Standing Rock: Court rules pipeline to stay open for now

On October 11, 2017, the US District Court under Judge Boasberg issued a temporary ruling that the Dakota Access Pipeline can stay open for now, while the larger case proceeds.  The full 28-page ruling is available here.


The judge also chastised ETP for beginning operations while the case was unresolved. This may be a slim ray of hope for the future.

Interestingly, the judge’s decision was not based on Energy Transfer Partner’s (ETP) economic arguments. Instead, he rule that the pipeline could stay open because it was “possible” that the Army Corps could address the judge’s earlier rulings by modifying the Environmental Assessment (EA) and would not have to do an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This does not bode well for the Tribes in the long run. In fact, it’s exactly what I predicted in my analysis of the judge’s earlier ruling, “that the Corps can satisfy this judge by simply amending the EA and adding in a few sentences“.

For additional information on the case, see my earlier blog post. For the latest updates, see Earthjustice’s website.

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California’s dirtier-than-tar-sands secret

Not all oils are created equal. Crude oil, which is not yet refined into gasoline and other products, ranges from thick and black to rather light and yellowish. Among the “cleanest” oils is Bakken, fracked from North Dakota. It has the consistency and look of soy sauce. There are stories of truck drivers putting it straight into their vehicles,


Dug from the soil underneath the Canada’s taiga forest, tar sands mines are a poster child of apocalyptic habitat destruction.

unrefined, and driving. This is why Bakken oil is so flammable in rail accidents. At the other end of the spectrum is Canadian tar sands, widely known as the dirtiest of oils. It has to be heated or mixed with a diluent just to move it. When one calculates all the oil it takes just to extract that oil and transport it, and how low quality it is and how much energy it takes to refine it, the carbon footprint of tar sands is several times that of other oils. Its Carbon Intensity (CI), a measure of well-to-gas-tank CO2 equivalent emissions per unit of energy (gCO2e/MJ), generally ranges from 24 to 35. In comparison, the CI of most light crudes, such as Bakken or Saudi Arabia Light, is about nine.

CA oil CO2 intensity

The top 80% of California’s oil supply is on this graph. Domestic oil is shown in blue. Heavy oils are on the right (darker circles), lighter oils on the left. Note Canada Tar Sands with a CI of 24. Date source: California Air Resources Board.

California is one of the top oil producing regions in the world. It trails only Texas and North Dakota as the top oil producing state in the US, which is now neck-and-neck with Saudi Arabia and Russia as the top oil producing nation in the world. The curious thing about California, however, is that, due to its complex geography, the quality of its oil is highly variable, ranging from cleaner than Bakken to dirtier than tar sands. The CI of California’s crudes varies dramatically from field to field and even well to well.


Both tar sands and the Midway-Sunset field (above) are easy to spot using Google Earth. The Midway-Sunset field is located west of Bakersfield along Highway 33, stretching from McKittrick in the north, through Taft, to Maricopa in the south.

California has four significant oil fields that have CI’s higher than tar sands: Midway-Sunset, San Ardo, Coalinga, and Kern Front. Together, these make up almost 8% of California’s oil supply. (Tar sands made up less than 1% in 2015 and is probably zero at the moment.) The Midway-Sunset field is also the largest field in California, itself providing 4.6% of the state’s oil.


Oil producers have built several power plants in the Midway-Sunset field to inject steam into the ground to force the oil up. Sometimes this liquefies the sandy soil, creating hot sinkholes (poetically called “surface expressions”), which occasionally swallow workers.

One of the obvious strategies to minimize greenhouse gas emissions is to keep the dirtiest oil in the ground. If California were to simply shut down these fields and substitute this oil for Saudi Arabia Light or a similar light oil, the reduction in CO2 emissions would be equivalent to reducing California’s oil consumption over 5%.

But absent a law restricting oil over a certain CI, which is unlikely, California relies on its cap-and-trade system to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Under this system, certain businesses must by “permits to pollute” through a state-run market. They may buy and sell these permits amongst each other. Since 2014, Quebec has joined the program, making it one giant market across the two entities. Based on the CI levels, producers of California’s dirtiest oil would have to buy three times more permits than those producing or importing light oil. To date, this has been a low hurdle for them and has not curtailed production. The cost of the tradable permits is low (because the cap is so high), so that producing oil from dirty fields is still more profitable than selling the permits to a cleaner operation.

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Counting victims

I’m re-posting this story from The Root.  They could add a lot more Native examples, but you get the point:

Las Vegas Is Only the Deadliest Shooting in US History Because They Don’t Count Black Lives





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Native lives splatter: Killing Indians with your car

On September 7, South Dakota Representative Lynne DiSanto, the Republican whip in the state legislature, re-tweeted a meme promoting running down protestors with cars. Mainstream media quickly drew parallels to the murder of a white activist in Charlottesville by the same means. Liberals demanded an apology. Her job fired her (she sold real estate in the Black Hills!). And fellow Republicans minimized it. Let me maximize it by providing a little context.


When Rep. Lynne DiSanto is not working as a Republican legislator in South Dakota, she sells real estate in the Black Hills, which were stolen from the Sioux and remain hotly contested.

Running down Native Americans with cars is a thing. Here’s a summary from just the last year:

In Thunder Bay, Canada, a 34-year-old mother recently died after being struck by a trailer hitch thrown at her from a passing car. First Nations people in the area report that beer bottles and other objects are commonly thrown at them from vehicles, usually accompanied by racial slurs.

Living in South Dakota, DiSanto would have been familiar with some of these incidences. This region is sometimes called the “Deep North”, a parallel to the Deep South, but with its racial animosity targeting Natives. As a legislator, she no doubt followed the North Dakota proposal that would provide legal cover for drivers. Taken together, her meme was nothing more than a call to race-based murder. It represents an alarming contribution, by an elected official, to the increase in the use of violence, both by masked white supremacists and official red state authorities, to put down Natives and other people of color who raise their voices. She will face no charges for inciting violence.

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The basics of sea level rise

sealevel-summerI was lucky to be out of town for a week during “the greatest statewide heat wave ever recorded in California.” When I arrived in Seattle, I was quickly informed that they had just set a record of 55 consecutive days without rain—and that the record would still be increasing had it not been for 0.02 inches late one night a few weeks earlier. Seattle has also set a number of heat records the past four summers. The same people that bragged about this “beautiful weather” scoffed that I believed in climate change. They asserted that no sea level rise would occur during our, our children’s, or our grandchildren’s lifetimes because, 1) Puget Sound was not really part of the ocean; and 2) those NOAA flood maps are “bureaucratic bullshit”.  These same people live on the water in homes that are a few feet above current maximum high tides. Days later we all swept ashes off decks while marveling at the sun, which was reduced to a rosy red disc by smoke from a record 68 large uncontained fires burning across the West.

Astounded by the number of homes, roads, and railroad tracks located just toe-dipping distance above Puget Sound, I set out to learn about sea level rise, talking to experts and reading published studies and reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) .  Here’s what I found out.

  • sealevel-temp

    Climate change via rising temperatures is abundantly clear, dramatically so in recent years.

    Increases in sea level lag quite a bit behind climate change. We set the record for the warmest year on earth in 2016, breaking the record from 2015, which broke the record from 2014. For something as variable as weather, which has all kinds of ups and downs, this kind of consecutive record-breaking suggests runaway global warming. It is dramatic. But not so with sea levels.

  • Sea level rise is a function of several different factors:
    1. Thermal expansion: This happens because, like air or most anything else, water expands when it is warmer, taking up more space. As ocean temperatures increase, they bulge up a bit, and the sea level rises. This can be quantified with pretty good precision and is already occurring. In fact, this explains nearly all of the sea level rise currently underway.
    2. Antarctic Ice Sheet: While melting ice in the Arctic Ocean affects weather and ocean currents, it doesn’t add to the sea level because the ice was already in the ocean to begin with. An ice cube that melts in a glass of water does not change the water level. But glaciers that are on land, like in Antarctica, will flow into the sea when they melt, thus adding to sea levels. They are like an ice cube perched on the edge of the glass, melting into it.
    3. Greenland Ice Cap: While not as big as the Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Greenland Ice Cap will melt faster. In fact, it is already becoming the next big contributor to sea level rise.
    4. Other glaciers and other factors: Smaller glaciers from Alaska to New Zealand are melting, and also adding to sea level.
  • Sea level rise is underway, currently at a rate of 3.4 mm/yr (or 13 inches per 100 years). It has already risen 2 ½ inches since the year 2000, and 6 ½ inches since 1900.
  • The rate of sea level rise is increasing as ice melt from Greenland, Antarctica, and other glaciers begin to contribute. The standard practice is to estimate total sea level rise by the year 2100, as compared to 2000. Because the rate is increasing, it will certainly be more than the 13 inches described above, because ice melt from Greenland, Antarctica, and other places is beginning. However, estimating that increase is difficult. The 2013 report from the IPCC estimated total sea level rise by 2100 at 1 foot to 3.2 feet, depending upon assumptions about CO2 levels. Because Greenland and other Arctic glaciers are melting faster than anticipated, the IPCC report has come under criticism from scientists, who have now adjusted their estimates up to 1.7 feet to possibly 6 feet by 2100.

    sea level rise house diagram

    The projected range of sea level rise, depicted in scale over a waterfront home.

  • The rate of sea level rise will continue to increase at an increasing rate for several hundred years. The Antarctic Ice Sheet and Greenland have a lot of ice, and melting takes time. This melting, which is only just beginning, will increase with time, but may still take hundreds of years to really pick up steam. This appears to be “virtually certain”. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is now considered to be “past the point of no return”, with large scale melting “unstoppable.” Still, the exact timing is unknown. It will begin slowly but then suddenly increase rapidly, possibly during this century. This caveat is included in all predictions. The “conservative” estimate is that ocean levels will rise 3 to 10 feet by the year 2300, depending upon future CO2 levels and temperature increases. At that point, however, it will still be rising at a rate more than double the current rate. It thus appears that a total sea level rise over 10 feet, largely if not entirely due to anthropogenic CO2 emissions, is inevitable in the long run.
  • In the next few decades, sea level rise will be mostly felt during acute events, such as during high tides or large storms, or a combination of the two. This will, unfortunately, cause my friends in Puget Sound to attribute their flooded living rooms to unusually high tides or large storms, but not to rising sea levels.

To examine flooding in Puget Sound under various levels of sea level rise, you can surf a map and toggle the level of sea level rise at this interactive website.

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Totality Visions

“It’s so beautiful.” My voice was uncontrollably shaking and tears were welling up in my eyes.  Like Jodie Foster at the end of Contact.


I took this photograph about ninety seconds before totality. It’s a 180-degree panorama, looking south, with the east on the left edge and the darkening west on the right.

From atop a sagebrush bluff in eastern Oregon, we felt the day cool and the bright yellow landscape fade into muted tones. Ten minutes before totality, in a half-light like some strange Instagram filter, a Brewer’s Sparrow started singing. Three minutes before, Venus appeared almost directly overhead and the horizon and sky in the west sank into a deep velvety midnight blue, as if blackness was pouring down from the heavens. Distant smoke from a fire on the southern horizon lit up like a sunset. Two minutes to go, with darkness from the west spreading, threatening to envelope us, the crowd began to exclaim, “It’s coming!” and “Oh my God!”  And, then, suddenly, we looked up, and there it was– floating in cool peaceful stillness, a perfect black disc surrounded by a silky silver corona. In its serene beauty, it seemed to be looking at us. Benevolently.  It felt much closer to me than the sun normally feels, perhaps just a few thousand feet up. It was real; everything else was surreal.

example corona2

I elected to avoid fussing with my camera during totality, but I searched the internet for the image that came the closest to what I saw. Nothing comes close to what it’s like in real life, but this one from a different eclipse in Norway came the closest.

Our time in its presence lasted just shy of two minutes and eight seconds, but the memory is seared in my mind. I still cannot explain why it felt so meaningful. It certainly sent a message that the universe was tightly held together, that everything was in order, that at 10:23:37.6 in the morning, on schedule, it came to us. It was beautiful– yes, possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and certainly the most unique– but it was just physics. Yet it felt so emotionally fulfilling.

Through binoculars we saw little red solar prominences on the perimeter of the black disc, and the little hot dot of Mercury just off to the left. As the corona blinked and turned into a diamond ring, we watched diffuse “shadow bands” dance on a white sheet I had draped over a large sage. The great tranquil eye was turning its gaze eastward. I thought of friends in Carbondale and Charleston and the joy coming their way. Eclipses should be longer. There should be more of them. If I think about this experience on my deathbed, I’ll die with a smile on my face.

Here is a seven-minute video, which captures our view southwest of the valley before us (the town of Unity, Oregon is just left of center), and the audio of our reactions.

Key moments:
2:00 The shadow is coming
2:30 It’s coming
3:20 Totality!
5:40 Sunlight returns; shadow bands are called out

Total eclipses have a long history of inspiring visions that changed the course of human events. In North America, Wovoka’s epiphany from a similar sage-covered hilltop in northern Nevada during the January 1, 1889 eclipse had dramatic ramifications.

From Suggestions for Observing the Total Eclipse of the Sun on January 1, 1889, published by the University of California:

What is first noticed is the change which takes place in the color of the surrounding landscape, which begins to wear a ruddy aspect. This grows more and more pronounced, and gives to the adjacent country that weird effect which lends so much to the impressiveness of a total eclipse. The color changes because the earth’s atmosphere absorbs a larger proportion of the blue rays than of the red…

The color of the light becomes more and more lurid up to the moment when the sun has nearly disappeared. If the spectator is upon the top of a high mountain, he can then begin to see the moon’s shadow rushing towards him at the rate of about a mile in a second. Just as the shadow reaches him there is a sudden increase of darkness; the brighter stars begin to shine in the dark lurid sky, the thin crescent of the sun breaks up into small points or dots of light, which suddenly disappear, and the moon itself, an intensely black ball, appears to hang isolated in the heavens.

 An instant afterward the sun’s corona is seen surrounding the black disc of the moon with a soft effulgence quite different from any other light known to us.

Around 2pm on that day, as the land and sky turned dark, stars appeared, and the corona blinked on like a benevolent eye, Wovoka of the Northern Paiute saw more than all that. For two minutes of totality, he saw a new earth, filled with the resurrection of the dead,


Paiute Ghost Dance, 1890

living in peace as in times of old, in a land teeming with deer and buffalo. His vision spread throughout the West, from reservation to reservation. Tribes sent emissaries. The vision grew. Jesus will return to save his people, the American Indians. (Does He not look like one? Did not the whites kill him the first time he came?) Living in His presence, there will be no hunger, no disease, and no death; no tears, pain, or mourning. The whites will sink into the soil. All will be made new. This will come to pass if the people perform the Ghost Dance.

The US responded to the dancing Natives. In less than two years, to stop the dancing, Sitting Bull was assassinated and hundreds of elders, women, and children were slaughtered at the Wounded Knee Massacre.

For more information about the significance of eclipses to various Native ethnic groups, see this recent collection just compiled by the National Museum of American Indians.

Celestial events put human troubles in perspective. We live in a different time than Wovoka, when the laws of nature exemplified by the eclipse boomerang on us, in the form of CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Humans have no power to alter the course of the earth and moon, but, unfortunately, we can screw up the planet’s climate, which follows certain natural rules. As we walked down the bluff after the eclipse, surrounded by former NASA scientists and others intimately familiar with climate change, the rebounding desert temperature was a quick reminder. It is the problem that supersedes all others. Were there visions of peace and resolution to this problem? And will the forces arrayed against this dance succeed?

Coming Total Eclipses

For a list of all future total and annular eclipses, with interactive Google maps and details about totality, see this amazing webpage.

Here is a short summary:

July 2, 2019 – northern Chile and Argentina, with 2 minutes of totality in Chile

December 14, 2020 – southern Chile and Argentina, with 2:10 of totality

April 20, 2023 – Eastern Timor and western Australia, with 1 minute of totality in Australia

April 8, 2024 – Mazatlan to Newfoundland (sometimes described as Texas to New England), with 4 1/2 minutes of totality in Mexico

August 12, 2026 – Iceland to Spain, with 2 minutes of totality

August 2, 2027 – a massive eclipse from Gibraltar, Spain and Morocco across northern Africa and the Middle East, including Mecca, with over 6 minutes of totality near Luxor, Egypt.






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The rapid rise and fall of racist symbols

confed1The Southern Poverty Law Center prepared this remarkable diagram, illustrating when Confederate symbols, such as statues, flags, and monuments, were erected in public places– mostly around 1910 and then again in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement.  Their full report is here.  CNN has a summary here.  Point being there were rather sudden and pronounced political and social motivations to put these things up in the first place.  They weren’t just always there from the beginning.  There are lots of parallels when it comes to symbols of control over Native Americans.  Here are three:

  1. manifestdestiny

    This painting from 1872, American Progress, features the woman Columbia leading ‘civilization’ while the ‘savages’ flee. 

    “Columbia” – a name that adorns the nation’s capitol, as well as many other cities and one of the largest rivers in North America (with, historically, the most salmon), is derived from Christopher Columbus, which seems strange since he was Italian, worked for Spain, and never set foot in the US.  The term “Columbia” began to be used in the mid-1700s, when the European population on the Eastern seaboard began to pass the Native population.  Nearly 250 years after Columbus lived, the American colonists were clearly claiming the continent for Europeans.  The name persists nearly everywhere.

  2. Pocahontas7Native mascots for universities and professional sports teams started in 1909 and really took off in the early to mid-1900s, when Natives were largely confined to reservations and no longer posed a military threat. Many Indian mascot names have since been revised.
  3. Pocahontas, who died in 1617, was largely ignored by history for over 200 years. She was resurrected during the Indian Wars of the 1800s as a model “good Indian”.  Her story was revised– she went from being a raped captive to a willing convert and wife.   The recast Pocahontas appeared in children’s stories and a wide variety of product advertisements.  She continues to be appropriated and marketed today.
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