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Posts Tagged ‘GHG’

Snowden is missing.  The IRS scandal is ongoing. SCOTUS struck down DOMA and punted on affirmative action. A Texas filibuster over a proposed abortion bill was picked up by a historic crowd at the state capitol who effectively blocked the legislation through sheer willpower. A red panda went missing from the National Zoo. DC United won a game. It’s been a hell of a week, and it’s only Wednesday.

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I feel ya, buddy.

In the middle of it all, President Obama delivered the policy speech that environmentalists have been waiting for since the day he took office: the one on climate change. The President’s agenda outlined broad goals for the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, invest in renewable energy, respond to the ongoing impacts of climate change, and finally, lead the international community in all of those areas, too. The official White House fact sheet is available here. But what about the details?

Coal, more than any other industry, took it on the chin in this one – not surprising given just how much pollution is generated by coal-fired power plants.  The plan directs EPA to move forward with regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants by June 2014.  The plan also included expanded effort to fund renewable energy and use public lands for renewable energy sources, efficiency initiatives, and reforestation measures.

The plan was met with mixed reactions.  Commentators were quick to judge the measures as a scaled-back version of the lofty goals that Obama set at the outset of his Presidency, and not surprisingly, many Republicans continued the drumbeat of erroneously pitting environmental initiatives against economic goals. (Side note: when will they give up, and realize the renewable energy can also create jobs? Sigh.)  Coal stocks responded by plummeting.  Many environmental groups, including Sierra Club and 350.org applauded the measures as the long-awaited concrete action to back up the President’s constant promises to tackle climate change.  Former Vice President and environmental advocate Al Gore called the speech “terrific and historic,” responding optimistically to the steps proposed in the President’s plan as well as his willingness to finally move forward on a longstanding issue.  The mention of the infamous Keystone XL pipeline caught many by surprise, as did the President’s comments that the pipeline will not go forward if it is found to increase GHG emissions.  That of course, is a finding that in reality is stupid – of course expanded tar sands development, and continuing to enable fossil fuel exports, will increase emissions and accelerate climate change.  But, the “official” outcome could go either way depending on how groups calculate the emissions and how directly they tie the impacts to the pipeline itself.  You know the saying- lies, damned lies, and impact assessments.  Another surprising feature was the mention of fossil fuel subsidies, which was included in the President’s international goals, but not within his steps to curb emissions in the US.  (Honestly, I don’t know why nobody listens to me on this one.  Cut fossil fuel subsidies, cut federal spending, and cut emissions by forcing people to think about how much and how often they drive and make better choices. Oh well.)

Overall, while the actions were not as bold as some groups hoped, the result of the speech was a net positive – an acknowledgement that climate change is real, here, and happening, and a specific plan for moving forward.  Let’s hope that the follow-through is real.

A summary of the main points of the plan is available through Grist.org right here. A full transcript of the President’s speech is available here. As for Team Spinach, a detailed analysis of the plan by our resident climate expert, El Nino, will follow soon.

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We haven’t talked much about Keystone XL here at Spinach HQ for a while now, mostly becauase the news on that front continues to be more of the same – and more depressing.  Quite frankly, I’m not sure whether or not the general public (those of you outside the environmental field, that is) are sick of hearing about Keystone or not.  False claims and an incredibly convoluted regulatory and political process regarding approval of the environmental impact determination as well as the pipeline itself have slowly muddied the waters better than an oil spill.  I’ll be honest, even I’ve had a hard time keeping track of the timeline and the number of times the pipeline has been resurrected and then killed.

Which is why I was somewhat surprised (but excited!) to wander into the Foggy Bottom Metro stop in D.C. on Tuesday and be greeted by something that looked like this:

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I couldn’t capture the whole ad in my camera phone (especially while trying not to look like some creeper taking a picture of the metro floor during rush hour….) but activist group SumOfUs.org is continuing to fight the good fight not just against Keystone XL, but against the expanded Tar Sands extraction that would come with it.

The ads direct you to the SumOfUs anti-tar-sands site, where they have already collected more than 17,000 of their goal level of 20,000 signatures for a petition to President Obama regarding the pipeline and expanded tar sands extraction.  Rather than solely attacking Keystone XL, the group is focusing on the impacts of the recent ExxonMobil tar sands oil spill in Arkansas.  Exxon’s response to the spill has been heavily criticized, with many community members voicing their doubts that the spill is contained or that Exxon is truly doing their part to take responsibility for the spill, contain it, and mitigate damages.

While the Keystone XL pipeline is likely to be decided by politics and not environmental impacts, the statement made by SumOfUs here is clear – and is taking the debate one step farther.  Instead of focusing on the impacts of the pipeline alone, the group is working to inform regarding some of the inherent risks (both environmental and economic) to expanded tar sands oil use as an energy source.  I’m happy to see these ads placed front and center in several key metro stations – maybe it’s a chance to finally have some dialogue about the real issue here, which is the overall direction of our energy future, and not one single pipeline.

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Today, we interrupt our regularly scheduled griping to bring you some excellent (!!!) news for climate change progress and for cleaner air standards. 

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Yesterday, a federal appeals court ruled 3 – 0 in favor of EPA. in four cases challenging the regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. As reported by U.S. News & World Report,

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington said that the Environmental Protection Agency was “unambiguously correct” in using existing federal law to address global warming, denying two of the challenges to four separate regulations and dismissing the others.

The ruling dishes out a heavy blow to Republicans and climate-change deniers who asserted that EPA was overstepping its bounds by regulating greenhouse gases through existing climate change regulation.

In addition to clarifying that EPA does, in fact, have jurisdiction to use existing legislation to regulate greenhouse gases, the ruling also spoke to those who challenged the scientific integrity of EPA’s work.  In what may take a new place among my list of favorite lines from awesome court decisions, the judges completely validated the science behind EPA’s work and even spoke to those who claim that there are too many uncertainties in climate models, saying:

“This is how science works,” the unsigned opinion said. “EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question.”

(Personally, I’d like to know if anyone in North Carolina was paying attention to that statement.)

Although industry groups state that they will continue to fight the regulations (stating the usual “oh no it’s going to hurt the economy,” because clearly that’s what happened when we passed the Clean Air Act the first time around… ), it’s interesting to note that these views don’t actually represent the American public as a whole.  Rather, polls conducted by the American Lung Association show that American support for clean air standards is both widespread and – shockingly – bipartisan.  In these polls, fully 72% of Americans (seriously, I dare you to find such strong support on virtually any other issue) support regulating carbon, after hearing both sides of the issue, and 73% said that they believe we don’t have to chose between a strong economy and safeguarding against pollution – we can do both.  A two-to-one majority believe that stronger regulations will improve the economy rather than hurt it. If you want to read the full memo summarizing findings from the poll, it’s available here.

With both strong public support as well as the unequivocal support of the courts, maybe EPA will finally be able to move forward with updating clean air standards, after all.  We can always hope, right?

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Well, here’s something new for ya: after watching weirder and weirder weather unfold for the past few years, a poll released today (reported by the New York Times) shows that the majority of Americans believe these events are the result of – wait for it – climate change.

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Like I said: weird weather.

It’s certainly true that the past years have been an adventure.  Between the infamous east coast Snowmageddon (which I missed, because I was totally in Abu Dhabi, no joke), record flooding of the Mississippi River in 2011,  last year’s summer heat wave, the 2011 droughts in Texas and Oklahoma,  increasing tornadoes across the midwest and southern U.S., and 2012 bringing the warmest March on record, there have been no shortage of unusual patterns.  That’s just inside the U.S., too.

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This might be a good time to turn around, eh?

Conducted by Knowledge Networks on behalf of teams at Yale and George Mason University, the study itself is the most comprehensive to date tracking public opinion on climate change. By almost a 2 – to – 1 ratio, Americans believe extreme weather patterns are due to global warming. A higher percentage than ever say that they have personally been impacted by the effects of climate change.  On top of that, after years where economic issues and concerns about international unrest eclipsed the issue of climate, the poll shows climate change is starting to climb the ranks once again.  (As an aside, failure to act on climate and energy could have profound negative impacts for both international politics as well as the economy, so I’ve always seen the issues as linked – but that hasn’t been the case with popular opinion.)

Of course, whether or not these individual events ARE directly caused by climate change is not as clear-cut as we’d like it to be.  Evidence is strongest that increased precipitation as well as heat waves are a result of climate change.  Wind patterns are also shifting, which could be the cause of the recent increase in the number of tornadoes. But, as with most environmental issues, the science isn’t what sways public opinion.  After all, the scientists have been beating the drum for years. We’ve seen the Keeling Curve showing the increase in CO2 detected by Manua Loa observatory in Hawaii.

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(But just in case you haven't, here it is again.)

We’ve all seen photos of flooding in Bangladesh, and sad pictures of polar bears trapped on a single block of ice. But it hasn’t done much.  What sways public opinion, if past is precedent, is when people start to be impacted.  When it’s my town, my home, my family, my friends, my job, or my future that is on the line, people start to sit up and listen.  The issue, at that point, is real.

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So is this polar bear. Hey, I had to include at least one.

And that’s precisely why many advocacy groups are jumping on shifting weather patterns as an opening.  Groups like 350.org, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and other advocacy organizations see this as a way to grab public attention and increase momentum towards action.  Perhaps for the first time, climate change is no longer a far-off warning that we might not live to see, but something that could actually impact our daily lives.  That’s a new thought for a lot of folks, I think.

While it’s a shame that the past few decades politicized the issue and drowned out the voice of the scientific community, many are wondering if this real shift is what we need.  For years, climate change deniers could point to the fact that there was ‘no concrete evidence’ as a way of poking holes in scientific data.  Now, it seems events might be shifting to fall in favor of the other size of the fence.

Of course, whether or not any action comes of it remains to be seen.  If not, we’ll just be buying those sustainable bikinis in January, right?

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First of all – whoa – hi guys.  It’s Friday.  How did that happen?  Where did the week go? Why do I still have 13 things on my to-do list that I cannot cross off?  Should I just cross them off anyway and pretend?

All of these questions have probably crossed your mind, including “where the heck are those spinach kids, anyway?”  Our most sincere apologies for this week.  It appears that we took a petite vacance,as the French would say.  We were actually here:

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South Pacific: Not just a musical about what your grandfather was doing during WWII.

Just kidding.  We were actually just out to lunch.  For three days.

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Om nom nom.

But we’re back! And since we’ve got vacations on the brain, I thought that this would be a good time to talk about my life-long dream #5, which is to take three months off of life at some point and travel around Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the rest of the south Pacific.

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In this canoe.

As it turns out, I might want to bump that dream up a little higher on the list and place it above running the Iditarod and through-hiking the Appalachian Trail.  While it’s not exactly imminent (don’t worry, I’m not going to quit my day job and leave tomorrow), some of those island nations are already preparing themselves for the impacts of climate change.  As reported by the Washington Post, the entire Pacific nation of Kiribati is currently preparing contingency plans for what to do if sea level rise makes their island quite literally disappear below those perfect blue-green waters.

In case you’ve never heard of Kiribati before today, or looked for it on a map, this is where you can find it:

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If you get lost on the way, just keep swimming.

But a side-view topographic map should give us a bit more of an idea why they’re so worried about sea level rise.

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Yup – Kiribati is an archipelago, and many of the atolls and small islands that the people live on there could be very quickly underwater with only very minor sea level rise.  Two islands of Kiribati have already been covered due to the impacts of rising sea level, and their leaders are preparing and planning for what to do with their population of 103,000 if it gets worse.

It’s an interesting thing for us to think about, over here in North America, where we think that the impacts of climate change might just mean a few more hurricanes and some strange days where it decides to be 70 degrees in the middle of February.  Now, truth be told, sea level fluctuation is a natural process.  Across the course of geologic time (i.e., the entire history of the Earth), sea level has changed with glacial and interglacial periods – USGS has a great fact sheet summarizing what the impacts of this could be in the modern era.  So, we always have to remember that the Earth we live on is a dynamic system: the continents are moving, mountains are being formed and eroded, tectonic plates are shifting, and our climate is not stable across millions of years.

The problem?  Climate scientists generally agree that anthropogenic climate destabilization is accelerating this process, causing sea levels to rise more quickly than they naturally would have.  We’re not going to talk about that here (as I always say, leave the science to the scientists).  But, this interactive map gives you an idea how this would impact land availability around the world.  Keep in mind that our population has arrived at the 7 billion mark, meaning that we now have decreasing space for an increasing number of people.

Which brings us to the critical question – one which is policy and not scientifically based: what do we do about this?  How will we as a global community respond to the idea of ecological refugees: people who have been displaced from their homeland because of the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, natural disasters, and shifts in land, energy, and water resources.  Where do these people go?

The island of Kiribati is already chewing on this very question, because they are concerned about the future of their younger generations.  The proposed solution currently making headlines is to quite literally move the entire nation to….Fiji.

Doesn't look so bad in this photo, but somehow I don't think they're moving there because the snorkeling is better.

This in theory seems like an interesting solution, but it raises all kinds of questions.  Would the people of Kiribati remain their own nation, or would they become a part of Fiji?  How would they be moved?  Who would pay for the cost of new land?  How do you even place a value on land when it becomes a declining resource; a thing of scarcity in that particular region of the world?  And what impacts would there be on these people as they adapt and build new lives?

The drama of this is probably fairly far down the road, but the questions are very real.  As Kara has pointed out several times, when it comes to climate change adaptation, isn’t it better to think ahead?  The world has a long history of political and social turmoil over natural resources.  Plenty of wars have started because, on a most basic level, somebody had something that somebody else didn’t have and wanted (food, water, land, dare I say it, oil?)  Plenty of other wars have started because of the social issues that arise when a minority population is displaced or takes up residence in a new county.  While outright conflicts may be a good way off, that doesn’t mean the possibility isn’t there and that we shouldn’t be planning and asking these questions.

 International organizations such as the World Bank have already started considering the impact of climate change on small island nations.  Myriad problems are anticipated, including not only the disappearance of land, but profound impacts on groundwater sources, agricultural land, erosion patterns, flooding, changing tidal patterns, and public health impacts related to contamination of food and water sources and changing disease vectors.

I wish I could come up with a snarky caption, but this kind of just makes me sad.

What’s more than a little, depressing when you stop think about it, is the fact that the best solution some American leaders can come up with is….”Drill, Baby, Drill!”  So to make you all feel better, I’ll leave you with a nice romantic picture of a beach in Kiribati.  Maybe that’s something you can keep in mind next time you’re trying to decide whether you should walk to the grocery store or drive.

Things that are sexy: Kara in a bikini, this beach, reading our blog, and reducing your carbon footprint. Dan in a bikini, not so much.

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After a brief departure from our discussion of unconventional oil, welcome back.  It’s February 29th, it’s pouring rain here in D.C., and because I’m already grumpy, I’m going to talk about something which makes me even more grumpy, which is unconventional oil.  Today’s feature: oil shale.

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Actually, I just wanted to talk about lighting things on fire.

What is oil shale?  Oil shale refers specifically to a fine-grained, sedimentary rock containing sufficient kerogen to produce burnable hydrocarbons.  What the heck is kerogen?  It’s just a fancy term for the carbon-based organic matter that makes up a portion of sedimentary rocks – something we only care about because, when heated to a high enough temperature, causes liquid oil to separate from a combustible gas.  Author’s note: oil shale is different from shale oil, and is also different from oil sands and tight oil.

Why is oil shale a big deal?  Every time gas prices go up, people start complaining, and Newt Gingrich starts making things up about how it’s Obama’s fault that gas costs a single penny over $2.50 per gallon.  When this happens, or when Iran starts making noises that we don’t like, politicians begin to talk about domestic energy.  Oil companies such as Exxon, Shell, and Chevron are all too eager at that moment to talk about how areas of the American west – Colorado, Utah and Wyoming in particular – have vast quantities of oil shale that could be exploited as a domestic source of energy.  Which they certainly could.

Why is this a bad idea? As with all unconventional forms of oil, extracting oil shale is an extremely intensive process.  Because the energy source is in a solid form, it must be either (1) mined, and then heated, or (2) large amounts of heat must be generated hundreds of feet below the Earth’s surface for sufficient time to liquify fuel reserves so that they can then be pumped to the surface.  If option 1, mining, is taken, the shale is removed in open-pit or strip mining, which looks something like this:

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Colorado is beautiful! Let's go hiking.

Of course, if you want to go with option 2, you’re going to have even bigger problems on your hands.  Take the debate about hydraulic fracturing (which is used as part of the oil shale extraction process) and multiply it by ten, and that’s about what you have.  Most of these in-situ extraction methods are still somewhat experimental, but they involve injecting large volumes of water as well as heat sources underground, and then drilling to pump the resulting oil to the surface.  It’s very involved.

What are the environmental risks? Oh, where to begin.  To enumerate a few: land use issues (from strip/surface or open pit mining), water quality issues (from mine tailing disposed of in rivers, lakes, streams, and critical headwaters), water use issues (it can take two to three million gallons of water per well to perform hydraulic fracturing), greenhouse gas emissions (both during extraction and during the use of this energy source, which when burned releases more greenhouse gasses than conventional petroleum), increased erosion and soil quality problems, air quality concerns resulting from the release of mercury, sulfur, and particulates, acid mine drainage….

I’ll stop there.

What does this have to do with gas prices?  I can’t resist hitting on this point, because it’s just too good to leave alone.  There is a perception in America that the price of gas at the pump – and the price of oil per barrel – is related directly to supply and demand.  If we produce more domestic oil of any sort, we think that the prices will go down.  We also like to think that Europeans pay more for gas because they don’t have any of their own.

Not so.  As CNNMoney (note that this is a mainstream news source, not EcoLooney Weekly) reports, in virtually every country – even OPEC nations – gas prices are determined by whether or not the government (1) taxes, or (2) subsidizes oil.  Energy subsidies mean that the government is floating part of the bill, keeping prices artificially low for consumers when compared to actual value of the commodity.  The U.S. government floats between $4 billion and $10 billion a year towards production of established fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas.

So, what’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that right now, we’re looking at a technology that is still highly experimental (the methods of extracting oil shales are still in the experimental phase in nearly every major oil company.)  While they’ve got some big dollars behind them from the oil giants, they’ve also got some big hurdles to clear.  The areas of the arid west where oil shale is abundant already face ongoing issues with water scarcity in the face of growing population and growing demand.  In Estonia, which is the largest user of oil shale, 91% of the country’s water resources go to extraction of oil shales.  That’s a big yikes, and that’s not even looking at the impacts regarding climate change, air quality, and land use.  And no, it won’t make the price that you pay at the pump go down.

Oil shales are a tempting prospect because of their abundance, but one that is likely not worth the risk.  If we’re going to develop a new technology, let’s make it both clean and renewable.

Some resources for anyone who wants to read more about oil shale are here and here.

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And it’s “back to reality, back to life…” .  Actually, before we get back to our environmental reality, whatever that may be, let’s take a detour to the Old Line State where the Maryland House of Delegates approved a same-sex marriage bill!  Wahoo!  Finally, a very blue state is coming around to providing equal status under the law.  Let’s make it happen, Governor O’Malley, let’s make it happen. And, we are back to being better than New Jersey.

All right, I’ll leave it at that.  You didn’t come to here to get some yummy rainbow sherbet, you came for green goodness.  So I am here to provide.

And for those of you who took the time to enter into Paul Kingsnorth’s mind, I am here to give you a little lift.  For those of you who slacked and didn’t take the time, I am here to also give you lift (although you will probably be lifted a bit higher than the Kingsnorth clan because you didn’t damper your spirits by immersing into and reflecting on the sad state of environmental affairs). Because let’s face it, whereever you were at the past couple of hours or days, this news will be good news.  That is, unless, you were caught up making sure that you got to keep an extra twenty dollars in your pocket each month between now and the end of the year.  In that case, enjoy your victory and don’t rub it in our faces.  Because we enviros got a little joy of our own this week.

Between the back and forth headline drama about the payroll tax extension (for those of you who read the normal news) or the underneath the latest anti-environmental scandal (see the Heartland Institute—yeah, and you thought Bill Gates was such a saint after Foxconn showed how black the soul of Steve Jobs actually was…), there was a small, but notable headline about a climate change effort that is slowly gaining some steam. 

This week, the United States, through Hillary Clinton and the Department of State, joined a coalition of five other nations to combat some of the short-lived, but high global warming potential, greenhouses gases.  This coalition, called the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, is run by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and includes the countries of Canada (shocking, I know), Mexico, Sweden, Bangladesh, and Ghana.  In joining, nations are committing to curbing non-carbon greenhouse gas emission such as methane, soot, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), also known as “short-lived climate enforcers.”  There are no hard line numbers; this is just a voluntary, five-year commitment.  Instead of targets, the coalition plans fund education projects and joint public-private efforts to reduce emissions nations to “reduce diesel exhaust, stem the burning of agricultural waste, and capture methane from landfills, coal mines, and natural gas wells,” among other policy initiatives.

You might be asking yourself what good will this do, and I’m glad you pondered this.  These three pollutants are believed to account for approximately 30 to 40 percent of the nearly one degree Celsius rise in global temperatures since the beginning of the 20th century.  Furthermore, this voluntary effort has the potential to slow rising temperatures by up to .5 degrees Celsius.  If you read the Washington Post version, that halt could come as early as 2030; if you read the Scientific American version, it may take an additional 20 years.  And, in case that is not enough, WaPo points out that even the notorious climate change skeptic Senator James Inhofe (R-Ok) gets behind reducing soot.  Just when you and Paul Kingsnorth thought all was lost…

At this point, you might be thinking, “Get your head out of the clouds, optimist.  I’ve seen this before—Copehagen, Cancun, Durban… we’ve produced non-binding agreements and unless we hold people’s feet to the fire, nothing will happen.”  You, my eternally pessimistic friend (is that you, Peter Thiel?), might be correct that I am the queen of wishful thinking.  However, it’s worth noting that we did throw in $12 million for this effort (and by we, I don’t mean we here at Spinach.  We save our big dollars for the craps tables in Vegas). So we’ve got our feet within the vicinity of the fire on this effort.

It’s a small accomplishment relative to a national cap-and-trade policy or a carbon tax, but it’s an accomplishment nonetheless.  So before we get down and think about going out, let’s remember the little things.  Because just like your mother always told you (I know mine did), “Sometimes, it’s the little things that count.”

(Or, for bloggers, it’s the hyperlinks the hyperlinks that count.  And I just rocked the hyperlinks. So show me some love with a comment.)

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