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March April 2014

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Feb 24, 2014

World's Most Naive Environmentalist

 

Mcnutt_tnStep forward Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science, the prestigious journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former head of the U.S. Geological Survey. In a jaw-dropping editorial in Science, and later in an interview with David Greene on NPR, she announced that she was now supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, even though she's an environmentalist! 

I drive a hybrid car and set my thermostat at 80°F in the Washington, DC, summer. I use public transportation to commute to my office, located in a building given “platinum” design status by the U.S. Green Building Council. The electric meter on my house runs backward most months of the year, thanks to a large installation of solar panels. I am committed to doing my part to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and minimize global warming. At the same time, I believe it is time to move forward on the Keystone XL pipeline.

Alrighty. And why does she think that? "Just because there hasn’t been a pipeline really did not stop the development of the Canadian tar sands," she told Greene. It was going to happen anyway. Furthermore,

 Rather than putting the oil in a pipeline, they are now putting the oil in trucks and railway cars and trucks and trains actually use more fossil fuels themselves to get that oil to market than a pipeline.

In her view, opening up a huge new supply of dirty oil could save us all from climate change:

We need to find a funding source that allows us to invest more aggressively in solar, wind, and other non-CO2-polluting sources. If you look at the cost of transporting oil in a pipeline, it is the very cheapest way to do it. If one can identify a revenue stream that would come from all of the money saved and convert that money then to a renewable energy fund that sets us on that right path, then I think the nation really wins. 

That's it. Really, that's her argument--you could look it up.This morning, NPR's Greene interviewed billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, whose organization, NextGen Climate Action, strongly opposes Keystone. Steyer pointed out that the notion that TransCanada could increase production from the current 1.9 million barrels a day to its projected 6-9 million barrels a day is "simply preposterous...If this really doesn't matter, and they can do this by truck and rail, why is this the number one goal of the Canadian government?"

And what about McNutt's notion about trading approval of Keystone for future funding of renewable energy projects? 

I don't even know what that means.  I did spend 30 years in the private sector, I know what a trade is. A trade is when I give you something, and you give me something. So far, all the trades have been, I give you something, and we're going to think about giving you something that would be really neat. 

My scientific estimate of the number of environmentalists who will be convinced by McNutt: 0. So why even bother making such a painfully ludicrous argument? 

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and dad. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

 

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Jan 31, 2014

Sweet Crude Man Camp

Sweet Crude Man Camp on Vimeo

This morning on NPR's "Morning Edition" Kirk Siegler had a great story about a guy who lives in Western Montana and commutes 580 miles to work in the oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota ("Commuting to Distant Oil Fields: Good Money, At a Price").

Last summer, Richardson easily found work in northwestern North Dakota as a cement operator, putting casings on new oil wells. He has a bed in a "man camp" on the outskirts of Williston, but with so much drilling going on, he rarely goes there, even at night.

He usually works 18 to 24 hours straight, sleeping when he can in the back of a giant rig that he drives from one drill site to the next.

"It's pretty tough, trying to adjust to living in a truck, working on the job site on location, 24 hours a day, for three, four days at a time before you make it back to camp," Richardson says.

Richardson sounds exactly like one of the characters in Isaac Gale's wonderful short (10:35) film, Sweet Crude Man Camp, which also takes place in Williston: A guy living in his truck because he doesn't want to spend $4,000 a month to rent a dormlike room in a "man camp." As usual in resource booms, from the Gold Rush on, the real money is made not by the boomers but by those selling them the shovels. I could tell you all about it, or you could just watch it below. 

  

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and dad. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

 

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Jan 28, 2014

KeystoneXL--Blowing Stuff Up

Clipboard01Exploding pipelines, exploding trains, now exploding cows--the petrochemical industry has a definite image problem these days. On Sunday, a natural-gas pipeline in Manitoba owned by TransCanada--the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline--exploded, shooting flames nearly a thousand feet in the air. (Horrifying video here.) Then just the other day progressive burrito-chain Chipotle released the trailer for its upcoming 4-part series on Hulu, "Farmed and Dangerous" (see below), a very-promising satirical story about the "Animoil" corporation, which feeds cattle "petro pellets" and hopes to link its farms directly to the Keystone pipeline. An unfortunate glitch is that sometimes the cows, well, explode: 

 

Speaking of Keystone and explosions, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says that 

Republicans are considering attaching a Keystone decision to a new law to raise the debt ceiling, which may be needed by the end of February for the U.S. to avoid another financial crisis.

So if President Obama doesn't OK Keystone, the GOP is prepared to blow up the world economy. KABLOOEY! 

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and dad. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

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Jan 23, 2014

Good News--Wind Turbine Collapses!

Nordtank  Vestas  wind system fail and crashes.   YouTubeLast week a 1.5 MW wind turbine collapsed at NextEra Energy Resources' Mill Run wind farm in Pennsylvania. (The screenshot at right is NOT it, but the dramatic 2008 collapse of a turbine at Hornslet, Denmark. See below for amazing video.) No one was injured. 

“Turbine failure is extremely rare but something we obviously take very seriously,” says [Nextra spokesperson Steven] Stengel. “We've engaged our experts that are currently at the site investigating the cause. The other nine turbines are currently not operating.”

So why is this good news? Let's pitch that big ol' softball to John Hanger

A collapse of a wind turbine is as bad as it gets at a wind farm. But wind at its worst does not cause 300,000 customers to lose water service. It does not cause a fireball that levels homes and kills 47 people sleeping in their homes, as happened with an oil train explosion in Canada.  Wind at its worst does not cover vast portions of the Gulf of Mexico with oil.

And solar spills? Worst that could happen is you get a sunburn. 

 

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and dad. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

 

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Jan 22, 2014

Dude, Where’s My EV?

2014 Cadillac ELRThe annual North American International Auto Show in Detroit wraps up this week, leaving electric vehicle fans underwhelmed with no unveilings of hybrid, plug-in electric, or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles ready for the public. In fact, in the fuel-saving arena the big attraction was a big truck: the top-selling, garage-swamping 2015 Ford F150, which Ford hopes will achieve “close to” 30 mpg on the highway. (Audi did show off a “concept car” that it claims will travel 31 miles on electricity before its gasoline engine kicks in; as for availability, according to an Audi spokesman the so-called Allroad Shooting Brake offers “very concrete glimpses of the near future.”)

For that matter, the plug-in auto market has hit some sort of plateau: the only truly new models ready for the public are Cadillac’s sleek $76,000 ELR (which arrived in dealerships in December) and BMW’s otherworldly $41,350 i3, which has been available in Europe since November and hits the U.S. in May. The ELR, like the Chevrolet Volt upon which it is based, has a “range extending” gas-powered generator; the BMW is available with a range extender for an additional $3850.

Market research firm Gartner unflatteringly calls this technology lull the “trough of disillusionment” that naturally follows a “peak of inflated expectations.” (The Frankfurt Auto Show -- the world's largest -- was wall-to-wall green vehicles in 2009.) Fortunately for electric-vehicle supporters, Gartner's so called "Hype Cycle" anticipates a “slope of enlightenment” and “plateau of productivity” after the aforementioned trough. For the curious, John German, who focuses on technology innovation and U.S. policy development for the International Council on Clean Transportation, puts electric vehicles in compelling long-term perspective.

There is other good news: Today more than a dozen plug-in vehicles (gas/electric hybrid and all-electric) are available to the buying public, from the $23,845 Mitsubishi i to the $95,000-plus, 265-miles-per-charge Tesla S sedan. (Those figures don’t include the $7,500 federal tax credit or any state incentives.) For a look at what’s available, head over to the Sierra Club’s Electric Vehicle Guide.

Image of 2014 plug-in hybrid Cadillac ELR courtesy of GM.

Blog photo   HS_ReedMcManus (1)Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

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Jan 17, 2014

How Dry Is It In California?

Calif-snow-2013-vs-2014This dry. Image at left is what California looked like from space at this time last year, at right this year. So dry that this morning California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency... 

...as the state struggled with the lowest-levels of rainfall in its 153-year history, reservoirs were at low levels and firefighters remained on high alert.

"We are in an unprecedented, very serious situation," Brown said.

The governor asked Californians to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent. 

Shasta_oli_2014004It's so dry that Mt. Shasta, the source of the Upper Sacramento River and usually covered in 100 inches of snow at this time of year (it got 189 inches in a single storm in 1959, a world record), now looks like this. Slopes at the mountain's ski area are mostly closed, with only one or two inches of snow on the ground. And Shasta Lake, the huge reservoir that holds much of its runoff for delivery to the fields of the Central Valley, is at a mere 37% capacity. Many towns are already seeing their drinking water supplies run perilously low; Willits, for example, has less than a 100 day supply. And there is already a serious wildfire in Southern California's San Gabriel mountains. 

As ever, California's scary drought cannot be conclusively linked to climate change--although climate models do predict that that is what we can expect under global warming. If not climate change, it's something that looks exactly like it. 

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and dad. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

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Jan 15, 2014

Greener Than Thou

49 (1)I live in densely populated Berkeley, California, while my sister lives on a farm near bucolic Bowie, Maryland. Which one of us is greener? Thanks to a team of researchers from the University of California at Berkeley (score one for the hometown team already!), we can now find out. For a paper in Environmental Science and Technology, Christopher Jones and Daniel Kammen combined census data, transportation figures, and 35 other variables to come up with an interactive carbon footprint map for 31,000 zip codes in 50 states. It shows the average annual household carbon footprint in Berkeley to be 35.1 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent; Bowie--sorry, sis!--clocks in at 68.9.

The biggest portion of Bowie’s bigfoot, I can see, is transportation--nearly a third of the total. The same goes for Berkeley, but apparently our public transportation options are better, or at least better used. In fact, I can see that the average Berkeleyite in my zip code travels 1,292 vehicle miles per month (at a cost of $173). For their part, Bowieites travel 2,715 vehicle miles per month, for $225.

That points us at the study’s key finding: Even though less than half of the U.S. population lives in the suburbs, suburbs account for half of all U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.  “Unfortunately,” says Jones, “while the most populous metropolitan areas tend to have the lowest carbon footprint centers, they also tend to have the most extensive high-carbon footprint suburbs.”

Play around with the site and see how your community measures up. Demographics, of course, isn’t destiny: You can improve your score in the future by searching out clean energy solutions

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and dad. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

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Jan 10, 2014

Saudi America

 

Bp-exxon-warming-2035In the last issue of Sierra, I wrote about how we are becoming the Carbon States of America. Our energy-related greenhouse gas emissions are falling, but we’re stepping up our exports of coal and natural gas. Oil, I noted, is another matter:

U.S. law currently forbids the export of domestically produced crude oil, a ban the industry is lobbying to overturn.

With the United States now experiencing an oil glut, that lobbying is becoming increasingly intense. Earlier this week, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (R), urged her Senate Energy Committee to review the crude oil ban. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the oil industry predictably chimed in in favor.

"We should not be bound by past practices," said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, in a speech at the Newseum in Washington. "It's a new day, it's a new time, it's a new America as it relates to oil and natural gas."

The United States, Gerard said, "should be working to 'figure out how to become the energy superpower in the world.'"

Environmentalists naturally oppose increasing exports of dirty energy from the United States. They have an unlikely ally in the refining industry, which is currently making a bundle by exporting gasoline and diesel that they make from cheap domestic crude.

The effort could bring in new lobbying firms to battle on the refiners' behalf and ultimately could expand to a broader coalition of crude export foes, including consumer advocates and national-security groups worried about squandering America's current energy advantage.

 So get ready for a bruising battle over gas prices, national security, and maybe even the environmental effects of using every last drop of fossil fuel before turning to renewables. In that interest, Barry Saxifrage at the Vancouver Observer has worked out--using data from ExxonMobil's global energy report The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040--the climate implications if the world uses all the oil and natural gas that fracking is making available.

ExxonMobil includes a colourful chart showing the surge in climate pollution that will result from burning all that extra oil and gas. They even provide the numerical data in a table at the end of the report.

What they don't talk about, however, is what all the climate pollution means for your future. They never mention how hot the planet will get or what changes that is expected to bring.

Saxifrage's graph of the result is above, showing the world on a path to a future that is 4 degrees Centigrade--more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit, an increase the World Bank calls "devastating." 

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise, he is a cyclist, cook, and dad. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

 

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Dec 10, 2013

Another One Bites the Dust

Coal shipAll that coal and nowhere to go. Last month, my colleague Paul Rauber wrote about the slate of candidates in Whatcom County, Washington, recently elected to defeat a proposed coal-export terminal in the northwest corner of the Evergreen State. Now Lone Star State activists are beaming that a proposed coal export terminal in Corpus Christi has been ditched -- due to a “seriously diminished” international interest in coal, aka music to an anti-coal-activist’s ears.

According to the Port of Corpus Christ (as reported by Climate Progress), “Currently the export coal market has shrunk substantially. The domestic market has seen older coal fired power plants closed with some being refitted to burn natural gas. Wind and solar power driven by regulatory incentives have created additional pressure on coal. The enthusiasm for export terminals among coal producers has diminished.” Climate Progress notes that this is the fourth time this year that a proposed coal export terminal has been canceled; the list includes two proposals in Oregon and another in Corpus Christi.

Three more coal-export proposals in the Pacific Northwest as well as one in Louisiana are still on the table, all with vocal opposition. It turns out that not many Americans want to be at the tail end of a rail line leading from coal mines in the Rocky Mountain states to ocean ports. As noted in a 2012 Sierra Club report on coal-export development in Texas, “According to BNSF, one of the railroad companies involved in transporting coal, an average of 500 pounds of coal dust and chunks can escape from a single loaded rail car in transit. Each coal train contains over 100 rail cars, which means over the course of one trip from Wyoming to Texas, 50,000 pounds, or 25 tons, of coal dust would escape from rail cars onto the ground and possibly into surface and ground water. Coal dust has been linked to chronic bronchitis, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis (pneumoconiosis), and environmental contamination through the leaching of toxic heavy metals.”

“Texans don’t want coal, Gulf states don’t want coal and international markets don’t want it either,” Hal Suter, chair of the Club’s Lone Star Chapter and a Corpus Christi resident, told Public Citizen.

Image by Freezingtime/iStock.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

 

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Why Did Ronald Reagan Save the World?


468px-Reagan_on_horseback
Readers of a certain age will recall that Ronald Reagan was not much of an environmentalist. Concerning the establishment of Redwood National Park, for example, he famously remarked: "A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?" 

But yesterday in the New York Times, Justin Gillis wrote about the curious history and remarkable success of the Montreal Protocol to save the planet's ozone layer:

Here is a remarkable fact about global warming: It might be twice as bad right now were it not for a treaty negotiated by a conservative American president, for an entirely different purpose, based on motives no one has ever quite understood.

The treaty banned the refrigerants known as chlorofluorocarbons, which, in addition to destroying the ozone layer that protects us from dangerous radiation, turn out to be incredibly powerful greenhouse gases. Montreal was a big success on both counts, but Gillis reveals that no one is quite sure why Reagan backed the treaty. 

Mr. Reagan, with his zeal for deregulation and his conservative business principles, might have been expected to fight the idea of a global treaty. That is exactly what many of his closest aides wanted him to do. In the end, he rejected their advice and backed it, vigorously.

Why? One idea is that Mr. Reagan himself had had skin cancer, and allowed a concern for public health to triumph over ideology. Eli Lehrer, the head of a Washington think tank called the R Street Institute and a longtime Reagan admirer, offered me a simpler theory: that the man truly loved nature. He was never happier than when riding horses and chopping wood. Perhaps the science of the ozone hole just spooked him.

Elderly Sierra Club members may be skeptical, but he did spend an awful lot of time at that ranch. Perhaps the man who appointed the notorious James Watt as Interior Secretary was a nature boy himself after all. 

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress.Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

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