Overnight Energy & Environment

Energy & Environment — Drought threatens Texas cattle industry

In Texas, the Western megadrought is wreaking havoc on ranching. Meanwhile, Democrats are threatening to subpoena a consulting firm that has worked with the fossil fuel industry, and scientists say they found a way to break apart some PFAS.  

This is Overnight Energy & Environment, your source for the latest news focused on energy, the environment and beyond. For The Hill, we’re Rachel Frazin and Zack Budryk. Someone forward you this newsletter? Subscribe here. 

Western water issues create struggle for ranchers

The megadrought in the Western U.S., the region’s worst in 1,200 years, is threatening America’s cattle heartland: withering pastures, wrecking feed harvests and endangering a quintessential way of life. 

The drought is forcing ranchers in Texas and across the Southern plains to make an agonizing decision: Sell early now for less money than they planned on — or hold on, pray for rain and risk losing everything.  

“We’ll keep selling cows till it rains,” Texas High Plains rancher Jim Ferguson told Amarillo station KAMR, which collaborated with The Hill on this report. 

For now, Ferguson is just selling his oldest calves, for which he’ll be able to get the best price. But with no rain in the forecast, and therefore no prospect of lush winter pastures for his herds to eat, “it won’t be long before we start getting into the younger ones.”  

The drought is echoing through beef supply chains, resulting in higher prices for consumers for at least the next two years — and likely serving as the final blow to many small, family-run cattle herds that represent a key part of the industry.  

“The lack of water in general, it’s hurting us all the way around. Any way you can think of,” cattle buyer Josh Sturgeon told KAMR, which is owned by The Hill’s parent company, Nexstar Media. 

Sturgeon had come to auction in search of deals from ranchers such as Ferguson, forced to liquidate their herds for lack of water to grow cattle feeds — or the money to buy them.  

But “you’re almost afraid to buy,” Sturgeon said. “Cattle drink a lot of water, especially this time of year. With this drought, they’re drinking a lot of water. Cattle are dying because of this. Even the best of cattle are struggling.”  

The sudden bump in sales as the drought worsens are “intense, protracted — it’s nothing like we’ve seen in the last 15 years,” Walter Kunisch of consultant group Hilltop Securities told The Hill, adding that many farmers are even selling off their breeding stock, which they rely on to produce the next generation of cows.  

“That’s a big signal to me that, you know, that future supplies at some point are going to run tight,” Kunsich added.  

Read more here, from The Hill’s Saul Elbein. 

Previously in this series: 

Dems threaten to subpoena firm over oil work 

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the panel’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, floated the possibility of a subpoena if a consulting firm does not produce documents relating to its marketing work for fossil fuel companies.  

In the letter, Grijalva and Porter’s second since June, they stated that FTI Consulting has yet to respond to their request. The letter was one of several, with other recipients including Story Partners, DDC Advocacy, Blue Advertising and Singer Associates as well as the American Petroleum Institute.  

In the second letter, the lawmakers accused the company of deliberately stonewalling them by asserting privileges and confidentiality agreements protecting the clients in question. However, the lawmakers claimed that they declined to outline the nature of those privileges. 

Over a month after the first consultation, FTI told the committee half of its unnamed clients had refused to consent to disclosing the information, according to the letter. 

“FTI has not wavered in its blanket refusal to provide even the most basic information about its clients or descriptions of the grounds for its refusal beyond the vaguest assertions of confidentiality and privileges,” Grijalva and Porter wrote. “FTI has provided no indication that this obstruction of congressional oversight will come to an end voluntarily.”   

FTI says they’re working to be responsive, keep confidentiality: “Our company takes the Subcommittee’s request very seriously.  We continue to be in regular contact with subcommittee staff as we progress our efforts to be responsive to the chair’s request in a manner consistent with our legal obligations to preserve our clients’ confidentiality and privileges,” an FTI spokesperson told The Hill in a statement.

Read more about the threat here.  

‘FOREVER’ NO MORE? 

Scientists at Northwestern University say they have devised a method for breaking apart some of the infamously unbreakable toxins known as “forever chemicals.” 

These chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), earned the “forever” qualifier due to their propensity to linger in the human body and the environment. There are thousands of types of PFAS, none of which are naturally occurring and many of which can take decades to degrade. 

But a group of chemists at Northwestern say they have developed a simple method that employs low temperatures and inexpensive reagents to break down two major classes of PFAS, while leaving behind only harmless byproducts. 

They published their findings — which they acknowledged as a “seemingly impossible” but potentially “powerful solution” — in Science on Thursday afternoon. 

“PFAS has become a major societal problem,” lead author William Dichtel, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern, said in a statement. “Even just a tiny, tiny amount of PFAS causes negative health effects, and it does not break down.” 

Scientists have already found connections between PFAS exposure and a long list of illnesses, including testicular cancer, thyroid disease and kidney cancer. 

“We can’t just wait out this problem,” Dichtel said. “We wanted to use chemistry to address this problem and create a solution that the world can use. It’s exciting because of how simple — yet unrecognized — our solution is.” 

The reason that PFAS are usually so indestructible is that they are made up of many carbon-fluorine bonds, which are the strongest such bonds in organic chemistry, the authors explained. 

So how does it work? the researchers said they identified a weakness that enabled them to disrupt this formidable attachment. 

While PFAS contain long “tails” of powerful carbon-fluorine bonds, at one end of these molecules is often a “head group” of charged oxygen atoms, the authors explained. 

By heating the compounds in a solvent called dimethyl sulfide with a common reagent called sodium hydroxide, the scientists said they “decapitated the head group” — exposing a vulnerable, reactive PFAS tail. 

Read more about the discovery here, from The Hill’s Sharon Udasin.

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • Russia allegedly tells nuclear power plant workers not to go to work Friday amid concerns of a planned incident (NBC News
  • All of Massachusetts now in drought amid alarming expansion of dry conditions in Northeast (CNN
  • Disturbance heading for Gulf has become ‘a little better organized,’ hurricane forecasters say (NOLA.com
  • The electric car Battery Belt is reshaping America’s heartland (Axios
  • Chevron Jumps Into Texas’ News Desert With Stories About Puppies, Football, and Oil (Gizmodo

ICYMI

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s Energy & Environment page for the latest news and coverage. We’ll see you tomorrow. 

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