July 26 News: Fires Will Increase in Size and Severity At Yellowstone Park Due to Climate Change; GOP Moves to Force Obama On Keystone XL Pipeline

A round-up of climate and energy news. Please post other stories below.

More big Yellowstone fires predicted with climate change

The size and frequency of wildfires in the northern Rocky Mountains will increase so much with global warming that it will profoundly alter the landscape of Yellowstone National Park and its environs, predicts a new study.

The conifer forests of spruce, pine and Douglas fir that grow at elevations from 6,000 to 8,000 feet could give way to open woodlands, grass and shrubs, transforming the greater Yellowstone ecosytem that includes parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

The large, severe wildfires that have historically occurred infrequently will grow more common as rising temperatures hasten spring snowmelt, lengthening the fire season and drying out the region’s mid-elevation forests. “It’s really by mid-century that it’s going to happen,” said the study’s lead author, UC Merced environmental engineering and geography professor Anthony Westerling.

Westerling and four coauthors examined climate and fire data from 1972-1999 and then used  projections from three global climate models to predict wildfire trends for the rest of the century. The results were dramatic: The fire rotation — the amount of time it takes to burn an area the size of the entire landscape — would drop to 30 years or less from the historical 100 to 300 years.

“Continued warming could completely transform [greater Yellowstone ecosystem] fire regimes by the mid-21st century, with profound consequences for many species and for ecosystem services including aesthetics, hydrology and carbon storage,” concludes the paper, which will be published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The conditions associated with extreme fire seasons are expected to become much more frequent, with fire occurrence and area burned exceeding that observed in the historical record or reconstructed” for the past 10,000 years.

The interval between big wildfires would be so short that the dense mountain forests typical of much of the northern Rockies would not have enough time to regenerate. Westerling cautioned that when that vegetation shift occurs, it will alter wildfire patterns in a way models can’t predict.

Related Post:  “Global Warming Boosts Worst Wildfires ‘Since the Last Ice Age’, Extreme Drought Imperils July 4 Fireworks

Fight over Keystone XL to reach House floor

House lawmakers are expected to vote Tuesday on legislation that would force President Obama to make a decision in the coming months on whether to approve a controversial oil pipeline project.

The Republican-backed bill would mandate that Obama make a decision on the permit application for TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline by Nov. 1.

The State Department is at the tail end of a lengthy review of the project, which would carry oil sands from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The White House bashed the GOP bill Monday, arguing that it is “unnecessary” because the State Department has said it will make a decision on the permit application by the end of the year, within two months of the deadline established in the bill.

In addition, the White House said the bill would interfere with the administration’s review of the project.

“[T]he bill conflicts with long-standing Executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the President and the Secretary of State, and could prevent the thorough consideration of complex issues which could have serious security, safety, environmental, and other ramifications,” the White House said in a statement of administration policy.

The scourge of ‘peak oil’

Energy derived from oil reaches, quite literally, every aspect of our lives.

From the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to how we move ourselves around, without oil, our lives would look very differently.

Yet oil is a finite resource. While there is no argument that it won’t last forever, there is debate about how much oil is left and how long it might last.

Tom Whipple, an energy scholar, was a CIA analyst for 30 years – and believes we are likely at, or very near, a point in history when the maximum production capacity for oil is reached, a phenomenon often referred to as “peak oil”.

“Peak oil is the time when the world’s production reaches the highest point, then starts back down again,” Whipple told Al Jazeera. “Oil is a finite resource, and [it] someday will go down, and that is what the peak oil discussion is all about.”

There are signs that peak oil may have already arrived.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently increased its forecast for average global oil consumption in 2011 to 89.5 million barrels per day (bpd), an increase of 1.2 million bpd over last year.

For 2012, the IEA is expecting another increase of 1.5 million bpd for a total global oil consumption of 91million bpd, leaving analysts such as Whipple to question how production will be able to keep up with increasing consumption. Whipple’s analysis matches IEA data which shows world oil production levels have been relatively flat for six years.

“This is getting very close to the figure that some observers believe is the highest the world will ever produce,” Whipple wrote of the IEA estimate in the July 14 issue of Peak Oil Review. He told Al Jazeera that peak oil could be reached at some point in the next month, or at the latest, within “a few years”.

Climate activist Tim DeChristopher due for sentencing

An activist who disrupted a Bush administration auction for the oil and gas industry by bidding $1.8m (£1.1m) he did not have for the right to drill in remote areas of Utah is due to be sentenced on Tuesday.

As Bidder No 70, Tim DeChristopher put in bogus bids and won drilling rights to 14 parcels of land at the auction, seen at the time as a last scramble by the Bush administration to open up wilderness lands to oil and gas extraction.

The action made DeChristopher a hero to some environmentalists, but he could face up to 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine following his conviction last March of defrauding the government.

“It is all up the judge. He can pretty much do what he wants,” DeChristopher, an economics student, said in a telephone interview.

But he added: “I do think I will serve some time in prison. That is what I think will be the next chapter in my life.”

Sentencing was scheduled for 3pm Utah time, or 10pm UK time on Tuesday.

Gingrich regrets 2008 climate ad with Pelosi

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said Tuesday that he regrets making a commercial with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the need to address climate change.

Gingrich, who partnered with Pelosi while she was Speaker for the 2008 ad, said the spot was “misconstrued,” and for that reason, he wouldn’t do it again.

“I was trying to make a point that we shouldn’t be afraid to debate the left, even on the environment,” Gingrich said on WGIR radio of the 30-second television commercial. “Obviously it was misconstrued, and it’s probably one of those things I wouldn’t do again.”

That commercial has caused some difficulties for Gingrich in the Republican presidential primary. Pelosi is one of the most polarizing figures for primary voters, and the appearance of wanting to partner with such a political bogeyman has arguably hurt Gingrich with GOP voters.

Connolly says GOP environment bill will increase pollution-related deaths

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) on Monday evening said a Republican bill funding the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies would cut environmental protection and lead to billions of dollars in increased healthcare costs due to increased pollution, as well as pollution-related deaths.

“This reckless bill would impose billions of dollars, Mr. Chairman, of healthcare costs in America by increasing the incidents of asthma, emphysema, heart attacks and premature death,” Connolly said on the floor. He cited a Congressional Research Service Report that said the bill would cause up to $539 billion in healthcare costs.

Quoting the same report, Connolly said this would cost taxpayers $179 billion more through federal healthcare programs.

“In addition, it will cause 60,000 pre-mature deaths, 20 million lost days of work, and 36,800 additional heart attacks in America,” he added.

Connolly spoke near the end of a mini-filibuster that House Democrats waged against the House bill, H.R. 2584. That effort ended at about 6 p.m., after which the House rejected a series of Democratic amendments to the bill. Details on amendment votes follow:

Cellulosic-ethanol industry struggles to take off

The great promise of a car fuel made from cheap, clean-burning prairie grass or wood chips–and not from expensive corn that feeds the world–is more mirage than reality.

Despite years of research, testing, and some hype, the next-generation ethanol industry is far from the commercial success envisioned by President George W. Bush in 2006, when he pledged so-called cellulosic biofuels would be “practical and competitive” by 2012.

Instead the only real alternative to traditional gasoline is ethanol made from corn, a fuel environmentalists say is not green at all because of the energy-intensive nature of modern farming.

Critics say it is a failure of government policy, not science, that the U.S. is still so dependent on corn for its biofuels. Washington has backtracked on cellulosic-ethanol production targets and failed to provide assurances to investors that the sector would be subsidized over the long term.

While there are dozens of pilot and demonstration cellulosic-ethanol projects around the country, the groundwork for the first commercial plants is only now getting under way.

Battered by recession, funding remains scarce for $100-million-plus plants needed for commercial-scale production so cellulosic can compete against cheaper ethanol-based corn.

“The earliest you’re going to see efficient cellulosic ethanol is five years,” said Richard Brock, president of Brock Associates, an advisory firm in Milwaukee.

For the industry to take off, investors need to be reassured that Congress will extend a cellulosic-production tax credit for several years and cellulosic-output targets will be big enough to encourage blenders to lock in future capacity.

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