Monday, February 24, 2014


This story first appeared in USA Today.

Exxon Mobil's CEO has joined a lawsuit to stop construction of a water tower near his home that would be used to in the fracking process to drill for oil.

While fracking -- hydraulic fracturing of rock to release pockets of oil -- has raised complaints from environmentalists around the country, Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson's opposition to a project in his own neighborhood is interesting, given how deeply Exxon Mobil is involved in the process.

Tillerson appeared at a Town Council meeting in Bartonville, Tex., the wealthy enclave near his Dallas home last November to join in the protest over the water tower, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The lawsuit contends the project would create "a noise nuisance and traffic hazards." Trucks would be needed to haul and pump water.

The tower, being built by Cross Timbers Water Supply, would rise 15 stories, the Journal says. It's adjacent to Tillerson's 83-acre horse ranch and not far from an 18-acre homestead. Tillerson is devoting considerable time to the matter: he sat for three hours in the lawsuit last May and attended an all-day mediation session in September, besides his Town Council appearance.

Among the others opposing the project are those who are not exactly known for environmental crusading: former U.S.House Majority Leader Dick Armey and his wife are the lead plaintiffs.

An Exxon Mobil spokesman contacted by the Journal said that the suit is Tillerson's own matter and the oil giant "has no involvement in the legal matter."


This story first appeared in The Economic Times.

SINGAPORE: The El Nino weather pattern that can trigger drought in some parts of the world while causing flooding in others is increasingly likely to return this year, hitting production of key foods such as rice, wheat and sugar.

El Nino - the Spanish word for boy - is a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific that occurs every four to 12 years. The worst on record in the late 1990s killed more than 2,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

A strong El Nino can wither crops in Australia, Southeast Asia, India and Africa when other parts of the globe such as the US Midwest and Brazil are drenched in rains.

While scientists are still debating the intensity of a potential El Nino, Australia's Bureau of Meteorology and the US Climate Prediction Center have warned of increased chances one will strike this year.

Last month, the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization said there was an "enhanced possibility" of a weak El Nino by the middle of 2014.

"The world is bracing for El Nino, which if confirmed, could wreak havoc on supply and cause prices of some commodities to shoot up," said Vanessa Tan, investment analyst at Phillip Futures in Singapore.

Any disruption to supply would come as many crops have already been hit by adverse weather, with the northern hemisphere in the grip of a savage winter.

The spectre of El Nino has driven global cocoa prices to 2-1/2 year peaks this month on fears that dry weather in the key growing regions of Africa and Asia would stoke a global deficit. Other agricultural commodities could follow that lead higher if El Nino conditions are confirmed.

"Production estimates for several crops which are already under stress will have to be revised downwards," said Phillip Futures' Tan.

"Wheat in Australia may be affected by El Nino and also sugar in India."

In India, the world's No.2 producer of sugar, rice and wheat, a strong El Nino could reduce the monsoon rains that are key to its agriculture, curbing production.

"If a strong El Nino occurs during the second half of the monsoon season, then it could adversely impact the production size of summer crops," said Sudhir Panwar, president of farmers' lobby group Kishan Jagriti Manch.

El Nino in 2009 turned India's monsoon patchy, leading to the worst drought in nearly four decades and helping push global sugar prices to their highest in nearly 30 years.

Elsewhere in Asia, which grows more than 90 percent of the world's rice and is its main producer of coffee and corn, a drought-inducing El Nino could hit crops in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China.

And it could deal another blow to wheat production in Australia, the world's second-largest exporter of the grain, which has already been grappling with drought in the last few months.

El Nino could also crimp supply of minerals such as gold, nickel, tin, copper and coal if mines flood or logistics are disrupted.

In North America, crops in the US Pacific Northwest could suffer as El Nino tends to cause rain to the area, with the major white wheat region already abnormally dry.

But El Nino doesn't spell bad news for all farmers. It could bring rain to drought-hit California's dairy farms and vineyards.

"El Nino has a bad connotation, undeservedly so in the US," said Harry Hillaker, state climatologist in Iowa.

"Given the water supply issues they are having in California, more rain would be helpful."

And in Central America, while dryness associated with El Nino would curb coffee production, it would also help drive back the leaf rust that has blighted crops in the region.

Monday, February 10, 2014


This story first appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Snow and sleet continue to fall across huge swathes of the U.S., and the national supply of road salt is running low. New York has declared a state of emergency, while Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and other states have also disclosed their difficulties in covering streets and sidewalks amid a long-running cold snap. What exactly is road salt and where does it come from?

The U.S. first began using salt on roads in 1938, and now spreads between 10 million and 20 million tons annually, according to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. Heavy salt deployment helps save drivers and pedestrians from icy dangers but isn’t without hazards of its own: The salt used on roads is also partly responsible for the potentially harmful increase in the salinity of our water. The U.S. is the second-largest road salt producer worldwide after China, accounting for an estimated 15 percent of world output in 2013, according to Roskill Information Services.

American companies like Morton Salt and Cargill get their rock salt from mines as well as evaporated salt plants and solar salt operations. Cargill’s salt, for example, comes from Kansas, Louisiana, California, Oklahoma, and New York, which has some of the country’s largest underground salt mines in which workers blast enormous walls of salt before processing the crystals down to size.

With salt reserves running low, companies are now struggling to keep up with orders. “We are working overtime in our mines to try and keep up with demand,” said Cargill spokesman Mark Klein in an e-mail. “In addition to widespread demand, the weather is affecting transportation, slowing trucks, trains and barges.” Desperate states and municipalities are already paying a premium for emergency deliveries. Whereas the Ohio Department of Transportation reported paying only $36 per ton this past summer, it recently shelled out $72 per ton for an extra delivery.

Road salt—also called rock salt (PDF)—is made of granular sodium chloride, the same chemical that’s in table salt. It works by lowering the freezing point of water, often by enough to melt existing ice. A solution with 20 percent salt, for example, freezes at 2F. Even when temperatures are too low for the ice to melt, salt still provides some traction, although it’s less effective than sand in this regard.

Some states are getting creative with alternative solutions. New York launched a pilot program to de-ice roads using beet juice, which helps stop the runoff of salt; waste from beer making would apparently do the same thing. Some New York towns have also used briny wastewater from fracking operations, which has environmentalists up in arms.

New Jersey, meanwhile, is experimenting with pickle brine, and Milwaukee in December began pouring cheese brine on its streets. “You want to use provolone or mozzarella,” Jeffrey A. Tews, a fleet operations manager for the public works department, told the New York Times. “Those have the best salt content. You have to do practically nothing to it.”