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Gimme 8 percent of your lunch! You’re not going to eat it anyway

Sat, 2014-07-26 00:05

When presented with a plate of delicious food, do you eat all of it? Every last bit? Is the plate pristine at the end of your eating session? Yes? Well, okay, you are a liar.

A recent study in the International Journal of Obesity found that, on average, we eat 92 percent of the food on a plate. Good news (or bad, depending on how you look at it): If the food is unhealthy, that figure goes down to 81 percent.

What does 92 percent of a meal look like? The friendly staff at Grist have compiled a very helpful guide using your – yes, YOUR – diet as an example!

7:46 AM: A bagel! What a nice, wholesome way to start your day. Too bad you’re only eating this much of it.

12:23 PM: Wow, what a terrific-looking salad. Bonus points for the artfully placed radicchio and perfectly halved cherry tomatoes! Sadly, a few of those perfect li’l leaves are going to waste.

5:15 PM: You know a bar is classy when they give you complimentary olives. Thank god, too, because that salad was not very filling, and honestly, that 8 percent was not going to make much of a difference. Either way, you don’t want to look like a pig, so you have to leave at least one behind. It’s better this way.


7:06 PM: Did you really pay $16 for charcuterie? Sorry — no judgment. You are now trying to decide whether devouring the entire thing in 90 seconds will augment the faint nausea you feel after 4 glasses of rosé, or temper it. But obviously, you are not going to devour the whole thing. Only 92 percent, remember?

9:20 PM: This bar is distinctly less classy. You’ve never even seen Cheetos on a menu before, but you’re not arguing. These are objectively pretty unhealthy! You’re probably only going to eat 81 percent of them.

11:46 PM: Seriously, why are you still here?

12:27 PM: Home, sweet — oh, dear.

1:04 AM: YIKES. Wow. The whole bo — ? Okay.

(But not the whole box, really. Only 92 percent.)

10:32 AM: Hi! Good morning! You look great. Fantastic news — because we hate food waste, we saved the little bits of leftover food that you didn’t eat yesterday. Here is what that looks like:

Happy breakfast — enjoy! Wait, where are you going?

Filed under: Article, Food, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

You’d scream, too, if you were this close to a collapsing iceberg

Fri, 2014-07-25 22:23

Climate change is melting ice at both ends of the planet – just ask the researchers who published two papers in May saying that a major expanses of Antarctic ice are now undergoing a “continuous and rapid retreat” and may have “passed the point of no return.”

As the poles melt, icebergs are breaking off and drifting with greater ease, creating a world of problems for humans and animals alike. In Antarctica, warmer winters mean icebergs aren’t held in place as they once were, and are now colliding with the ocean floor more frequently, laying waste to a complex ecosystem. In Greenland, summer icebergs – like one twice the size of Manhattan that broke off 2012 – can clog up shipping lanes and damage offshore oil platforms.

But whether climate change set it free or not, even a single ‘berg can be dangerous if you get too close, as this couple discovered when they took a look at one floating off the coast of Newfoundland, in eastern Canada.

h/t to Minnesota Public Radio News for finding this one.

This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Dead elephants, plagues, and rats: Why the sixth extinction is bad for you and everyone you know

Fri, 2014-07-25 22:02

Hey, remember the dinosaurs? Yeah, neither. All it took was one massive asteroid, and all the dinos were wiped off the face of the planet. Well, there’s a new asteroid in town: us.

New research published in the journal Science lays out the scope of the destruction we’ve wrought — and suggests that it’s going to come back to bite us. Not only will the so-called sixth extinction make that wildlife safari you’ve always wanted to take a lot less interesting, it could increase disease and make it even harder to feed our own ever-growing population. Happy weekend!

Similar to previous extinction events, the large, cute animals (like elephants and polar bears) are disappearing the fastest: since 1500, more than 320 land-based vertebrates have gone extinct. Which isn’t just bad news for wildlife junkies; their loss translates into a shift in the whole ecosystem. Scientists found that areas in which the big guys disappeared quickly became infested with rodents – who bring all of their disease-carrying parasites with them.

“Where human density is high, you get high rates of defaunation, high incidence of rodents, and thus high levels of pathogens, which increases the risks of disease transmission,” lead author Rodolfo Dirzo says. “Who would have thought that just defaunation would have all these dramatic consequences? But it can be a viscious cycle.”

The sixth extinction also means bad news for those critters that we’re less likely to fawn over, but we’ll probably still miss them when they’re gone. As the human population has doubled since 1979, the number of invertebrate animals (such as insects) has decreased by 45 percent. You might be used to thinking of bugs as unwanted pests, but they do actually help us out in some crucial ways. Like, say, eating. We rely on insects to pollinate about three-quarters of the world’s food crops.

So if you’re not kind of person that’s into animals, so be it. But if you’re the kind of person that enjoys, well, living? Turns out, you could benefit from the animals as much as they could benefit from you.

Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Out-of-touch dads still want gas-guzzling SUVs, apparently

Fri, 2014-07-25 21:56

Watching the cultural backlash against all the mongo SUVs that ran us off roads, CO2′d our cities, and ruined Hype Williams videos for something like two decades remains one of the unexpected pleasures of the recession. Soccer moms now want Priuses instead of Escalades; carmakers embraced fuel efficiency as a selling point; the Tesla S seems poised to own poster space on the bedrooms of car-obsessed teenagers.

But like brachiosaurs in Jurassic Park, Suburbans aren’t dead yet. Today, the New York Times reports that SUV sales have very nearly singlehandedly kept GM afloat with almost $1 billion in profits this year, and the company commands 70 percent of the market. GM’s mastodon-size vehicles sport higher profit margins than its current line of fuel-efficient vehicles, and they inspire loyalty among previous adopters who feel a recovering economy has washed off some of the stink. Judging by the quoted sources, a lot of these folks are dads who just don’t give a shit about gas mileage:

“I didn’t buy the vehicle for the gas mileage,” [Mike Quinto] said. “I bought it for everything it can do for me and my family.” …

Howard Sucher, of Parkland, Fla., knows the feeling. Mr. Sucher has a family of six, including a newborn, and he said even his old Cadillac Escalade was too small. When the new 2015 Suburban became available, he, too, bought it without ever taking a test drive — ordering it early from a dealer in Miami.

“I felt I had no choice,” Mr. Sucher said. “There really is no other large vehicle for a family this big that needs a stroller in the trunk.”

“It actually gets decent mileage on the highway, so that’s a bonus,” he added. “But gas mileage wasn’t a factor in my decision.”

Is it time to worry that the Dawn of the Electric Car might get crushed under 65 tons of American pride? Before we do that, let’s take a quick moment to recall a few more things out-of-touch dads love that miraculously persist as background cultural artifacts, not societal drivers:

1. America’s ‘Horse With No Name’

2. Squishy-butt jeans with “plenty of room”

3. Dave Barry

4. Bathroom joke books

5. Bathrooms

6. Socks ‘n’ sandals

7. Pot (never now, but 40 years ago)

8. Being proud of you, no matter what

See? Harmless curios from bygone eras for us to enjoy on occasion with our dear old dads, ironically or unironically. This is the destiny of the honkin’ SUV.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology
Categories: Eco Buzz

Be a patriot, eat less beef

Fri, 2014-07-25 18:43

As Josh Harkinson noted this week, cows are the United States’ single biggest source of methane – a potent gas that has 105 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide. That’s one major reason why beef’s greenhouse gas footprint is far higher than that of most other sources of protein, according to an EWG study. (Though it’s consumed at a fraction of the rate of beef or chicken, lamb is by far the most carbon intensive of the major meats, according to EWG, since the animal’s smaller body produces meat less efficiently but still produces a lot of methane.)

And EWG’s estimate of beef’s impact may actually be on the conservative side: A study released this week found the greenhouse gases associated with beef to be even higher.

So what should you eat instead of beef? One answer: Chicken, which has a carbon footprint roughly a fifth the size of beef’s. Happily, earlier this week, the National Chicken Council released new research showing that Americans are eating chicken in 17 percent more meals and snacks than they did in 2012. As the chart below shows, chicken consumption has actually been rising steadily for decades. Red meat consumption, meanwhile, has steadily declined over the same period.

The group attributes the spike in chicken consumption to consumers’ perception of poultry as healthier than beef, not its smaller carbon footprint. But the environmental benefits are a great side effect, says Emily Cassidy, an analyst at the Environmental Working Group. “If every American simply switched from beef to chicken, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 137 million metric tons of carbon a year, or as much as taking 26 million cars off the road,” she says, citing a recent EWG report.

Still, even as the American appetite for beef has declined over the years, other countries are picking up the slack. Globally, beef and veal production has increased almost 20 percent between 1995 and 2012, according to the Organization for Economically Developed Countries. It’s projected to increase another 11 percent by 2022, a trend that’s largely driven by rising incomes in Asia (and, increasingly, in Africa).

In the face of this environmental onslaught, says Cassidy, really measurable change could only happen if everyone ate vastly less meat – and the only way to achieve that is to change policies that favor livestock feeds like corn.

“Essentially, cheap corn encourages meat to be a big part of our diets,” she says. “If crop subsidies were reined in, meat and especially beef consumption would likely go down.”

This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Letter from Detroit: And now for a completely different kind of Canadian pipeline

Fri, 2014-07-25 17:12

I was loading boxes of water onto a truck in Detroit yesterday when I heard the news: A convoy from the Council of Canadians was coming over the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor, bearing gifts of water. “Really, Canada?” I thought. “We’re practically in each other’s backyards. Basically, the only thing separating us from you is water.”

That’s not the kind of water you can drink, though. And also: Protest is storytelling, just like the rest of politics. I had been interviewing some people downtown about Detroit’s water crisis, and they were all going to see the water arrive, because why not? When we were done with the last water delivery, we walked down to the Spirit of Detroit sculpture, where the convoy would be arriving.

Campus Martius Park was packed with people celebrating Detroit’s birthday, which I had not even thought of the city as having. I passed a huge banner, unfurled across the modernist facade of one of the tall buildings on Michigan Avenue. Decorated with neon confetti and party hats, it looked like the kind of banner you might buy for a little kid’s birthday party, but on a colossal scale.

“Happy 313th birthday, Detroit!” it read. “You don’t look a day over 300!”

There was a throng of people at the Spirit of Detroit sculpture already, holding signs that read “Water=Love,” and chanting “Whose water? Our water!” over and over, with occasional breaks for speechmaking and practical matters. “There’s a council hearing this Tuesday,” a woman from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization said to the crowd. “I want you all to call your councilman and ask, how many people in your district have lost their water? And when are they going to get it back?”

The water, predictably, got stuck at the border, so it was late. When it did arrive, there was much cheering and a race between several local television news crews to document the moment when the hatchback of the Jeep Grand Cherokee at the head of the convoy opened, revealing several utility jugs of Canadian tap water.

The convoy was held up, we learned, because the Canadian side was figuring out how to tax the water that was leaving the country. Both sides eventually reached a mutual agreement of $10.

The water, it was announced, would be taken to St. Pete’s Church on Washington Avenue and stacked near the holy water fountain. “We brought it as much of a show of solidarity as anything else,” said one of the Canadians to the cheering crowd.  “But we did bring water.”

Filed under: Article, Cities, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Want to support clean energy? Fight for voting rights

Fri, 2014-07-25 16:48

As Jelani Cobb wrote recently in The New Yorker: “The past year has offered an odd object lesson in historical redundancy. The 50th anniversaries of major points in the civil-rights movement tick by at the same time that Supreme Court decisions and political maneuvering in state legislatures offer reminders of what, exactly, the movement fought against.”

The most recognizable example of what Cobb is referring to is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, which severely weakened the heralded Voting Rights Act just weeks before we recognized the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington that made the civil rights law possible. Earlier this month, we recognized the 50th of the Civil Rights Act, and next year will mark the half-century mark of the Voting Rights Act itself. And yet equal protection for people of color seems to be moving backwards.

Why should this matter to the average white (green) American? Well, for many reasons. But one of them is this: In our ever-browning America, empowering black and brown voters is absolutely necessary to make the transition to clean energy.

Consider that only 51 percent of American voters “strongly” prefer clean energy investments, according to a recent Sierra Club survey, but preference is significantly higher among African-American voters (77 percent) and Latino voters (71 percent). A Yale study found that African Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to require electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent — a modest sum — of energy load from wind or solar, even if that would increase electric bills.

And yet it’s white men who exercise most of the power over the current coal-based economy – via their places on corporate boards, their positions in politics, and, on the local and state level, where they make up the bulk of public utility and service commissioners. The utility commissioners (who are usually elected or appointed) regulate the corporate-owned utility industries, determine electricity costs and, in some cases, decide where power plants can be built.

These utility commissioners will play a critical role in hammering out the details of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced regulations for coal-fired power plants. Yet, many of them do not look like the residents that the utilities serve. According to a study from the Minority and Media Telecom Council, 33 state public utility commissions (64.7 percent) do not have a single minority member — that includes Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina, the states with the highest concentration of black residents.

We also see this whiteout at the federal level, where the number of people of color serving in the U.S. House and Senate energy committees are but a handful.

You can chalk this lack of diversity up to the kind of patronage and cronyism that has preserved these powerful roles for white men —  a function of white supremacy. You can also credit voter suppression and intimidation, which happen even in local utility district elections. In fact, such shenanigans are harder to detect in these smaller races that don’t draw the same kind of media spotlight as a gubernatorial or presidential race. In the 1980s and 1990s, when African Americans built multiracial coalitions to diversify local utility boards and electricity co-ops throughout the South, white officials secretly changed election rules to disqualify their votes (read more on this here).

Other examples:

● In 2000, the Department of Justice filed a voting rights complaint against the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District in Los Angeles County, Calif., for redrawing district lines so that the Latino voting populations would be diluted across the district.

● In 2008, Texas proposed to change its qualification requirements for candidates running for water supply district supervisor so that only landowners would be eligible, which ruled out a number of Latino Americans seeking candidacy and some who were already supervisors.

● Also in 2008, the North Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder case, which the U.S. Supreme Court almost used to dismantle the Voting Rights Act, involved elections for positions that control utility, land, and water resources.

These cases show how racial disenfranchisement drains power, energy, and resources from people of color, which is why Voting Rights Act protections are so essential.

People are taking action despite these problems. Latino Americans are campaigning to defeat a proposal from the Public Service Company of New Mexico, which wants to build more coal and nuclear energy stations. In Arizona, Latinos are campaigning to encourage the Salt River Project public utility board to increase solar and wind energy generation. In South Carolina, Rev. Leo Woodberry is leading an environmental justice effort to work on the state’s implementation plans for the new power plant regulations, with an emphasis on making sure electricity rates remain affordable and accessible for low-income customers.

Understand, it’s not only that we need more black and brown utility commissioners. But voters need to ensure that commissioners of any race represent their clean energy values. Last year in Georgia, a multi-racial band of clean energy advocates teamed with the not-so-colorful Tea Party to force Georgia Power Company to increase solar-based energy production. The coalition did this by appealing to the Georgia Public Service Commission. There has been only one African American and one woman who’ve served on Georgia’s Public Service Commission in its 133 years, both of them elected in the 21st century.

These are laudable campaigns, but ultimately it will require African-American, Native-American, and Latino American voters being able to vote fairly and freely — and also to be able to serve on these boards — to ensure that those paying the highest costs for our fossil fuel addiction have a voice in securing a clean energy future. For all Americans who want the same for their future, the way to act is to support strengthening voting rights protections across the nation.

Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Amory Lovins’ high-tech home skimps on energy but not on comfort

Fri, 2014-07-25 11:08
© Judy Hill Lovins

For most of its history, environmentalism has been associated with a back-to-the-land lifestyle: being one with nature, living in the woods, wearing sandals, maybe driving a Volkswagen. Over the last decade, a counter-narrative has taken over. Cities are in. As climate change has become the dominant environmental issue, a low-carbon lifestyle has become the priority. Denser living is heralded for its energy efficiency, as are walking, biking and taking transit instead of driving.

All other things being equal, walkable urbanism beats sprawl. But one house in Old Snowmass, Colo., demonstrates that, with the right design, rural living can be about as low-carbon as possible. And it turns out those hippies were on to something: the secrets to low-impact rural housing lie in embracing nature instead of combatting it. Plus it helps to have some bleeding-edge technology.

Amory Lovins, the owner of the house, is exactly the guy you’d expect to live here. A bespectacled physicist and world-renowned energy-efficiency expert, he cofounded the Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982 with his then-wife L. Hunter Lovins. They chose this location, nestled up in the mountains 14 miles from Aspen, for RMI’s first headquarters, which they built as a model of energy efficiency. The original structure was completed in 1984. Today, RMI has expanded into other buildings, but Lovins still lives in the original house, which got a high-tech makeover in 2009.

© Judy Hill LovinsAmory Lovins with his bananas.

Lovins instructs visitors to drink water, because the house’s high elevation, around 8,000 feet, causes dehydration, and he throws on a goofy fisherman’s hat to protect his bald head when going outside. He calls his home “the Banana Farm,” after the tropical fruits grown in its greenhouse.

Many suburbanites have rejected the housing styles best suited to their specific environments, instead embracing a generic image of the American Dream that is often regionally inappropriate. Picture green lawns baking in the Arizona desert. The Banana Farm, however, adopts the classic adobe style indigenous to the Mountain West.

The primary challenge to building a super-efficient home in the mountains is heating. It can get very cold on winter nights in Old Snowmass, as low as -30 Fahrenheit. Heating a home here is an energy-intensive, and expensive, proposition. And so Lovins’ single biggest insight was to design it with walls so thick that it didn’t require heating.

© Judy Hill Lovins

In an arid mountainous area, the sun is strong during the day. So the 16-inch thick walls — made of concrete, locally harvested sandstone, and a middle four inches of polyurethane — are adept at storing heat throughout the day and retaining it overnight. Typically, an architect would recommend increasing the wall thickness until the point where the marginal savings on heating are passed by the increased costs of building. But Lovins went twice as thick, thereby eliminating the need to build a heating system at all. “We saved $1,100, and that’s just on the building, never mind operating the heating,” Lovins boasts.

Windows are a major source of air leakage, so the building has “super-windows,” which have microscopically thin layers of gases such as krypton and xenon that let in light but prevent heat exchange. “It’s equal to 16 layers of glass but it uses only two layers and costs less than three,” says Lovins.

Keeping rooms warm is not the only purpose for which most houses require oil or natural gas. To make a “combustion-free” house, Lovins had to solve a few other problems such as drying clothes and heating water. The answer is to harness the sun’s natural heating power. Although they have a dryer, Lovins and his current wife Judy usually hang their clothes on a line that can be raised by pulley up into a skylight and dried in the sunlight. They heat water through eight thermal solar panels and send it around the house through pipes that are extra wide and turn at gentle angles to minimize the electricity needed to move it.

The house’s electricity is all renewable. Massive solar panels adorn the roof, carport, and grounds alongside the building. The panels produce far more solar power during the day than the Lovinses use, so they sell electricity to the grid during the day and buy wind energy from the grid at night. They also store the solar power in batteries so that they could be fully self-sufficient in a blackout. The batteries would run down at night but be recharged during the day. “In February 2013, there were five power failures [in the area], and we never lost power,” says Lovins.

Super-efficient appliances are another reason that the house uses less than half the electricity of most comparable-sized homes. The dishwasher, from Swedish company Asko, has sensors that measure the cleanliness of the water coming out and stop washing when the water is clean, instead of continuing to run for another hour. The result is that it uses two-thirds of the water and electricity of a typical dishwasher. The fridge and freezer are also designed to save more energy than typical models. The compressor, which gives off heat, is located at the top rather than the bottom, so that as the heat rises it goes away and does not necessitate more cooling. The electric stove comes with specially designed copper pots that retain heat and can boil water at an incredible speed. The lights are all LED, and track lighting helps distribute light more efficiently around the large living room.

The main trick, though, is not using more advanced technology, but using the oldest one available. In the middle of the building, between the living area and the office, is a greenhouse. A wide section of roof over it is glass, allowing sunlight and heat to pour in, helping to reduce the need for lighting. “You basically don’t turn the lights on during the daytime,” says Lovins. The building’s rounded walls distribute the light more effectively than a typical house full of right angles.

© Judy Hill Lovins

Lovins grows tropical fruit in the greenhouse, not just the eponymous bananas but mangos and even coffee. The plants consume CO2 and release humidity. They also store heat. The greenhouse also features a pond, which adds ambient noise, a nice feature because such a tightly constructed and mechanical-free house might otherwise be eerily quiet.

Even the bathroom contains oddball innovations, such as a sink on top of the toilet tank, so that when you flush the toilet you can wash your hands in the water that will then refill the tank. (This apparently is common in Japan because space there is at such a premium and it saves the need for a separate sink.)

Lovins drives an electric car and charges it with solar power. Of course, he’d be an even greater net clean energy contributor if he didn’t need a car at all, much less his second one for long trips that exceed the electric car’s range. But the Lovinses manage to live a lifestyle that is remarkably low-impact without being abstemious. They even have a solar-heated hot tub.

Looking out at the stunning mountain views they enjoy from the hot tub, it’s understandable why they wouldn’t want to trade in their 4,000-square-foot house for a cramped urban apartment. And thanks to smart design, they don’t have to.

© Judy Hill Lovins
Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

On climate change, Republicans are even more backward than oil companies

Fri, 2014-07-25 11:02

Ask your average liberal or environmentalist to name the primary impediment to action on climate change, and the response will probably be: “Easy. It’s the fossil fuel industry.”

It’s not that easy, however. The fossil fuel companies are actually more accepting of climate reality than virtually every Republican in Congress.

That’s the conclusion I came to after watching a presentation by Cho-Oon Khong, chief political analyst at the Shell Oil company at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month. Khong called a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius “the flu,” leading to heat waves, sea-level rise, and 10 to 20 percent less arable land. “But the worst effects are beyond that limit, when you start to see feedback loops,” he warned.

Accepting the 2 degree Celsius target is the same thing as accepting the recommendations of the global scientific community. Khong laid out possible world energy portfolios for keeping warming to 2 degrees. None would thrill environmentalists, as they rely to varying degrees on increases in nuclear energy, natural gas, and the deployment of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). But he nonetheless acknowledged that we needed to change our ways.

“We have to talk about using any fossil fuel more efficiently, and CCS,” he said. Afterwards, he told Grist, “I think it would be foolish to dispute the science [of climate change].”

Shell was a sponsor of Aspen Ideas, and Khong’s speech — given in the Booz Allen Hamilton room of the Koch building — would be dismissed by any skeptical observer as corporate greenwashing. In 2009, Shell dropped its investments in solar, wind, and hydropower.

But Republicans don’t even bother with greenwashing. Not a single Republican member of Congress, with the exception of Rep. Michael Grimm who represents a swing district in New York City badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, fully accepts the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and it is caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Shell is hardly the only oil company that admits that emissions from the fuels it produces is causing the planet’s average temperature to rise. Just take a look at their websites.

ExxonMobbil, the largest and most intransigent of the American oil giants, “believes that it is prudent to develop and implement strategies that address the risks to society associated with increasing GHG emissions.”

Exxon avoids discussing climate science directly, but it implicitly accepts it by acknowledging the “risks” of greenhouse gases and the desirability of reducing them. It tries to counter that with a lot of talk about the value of energy to economic growth and some fear-mongering about the costs of regulating carbon. Nonetheless, it says, “Industry and governments should pursue an integrated set of solutions that include developing new energy supplies, increasing efficiency, and advancing energy technologies.”

Chevron, the next-largest, claims to “recognize and share the concerns of governments and the public about climate change.” The very next sentence states: “The use of fossil fuels to meet the world’s energy needs is a contributor to an increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs) — mainly carbon dioxide (CO2 ) — in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

This would seem to be a straightforward admission of the role of GHGs in global warming, although a careful reading reveals that the company does not directly acknowledge that GHGs cause warmer global average temperatures. Like Exxon, Chevron talks a lot about the economic need for lots of energy from fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. Even so, the company’s site says, “We are also committed to improving our energy efficiency and researching how to deliver volumes of alternative fuels at scale in the future.”

BP is the most forthright of the major oil companies. Its climate change page opens with bracing honesty: “According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and is in large part due to an increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activity.”

Critics contend that even BP, in rebranding itself “Beyond Petroleum,” is doing little more than greenwashing. Even so, these statements are all to the left of the GOP on climate and energy.

Take a look at the Republican Party’s 2012 platform. Climate change and global warming are not mentioned, and the only reference to greenhouse gases is the following statement opposing their regulation under the Clean Air Act: “We also call on Congress to take quick action to prohibit the EPA from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations that will harm the nation’s economy and threaten millions of jobs over the next quarter century.”

The document is filled with demands for more fossil fuel development without mention of any environmental impact. Here’s the statement of overarching principle: “Our common theme is to promote development of all forms of energy, enable consumer choice to keep energy costs low, and ensure that America remains competitive in the global marketplace. We will respect the States’ proven ability to regulate the use of hydraulic fracturing, continue development of oil and gas resources in places like the Bakken formation and Marcellus Shale, and review the environmental laws that often thwart new energy exploration and production.”

Every likely 2016 Republican presidential contender expresses uncertainty at best about climate science. And congressional Republicans have made it clear that reducing fossil fuel consumption through efficiency or expansion of renewables is of no interest to them. They recently killed a bill that would have helped the private sector with voluntary efficiency improvements because it did not include approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. They are also turning against the wind energy production tax credit, even as fossil fuels drain billions of dollars from the federal Treasury in tax subsidies.

It is probably no coincidence that Shell and BP, being European, are less backwards about climate science than their American counterparts. A similar disparity exists politically, with the major European conservative parties being more enlightened than Republicans. But even American oil companies are clearly to the left of Republicans on climate.

It turns out you actually can be more Catholic than the Pope.

It makes sense when you consider the changes in the GOP since 2008, when its presidential ticket supported cap-and-trade. First, the Tea Party wave has swept in a cohort of Republicans who are genuine believers in their anti-environmental platform. With ideology as their motivation, rather than mere economic self-interest, there is no limit to their hostility to addressing climate change. This is why ideologically extreme right-wing foundations have replaced Exxon as the leading funders of climate denial.

All the studies in the world showing that the cost of catastrophic climate change is higher than the cost of regulating greenhouse gases won’t change their mind, because they aren’t interested in cost-benefit analysis. They view regulations as immoral infringements on freedom. Claiming they will cost money is just a convenient argument.

You also see a difference between the constituencies that oil companies and Republican politicians must respond to. Republican candidates and officeholders must appease right wing Republican primary voters, grassroots activists, and donors. For those groups, refusing to accept climate science or even voluntary efforts to reduce energy consumption or carbon emissions is a matter of tribal identity politics. Prius owners are liberals, so Priuses are offensive to their eyes, and the underlying premise that spewing CO2 out of your tailpipe isn’t good for the Earth must also be false.

Oil companies actually have a broader constituency than Republicans do. Not everyone who buys stock in an oil company or fills up his gas tank votes Republican. To keep activist investors at bay, ward off efforts to divest university endowments from fossil fuels, and keep a friendly face on their gas stations, it behooves Exxon and others to at least pretend to care about the environment. Pretending to care requires admitting that the CO2 you emit is contributing to climate change.

Of course, oil companies have been known to say one thing directly to the public and another through dark money donations to climate-denying advocacy groups. But Exxon, which gave heavily to those groups between 2003 and 2007, hasn’t done so — at least through a publicly traceable donation — since 2008.

That would be encouraging, if only the people with the real power to do something about climate change — the ones controlling the House of Representatives — were also coming around to reality.

Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Relax, everyone: We’re not about to run out of kale

Fri, 2014-07-25 00:45

Lay off the kale, you arrogant yuppies.* The leafy green’s popularity has skyrocketed in the last few years, and as a result, Bejo Seeds, a major kale seed supplier, just ran out of seeds in Australia.

The kale chip fans in the media are scared. “Hipsters have made kale so popular that farmers are struggling to meet demand,” cries the Daily Mail. “Time to Panic: There May Be a Global Kale Shortage,” warns Eater. “Start Prepping Now for a Possible Global Kale Shortage,” advises GrubStreet.

I see you’re already clutching your favorite leafy green and growling. But is it really time to panic over, hoard, and ration your kale?

Don’t unwax your handlebar mustache just yet. First, to point out the obvious, we’re only talking about a temporary shortage from one (albeit big) seed supplier in one country. The Bejo Seeds Australia director told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he hopes seeds will be available by September or October.

When I contacted the Australia director for more details, he told me they had “switched the tap off” when it comes to the kale story. Translation: Calm the fuck down, internet.

I called up the managing director of Bejo Seeds’ U.S. branch, Mark Overduin. He told me that while their branch had quadrupled kale seeds sales in the last three years, they weren’t feeling the same crunch as their sister branch in Australia. “Sometimes supplies get a little tight,” he said. When I told him that I thought that the kalepocalypse was overblown, he chuckled and said I was probably right. The leafy green researcher and kale farmers I heard from didn’t seem too concerned, either.

While the kale market has been booming — with one Australian farm putting in 150,000 kale seedlings a week — it’s not clear that global demand is outpacing supply. “This is probably one of the slowest seasons we’ve had for kale,” said Scott Niizawa, commodity manager for Growers Express in Salinas, California. Turns out farmers pay attention to food trends, too. “Everyone has been getting in on kale. It’s not expensive to grow, it gives fairly high yields for its cost, so there are so many competitors right now,” he said.

Hear that? Your kale is safe. While I feel for the Australian farmers who might be scrambling over seeds for the next two months, this is just another case of a hyped-up, everything-delicious-you’ve-ever-loved-will-be-taken-from-you story.

If there’s anything to be learned, it’s that hiccups are bound to happen as a crop scales up into the mainstream. “Just 50 crop commodities provide more than 90 percent of calories, protein, and fat around the world,” writes Virginia Gewin at Slate. We need to shake that up. Try not to panic when we do.

 *I eat kale on a near-daily basis, so if anyone is being arrogant here, it’s this guy. I couldn’t help but poke fun at Tom Philpott’s recent smash hit, “Lay off the almond milk, you ignorant hipsters.”

Thanks to the good folks in the UC system for help with finding sources. 

Filed under: Article, Food, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Frackers learn one does not simply walk into Pittsburgh and mess with its CSAs

Thu, 2014-07-24 23:35

The Pennsylvania Constitution stipulates that its citizens have a right to “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment.”

Allow me to propose, herewith, an amendment: “… and a toxin-free CSA box, goddamn it.” (Would Benjamin Franklin approve of that wording? Who cares, he’s dead!)

In New Sewickley Township, about 30 miles north of the city of Pittsburgh, there’s a new microcosm of the ongoing tug-of-war between the oil and gas industry and people who just happen to like clean air and water (crazy! I know). Kretschmann Farm, which has supplied certified organic produce to the greater Pittsburgh area for 36 years, is engaged in battle with Cardinal Midstream, a Texas-based corporation proposing to build a natural gas compressor station right next door.

A bit of background, for those who are new here: Most of Pennsylvania sits on the Marcellus Shale, the country’s top source of natural gas. The state has 6,391 active fracking wells, and with salivating oil and gas companies aggressively courting legislators and landowners across the state, that number is rapidly growing. But this has all happened very quickly — 10 years ago, the use of “fracking” in conversation was more likely to be understood as a hedged expletive than anything else.

In Pennsylvania, one has to move pretty quickly to keep up with the developments surrounding natural gas infrastructure. But unfortunately, research on the health and environmental effects of fracking tends to move very slowly.

In that regard, Becky Kretschmann, who owns Kretschmann Farm with her husband, Don, tells me that her opposition to the proposed compressor plant has to do more with the possibility of how it could contaminate their crops.

“We just know there’s the possibility of all sorts of toxins,” she says. “It’s very difficult to get access to the sites to do research, and there is not a lot done yet — although it’s in the process — in terms of relating health issues with fracking and these compressor plants. But the research is really in its infancy. So, lots to do before we sleep.”

It’s not like these concerns are unwarranted. A few recent and alarming news items from the Keystone State regarding its natural gas industry: Hundreds of incidences of contaminated water, health workers prohibited from discussing fracking with patients, and faulty measurement of harmful emissions.

I reached out to Cardinal Midstream to ask about the precautions that would be taken to prevent contamination from the proposed compressor station, and received the following response from their spokesperson:

We are committed to being a good neighbor and it’s our job to make sure we minimize impact.  We’re serious about that job. As you know, emissions are heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The station will meet and exceed all federal and state standards and the requirements of the township’s ordinance. This facility will not impact the quality of the produce and livestock grown in the community.

It’s worth noting that just this week, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a report detailing its own inability to adequately monitor and regulate fracking operations in the state. From the report:

In conclusion, as evidenced by this audit, DEP needs assistance. It is underfunded, understaffed, and does not have the infrastructure in place to meet the continuing demands placed upon the agency by expanded shale gas development.

Cardinal Midstream first started posting notices about a hearing regarding the proposed compressor station four months ago, Kretschmann tells me, but she didn’t find out about it until three weeks ago. “We got a call from a neighbor who said, ‘You know what’s going on?’ and we [didn’t],” she says. “That was on July 2. There was a meeting that night with the township board of supervisors and the gas company and the compression company. And they wanted a vote right away, yes or no.”

A second hearing, which took place last night, was attended by more than 300 people — so many, in fact, that the venue had to be changed at the last minute — and lasted approximately six hours. “I was astonished at how many people stayed until the bitter end,” says Kretschmann.

While the majority of the attendees were New Sewickley residents, a number of the Kretschmanns’ CSA customers came in from the city for it. Approximately 300 of their customers wrote letters of support to the township manager.

Kretschmann tells me that Cardinal Midstream made an hour-and-a-half long presentation on the safety of the proposed compressor station, and brought along a panel of their own experts. New Sewickley residents opposed to the station, however, were not as well-prepared.

“We were just frustrated — we did the best we could with the information we could garner ourselves, and had quite a few people presenting various [pieces of] information, but we didn’t have the experts that they had,” says Kretschmann. “And shame on us, in a sense, because we weren’t keeping up on what was going on in the township.”

The New Sewickley Township supervisors will meet again on July 31, and then render a decision within the following 45 days.

On one hand, you kind of have to admire the balls of a corporation fighting to potentially endanger the supply of Pittsburgh’s up-and-coming restaurant scene. One does not thoughtlessly fuck with a foodie’s seasonal vegetable ragout. But on the other hand, the oil and gas industry is pretty much the absolute worst, so — admiration rescinded.

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Climate change VR games make you a better person by making you kill trees and coral

Thu, 2014-07-24 23:09

Despite our best efforts to convince people of the dangers of climate change, fully half of Americans still choose to ignore the 97 percent of scientists who say it’s real. Well, stop tearing your hair out, and get a load of this mind boggling study out of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which shows how virtual simulations might be the thing to do the trick.

Armed with an Oculus VR headset, one of the lab’s games guides the participant on a walk through the forest. And then, things get a little weird:

From Smithsonian:

In a minute, she’s handed a joystick that looks and vibrates like a chainsaw, and she’s asked to cut down a tree. As she completes the task, she feels the same sort of resistance she might feel if she were cutting down a real tree. When she leaves this forest, and re-enters the “real” world, her paper consumption will drop by 20 percent and she will show a measurable preference for recycled paper products. Those effects will continue into the next few weeks and researchers hypothesize it will be a fairly permanent shift. By comparison, students who watch a video about deforestation or read an article on the subject will show heightened awareness of paper waste through that day—but they will return to their baseline behavior by the end of the week.

Just imagine what she’d do if we made her go out and cut down a real live tree!

The coral reef game takes it even a step further, by making the participant actually become a piece of coral. It goes something like this: Participant is plopped in the middle of a beautiful, serene sea. Ocean acidification sets in. All of her new aquatic friends begin to die off – until even the piece of coral that she has come to embody begins to fade. With the realization that not even her hot tears can make it better, she vows to never to anything to harm the ocean again.

Smithsonian reports that the game was more effective at getting participants to change their behaviors than making them watch an ocean acidification video explainer (but, then again, that might just be due to the known soporific qualities of most nature docs).

As for those of us who have dedicated our lives to communicating the dangers of climate change, painstakingly documenting every data point and endangered species? Screw it, we can all just go home. There’s a sweet new game on Xbox we’ve been meaning to try, anyway.

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Northwest wildfires: We broke the forests, now we need to fix them

Thu, 2014-07-24 20:29

The Northwest is ablaze. Both Washington and Oregon are in official states of emergency as dozens of fires burn on forests and rangelands. Rainy weather in some areas has helped firefighters in the past few days, but according to the federal government’s InciWeb website, there are still 22 large fires burning almost a million acres in the two states. The half-contained Carlton Complex fire in north-central Washington alone has torched 150 homes and burned more than a quarter million acres, making it the largest in state history.

Welcome to the hot, flammable future, America. We’ve been setting ourselves up for these fires for a long, long time.

David Freedman has a strong piece on the past, present, and future of wildfire in America in the latest issue of Men’s Journal. Here’s a snippet starring Dave Cleaves, an economist and former professor who now advises the chief of the U.S. Forest Service:

In the late 1980s, Cleaves found himself wondering: Why was the U.S. being hit by more and more uncontrollable fires? Up until then, increasing investments in firefighting seemed to have rendered wildfires tamable. But in 1989, 873 structures burned down in California wildfires. In 1990, 641 structures were lost in a single fire. In 1991, more than 3,300 homes were torched in a firestorm near Oakland. Throughout the 1980s, an average of 3 million acres had burned each year in the U.S.; by 1991, the number exceeded 5 million acres. “Large parts of whole counties in the West were going up in single fires,” says Cleaves. “We’d never seen fires like that.”

Cleaves pored over the data and came to a disturbing conclusion, one that seemed almost preposterous at the time: A slow but accelerating rise in average temperatures in the West was tipping the wildlands into a state of unprecedented vulnerability that would render fires increasingly uncontrollable. Today, we call it climate change.

Turns out you don’t have to crank up the thermostat very far to make already flammable forests downright explosive. A 2009 study by the Forest Service and the universities of Washington and Idaho found that the area of Washington burned by wildfires is likely to double or even triple by the end of the 2040s, as trees are stressed by heat and drought, and succumb to bark beetle invasions.

President Obama rightly drew the connection between the fires and climate change at a fundraiser in Seattle earlier this week: “A lot of it has to do with drought, a lot of it has to do with changing precipitation patterns and a lot of that has to do with climate change,” he said.

But it’s more than just climate change that’s stoking these flames. More than a century of logging turned forests that were built to survive fires into tinderboxes of small, tightly packed trees. And many of our fire fighting efforts have only exacerbated the problem by allowing the fuels to build up further. Add a few hots days, a spark, and a little wind, and all hell breaks loose.

That’s exactly what we’ve seen in Washington over the past two weeks. Late spring rains spurred grass and shrubs to grow tall. Then a streak of hot days sent the mercury up over 100 degrees, turning it all into kindling. Lightning and high winds quickly blew up an inferno.

“Our fire behavior specialist told us that the rate of spread during that fastest period — we saw approximately 20 miles of movement in 6 hours,” says Glenn Hohler, a public information officer with the Washington State Incident Management team working the Carlton Complex fire. “That’s almost unheard of.”

There are some things we can do to reduce the threat of these massive fires. We can stop building homes in flammable forests, for starters. We can also send loggers into those forests to thin them out, clearing out brush and other so-called “ladder fuels” that allow fires to roar into the tree canopies. We can also set small “prescribed fires” to clear out understory in relatively controlled situations.

I saw some remarkable examples of this kind of work on a recent trip through north-central Washington. My wife, kids, and I camped on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and spent a day hiking through a thinned out forest of stately larches. A handful of the trees were what the greenies like to call “old-growth” — hundreds of years old, and so broad at their base that the four of us, stretching fingertip to fingertip, couldn’t get our arms around them. Many of the other trees were second-growth, just a couple of feet in diameter — but standing at a good distance apart, thanks to crews that had come through with chainsaws and thinned the forest out.

To my knowledge, the fires haven’t touched those woods, but if they did, chances are good that they would burn through the undergrowth, lick at the thick, fire-resistant bark of those larches, and move on. The unmanaged private lands nearby, crowded with small trees, on the other hand, would go up like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Hohler, whose day job is as a forest entomologist for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, says he’s seen just that where the Carlton Complex fire has burned. In some areas, he says, stands of big, dispersed trees have survived the flames. In another spot, where a thick, overgrown forest burned, he says, “an ATV — there’s literally nothing left but the metal frame. The ash layer looks like snowfall. It’s completely black, the most intense fire you can imagine.”

Sadly, in the aftermath of these current fires, we’re apt to see more of the later, and less of the former, as flames rage through thousands of acres of forests that have been subjected to logging — and deprived of natural fire — for decades. Meanwhile, funding for forest thinning and fire prevention is hard to come by, while we continue to throw millions at “fighting” fires that are far beyond our control.

Freedman, writing in Men’s Journal, details President Obama’s proposal to put about $1 billion into wildfire prevention and damage-reduction efforts.

The proposal is facing fierce opposition. Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, has been a particularly outspoken critic of the administration’s intention to downplay firefighting in favor of forest management and fire prevention. He and some other politicians from the West want to keep all-out firefighting as the top priority – harking back to the 1930s, when the Forest Service’s so-called “10 am policy” promised to extinguish new fires by the next morning. They also want to bring in more logging and grazing as a self-funding form of thinning. “I want you to go back to the 10 am policy, ” Pearce said in one congressional speech.

But the war on wildfire, like the war on drugs, is a losing proposition. The harder we fight, the more we get burned.

Instead of fighting, we need to get serious about fixing. We broke these forests. Now we own them.

Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Sit down, relax, and charge your phone at this cool new solar-powered smartbench

Thu, 2014-07-24 20:13

Welcome, friends, to tomorrow. Thanks to the Soofa electricity-generating park bench, the tyranny of the non-solar seating is at an end! That old dude sitting across the way isn’t just feeding pigeons; he’s recharging his I-Pacemaker! Put a propeller on his fedora and he can also power his jazzy.

Actually, metric ton of snark aside, it’s a pretty good idea. With solar panels getting cheaper and easier to install, they’re popping up everywhere, and with our insatiable need for electricity to power every aspect of our once unpowered lives, strapping panels to the thing we were going to sit on anyway makes a lot of sense.

Christina B. Farnsworth with Green Builder has more:

The Soofa: my urban hub not only powers our toys but also shares location-based information like air quality and noise levels with its built-in sensors. …

Three women—Jutta Friedrichs, Sandra Richter and Nan Zhao—founded Changing Environments, a MIT Media Lab spin-off, that develops what they call urban furniture. The creators of the smart urban furniture, Soofa, share one vision: “Getting you out of the homes and into a new, smarter and more sustainable city.” After all, most of us live in urban environments.

The first benches have been installed in and around Boston.

So the Soofa smartbench can be festooned with sensors that allow you to check out the local park before you get there. The website mentions ambient noise and air quality, but one could imagine other uses. Looking for a romantic stroll to pop the question? Check the Soofa database first to see if there are hippies playing hacky sack where you two lovebirds met. Terrified of street performers? A human statue warning system is just around the corner!

But perhaps most important is the solar panel itself, which is thoughtfully positioned in the middle of the bench, guaranteeing no one will ever sit awkwardly close to you again.

Filed under: Business & Technology, Cities
Categories: Eco Buzz

North Dakota’s ag commissioner race oughta be on Broadway

Thu, 2014-07-24 17:54

In the struggle over North America’s energy boom, some tales are more suitable for Broadway musical treatment than others. But could there be another story more perfect for song and dance than that of the race for North Dakota agricultural commissioner?

The agricultural commissioner does pretty much what you expect – handle permits for agricultural lands, which, in the case of North Dakota, is mostly ranchland. Since part of permitting grazing territory is making sure that said land remains safe for grazing, the agricultural commissioner also has sway over drilling permits and oversight — a lot of sway.

Now that North Dakota is producing more oil than some OPEC members, and oil companies are planning to drill 35,000 new wells across North Dakota in the next 15 years, the race for this relatively homespun political office has suddenly become the stuff of political melodrama.

On one side: Standing agriculture commissioner and Republican Doug Goehring, who has the backing of at least 10 oil companies or their executives — including Continental Resources Inc., Whiting Petroleum, and Marathon Oil — as well as a truly strange-sounding sexual harassment investigation in his recent past. From Reuters:

An investigation last year … found [Goehring] had asked a female staff member to step on his sore back to crack it and labeled women in his office his “harem.”

Goehring apologized, took a sexual harassment course and was cleared of misconduct by the state’s Department of Risk Management.

The “harem” comment was in poor taste and didn’t reflect his true feelings, Goehring said.

On the other side, we have organic rancher, former Democratic state senator, and Whole Foods supplier Randy Ryan Taylor:

“We want the oil, but we also want productive land when it’s all done,” Taylor said in an interview on his 2,900-acre ranch, dotted with scores of quietly grazing cows. He went on to say that if elected, “I’ll probably be looking at things in a more critical eye.”

His cows are quiet because they know he is just about to burst into song. What will he sing about? Perhaps his proposal that would require pipelines to be equipped with flow meters, to enable early leak detection. What rhymes with flow meter? Snow cheater? Crow leader? This is going to be great!

Broadway dreams aside, this story underscores how much the battle over America’s energy policy is being fought at the local level, especially those levels that involve zoning and permits. We’ve seen this play out in New York, in Nebraska and South Dakota, in Richmond, Calif., in Washington state, and in Maine. And we’ll be seeing it more in this next round of elections. Regional political races are becoming the new front lines of environmentalism.

Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Drilling in Pennsylvania has damaged the water supply 209 times in last seven years

Thu, 2014-07-24 16:52

Whether or not you think that’s alright depends on your perspective. According to Patrick Creighton, those numbers are pretty good – so many oil and natural gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past seven years that 209 problem wells is a mere 1 percent of the total. But Creighton happens to be the spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group composed of natural gas drillers. So there’s that.

According to Steve Hvozdovich, 209 is a lot. “You are talking about somebody’s drinking water supply.” But then Hvozdovich works for the environmental group Clean Water Action. He would like clean drinking water.

However you feel about the 209 “instances,” that number wasn’t an easy one get. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is legally required to get to the bottom of drilling-related water complaints, report its findings to the owner of the affected property, and issue orders to clean up or fix the damage — all within 45 days of the first complaint.

The report on this process is supposed to be a part of the public record, but when the Post-Gazette and other groups became curious about these reports and where they might be, DEP balked. The reports were too difficult to find, the agency said. They were mixed in with a whole lot of other paperwork. The agency was understaffed, overworked, and underfunded.

All of which was probably true, but still, in the last year, information about the DEP’s attempts to regulate gas and fracking has been, er, leaking out, which the Post-Gazette credits to court rulings and political pressure. While the Post-Gazette got its list of the 209 sites through a public records request, the DEP will post its own official tally of damaged water supplies this month. It will mark the first time the agency has released its official accounting of drilling-related pollution and water loss cases on its website.

What would be useful, now, is more context. What kind of bad thing happened, exactly? (Not all cases are pollution-related — a lot of them have to do with issues of water quantity as well as quality, since drilling for shale gas can take up a lot of water.) Which companies were involved? Were shale gas drillers more likely to cause problems than people who drilled regular, garden-variety oil and gas wells? How did the companies involve fix the problem? Were they fined?

Pennsylvania’s DEP can expect to see a lot more requests for this sort of information as people move past the question of “What’s happening to our water?” and into the questions of “Why is this happening? And should we be freaking out?”

Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Halliburton fracking spill mystery: What chemicals polluted an Ohio waterway?

Thu, 2014-07-24 16:32

On the morning of June 28, a fire broke out at a Halliburton fracking site in Monroe County, Ohio. As flames engulfed the area, trucks began exploding and thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals spilled into a tributary of the Ohio River, which supplies drinking water for millions of residents. More than 70,000 fish died. Nevertheless, it took five days for the Environmental Protection Agency and its Ohio counterpart to get a full list of the chemicals polluting the waterway. “We knew there was something toxic in the water,” says an environmental official who was on the scene. “But we had no way of assessing whether it was a threat to human health or how best to protect the public.”

This episode highlights a glaring gap in fracking safety standards. In Ohio, as in most other states, fracking companies are allowed to withhold some information about the chemical stew they pump into the ground to break up rocks and release trapped natural gas. The oil and gas industry and its allies at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a pro-business outfit that has played a major role in shaping fracking regulation, argue that the formulas are trade secrets that merit protection. But environmental groups say the lack of transparency makes it difficult to track fracking-related drinking water contamination and can hobble the government response to emergencies, such as the Halliburton spill in Ohio.

According to a preliminary EPA inquiry, more than 25,000 gallons of chemicals, diesel fuel, and other compounds were released during the accident, which began with a ruptured hydraulic line spraying flammable liquid on hot equipment. The flames later engulfed 20 trucks, triggering some 30 explosions that rained shrapnel over the site and hampered firefighting efforts.

Officials from the EPA, the Ohio EPA, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) arrived on the scene shortly after the fire erupted. Working with an outside firm hired by Statoil, the site’s owner, they immediately began testing water for contaminates. They found a number of toxic chemicals, including ethylene glycol, which can damage kidneys, and phthalates, which are linked to a raft of grave health problems. Soon dead fish began surfacing downstream from the spill. Nathan Johnson, a staff attorney for the nonprofit Ohio Environmental Council, describes the scene as “a miles-long trail of death and destruction” with tens of thousands of fish floating belly up.

Statoil and the federal and state officials set up a “unified command” center and began scouring a list of chemicals Halliburton had provided them for a compound that might be triggering the die off. But the company had not disclosed those ingredients that it considered trade secrets.

Halliburton was under no obligation to reveal the full roster of chemicals. Under a 2012 Ohio law – which includes key provisions from ALEC’s model bill on fracking fluid disclosure – gas drillers are legally required to reveal some of the chemicals they use, but only 60 days after a fracking job is finished. And they don’t have to disclose proprietary ingredients, except in emergencies.

Even in these cases, only emergency responders and the chief of the ODNR’s oil and gas division, which is known to be cozy with industry, are entitled to the information. And they are barred from sharing it, even with environmental agencies and public health officials. Environmental groups argue this makes it impossible to adequately test for contamination or take other necessary steps to protect public health. “Ohio is playing a dangerous game of hide and seek with first responders and community safety,” says Teresa Mills of the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment, and Justice.

Within two days of the spill, Halliburton disclosed the proprietary chemicals to firefighters and the oil and gas division chief, but it didn’t give this information to the EPA and its Ohio counterpart until five days after the accident, by which time the chemicals had likely reached or flowed past towns that draw drinking water from the Ohio River. The company says that it turned over the information as soon as it was requested. “We don’t know why US EPA and Ohio EPA didn’t have the information prior to July 3,” Halliburton spokesperson Susie McMichael tells Mother Jones. “If they had asked us earlier, we would have provided the information, consistent with our standard practice.” The Ohio EPA, on the other hand, maintains that ODNR, emergency workers, and federal and state EPA officials had a representative ask Statoil and Halliburton for a complete list of chemicals just after the spill. Several days later, environmental regulators pressed for the information again and learned that it had already been shared with only ODNR, which according to the EPA report was not deeply involved in the emergency response.

Other key players, including local water authorities, the private company hired to monitor water contamination, and area residents, did not get a full rundown of chemicals, even after the EPA and the Ohio EPA finally received the information.

Ohio state officials maintain that the river water is safe to drink because the fracking chemicals have been so heavily diluted. But environmentalists are skeptical. “Tons of chemicals and brine entered the waterway and killed off thousands fish,” says Johnson of the Ohio Environmental Council. “There’s no way the drinking water utility or anyone else could monitor those chemical and determine whether the levels were safe without knowing what they were. Even today, I don’t think the public can be sure that the water is safe to drink.”

This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Scientists could finally find extraterrestrial life – by spotting its pollution

Thu, 2014-07-24 11:53

My flying saucer? Yeah, it’s a hemi. Or at least scientists involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (a.k.a. SETI) hope so. Thanks to a wizbang new telescope, researchers will soon be able to detect life on other planets by observing the contents of their far-away atmospheres. In particular, they’ll be looking for chlorofluorocarbons, because any old single-celled life form can spew a bit of oxygen and methane — but pollution? That takes intelligence.

Here’s more from today’s Harvard-Smithsonian press release on the search for extra-terrestrial coal-rollers:

New research by theorists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) shows that we could spot the fingerprints of certain pollutants under ideal conditions. This would offer a new approach in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). …

The team, which also includes Smithsonian scientist Gonzalo Gonzalez Abad, finds that the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be able to detect two kinds of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — ozone-destroying chemicals used in solvents and aerosols. They calculated that JWST could tease out the signal of CFCs if atmospheric levels were 10 times those on Earth. …

“We consider industrial pollution as a sign of intelligent life, but perhaps civilizations more advanced than us, with their own SETI programs, will consider pollution as a sign of unintelligent life since it’s not smart to contaminate your own air,” says Harvard student and lead author Henry Lin.

Aren’t the humans adorable? The thinking comes down to, “I seem to have made a horrible mess of this place, and I’m the smartest guy I know, so if there’s another, smarterer guy out there, just imagine what he’s done to his place.”

Lin’s co-author Avi Loeb points out that we may need to rethink some of our extraterrestrial jargon: “People often refer to ETs as ‘little green men,’” he says, “but the ETs detectable by this method should not be labeled ‘green’ since they are environmentally unfriendly.”

Still, this new technology could give us a handy tool for dealing with the not-so-green men here on earth: Climate denial tends to walk hand-in-hand with paranoia. If we tell the deniers that climate change will help the aliens find us, I’ll be we can get them to put solar panels on their tinfoil hats.

Filed under: Business & Technology
Categories: Eco Buzz

Ask Umbra: How can I get rid of all of this packaging foam?

Thu, 2014-07-24 11:06

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. I am distressed by the bulky #6 Styrofoam blocks that come in the box on the rare occasion when I buy something new and large. I have not found anywhere that recycles them; they sit around the house for a few months, and if Halloween doesn’t arrive, they ultimately go in the trash. (I’ve already dressed as a salted pretzel, hot cocoa with marshmallows, and coffee with sugar cubes for Halloween.)

I found your post from 2004 that said the market for #6 might improve, but it’s been ten years (!) and it doesn’t seem like it has. Is there hope for #6? Do you have any other ideas of how to dispose of it?

Emily B.
Hillsborough, N.C.

A. Dearest Emily,

How about bagel with sesame seeds? Christmas tree covered in snow? Starry sky? That should get you through another few years.

But seriously now: I’m afraid those piles of excess foam still represent a recycling hurdle in many parts of the country. And even the most inspired Halloween reuse is merely delaying the disposal issue, leaving us with a big, bulky problem. But the good news is that you can very likely find a place to recycle your blocks, even if it’s not as simple as taking them out to the curb.

First, a note on semantics: What you call Styrofoam, Emily, is technically expanded polystyrene, or EPS. We encounter the stuff frequently as packing material (both blocks and peanuts), takeout food containers, egg cartons, and disposable cups. Styrofoam, on the other hand, is a trademarked product from the Dow Chemical Company. These materials are similar and frequently confused, but this is not exactly a Kleenex/tissue situation.

Many municipal recycling companies like yours don’t accept EPS, citing its difficulty to keep clean and uncontaminated (especially takeout containers), lack of nearby processing facilities, and shipping inefficiency (imagine the trucks needed to haul such a large, lightweight commodity; EPS can be as much as 98 percent air). But if you can reasonably get your blocks to a densifier – a machine that converts airy chunks of #6 into compact, shipping-friendly bricks – there’s indeed a market for them. Recyclers can then turn the bricks into things like home insulation, picture frames, cafeteria trays, clothes hangers, and more EPS.

According to the EPS Industry Alliance (EPS-IA), 98 million pounds of the white stuff were recycled in 2012, an average recycling rate of 15 percent. Industry publications are reporting signs that the recycling market will continue to grow, helped along by better densifier technology and more take-back programs – so maybe those crumbly blocks won’t be such a burden in coming years. But until that magical day comes, you’ve got EPS to deal with.

When it comes to recycling, the EPS-IA’s recycler directory is a great place to start. It turns out you have a drop-off center that accepts polystyrene packing blocks not too far away, Emily; what’s more, your local waste management company is kind enough to provide these suggestions, too. EPS packing peanuts (a.k.a. loose fill) are an even easier fix: Plenty of shipping stores will take them off your hands to pad tomorrow’s boxes of breakables. And if all else fails, the EPS-IA itself will take your foam through the mail.

While all of this helps, we mustn’t forget EPS is a petroleum-based, non-biodegradable product that all too often ends up clogging our landfills. Even recycling it often involves extra energy used in shipping. As such, we’d do best to avoid it as much as possible. This is easiest with food containers: Buy your eggs in cardboard cartons (or farm fresh!), BYO takeout containers, and choose reusable mugs and plates whenever possible. Skipping EPS packaging blocks can be tougher, though you can always shop around for gently used electronics, cookware, and whatever else you typically find cradled in foam.

You describe your new purchases as rare, Emily, and you reuse your EPS diligently. Just complete the routine with recycling and I’d say you’re in good shape – after your star turn as a T. rex, robot, or sushi roll, of course.


Filed under: Article, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Seals discover offshore wind farms are all-you-can-eat seafood buffets

Wed, 2014-07-23 19:54

Looking to catch up with legendary British pop sensation and noted beach ball enthusiast Seal? The “Kiss from a Rose” singer has been soaking in the North Sea sun as he frolics amongst the offshore wind farms. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the four-time Grammy-award-winning, semiterrestrial mammal is drawn by the ample fish provided by these artificial reefs. [Editor’s note: Not Seal, Meyer, seals. Remind me again, how did you get this job?]

Well that makes a great deal more sense. Let’s let Eva Botkin-Kowacki at the Monitor explain:

The scientists observed eleven harbor seals outfitted with GPS tracking tags in the North Sea frequenting two active wind farms, Alpha Ventus in Germany and Sheringham Shoal off the southeast coast of the United Kingdom. One seal even visited 13 times, according to a report published this week in the journal Current Biology.

The wind turbines make up a grid. When foraging for food, the seals moved “systematically from one turbine to the next turbine in a grid pattern, following exactly how the turbines are laid out,” says study author Deborah Russell of the University of St. Andrews. “That was surprising to see how much their behavior was affected by the presence of these artificial structures and how they could actually adapt their behaviors to respond to that.”

There are possible downsides. The sound of the turbines could damage the seals’ hearing, which would wreak further havoc on their recording careers. The wind farms could also be playing what amounts to an ecological shell game, drawing creatures that would naturally be more widely dispersed to a smaller area without increasing actual numbers. The science is still out, but the farms could actually be increasing habitat for sea animals while providing cleaner power for us landlubbing bipeds.

Another plus for wind: I’m sure most marine mammals, and even Seal, for that matter, prefer a wind turbine to the oil-spewing equivalent.

Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz