The crazy-hectic close of the California legislative session is a make-or-break moment for those hoping to bring long-overdue regulatory control of fracking in the Golden State.
At issue is whether the legislature will pass SB 4. It is the sole surviving bill this session that seeks to compel Big Energy and state regulators to open up to public scrutiny and scientific analysis the impact that hydraulic fracking (and its technological cousin, acid well treatment) has on public health and the environment.
Because there has been relatively little discussion of this initiative in the mainstream press and thus in the civic arena -- even Governor Brown seems to be snoozing on the question of fracking -- it is important to spell out three of its key provisions, (as amended, September 3):
- "The bill would require the Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, on or before January 1, 2015, to cause to be conducted an independent scientific study on well stimulation treatments, including acid well stimulation and hydraulic fracturing treatments."
- "The bill would require an operator of a well to record and include all data on well stimulation treatments, as specified."
- "The bill would require the [Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources in the Department of Conservation], in consultation with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the State Air Resources Board, the State Water Resources Control Board, the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, and any local air districts and regional water quality control boards in areas where well stimulation treatments may occur, on or before January 1, 2015, to adopt rules and regulations specific to well stimulation, including governing the construction of wells and well casings and full disclosure of the composition and disposition of well stimulation fluids."
Because the corporations using hydraulic fracturing as a tool to release millions of barrels of oil and gas from tight geologic formations like the Monterey Shale refuse to identify the composition of the fluids injected at high pressure and immense volume to fracture the rock miles below the surface, SB 4 would require the state's Natural Resource Agency to mount an "independent" study of this controversial technique and its ramifications. The critical term, here, is independent. Given the hand-in-glove relationship between the regulators and the regulated, establishing an outside group to analyze what is occurring is essential to assure the public of the legitimacy of this vital research and analysis.
After the Rim fire blasts into Sierra Nevada granite and flickers out. After the last gallon of fire retardant rains down on the high-country blaze deep in the Stanislaus National Forest. After the last engine, dozer, helicopter, jet, and drone pull back from the charred land. After the last soot-stained firefighter retraces her steps to base camp, and then heads home. After the last hose is drained, dried, and stored. After the last Pulaski is racked. If, after all that, we begin to plan for the future it may well be too late.
Our culture's relentless focus on the now has shaped the way we have covered this particular fire, those that have erupted this season, and any conflagration dating back to the late 19th-century. Journalism's daily mission, after all, is to keep us abreast of the news as it breaks, the very language of which emphasizes the need to mirror the moment.
Reflect on that as you flip through your local newspaper, watch your favorite anchor, or scroll through relevant websites, catch how every story about the Rim fire (and its analogs) contains a powerful, one-word mantra: containment.
As you repeatedly enunciate it, absorbing its Cold War evocation of sealing off the "enemy," a series of worried questions are unleashed. Is the fire contained? How much is it contained? Why has more containment not been achieved? When, oh when will it be contained?"
Although I have walked the trails that hug the Clark Fork River as it flows through Missoula, Montana, I've never canoed those cold waters. If I ever did, I'd want Brad Tyer in the stern as my guide, showing me how to navigate its boisterous length, how to read the complex natural landscape and built environment as we floated by.
That he knows where to pull out would be another plus.
After a 2011 run down the powerful snow-melt-pushed river, in which he and his fellow travelers barreled downstream so fast that they covered in "twenty minutes what usually takes an hour," the flotilla swung on to a gravelly beach. This was not just any rest-stop: Above them was the wide and welcoming deck of one of the Garden City's best watering holes, the Finn and Porter Restaurant; beer awaited. "Missoula is nice like that."
That much I knew.
What I had not known until reading Tyer's unsettling, page-turner of a new book, "Opportunity Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape", was the complicated past and present of the Clark Fork -- and why we should care about its turbulent history and contemporary dilemmas.
Consider the reason he and his canoeing colleagues had shot down the river so quickly. Some of their speed was attributable to a higher-than-normal volume of water, a rush that was also the result of the river's upstream undamming.
The decommissioning of dams along the west's many rivers and streams is a furiously debated issue. Taking down these bulwarks is the key to restoring anadromous fish populations such as the Steelhead trout that once nosed up the rivers of Southern California and salmon that in vast numbers once spawned along the extent of the Columbia River watershed.
In the Pacific Northwest, this decided environmental good is up against the keep-the-dams demands of Big Ag for irrigation and barge transport and of Big Hydro and its downstream consumers of electricity.
The fight in Missoula over the pulling down of the Milltown Dam offers a variation on this theme. It pitted upriver copper-mining interests that had no interest in paying to clean up the toxic byproducts of their manufacturing processes piling up behind the century-old structure against those local environmentalists who believed that removing this earthen-filled straightjacket would liberate a once free-flowing river, restoring its pristine nature.
Tyer, a veteran journalist and managing editor of the Texas Observer, neither disputes this restorative impulse nor its whitewater consequences; neither does he doubt that the years of protracted negotiation that led to the elimination of the Milltown Dam was worth the effort. He just asks some hard questions about who gained and lost when the dam came down, about whom and what suffered so that Missoulians, including himself, could paddle down the Clark Fork in thrilled delight.
When the Perseid Meteor Shower made its annual celestial light show earlier this month, I gathered a group of sky-curious friends to gather for an informal meteor-watching party in the northwestern Antelope Valley to watch it. We enjoyed a potluck meal of snacks and finger foods, and proceeded to watch the debris from comet Swift-Tuttle streak their way into our atmosphere in the form of "shooting stars."
The viewing spot was an area I had adopted as my western Mojave Desert "neighborhood" after learning my parents own a small plot of vacant land in the vicinity, and since 2010, the dirt shoulder of a major road there served as our viewing locale of choice, just north of the Kern-Los Angeles county border.
Though there are more ideal places to view a dark night sky in Southern California, this was a decent enough location, just a reasonably, short 80-minute drive from the bright lights of Los Angeles. Save for the southeastern and southern skies glowing with the cumulative light pollution of urban Antelope Valley and the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the skies were dark enough to clearly see unmistakable arc of The Milky Way across the sky, along with countless constellations not even visible from our urban climes.
But upon arriving for last year's meteor-watching party -- after skipping the 2011 shower -- I was chagrined to discover the slightly-distracting unison glow of red lights in the northern horizon: all being warning lights atop the giant turbine towers of the Mojave wind power facility. Even worse was the glow of bright white lights emanating from a power station a few miles north. It turned out that even my little desert "neighborhood" was already feeling the effects of development. The 80-minute drive was starting to not be far enough.
For more than a century, America's National Forests have proved an environmental gift and cultural treasure -- our spectacular backyard. But this system of public lands, which encompasses193 million acres from California to Maine, Florida to Alaska, has become increasingly vulnerable to the cumulative consequences of past management practices, catastrophic disturbances, and a warming climate.
To restore resiliency to these imperiled terrain, the National Forest Foundation (NFF), which Congress designated in 1991 as the official non-profit partner of the U.S. Forest Service, has launched a now-or-never campaign that identifies places of greatest need; with a 1:1 matching contribution from the U.S. Forest Service, it has committed to raise millions of dollars to underwrite these lands' restoration.
One of the selected sites is the Angeles National Forest, which at 1000 square miles constitutes Southern California's biggest playground, accounting for more than 70% of open space in greater Los Angeles. As vital as the recreation opportunities it provides, this urban national forest, draped across the San Gabriel Mountains with its tall peaks, steep-sloped terrain, and sharp-cut canyons, also captures much-needed precipitation blowing off the Pacific; perhaps one-third of the region's water supply sheets off the Angeles.
The life-giving watershed is in trouble, however, in part as a consequence of the 2009 Station Fire. Ignited by an arsonist late that August, it blew up into the largest conflagration in the recorded history of Los Angeles. Torching approximately 250 square miles during its two-month-long fiery run, it burned through chaparral shrubland, oak woodlands, and up-elevation mixed pine forests.
Even without the heat, you can tell it's summer in the desert by paying attention to the animals. The baby quail are in their gawky awkward phase. Scotts' Orioles have arrived from their wintering spots in Central America, and they lend a flash of bright yellow and cheerful song to the desert dusk. And all around the desert, emerging from their holes beneath the trees, come the "Mother of God, what for the sake of all that's holy is that?"
How powerful is Big Ag on Capitol Hill? The Congressional Vegetarian Caucus would be glad to tell you.
Earlier this summer, the recently formed group negotiated with Restaurant Associates, operator of the congressional dining facilities, to offer a handful of vegetarian options once a week at a single stand in one cafeteria. The qualifiers are important. Although the caterer marketed the limited opportunity as Meatless Mondays, it had no intention of taking beef, pork, or poultry off the menu, only to provide some veggie-friendly fare.
More MeatlessMeatless Monday Recipes from KCET Food
The History of Meatless Mondays
Why This Meat-Eater Loves Meatless Mondays
Such key facts did not get in the way of Steve Kopperud, executive vice president of Policy Directions, Inc., an inside-the-Beltway lobby shop. The former senior executive of the American Feed Industry Association, who counts among his coups the passage of "the Animal Facility Protection Act/Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act to protect ag, food and biomedical research from animal rights and environmental radicals," launched a quick strike.
In a letter to the House Administration Committee, he blasted the new menu option as "pure propaganda." Then he spun some of his own, telling Roll Call that this Meatless Monday option was "a purely political concoction of a vocal anti-meat lobby." Shocker alert: Restaurant Associates was cowed, immediately reneging on its agreement with the Vegetarian Caucus and refusing to discuss its actions with the media.
More intriguing is that Kopperud even bothered to notice the caterer's limited gesture to non-meat eaters on the Hill. Every lobbyist needs to demonstrate his chops, and in flexing his muscles Kopperud did just that. Yet his protest, and the hyper rhetoric that he wrapped it in, seems a sign that the meat lobby and its Big Ag sidekicks are running a tad scared.
Whenever I hear that sound outside, it makes me happy. It means there's a hummingbird nearby.
For a period of a few months earlier this year, that sound greeted me every morning just outside my window. It seems that a hummingbird has found a home, or at least a favored perching spot, in a tree just outside my room.
My little neighbor, judging from its reddish crown and emerald green body, was a male Anna's Hummingbird. Of the seven hummingbird species found in California, the Anna's is the most common found in Southern California. Generally non-migratory and very territorial in nature, they are native to the west coast of North America, from Baja California to British Columbia.
In this urban, seemingly over-paved environment, hummingbirds are an indicator species -- their presence marks the availability of trees to perch or nest in, and flowering plants for them to not just feed nectar off, but to report for work, as their primary vocation is that of a pollinator. In other words, despite the human-dominated environs, it's a rather decent ecosystem. I was very proud to call that hummingbird my neighbor.
I only became appreciative of hummingbirds relatively recently, coinciding with the start of my California native plant interest. For many native plant gardeners, attracting hummingbirds is not only a reward, but a sign of a functioning native garden, and many native gardeners plant certain varieties specifically to attract hummingbirds and other pollinators. The little critters are attracted to the nectar of reddish flowers like that of the California Fuchsia or the obviously-named Hummingbird Sage.
I've seen random hummingbirds fly and hover since I was a kid, but it was only within the past couple years that I became more acquainted with them in the auditory sense. While tending to a row of plants that included a couple older orange trees and some native sages that I had planted just a few months previous, one hummingbird zoomed in toward those plants, poking its bill into the flowers.
I was in awe of that little thing, to see and hear one that closely. It was also a seemingly paradoxical experience, to encounter something as natural as a hummingbird, yet sound so mechanical. The humming sound was reminiscent of the sound of a motor or even a light saber from the "Star Wars" films. The ticking noise also sounded somewhat synthetic, as if it was an electronic percussion sound, much like one would hear in the rhythms of a Kraftwerk song. The humming, of course was the rapid flapping of its wings -- the bird's namesake. But that ticking sound, I soon realized during my close encounter, was, in actuality, the bird's chirp, extremely high in pitch due to the animal's minuscule size. It was from that moment on that I began to recognize -- and appreciate -- a hummingbird's presence just by its sound.
Hummingbirds are native to North and South America. When Columbus brought the first Europeans to the New World, they were reportedly fascinated by these flying "part-bird, part-insect" creatures. The Native Americans revered them enough to give them a role in their folklore. Some tribes told stories of hummingbirds poking holes in the sky to create the stars at night.
But a few modern-day cityfolk are afraid of just that. Some of them bear (rather unfounded) fears of being impaled or poked in the eyes by their needle-like bills. In reality, hummingbirds don't really care for approaching humans directly (unless they're solid red colored and are covered in nectar). And when hummingbirds do approach flowers, the farthest extremity is not the sharp point of the bill but the bird's extended tongue protruding from it, allowing it to drink nectar. A person stands a greater chance of being devoured by a Great White in the midst of a sharknado than getting poked in the eye by a hummingbird. If anything needs to fear a hummingbird, it's probably flying insects; the onmivorous hovering birds snack on them for protein.
It seems that urban humankind's ignorance or misinformation towards wildlife stems from an overall lack of education and awareness of them. Even those not as fearful of hummingbirds would still assume all of them were one in the same.
A couple miles west of me, nestled in a stretch of Fountain Avenue in Hollywood surrounded by houses, apartments, small mom and pop stores, and a television and film studio complex, is a mural entitled "Birds Of Hollywood," done by local artist Elkpen, which depicts 14 species of birds that can be found in the immediate neighborhood. The Anna's Hummingbird as well as the Rufous Hummingbird are featured here in a public art piece that aims to educate and inform. I've learned a thing or two by poring over the mural, and so have countless others who walk and bike through this stretch of Fountain. If only we had more opportunities to learn about the wildlife living among us.
The ticking sound from my little winged neighbor ceased by late spring. Maybe he found another tree to perch. Maybe he went to go find a girlfriend. I wonder whether the native flora I planted around that area led him here. I've seen (and heard) a number of other hummingbirds since then, but I miss hearing that little dude chirp away.
A few weeks ago, while walking to my local farmer's market, I happened upon a hover of about five hummingbirds flying towards a neighbor's tree. I had never seen them fly in a group before. Though my tiny chirping neighbor has since moved on, the hummingbirds in my neighborhood surely aren't going away. And that makes me even happier.
The falcon flew low and fast over Strawberry Rock, an outcropping high above the Rio Brazos Valley, just east of Chama, New Mexico.
We were sharing a picnic with good friends in a pine copse rooted in rough sandstone and marveling over the clear blue horizon, when the small raptor shot past; its backswept wings and breakneck speed were its only identifiable features.
As it stretched out and banked west, the falcon's swift form was highlighted against the quartzite face of the Brazos Cliffs, glowing in the midday sun; it then hurtled down the dark green valley, following the silvery flow west toward the Rio Chama.
That shutter-click of a moment seemed suspended in time. Like our vacation, a lifting up and out, a release.
Yet at some point the falcon had to wing home, and so did we, though our pace was a bit more sedate. A day later we were rolling along U.S. 64 across northwestern New Mexico, straight through the state's oil-and-gas patch in the San Juan River watershed.
The region contains the nation's second largest gas reserves, a play that has gone through a series of booms and busts since the 1920s, but it has been experiencing a decline of late. The small towns along our route bear the marks of this economic withering -- idled rigs, banged up pickups, pitted roadbeds, and dusty stores with little on the shelves. Even the relatively bustling Farmington, which received a substantial infusion of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act dollars to repave an extensive portion of U.S. 64, has not been able to generate enough new work to break out of its doldrums.
That's why so many are looking for salvation in two words: Mancos Shale. The formation, which extends from New Mexico into portions of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, is buried about a mile beneath the surface. Estimated to contain upwards of six billion barrels of oil, approximately one-third of which lies within New Mexico, the untapped resource is being touted as a godsend for the recession-hit area.