The Alamo The Alamo Group of the Sierra Club
Explore, enjoy and protect the planet

Newsletter
The Alamo Sierran e-Newsletter - October, 2014


* General Meetings *

Tuesday, October 21st: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Jessica Alderson, Urban Biologist, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, will discuss impact of drought on wildlife.

Tuesday, November 18th: Solar Update

Lanny Sinkin, of Solar San Antonio, will give an update on progress made in solar energy, particularly distributed energy.

Times, maps and speaker bios are on our Events page.


The Executive Committee of the Alamo Sierra Club Needs Candidates

Are you interested in helping the Alamo Group or do you know of someone who is? We must elect at least three new volunteers for three-year terms on the Executive Committee to begin serving in January 2015. If you are interested in being considered as a candidate, please send us a 100-word statement by October 15 on why you would like to be on the committee. Please send nominations and statements to nomination committee member Libby Day.

ExCom responsibilities as described by the Sierra Club are:

We meet about 10 times a year for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, currently at EcoCentro at SAC, N. Main at Locust Sts., every third Thursday (except July and Dec.), at 6:30, to discuss the administrative issues facing our Group. We are currently looking into possibly doing some meetings by Skype.

If you have any questions, or if you are interested in serving in some other leadership position or as a volunteer, please feel free to contact me.

by Margaret Day, Executive Committee Chair


Lion's Field Events
Monthly films and presentations for your edification and enjoyment

Wednesday, September 24th: The Cove

The Cove examines dolphin hunting practices in Japan and was awarded the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010.

Wednesday, October 22nd: Introduction to Native Plants of Bexar County

John Nikolatos and Joan Miller, from the Native Plant Society of Texas, will discuss growing native plants to conserve water. John will give an introduction and Joan will present ten native plants recommended for San Antonio.

Our Lion's Field events are free and open to the public. They occur on the fourth Wednesday of each month at the Lion's Field Adult Center, 2809 Broadway @ Mulberry. Programs begin at 6:30 p.m..

Visit our Lion's Field Events page for a map and additional information.


High-level Radioactive Waste: What San Antonio Needs to Know NOW

High-level Radioactive Waste: What San Antonio Needs to Know NOW is the title of a public lecture by Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. This event is free and open to the public.

Thursday, October 2nd
7 p.m.
Fiesta Room (CUC111) of the Trinity University Coates Center. (Nearest public parking is on the Orange Level of Laurie Auditorium)

Dr. Makhijani (PhD, Engineering, U.C.-Berkeley) is a recognized authority on energy and environment-related issues, of which one of the most relevant to San Antonio is the safety and public health problems posed by nuclear power plants, e.g. CPS’ STP 1 & 2, as well as the proposed STP 3 & 4 in which CPS still owns 7% interest. Although the proposal to build two more reactors was stalled about 6 years ago – thanks partly due to a local coalition of which the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club was an active part), the coalition continues to press for withdrawing the proposal altogether and for closing the old reactors as soon as possible, without allowing a proposal for extension of their termination date. The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant highlights the risks of San Antonio’s reactors.

Dr. Makhijani returns to San Antonio to raise awareness about a new concern that the City faces – proposed State legislation that would allow high-level radioactive waste to be transported through Texas communities en route to West Texas.

Some Background About Radioactive Waste in Texas

First, low-level radioactive waste

In the 1980s, the federal government encouraged states to develop repository sites and to enter compacts with other states for dealing with radioactive waste. In 1993, Texas entered such a compact with Vermont and Maine to dispose of their low-level radioactive waste. Later the compact was expanded to allow the waste disposal site to take waste from 36 other states.

In 2011,  Waste Control Specialists was allowed to build the waste dump in Andrews County near the New Mexico border. The entire process was rushed through state approvals, despite the fact that the TCEQ technical team unanimously recommended against approval. For more details about the WCS problems and likely issues for further concern, see the report, The Repository and the Risk (2011), by watchdog NGO Public Citizen.

The Lonestar Sierra Club took the State to court over the improper rushing of the deal, but has not prevailed in any of the appeals. See Court thwarts Sierra Club's hazardous waste challenge.

In August of this year, the TCEQ voted 3-0 to allow WCS to more-than-triple its capacity to 9 million cubic feet. But, worse, the commission allowed WCS to reduce by $50 million – to only $86 million the amount of money the company must have to cover liabilities, such as a leak into the aquifer or an explosion leading to radioactive emissions. As the Public Citizen report shows, the initial liability assessment was way too low, so lowering it further virtually guarantees that taxpayers will foot the bill.  Texas law requires environmental monitoring of radioactive materials for 1000 years, but WCS could shut down after a few years and leave the State responsible for further care or cleanups.

Medium-level radioactive waste and “just-visiting” waste

Definitions of what could be allowed at the WCS facility are, apparently, flexible, and the State is considering officially expanding to medium and high-level radioactive waste. Even though not approved for its storage, considerable amounts of higher-level radioactive material have been “temporarily” stored at WCS. Currently, some 100 containers from Los Alamos National Laboratory that were headed for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico (the country’s only permanent repository for waste from several decades of making nuclear bombs), but an explosion and fire at that facility closed it for the foreseeable future. There is now concern about 5 containers of transuranic waste from LANL that are now at WCS, because the 6th container of that shipment is believed to be the source of the chemical reaction causing the WIPP explosion.

New proposals for high-level radioactive waste storage and/or reprocessing

Not only Andrews County, but also nearby Love County, are being proposed as destinations for high-level radioactive waste – either as a waste dump or as a reprocessing facility (or both). Governor Perry announced these proposals cheerily, as though he was arranging a wonderful blessing for the State. But transporting high-level radioactive material across Texas would also bring considerable danger that would stay dangerous for centuries.

San Antonio is located on some of the transportation routes (mainly rail, but also trucking), so we need to know WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

Please attend this lecture and share your reactions and opinions with the Conservation Committee Co-Chairs, Meredith McGuire and Terry Burns.  We need to decide soon how to respond to this issue before the next legislative sessions

by Meredith McGuire, Co-Chair of the Conservation Committee


Global Warming: Methane, the 2nd Most Important Greenhouse Gas

This is the third article in a series on global climate change. See the Alamo Sierran newsletter archives page for the previous ones in the July and August issues.

Atmospheric methane, a rather bad boy

Methane, CH4, is a far more effective greenhouse gas than CO2, as is apparent from the chart below, which was also included in the prior articles, from Wikipedia:

Key Greenhouse Gases
Gas Current concentration Greenhouse effect contribution
Water vapor, H20 0-4% 36-72%
Carbon dioxide, CO2 400 ppm (0.04%) 9-26%
Methane, CH4 2 ppm (0.0002%) 4-9%

Luckily the atmospheric concentration of methane has been low, but there are a number of sources that are causing that to increase now. Namely, in historical order, animal husbandry, the oil industry, and now melting of methane clathrate deposits.

The concentration in the atmosphere is now 2.5 times higher than anytime in at least 800,000 years, based upon Antarctic ice core data. About the same as CO2, as shown by the startling graphs in the August edition of this newsletter. Atmospheric methane has a half-life of 12 years (EPA; the Wikipedia article below says 7 years) due to reaction with hydroxl radicals (OH). That's a little bit of good news; but this means less OH waiting around to react with other pollutants.

Pie chart of methane sources
From Methane Emissions at epa.gov.
Enteric fermentation is a digestive process in livestock.

Wikipedia has an article on atmospheric methane. This article includes data on where it comes from. 45% is from natural sources; mostly wetlands, though that includes rice paddies, and a little fraction from methane clathrates (the latter could be increasing sharply, see below). 55% is directly due to human activities; of that about 1/3 comes from energy industries, 1/3 from livestock, and 1/3 from composting in landfills and water treatment plants and burning of cleared forests and waste wood materials. Methane leakage from improperly maintained gas pipelines and facilities at oil wells were discussed in the August article. Methane produced by livestock is discussed in a section at the end of this article. A possibly rapidly growing source of atmospheric methane is the melting of methane clathrate deposits.

Methane clathrate: what is this stuff and where is it?

Methane clathrate, or methane hydrate, is solid stuff that looks like ice, but has a lot of methane trapped inthe crystalline structure. Wikipedia, of course, has  a good article. Methane gas is trapped in the presence of cold water which then solidifies; the result is stable at low temperatures.

There are really big methane clathrate deposits particularly in Arctic permafrost sediments, both under tundra in Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada, but also under the Arctic sea. Not so “perma” we now know as some areas are thawing with global warming. There is thought to be much more methane in permafrost clathrate deposits than in mapped natural gas reserves now being exploited by the petroleum industry.

The clathrate gun hypothesis

This is the idea that increasing temperature “can trigger the sudden release of methane from methane clathrate compounds buried in seabeds and permafrost which, because the methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas, leads to further temperature rise and further methane clathrate destabilization – in effect initiating a runaway process as irreversible, once started, as the firing of a gun.” (Wikipedia).

The largest known mass extinction event, the one at the end of the Permian geologic period, occurred 250 million years ago. A key factor is thought to be global warming due to a massive release of methane from clathrate melting in Siberia, triggered by a wide area of lava flows. This resulted in the extinction of an estimated 95 percent of all species over a period of 80,000 years.

Methane clathrate melting: it is happening now?

In 2013 a mysterious crater was found on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia (on the Arctic Ocean due north of Kazakhstan). Others have been found since. That first one is around 100 yards wide. Samples taken from air at the bottom contain up to 10% methane. As methane is 45% lighter than air and quickly rises, a tremendous amount of methane must be coming out of the surrounding permafrost into the crater.

The summers of 2012 and 2013 on the peninsula were about 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. It seems methane escaping from melting clathrate in the permafrost built up pressure until it erupted, creating the crater. This phenomenon has not been observed before.

Food for thought
As long as skepticism is based on a sound understanding of science it is invaluable, for that is how science progresses. But poor criticism can lead those who are unfamiliar with the science involved into doubting everything about climate change predictions.
- Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

A scientist said of the crater “its rims are slowly melting and falling into the crater. You can hear the ground falling, you can hear the water running; it’s rather spooky.”. The above info came from a Washington Post article, which also has nice pictures.

An article in The Nation, The Coming Instant Planetary Emergency, mentions the US Navy prediction of ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean as early as 2016. This ocean is warming rapidly, and therefore so is the permafrost underwater and under northern tundras. A scientist mentions “The seabed is offshore permafrost, but is now warming and melting. We are now seeing great plumes of methane bubbling up in the Siberian Sea…millions of square miles where methane cover is being released.”.

It is unclear yet how big of a factor in global warming methane clathrate melting will become. This might become a serious factor within some few years. Bears close watching.

Methane from livestock

We might suspect this is emissions from nether ends of cattle, but apparently is mostly eructation (that's an interesting word), meaning belches. Cows lose about 6% of their ingested energy as methane, which could be reduced by changes in diet.

Cattle versus pigs and chicken

“Production of beef and cattle milk accounts for the majority of emissions [of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases by animal husbandry], contributing 41% and 20%, respectively. Production of pig meat and poultry meat and eggs contribute 9% and 8%, respectively”. So cattle is the biggest factor. This comes from an interesting website with lots of well-presented data about emissions of greenhouse gases by production of our food, and the impact of climate change in general, maintained by the  Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, University of Copenhagen.

Vegetarian diets

We should mention, as our vegan colleagues will interject, a vegan diet has a much lower greenhouse gas footprint (from CO2, CH4 and nitrous oxide, N2O) than one involving animal protein. The  Vegetarian Society has lots of info.

by Kevin Hartley, Newsletter Editor


The 2014 National Climate Assessment

This is a carefully done scientific study was done by the U.S. Global Change Research Program with contributions from fourteen US government departments. You don't have to drown in the detail; there are good highlights and overview documents.

Ten Indicators of a Warming World
From the Highlights document, pg 2: “These are just some of the indicators measured globally over many decades that show that the Earth’s climate is warming. White arrows indicate increasing trends; black arrows indicate decreasing trends. All the indicators expected to increase in a warming world are increasing, and all those expected to decrease in a warming world are decreasing.”

The overall website is at globalchange.gov. From the initial page note the “Explore the NCA” button. From here, it is fun to browse; there are succinct summaries, clearly understandable graphs and nice photos. Also at the initial page, note the “Download the NCA” button; you can get everything or anything as PDFs. On that download page at the top you can get “Highlights” or “Overview”, and below are links to the whole report.

by Kevin Hartley, Newsletter Editor


Sign Up for Action Alerts

The Sierra Club is all about citizen action on critical issues. Quick citizen input often spells the difference between victory and defeat for important measures at the local and state levels. Sign up now to receive our local e-mail Conservation Action Alerts and let your voice be heard. Call (674-9489) or email Loyd Cortez and we'll add your name to our growing list of environmental activists.


Hike the Canyon at Government Canyon State Natural Area — August 10, 2013

Outings: The Call of the Wild

Visit the Alamo Sierra Club Outings page on Meetup for detailed information about all of our upcoming Sierra Club Outings.