Trump Administration Finalizes Plans For Arctic Refuge Drilling
On Monday, Interior Secretary Secretary David Bernhardt announced the plan that would auction drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Yasmin Tayag of Medium’s OneZero talks about the details of the leases and criticisms of the plan—and checks in on wildfires in California from station KQED.
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Yasmin Tayag is a freelance science editor and writer based in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about what it’s like to have a baby during the COVID-19 pandemic and good news for Florida’s corals. But first, lightning strikes this weekend set off a series of wildfires in California, leaving areas like Vacaville scorched.
TOM WALTER: The whole property, it looks like war, a war zone. That’s the only way to explain it.
IRA FLATOW: Tom Walter is the caretaker of La Ferme Soleil, a family-run organic farm in Vacaville.
TOM WALTER: I can’t put the words together. My heart is hurting. My mind is– is numb.
IRA FLATOW: Tom’s trailer and everything he owned was completely destroyed, and he was forced to evacuate. Emergency centers are popping up to house evacuees like Tom. Red Cross volunteer John Williams has the added challenge of the pandemic and organizing groups of people indoors.
JOHN WILLIAMS: We have social distancing. We’re wearing. Masks Even our feeding procedures are different.
IRA FLATOW: Governor Newsom has declared a state of emergency to aid in the firefighting and relief efforts. Those interviews are from KQED reporters Peter Arcuni and Kevin Stark. And now for the rest of the news roundup. The Trump administration has approved a plan for drilling in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The plan would open up 1 and 1/2 million acres in the area. Oil companies and drilling proponents have been eyeing the area for decades.
My next guest is here to fill us in on the plan and other science headlines from the week. Yasmin Tayag is a senior editor at OneZero and writer at the Medium Coronavirus Blog. She is based out of New York. Welcome to Science Friday.
YASMIN TAYAG: Thanks so much, Ira. It’s great to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Let’s talk about this. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced that the plan is in the final stages. What does this cover? How would it work? Fill us in on this.
YASMIN TAYAG: According to the Interior Department’s new plan, they can start auctioning off drilling leases within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as early as the end of this year. What this means is that companies who buy these leases will have the rights to the property and any minerals that they find there for a set period of time. And it’s up to these companies who buy the leases to do test drilling to see if these areas are actually worth investing in.
IRA FLATOW: What kind of wildlife? What’s the area like? Give us a little picture of that area.
YASMIN TAYAG: So the refuge itself is 19 million acres of pristine land. It’s considered one of the largest stretches of wilderness left in the US. And it’s home to animals like polar bears and porcupine caribou, who importantly have their calving grounds there. And these animals are really important to some indigenous tribes in the area, both for food and for spiritual reasons.
IRA FLATOW: And tell us about the politics here. The governor is in favor of this?
YASMIN TAYAG: Yes, a lot of Alaska lawmakers are in favor of this, as well as some local energy firms and some other indigenous groups. There’s this argument that opening up this land for drilling will bring in much-needed jobs and revenue for Alaska, where oil production has been down since the ’80s. And Republicans have been fighting to open up this land for decades.
IRA FLATOW: There are opponents to this plan, are there not? Will this move forward, or will it get tied up in lawsuits, do you think?
YASMIN TAYAG: Opponents of this plan, which include indigenous groups and a lot of environmental activists, are expected to file a lawsuit for every one of these lease sales. So there’s going to be a lot of litigation in the months ahead.
IRA FLATOW: How does this fit into Trump’s administration energy plan?
YASMIN TAYAG: Trump has been trying to secure America’s energy dominance for a long time. So basically he wants America to be self-sufficient in terms of energy, in part by having its own oil. So opening up this refuge opens up a path to do that. It’s just a really weird time for this to be happening. There’s an oil glut because of pandemic.
On top of that, the PR of drilling in Alaska is just terrible. Banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase have even said they’re not going to finance drilling there. But I think the most interesting feature in all of this is that it’s not even clear that there is oil down there.
IRA FLATOW: Wait a minute. They’re going to drill, but they’re not sure there’s oil there.
YASMIN TAYAG: Yeah, there’s some evidence from the ’80s that suggests there could be several billion barrels of oil down there, but that data is kind of old. It’s not considered to be very clear how much oil is actually down there.
IRA FLATOW: So this is sort of a bit of a gamble. Can this be overturned by the next president?
YASMIN TAYAG: Yes. Well, the Interior Department appears to want to quickly sell these leases before the election. Because if Democrats and Biden regain the White House, they could block the sales. We know that Biden has called to permanently protect this refuge. But even if he wins, it will be really hard for his administration to overturn leases if they’ve already been sold.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to a COVID-19 story. There have been headlines pointing to a mutated strain that is becoming more prevalent. Take us through what is behind that story.
YASMIN TAYAG: There have been a lot of scary headlines in the news lately declaring that there is a new mutated form of the coronavirus that was detected in Asia and that this mutant form might be more contagious and more dangerous. These headlines are in the news because, yes, there is a mutated variant of the coronavirus, and it recently was detected in Malaysia and the Philippines.
However, there isn’t compelling evidence yet that this variant is actually more contagious and more dangerous. And it’s also not new. It was first detected in April. It was flagged in a preprint that later got published in the journal Cell. And this paper describes this one mutant form. It’s a mutation called D614G, which is a reference to the amino acid sequence of the virus. But for now, it’s not clear what the mutation actually does to the virus.
So the Cell paper shows that this mutant form is now the most dominant form in the world. And it has been in Europe and the US and Oceania for a while. And they hypothesized that the mutant form became dominant because it’s more infectious. And that’s the fear, right? But the critics of this paper say there’s just not enough evidence to support this.
And the big question now is if this strain isn’t more infectious, then how did this mutant variant become the main form? And there are other explanations why that could be.
IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. There is a big race now to make a vaccine, as we all know. Will this mutation affect that process?
YASMIN TAYAG: It could in theory. The mutation affects the virus’s spike protein, which gets talked about a lot because it has this critical role in infection. But the critics think it’s unlikely because the mutation affects a part of the spike protein that may not be critical for the immune response. And other research teams have found that antibodies from the original coronavirus and antibodies from the mutated form can cross-neutralize. So that’s more evidence that it’s not super critical to the immune response.
IRA FLATOW: I know that you cover many stories about vaccines, and there are many vaccines that are so-called genetic vaccines. What are these genetic vaccines?
YASMIN TAYAG: They’re not your typical vaccines. So while traditional vaccines usually use a killed or weakened form of the actual pathogen to elicit the immune response, a genetic vaccine uses a small piece of genetic material from the pathogen. So that’s DNA or RNA. And this piece of genetic material goes into a person’s own cells to make one of the proteins from the pathogen. And that’s what ultimately elicits the immune response.
IRA FLATOW: I understand that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is starting to look at wastewater in the fight against COVID-19. We’ve looked at this before, but is it being now more seriously looked at?
YASMIN TAYAG: On Wednesday, the CDC announced a plan to start tracking data on the coronavirus in our poop. They’re working with states and municipalities to look at the concentrations of viral RNA in sewage to potentially track where in the country there is an outbreak of COVID-19.
IRA FLATOW: Of course I say this is not a new idea. We’ve talked about this. Give us an idea of how this works, and has it been done for other diseases too?
YASMIN TAYAG: Yeah, this technique has been used in the past to attract polio pathogens with anti-microbial resistance, even drugs. And the way it generally works is that for the coronavirus, we know it gets into the gastrointestinal system, which means that it gets into our poop. And bits of its RNA gets stuck there. And because everybody poops, scientists can look at concentrations of viral RNA in sewage to capture the scale of an outbreak on a population level.
IRA FLATOW: But do we know yet if COVID-19 can be transmitted through poop, through feces?
YASMIN TAYAG: There is no clear answer for that. So it’s not known whether it is infectious if it is in the poop. But so far, we can take solace in the fact that so far, nobody has been reported to get infected in this way.
IRA FLATOW: All right, we’re going to move now from poop to cow farts–
–and cow burps. We hear this idea lot that cows are contributing to methane. Tell us about how this might work.
YASMIN TAYAG: Well, the popular idea is that cows fart out methane, which is a greenhouse gas, and that’s one of the reasons why they’re so bad for the climate. And recently this was part of a Burger King ad that aired in July that really ruffled feathers among some scientists and farmers because it said, yes, cow farts are causing global warming. And if we feed lemongrass to these cows, it could maybe reduce the methane in those farts.
So a lot of scientists are like, that’s not actually how it works. For one thing, it’s actually cow burps that are responsible for 80%, even 95% of the methane that cows emit. But scientists argue that there’s so much new research showing that there are ways to reduce emissions from livestock, and you need to take them seriously, and to cool it with the jokes because there are real ways in which the science can be applied.
IRA FLATOW: And what would be some of those ways?
YASMIN TAYAG: The big thing is called feed additives. And like the lemongrass that the Burger King ad referenced, these are things that you can feed to cows that reduce the amount of methane they produce. One of the big frontrunners in the field is red seaweed, which really reduces their methane by a lot. Lemongrass is unproven, so that’s one of the reasons Burger King was under fire a little bit.
IRA FLATOW: Don’t cows contribute a significant amount of methane into the environment?
YASMIN TAYAG: They are responsible for 52% of the total emissions from livestock globally, so they’re not perfect. They’re not innocent here. But the scientists want us to consider this idea that cows can be raised and fed better and don’t necessarily need to be demonized the way they’ve been in pop culture. There’s no question that cows contribute a lot of emissions, but the amount of food that’s produced per cow varies by country, and we should be aiming to get the most meat or dairy per burp.
And so ultimately, the scientists just want to stay open to the idea that science can change the food systems that we have now, and we’ve just got to stay open to it, even if it feels counterintuitive.
IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s a good place to end because we have run out of time. Yasmin Tayag is senior editor at OneZero and writer at Medium Coronavirus Blog. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.
YASMIN TAYAG: Thank you so much for having me.
IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break. And when we come back, we’ll talk about what it’s like to have a baby right now. And we’ll hear from some of your listeners.
SPEAKER: This was a time where I was stripped of all of the support systems that I would normally have. It was enormously worrisome and isolating. I felt like my pregnancy was hijacked, to be very honest.
IRA FLATOW: Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this short break.
Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.