Sierra Daily: October 2010
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26 posts from October 2010

Oct 18, 2010

The Nutty Idea Gap

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank is worried that, with the demise of climate-protection legislation in Congress. we need to come up with "a plan B for climate change." Increased funding for renewables? Support for the EPA's authority to regulate CO2 as an air pollutant? Nope.

 I suggest they try smoke and mirrors -- literally.

Scientists are already pondering the use of smoke (sulfur dioxide injected into the stratosphere) and mirrors (installing reflectors made of metal or lunar glass a million miles from Earth) to cool the planet. It's time for policymakers to get serious about these and other "geoengineering" proposals to cool the Earth and remove excess carbon.

Pouring money into such schemes, argues Millbank, "would prevent other nations from gaining a lead in geoengineering technologies," as well as finally providing a purpose for NASA. He does admit there's a downside: "Some of these ideas could bring unwanted side effects, including catastrophic droughts, famine and the destruction of ocean life."  With downsides like that, it almost makes it seem like it would be more desirable to just get off coal and oil and invest in some clean energy solutions.

--Paul Rauber

Oct 15, 2010

Oiled-School Ties

4709080016_9af34b6f70_m Welcome to the University of Big Oil. According to a report released yesterday by the Center for American Progress, $833 million dollars in grants from major oil companies may have compromised the ethics of energy research at major universities.

Corporate sponsorship of research is hardly new, but report author Jennifer Washburn, who penned the book University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education in 2006, contends that the rules that universities rely on to ensure independence and impartiality have been largely set aside to procure 10 lucrative alternative-energy research grants from energy giants BP, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips.

According to Big Oil Goes to College, “In nine of the 10 energy-research agreements we analyzed, the university partners failed to retain majority academic control over the central governing body charged with directing the university-industry alliance. Four of the 10 alliances actually give the industry sponsors full governance control.”

The report says that Stanford University’s $225 million in funding from a consortium of companies led by ExxonMobil to study technology to curb greenhouse gas emissions has come at a steep price: “As part of the Stanford contract, industry controls all four voting seats on the research alliance's governing body, and peer review of faculty research proposals is done ‘at the discretion of industry sponsors’." And the executive committee overseeing BP’s 10-year, $500 million sponsorship of the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California and University of Illinois, long criticized by researcher Washburn, consists of 3 members with financial ties to firms that could profit from the institute’s research, and a remaining ten members with vested interests that “could compromise their ability to evaluate incoming faculty research in an impartial and disinterested manner.”

For their part, officials at Stanford, the University of California, and the University of Illinois say they have adequate safeguards in place.

--Reed McManus

Oct 14, 2010

Gee Pop, Stripmining Is Cool!

Not even two months old, and already Sierra Daily is developing an odd specialization as purveyor of kitschy, ironic pro-fossil fuel propaganda. Our latest offering comes courtesy of the "public service" Web site, Comics With Problems. No date, but it seems to be from the early 1960s. It was put out by the Mined Land Conservation Conference, a voluntary industry group that predated the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which just celebrated its 33rd birthday. According to Aimee Erickson, executive director of the Citizens Coal Council, reclamation of strip mines is still way too voluntary:

The White House and Secretary Salazar refused to even think about improving environmental enforcement at the Minerals Management Service until an oil company's terrible performance killed people and damaged our wetlands, Gulf Coast fisheries and beaches.

Irresponsible coal mining companies have already killed people, poisoned rivers, destroyed families' homes, left communities without drinking water, and caused devastating floods. But the White House and Secretary Salazar have created a regulatory environment that lets the most irresponsible companies violate federal and state laws with impunity.

But don't try telling Sue and Billy that, cuz they think that reclaimed land is a lot better than it ever was before!

--Paul Rauber

Oct 13, 2010

We Never Liked Cap-and-Trade Anyway

So now that Joe Manchin has put a hole in pricing carbon, it's back to the drawing board for halting catastrophic climate chaos. The previous notion was the market-based mechanism of "cap and trade," which would have gradually ratcheted up the price of burning fossil fuels, thereby allowing alternative technologies an opening to compete. It passed the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate, as Ryan Lizza recounts so vividly in the New Yorker.

So if we aren't going to make carbon more expensive, how about finding ways to make those alternatives cheaper? This, it turns out, is a far more popular approach, and suddenly there is a slew of proposals to fund clean energy innovation, as detailed by David Leonhardt in the New York Times:

To put it another way, the death of cap and trade doesn’t have to mean the death of climate policy. The alternative revolves around much more, and much better organized, financing for clean energy research. It’s an idea with a growing list of supporters, a list that even includes conservatives — most of whom opposed cap and trade.

Funding innovation, of course, requires funds, and it's unclear where the government is supposed to find the $25 billion a year that's being widely suggested to pay for this clean-tech R&D. Still, comments Ezra Klein, the politics are much better than cap and trade:

It focuses the conversation on cool new technologies and making sure America dominates a new industry rather than on making it more expensive for people to drive cars or get electricity from a coal-powered plant. It doesn't blame people, or make certain regions of the country terrifically uncomfortable.

Speaking of certain regions of the country being uncomfortable, here's a look at what might be in store if we do nothing:



Graphic part of a presentation by climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, derived from this NOAA-led report, via Joe Romm at Climate Progress.

--Paul Rauber

Oct 12, 2010

Food That Stays With You

New York artist Sally Davies photographed a McDonald’s Happy Meal every day for the past six months. After 180 days on a shelf in Davies’ apartment, there was no mold and no decay, just a little shrinkage. You might say the meal was just as tantalizing as the day Davies bought it!

Salon has documented other efforts to grasp the changelessness of McDonald’s products, including a burger that had survived intact for 12 years as of 2008. (Sorry, no fries with that.) Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock famously kept Mickey D’s fries in pristine condition for 10 weeks in his 2004 documentary Super Size Me. (Spurlock’s burgers would have endured, too, had he not put them in closed jars.)

For its part, McDonald’s assures its customers that there are no preservatives in its meat. (The buns, cheese, and etceteras are another matter.) The stay-power of a hardy fast-food meal can be easily attributed to high volumes of sodium and fat, which prevent the growth of mold and bacteria. Like all fast foods, McDonald’s fare is, according to Salon, "fatty, salty, and practically empty of nutrients." Alas, that’s not as endearing a catch phrase as “I’m loving it,” which is still in use seven years after its introduction.

For instructions on how to preserve your own burgers, go here.

--Reed McManus


West Virginia, Green Energy Giant?

While California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is blasting Big Oil for its attempt to repeal his state's landmark global warming law, West Virginia governor and senatorial candidate Joe Manchin (D) is busy defending the honor of his state from Philadelphia actors and cap-and-traders, proudly trumpeting the lawsuit he filed against the Obama EPA's attempts to limit the damage from mountaintop removal mining. The disparity between the states is generally ascribed to the fact that West Virginia depends on coal for nearly all its electricity, while California's natural resources give it access to substantial solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal energy.

It looks like West Virginia is going to need a new excuse. A study commissioned by California-based  Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the search-engine giant, has found that West Virginia has "the largest geothermal hot spot in the eastern United States. . . . If engineers are able to tap the heat, the state could become a producer of green energy for the region."

Of course, as long as the coal industry can externalize its environmental costs onto society at large, and as long as there's no price on carbon to level the playing field for geothermal, this promising new clean industry will struggle to gain a place in the state's energy mix. Joe Manchin just may end up regretting he plugged that cap-and-trade bill.

--Paul Rauber

Oct 11, 2010

Look Ma! No Hands!

310 train
Imagine it’s the late 1800s and you’re trying to catch the 3:10 to Yuma. Getting 37 miles from Bisbee to the train station in Contention is easy enough: You’ve got the flexibility of a horse and buggy, with plenty of time for ambushes and shootouts or any other stops that you desire along the way. But what really gets your goat -- and what allows the baddies to catch up -- is that the train is running late. “Never can rely on 'em,” you mutter as you wage your climactic gun battle.

‘Twas ever thus. Americans have always favored personal mobility, our recent but faltering push for high-speed rail service nothwithstanding. And so along comes the news that Google researchers have logged more than 140,000 test miles in self-driving cars.

Selfdriving The push for so-called autonomous cars is not new: Here is a sweet article that summarizes American tinkerers’ fixation with robot cars, including “the amazing urbmobile” that graced a cover of Popular Science in 1967 (pictured at left). And the federal  Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been sponsoring its fascinating driverless car challenges since 2004. But Google’s experiments occurred on public roadways (with two engineers ready to assume control at any moment). “They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe,” writes Sebastian Thrun, a Google software engineer.

Alas, we’re still a long way off from, at least legally, cracking a cold one and reading Sierra magazine while piloting our Prius down the interstate. In his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), author Tom Vanderbilt explains how difficult it is to train a computer to make the decisions a human constantly makes (sometimes badly) while driving. In what Vanderbilt calls “myriad moments of uncertainty,” a driver (be it “Otto” or “Auto”)  must discern the difference between, say, a speed bump and a cyclist who has fallen in the street, and how to react differently when there’s a stopped vehicle or a traffic island up ahead. (Or, as happened in one of only two events that caused Google engineers to take the controls to avoid an accident, when a cyclist runs a red light.)

The Googlers see their research as a way to cut down on the 1.2 million traffic fatalities that occur each year worldwide, and to help create “highway trains of tomorrow” that “should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads.”

Of course, it’s all a sinister plot:  Lamenting the 52 minutes of time that the average commuter spends each day getting to and from work, engineer Thrun asks “Imagine being able to spend that time more productively.” Oh, I get it, Googling!

 --Reed McManus




Guess We Aren't Getting Joe Manchin's Vote

Just in case anyone was in doubt, it looks like West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Robert Byrd, is not going to be convinceable on the wisdom of putting a price on carbon through the market-based mechanism known as "cap and trade":


Joe Manchin, you're no Robert Byrd. A staunch supporter of the coal industry for most of his long career, Byrd spent his last months telling his state and the coal industry what they didn't want to hear about a changing world:

The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment.  Major coal-fired power plants and coal operators operating in West Virginia have wisely already embraced this reality, and are making significant investments to prepare. . . .

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it.  One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

Full text, with audio, here.

--Paul Rauber

Oct 07, 2010

Today in Toxic Sludge

Hungary On the heels of the  river of toxic red waste-sludge that swept through Hungarian villages this week and reached the Danube River today, Good magazine takes a look at six of the most deadly toxic sludge spills in recent history.

Among them are the Kingston Fossil Plant coal-slurry spill in Tennessee in 2008, which sent 1.1 billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry over 300 acres of land and into creeks feeding the Tennessee River. (Coal ash spills are far more common than could fit in any brief "worst-of" list. For more, read the Sierra Club’s Climate Crossroads blog.)  

 --Reed McManus

Oct 06, 2010

Now You See It, Soon You Won't

This NASA image from September 19 shows Arctic sea ice at its 2010 minimum--1.78 million square miles, the third lowest in the satellite record. This fits into a general pattern of decline, the agency notes, especially in "multi-year" ice. "[T]he 2010 season showed an increase in second- and third-year ice—which might eventually thicken—but the oldest and thickest ice had mostly disappeared from the Arctic."  

--Paul Rauber

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