Given that Obama's economic stimulus package is likely to include billions of dollars in road projects, how will he counteract the environmental toll? One idea, supported by the steel industry, is to funnel more of that money into rail, such as the $45-billion high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco that was approved by the state's voters in November.
Another idea is to build those roads greener. Two new cement companies, one in Great Britain, another in Silicon Valley, claim to have discovered a new way to produce cement that not only emits no carbon dioxide, but also sucks much of it from the atmosphere.
This is no small feat. Cement production accounts for 5 percent of the world's CO2 emissions--more than the entire aviation industry. And a recent report by the French Bank Credit Agricole estimated that demand for cement will increase 50 percent by 2020.
The Silicon Valley company, Calera Corp, was founded by Stanford professor Brent Constanz, who in 1986 invented a medical cement that revolutionized the way hospitals repaired broken bones. Unlike conventional cement, which is made by heating up limestone or clay to around 1500 degrees C, his medical cement combined carbon dioxide and magnesium to mimic the way coral reefs are formed. His new eco-cement works much the same way, except the carbon dioxide comes from power plants that would otherwise spew it into the atmosphere. The British company, Novacem, uses a similar process.
Both companies claim their products are strong enough to work in roads, buildings, and bridges and are cost-competitive with conventional cement. The hard part will be to convince customers that the cements will endure the test of time when there's no real track record. Of course, using conventional cement will also be a gamble--in the form of some 450 million tons of yearly carbon emissions.
So much for the vaunted Pickens Plan. Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens' massively publicized scheme to build a $10 billion wind farm in West Texas has discreetly been put on hold. Pickens cites the difficulty securing financing during the credit crisis, but has also told reporters that energy prices would have to rise again before the project becomes economically viable. This underscores the myth about Pickens' supposedly altruistic motives. The media has often portrayed him as an aging robber baron (and former Swift Boater) reborn as an idealistic green crusader--what use does an octogenarian have for greed, the thinking goes (He's even a finalist now for Dallas Morning News' "Person of the Year"). But I've argued that Pickens' real motive--getting even richer--is exposed by his plays for water rights in West Texas and public subsidies for natural gas in California--two moves adamantly opposed by environmentalists. Perhaps most telling, Pickens recently slashed $10 million from the media campaign he started to promote wind and natural gas. If Pickens himself isn't going to peddle wind right away, it seems there's less incentive for him to get everybody else on the wagon.
Kallari, released at Whole Foods in October, is the world's first widely-available chocolate bar made and marketed by actual cacao farmers. It also might be the best chocolate I've tasted, and I'm a big chocolate fan. It's produced with a rare, highly-celebrated bean grown in the Ecuadorian Amazon by 850 enterprising Quichua families who receive 100 percent of the profits. It probably doesn't hurt that they got a little bit of help from Robert Steinberg, the founder of Berkeley's renowned Scharffen Berger chocolate. If you're looking for a holiday gift, Kallari's 75% cacao bar might be a good bet. In these depressing times, you'll get to talk about how it was made by farmers who until recently couldn't even afford to ship their beans from the jungle to Quito but who now run the show--true role models for us children of the recession. And then you can suggest opening it right away so you can snap off a big chocolatey chunk for yourself.
Steven Chu, President-elect Barack Obama's choice to lead the Department of Energy, seems about as climate friendly as they come. As a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and director of the DOE-funded Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he has dedicated his career to weaning the globe from petroleum. But Chu, who declined to comment for this story, is also more industry friendly than his rhetoric suggests. Last year he sealed a deal between the Berkeley Lab, two public universities, and oil company BP, creating the largest university-industry alliance in US history, the $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute, to conduct biofuels research. The proposal sparked fierce opposition from faculty and students at the University of California-Berkeley, which will host the institute. Biology professor Ignacio Chapela called the partnership the "coup de grace to the very idea of a university that can represent the best interest of the public."
Nicholas Kristof's Times column on Obama's potential Secretary of Agriculture picks has generated a manure storm in the blogosphere. At issue is the fact that he may pick a typical agribusiness guy like Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop. This is ironic, and perhaps a bit duplicitous, given that Obama recently professed to reading, and being down with, Michael Pollan's sun-food agenda piece in the Times Magazine. Many liberals have not protested Obama's other less-than-progressive cabinet picks in part because they believe that Obama himself will balance them. But the problem with applying that theory to agriculture is that the Democratic Party is not really much more progressive on ag than Republicans. Indeed, opposition to the most recent farm bill was an odd coalition of California progressives and the Bush Administration. There will be so much institutional inertia to overcome on agriculture within the Democratic Party that it's hard to see how the system will ever change without a secretary who is truly committed to shaking it up. Obama might have the will, but he certainly won't have the time or energy.
Update: More on potential Obama picks. And this petition to encourage Obama to make a progressive Secretary of Agriculture pick has been gaining steam.
Update II: The names of possible Ag Secretary contenders keep shifting, indicating that the criticism might be having an effect. According to the AP, as of Monday December 15th the contenders are:
Dennis Wolf (PA Secretary of Agriculture)
Tom Buis (President of the National Farmers Union)
Charles Stenholm (Former West Texas Congressman and ranking member of Ag Comittee)
Stephanie Sandlin (Congresswoman from South Dakota and Ag Committee member)
Jill Long Thompson (Former Undersecretary of Ag under Clinton)
Still, none of these names are picks that have been circulated by activists in the Food Democracy petition.