AmeriScan: May 30, 2007

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Florida Lake Drops to Record Low Level

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida, May 30, 2007 (ENS) - Water levels in Lake Okeechobee are expected to fall to the lowest on record this week, threatening an important source of drinking water for nearly five million people and the Everglades during South Florida's worst known drought.

The nation's second-largest freshwater lake held at nine feet on Tuesday, less than a half-inch above the previous record of 8.97 feet, set May 24, 2001, after another long drought.

The average water level for this time of year should be around 13 feet.

Lake Okeechobee is a backup drinking water source for millions of people in South Florida and the lifeblood of the Everglades. The region is largely dependent on the lake during dry periods, when it can be used as a reservoir.

While the record low level of Lake Okeechobee means that drought conditions still exist, seizing this opportunity to clean the bottom of the lake now will ensure a healthier lake when the rains return," said Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole.

The drought has allowed the District to begin clearing 500,000 cubic yards of accumulated sediment from the southwest area of the 730 square-mile lake to return the lake bottom to a more sandy base, improve water quality and restore wildlife habitat. To date, some 7,000 truckloads of muck have been hauled away.

"We will continue to work with our partners in South Florida to conserve water, implement restrictions where necessary and develop long-term solutions to prepare for future drought conditions," said Sole.

Just seven inches of rain fell across South Florida over the last five months, only about half the average amount of rainfall.

Above-average rainfall is needed to replenish the system and return regional supplies to normal conditions.

"Water managers anticipated for many months that scarce rainfall across South Florida would bring new records lows," said Carol Ann Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.

She said, "We are preparing for continued dry conditions and using all available emergency measures to protect drinking water supplies, meet the needs of our farmers and safeguard the environment but the regional impacts of a drought are extreme and far-reaching."

Since March 30, Florida has spent $12.3 million in drought-response and emergency activities, including initiating and enforcing water the most stringent regional water restrictions ever imposed in 13 counties throughout South Florida.

"The greater Everglades system has always experienced weather extremes," said Susan Sylvester, with the South Florida Water Management District. "We have periodic droughts, tropical storms and back-to-back hurricanes, often impacting the water level in Lake Okeechobee, which has varied almost 10 feet in elevation since recordkeeping began in the 1930s. Our challenge is to manage our way through those extremes."

"Long-time Floridians know that previous droughts occurred in 1981, 1971 and 1956," Sylvester said. "The difference was that, back then, seven million people were not relying on our regional system."

Only isolated showers are forecast over the lake until the weekend, when more substantial rain is expected, according to the National Weather Service.

Forecasters say any rain over the lake would only stabilize lake levels temporarily because more rain is needed farther north in the Kissimmee River valley, which feeds the lake.

The last time the lake level rose was after Tropical Storm Ernesto brushed past Florida last August, according to the Jacksonville district of the Army Corps of Engineers. The lake level rose 1.5 feet to 13.5 feet after that storm, said a hydraulic engineer with the Corps.

Water officials say current predictions for a very active hurricane season starting June 1, may bring much needed rainfall to South Florida.

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One-Third of ExxonMobil Shareholders Back Climate Resolution

DALLAS, Texas, May 30, 2007 (ENS) - Nearly one-third of ExxonMobil shareholders at their annual meeting today voted in favor of a resolution that the company reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop sources of renewable energy.

The 31 percent "yes" vote was short of the majority needed to pass, but was a signal that large institutional investors are pressuring ExxonMobil to deal with climate change. Similar resolutions submitted in the late 1990s got votes in the single digits.

"This amazing support reflects investors growing understanding that companies now need to move beyond basic disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions to a business plan to reduce emissions," said Sister Patricia Daly of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Caldwell, New Jersey, which filed the greenhouse gas reduction resolution.

Exxon Mobil's biggest domestic and overseas rivals, including BP, Shell, Total, Chevron and ConocoPhillips, are all boosting their spending on renewable energy and taking other actions to respond to the risks and opportunities from climate change.

Exxon Mobil has made no major investments on renewables and continues to fund groups that question the scientific consensus on climate change.

Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson reiterated at the meeting that Exxon is in the oil and gas business, not the renewable energy business.

He also downplayed the seriousness of global warming. "There are some things we know, some things we don't know," he said. "What I find perplexing is why people feel so threatened because we want to have a discussion about it."

Such a large vote for an outsider resolution on any issue except corporate governance would have been unthinkable a few years ago, said the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, FTCR.

"Even shareholders who are currently gaining wealth from Exxon's solefocus on oil and gas see that it can't last," said Judy Dugan, research director of OilWatchdog.org and FTCR.

"Just ask industrial dinosaurs like General Motors whether they should have changed course sooner. If Exxon remains unresponsive, the next challenge will be how many of these deeply concerned investors decide to take their money out of the company," Dugan said.

"Exxon Mobil's go-slow approach on renewables, its resistance to a strong national climate policy and its campaign to muddy the waters on climate science is troubling to investors," said California State Controller John Chiang, a board member at CalSTRS and CalPERS, which collectively manage nearly $400 billion in assets.

"Instead of dragging its feet, Exxon Mobil should be taking the lead in providing long-term climate solutions that will help both the environment and shareholders," said Chiang.

"Shareholders of the world's most environmentally unfriendly oil company have put the renewable energy and global warming front and center," said Dugan, "defying a strong management campaign against them."

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Public Blames High Gas Prices on Oil Company Greed

PRINCETON, New Jersey, May 30, 2007 (ENS) - Americans are anticipating continued rising gas prices this summer, according to the latest Gallup panel survey conducted last week.

In the May 21-24, poll, 58 percent of those surveyed predict that gas prices will reach $4.00 per gallon in their local area this summer.

Only eight percent believe gas prices will reach $5.00 per gallon, and just one percent of the public believes prices will go as high as $6.00 per gallon.

The poll also asked respondents for their views about why gas prices are so high. The most common single reason, mentioned by one in three respondents, is that oil companies are greedy and are gouging consumers.

Thirty-two percent of respondents offered practical explanations including problems with refineries (16%), increased demand (10%), more driving during the summer months (3%), and oil shortages (3%).

Thirteen percent blame high gas prices on problems in the Middle East, including the Iraq War.

The government also receives its share of blame. Nine percent say government involvement has led to the high gas prices, while five percent cite a lack of government regulation of oil companies.

Roughly two in three of those surveyed say they have already been affected financially in some way by the high gas prices.

Those living in the Midwest and West are much more likely than those in the East and South to say gas prices will reach the $4.00 per gallon level. There is little meaningful variation by region in predictions that gas prices will reach the $5.00 and $6.00 levels.

A majority of respondents report being affected financially in some meaningful way by the higher gas prices - 18 percent say it has created a financial hardship for them, while an additional 49 percent say it has caused them to adjust their usual spending and saving habits in significant ways. Only one in three Americans say the change in gas prices has not had much impact on their financial situation.

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California Senators Propose Bay Area Water Recycling

WASHINGTON, DC, May 30, 2007 (ENS) U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both California Democrats, have introduced two measures to increase the supply of non-drinking water for California's Bay Area. The recycled water would be used for irrigation of vineyards and other urban, environmental and agricultural lands that need water for irrigation or ecological restoration.

The Bay Area Regional Water Recycling Program Authorization Act would make federal assistance available to seven Bay Area water recycling projects. When completed, these seven projects are estimated to provide 12,205 acre-feet of water annually in the short term, and 37,600 acre-feet annually in the long term.

This would be accomplished the senators say, while reducing demand on the Sacramento River Delta and on existing water infrastructure.

The second bill, the North Bay Water Reuse Program Act of 2007, would authorize the construction of pipelines to irrigate local vineyards with recycled water in Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties.

The water for irrigation would be recycled from five wastewater treatment facilities. In addition to vineyards, the water would be used for wetlands restoration in the Napa-Sonoma Marshes complex, as well as urban landscaping, pastureland and farmland in the three counties.

The program will generate up to 30,000 acre-feet annually of reclaimed water for use on 42,238 acres of urban, environmental and agricultural lands requiring water for irrigation or ecological restoration for the region.

"Water recycling offers great potential to states like California that suffer periodic droughts and have limited fresh water supplies," Senator Feinstein said. "So, I am pleased to join with Senator Boxer to introduce two pieces of legislation to help the San Francisco Bay Area a region with a growing population, limited water resources, and a unique environmental setting address its critical water needs.

A State of California task force in 2003 recommended that California expand its recycled water use by over a million acre-feet by 2025.

When completed, these two projects will provide the region with up to 67,600 acre-feet of additional water supply, equivalent to the water use of approximately 540,000 people.

Senator Boxer said, "As the population in the Bay Area and California continues to grow, we need to be more resourceful about our water usage and conservation. Through innovative water recycling, these bills will help our communities meet their water needs while relieving some strain on the Bay-Delta, which is California's lifeblood and the source of two-thirds of its water supply."

California Congressman Mike Thompson has introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives.

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Montana Governor Signs Clean Energy Bills

HELENA, Montana, May 30, 2007 (ENS) Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer Tuesday signed into law two bills that provide tax incentives for future development and transmission of clean and renewable energy.

The incentives support the development of new transmission lines, carbon dioxide sequestration pipelines to prevent emission of this greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, liquid fuel pipelines, power plants, coal to liquid plants, coal gasification plants, cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel plants and geothermal, solar and wind projects.

"This is a comprehensive approach to energy development in Montana," the governor said. "We've covered all our bases here generation, transmission and carbon sequestration to name a few."

A poll of likely Montana voters taken in September 2006 for the Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund showed that Montanans overwhelmingly favor developing renewable energy such as wind energy and biofuels over increased coal development.

Eighty-three percent of those polled said they are most interested in creating energy that is reliable, 77 percent favor clean and renewable energy, and 75 percent favor affordable energy over energy that is a source of economic development for the state.

"Montana will be a leader in clean and renewable energy," said Governor Schweitzer after signing the bills. "This will spur economic growth all over Montana, create good paying jobs and help our nation reduce its dependence on foreign sources of energy."

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New Montana Power Plant Permit Appealed

HELENA, Montana, May 30, 2007 (ENS) - Two citizens groups are appealing the air permit for the Highwood Generating Facility, a new coal-fired power plant proposed for construction on top of the Great Falls Portage National Historic Landmark outside of Great Falls, Montana.

On behalf of the Montana Environmental Information Center and Citizens for Clean Energy, the public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice today filed papers to require a regulation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new coal-fired power plants.

The legal action follow the Supreme Court's April 2 decision in the global warming case, Massachusetts v. EPA in which the court ruled that carbon dioxide is a "pollutant" subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.

According to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, DEQ, the proposed Highwood plant would emit 2.8 million tons of greenhouse gases, including 2.1 million tons of carbon dioxide, CO2, each year.

While the DEQ acknowledged that these emissions will contribute to global warming, the agency declined to require the plant developers to employ any pollution controls for CO2.

"We are very concerned that Montana is giving CO2 a free pass," said Abigail Dillen, an Earthjustice attorney who is representing the citizen groups, "Ignoring CO2 and global warming impacts is not just bad public policy, it's illegal."

"Montana can and should be a leader in the fight against global warming," said Anne Hedges of Montana Environmental Information Center.

In April, the Montana legislature passed a measure requiring the state's default supplier, NorthWestern Energy, to capture and sequester 50 percent of CO2 emissions from new coal plants.

However, for other utilities operating in the state, "it's business as usual," Hedges said. "The DEQ is permitting the same old dirty plants when there are better, cleaner ways to meet our energy needs."

In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, the two organizations are aiming to curb emissions of fine particles that cause premature death, heart attacks, and asthma, among other serious cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.

Despite new federal rules, which have substantially tightened emissions standards for fine particles, known as PM2.5, the DEQ failed to impose emissions limits, consider pollution controls, or require monitoring for PM2.5.

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Student Filmmakers Win With Environmental Focus

PALO ALTO, California, May 29, 2007 (ENS) - The second annual GREENLIGHT Earth Day Film Festival awarded nearly $5,000 in prizes to 18 South Bay students and three adults for their exploration of environmental citizenship through films, public service announcements, and documentaries.

The competition was established by the City of Palo Alto, the Midpeninsula Community Media Center, a community resource for media tools and grassroots communication. Its Youth Broadcast Collaborative serves five school districts in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton.

The Festival screened nine winning works Thursday at a carbon-neutral event. The energy service provider 3 Phases Energy bought renewable energy Green Tags to offset the event's energy consumption.

The Best of Festival award and $500 cash prize went to the film "10 Simple Steps to Make Your Life More Green" by Aja Mathews, Caroline Hodge, Kait Macknick and Emily Viggiano of Gunn High School in Palo Alto.

Their easy ways to make a difference range from using cloth shopping bags and your own water bottle to recycling electronics components and buying compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Speaking directly into the camera, members of the Gunn High School Environmental Club and student body dramatized facts such as, "Americans buy two billion single-serve water bottles per year." They ran humorous outtakes with the credits.

In the process of creating their entry, another team of filmmakers from Terman Middle School initiated a schoolwide education campaign to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Annie Folger, Midpeninsula Community Media Center executive director, applauds the schools for their filmmaking classes and extracurricular activities relating to video and the environment.

"We succeeded in getting an $850,000 Cable Co-op Legacy grant that put a TV studio in every public middle and high school in our service area," Folger said. "We trained the teachers and provide some technical support, and students are now broadcasting morning news on campus."

The works of all nine finalists are online here.