review found about 10 similar approvals since 2007 in which “the plants’ expected emissions exceeded the cancer risk threshold set by Indiana’s own regulators.”

A billboard had been added along Interstate 64 in Spencer County in Indiana in opposition to a proposed plant that would turn coal into diesel fuel.


A rising tide. Hawaii has jumped into the fray of climate change lawsuits, as Honolulu, its capital city, launched litigation in the O’ahu First Circuit Court against Exxon, BP, Shell and others. Honolulu joins a growing list of cities that are arguing that fossil fuel companies knowingly contributed to climate change and should be held responsible for costs associated with mitigating rising sea levels and other consequences. The Maui County Council also voted to sue the industry. Hawai’i Public Radio has the story.

Reality check.The Heartland Institute is nearly broke, HuffPost reports. The right-wing think tank is known for its propaganda campaigns targeting the science behind climate change, but employees say that poor leadership decisions wiped out the group’s coffers, leading to layoffs.

GAO with the answers. It’s tough to get honest answers out of politicians, hence the importance of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, a nonpartisan check on the government. The GAO recently published several environmental reports, the first finding that the Trump administration’s decision to move the Bureau of Land Management to Colorado was not based on a sound operational strategy, The Colorado Independent reports. This appears to confirm what many observers already guessed: political motivation. Then, Dylan Brown of E&E writes, the GAO found taxpayers have coughed up nearly $2 billion over the past decade to pay for hardrock mine cleanup — for example, gold and copper mines. There are more than half a million sites left to go.

A stand of trees in northeastern Nevada known as the swamp cedars is considered sacred by a number of Shoshone tribes. The trees have been a ceremonial site since time immemorial. They also represent a living connection to native people killed in a series of massacres in the region.

Fighting the pipeline. The Reno Gazette Journal reports that a district court severely damaged the chances that a proposed groundwater piping project in eastern Nevada gets off the ground. Although this individual project may be small, it represents a larger disagreement between water agencies, tribes and environmental organizations.


Quarantining science. If you thought close quarters on coronavirus-contaminated cruise ships were scary, swap that boat with a research vessel trapped in Arctic ice. A team member on the MOSAiC, a ship used for scientific studies, contracted the virus, leaving the project scrambling to avoid an outbreak in the Arctic, Nature reports.

Classifying science. A new Reuters investigation unveils that the Trump administration “has ordered federal health officials to treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified.” This casts further skepticism on the federal government’s response to the pandemic, including the extent to which high-level decisions are based on sound science.


Smoke billows from fires in the forest in the Amazon biome in the municipality of Altamira, Para State, Brazil, on August 23, 2019.

Is it time to panic? The Amazon rain forest, one of the most important carbon sinks in the world, is nearing a tipping point that would see it “morph into arid savannah within half a century,” the AFP writes about a new study on ecosystem change. The report also examined coral reefs, finding it may only take 15 years from their own tipping point to accomplish their complete demise. The main culprits? Deforestation and rising water temperatures.

Scientists agree that to maintain a livable planet, we need to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration back to 350 ppm. We’re above that and rising dangerously. Here are the latest numbers:

The most recent atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration neared 414 parts per million.

That’s all for now. Don’t forget to follow along on Twitter at @MarkOlalde. You can also reach me at [email protected] You can sign up to get Climate Point in your inbox for free here. And, if you’d like to receive a daily round-up of California news (also for free!), you can sign up for USA Today’s new In California newsletter here. Cheers.

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