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Sierra Daily: May 2011
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32 posts from May 2011

May 10, 2011

Roasting Coal

110510-coslog-inhalerart-coalcares-bieber.nv_nws By now, we hope you have heard about Coal Cares, the coal-industry spoof that  promises to take the stigma out of childhood asthma by providing kids with asthma inhalers emblazoned with the likes of Justin Bieber, Dora the Explorer, and SpongeBob Square Pants. One of the Web site’s many gems: "Locating the filtering mechanism at the point of consumption (i.e., your child's mouth) is dramatically more cost-effective than locating it at the point of emission (smokestacks) and in turn means less need for intrusive and costly regulation.”

Peabody Energy, the butt of the spoof and the world’s largest private coal company (its Web site keeps a running tab of the volume of coal it has sold this year -- 90 million tons -- just like the old McDonalds “Over 99 Billion Served” claim), was not  amused. In its response to Coal Cares, Peabody added some fuel to the slow-burning fire, claiming that coal energy is basically, well, good for us. “A growing collection of studies demonstrate the correlation between electricity fueled by low-cost coal and improvement in health, longevity and quality of life,” reads the company’s press release.

That’s because the coal industry sees its lung-choking product as the sole antidote to what’s known as “energy poverty” –- the lamentable fact that 1.6 billion people in the world lack access to electricity. At an energy-industry confab in Houston recently, Peabody Energy’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Gregory H. Boyce crowed that "coal is powering both the largest and best global economies, and this is no coincidence. The correlation between coal-fueled electricity use and economic growth is near-perfect."

Others aren’t so convinced that the world's best option is moving from super-dirty energy sources such as charcoal or firewood to a dirty one such as coal. Last year, World Bank President Robert Zoellick urged countries to move away from “the binary choice of either power or environment. We need to pursue policies that reflect the price of carbon, increase energy efficiency, develop clean energy technologies with applications in poorer countries, promote off-grid solar, innovate with geothermal, and secure win-win benefits from forest and land use policies. In the process, we can create jobs and strengthen energy security.”

Sven Teske, renewable energy director for Greenpeace and a member of the U.N. panel of climate scientists, recently told Reuters: "Excluding China, the global power plant market has been phasing out coal since the late 1990s. The growth is in gas power plants and renewables, especially wind.”

Small-scale solar and wind projects are particularly appropriate for delivering electricity to rural areas, unlike big coal-fired power plants that require costly power lines. For some excellent analysis of the potential of renewable energy in India, read blog posts here, here, and here by Justin Guay of the Sierra Club International Program. For more on coal, go here.

--Reed McManus

May 09, 2011

Why We (Heart) Massive Global Corporations

Prius photo2 On Earth Day, Toyota started taking “early reservations”  for its plug-in hyrid Prius, which will be available in 15 U.S. states starting in early 2012. Now comes word from the Nikkei business daily, via Reuters, that Toyota plans to make plug-in technology a standard feature for the Prius by 2014. That would mean there’d be a lot of hyper-thrifty Priuses tooling around the planet: According to Toyota, the plug-ins are capable of driving 14 miles on electricity alone and attain an equivalent of 134 miles per gallon. (Real-world testers have reached a more realistic but still impressive 83 mpg.) Last year, Toyota announced that cumulative sales of the Prius had reached two million units worldwide, and that the company was aiming to sell a million hybrids vehicles a year by 2015.

--Reed McManus

World's Worst Approach to Lowering Gas Prices

Coal to oil
Senator Joe Manchin (D-Big Coal) is crowing today about the groundbreaking for a new coal-to-gasoline plant in Mingo County, West Virginia. If the project eventually materializes, it will apparently be the largest such plant in the world:

 “The price of gas has skyrocketed to more than four dollars a gallon in the last year, and there’s no question that West Virginia families are hurting,” Senator Manchin said. “West Virginia is a state where people have to drive to survive, and I know these high prices are hitting families hard. This country has to get serious about making energy independence a priority, which is why we must develop a national energy policy that harnesses all of our vast domestic resources and push forward with new technology – just like coal-to-gasoline – that will help us achieve energy independence within a generation."

Only problem is--coal-to-gasoline may very well be the worst energy option in the world. (See "A Patriotic Pall: The coal industry takes a bad fuel and makes it worse.") Since the 1940s when Nazi scientists sought to turn Germany's coal reserves into fuel to break the Allies blockade, the idea crops up every several years, still without any success. This time out, Ken Ward, Jr. at Coal Tattoo does the honors in pointing out some of the larger difficulties:

Now, Sen. Manchin doesn’t mention questions about the lack of financing (subscription required) for this project.  He doesn’t mention lingering problems with the company’s state environmental permits— such as the fact that its stormwater permit for its construction not being issued yet.

And Sen. Manchin certainly didn’t mention the biggest question facing the TransGas proposal: The fact that it has no plan for capturing and storing its greenhouse gas emissions, meaning the fuel it produces could end up generating twice as much carbon dioxide as traditional fuels.

If Senator Manchin were serious about lowering fuel costs for his constituents, he'd join the Sierra Club's Michael Brune and scores of other environmental leaders in signing this letter to President Obama, urging an increase in auto fuel-efficiency standards. According to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a 60-mile-per-gallon fuel-efficiency standard would save car owners nearly $9,000 over the life of the vehicle--equivalent to a cut in the price of gas of $1.30. In addition, it would lower greenhouse gas pollution by 6 percent a year--rather than doubling it with coal-to-liquid. Won't you join us, Senator?

--Paul Rauber

 

May 06, 2011

More Hungry Mouths to Feed

  20110503_POPULATION_graphic-popup-v3    This week the United Nations released a depressing report: Rather than levelling off at 9 billion, the world's population is now expected to grow to 10.1 billion by the end of the century. How we will manage to feed so many mouths is once again a matter of top concern. Vastly complicating the matter is this other tidbit from the week: A study from the journal Science that documents how climate change is already raising the price of food around the world. Over the last three decades, climate change has cut yields of wheat and corn by more than 3 percent of what had been expected, resulting in 20 percent higher commodity prices. Worst affected has been Russia, where the wheat crop has been 15 percent lower than expected. Unlike rapidly growing Africa and Asia, however, Russia's population is in serious decline--so much so that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has announced that he's investing 1.5 trillion rubles (c. $53 billion dollars) in efforts to boost Mother Russia's birthrate.

--Paul Rauber

Good Places For Pedestrians

Pedpikeplace By way of Gris comes the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center’s list of the top eleven “walk friendly” cities in the United States. Seattle, Washington, heads the list. (Sure, the eco-saturated town is a ringer, but it deserves all the credit it gets. The Emerald City's pedestrian-friendly progress comes despite having the 10th-worst traffic congestion among 439 urban areas in the U.S. Just be careful on a wind-whipped wet winter day while trudging downtown, suggests this one-time resident.) 

Other top cities for pedestrians include beachy, palmy, and retiree-y Santa Barbara, California (sign me up!) and a few nice surprises, among them Hoboken, New Jersey, and Decatur, Georgia.

--Reed McManus

Image: Seattle Department of Transportation

May 05, 2011

Sunny Days Ahead for Renewables

Solar


According to a draft report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, renewable energy “could one day represent the dominant source for powering factories and lighting homes.” The panel began a four-day meeting in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

While renewable energy represented only about 13 percent of the world’s primary energy supply in 2008, almost half of new electricity generating capacity came from renewables in 2008 and 2009. That trend is expected to continue. In the report’s most ambitious scenario, renewable energy sources could generate 77 percent of global energy in 2050.

Reuters provides a handy summary of the status of renewables today: They accounted for 12.9 percent of global primary energy supply in 2008, with top contributor biomass (mainly firewood)  at 10.2 percent, hydropower (2.3), wind (0.2), direct solar energy and geothermal (0.1 each) and ocean (0.002 percent). Developing countries host more than half of worlwide renewable-energy generation capacity, with China adding more capacity than any other country in 2009. According to a review of 164 expert scenarios, renewable energy would contribute more to low-carbon energy supply in  2050 than nuclear power and fossil carbon capture and storage.

That’s just fine with renewable energy companies like Spain’s Iberdrola. Largely because of its investments in wind power, on Thursday the utility posted a 10 percent rise in its first-quarter net profits, with sales of $1.644 billion.

Meanwhile in Backwardistan: Today the GOP-led House of Representatives passed the first of three bills aimed at speeding up offshore oil and gas drilling. According to Representative Rush Holt (D-N.J.), the drilling measures are "amnesia bills that learn nothing" from last year’s BP spill.

--Reed McManus

Image: U.S. Department of Energy

May 04, 2011

The Kids Aren't Alright

Mercury-women-children According to a report in the May issue of Health Affairs, the costs of childrens' health problems such as lead poisoning, prenatal methylmercury exposure, childhood cancer, asthma, intellectual disability, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder were $76.6 billion in 2008. That's a jump from $54.9 billion in 1997, and represents 3.5 percent of total health care costs today, up from 2.8 percent in 1997.  

Health Affairs Blog, which links you to three equally-depressing current studies, notes that "diminished exposure to lead and reductions in costs for asthma care were offset by diseases newly identified as environmentally induced, including attention deficit disorder, and the added burden of mercury exposure."

For the EPA's tips on protecting your kids, go here. For information on Sierra Club efforts to stop mercury poisoning, go here.

--Reed McManus

Palin on Subsidies to Big Oil

I couldn't resist. As the late Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) is widely believed to have said (although evidence for him having done so is sadly lacking), "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."

 

--Paul Rauber (h/t to Climate Progress)

Deny Everything!

Remember when everyone was so worried about a swine flu pandemic? It now appears that the plague that's sweeping the nation is denialism: climate-change denialism, Obama-citizenship denialism, Bin Laden-death denialism. Now, courtesy of our friends at Think Progress, comes a new form: Oil-company-subsidy denialism! Watch Representative Bob Bishop of Utah tries to tell a constituent that "There are no special subsidies or tax breaks for oil companies, period!"

 

Back in the real world, President Obama's 2011 budget proposes to eliminate $45 billion in subsidies to Big Oil over 10 years; here's a rundown from the Center for American Progress. Another vote on repealing the subsidies in the House of Representatives could come this week.

--Paul Rauber

May 03, 2011

Sierra Clubber Makes Good

May Congrats are in order to Elizabeth May, who served as executive director of Sierra Club of Canada for 17 years until leaving in 2006 to win the top leadership post at Canada's Green Party. Yesterday, she became the first Green Party candidate elected to Canada's parliament, representing a riding (district) on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. How much credit goes to skills honed while at the Club? You can decide by reading her article on being an activist here. May's got a tough battle ahead: The Conservative Party won a majority in the election, and their environmental stands netted them a big fat "F" from Sierra Club of Canada.

--Reed McManus


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