Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Great News for Whiskey Drinkers!

| Fri Mar. 16, 2012 11:59 AM PDT
Celtic Renewables founder Martin Tangney does his best mad whiskey scientist.

A confession: When I wrote about the environmental footprint of various kinds of booze a while back, I was really hoping that whiskey would turn out to be the greenest. That's because it's far and away my favorite alcoholic beverage, whether served on the rocks in a comfy bar or sipped from a flask, campfire-side. What I found, though, is that the production of whiskey and other spirits requires much more energy than wine or beer. This is especially true in boutique distilleries that use old-fashioned pot-style stills, which make delicious whiskey but are pretty inefficient when it comes to energy use. The distilling process also makes a lot of waste. I found myself ruing the day I ever looked into all this. Who wants to feel guilty about booze, for goodness sake?

Imagine my delight, then, when I learned about a Scottish startup that is poised to make whiskey production greener. Celtic Renewables has figured out how to ferment whiskey waste and turn it into biofuel, along with two other useful products.

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California Government Has No Idea Fracking Is Happening

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 10:00 AM PST

Gas well drilling in Sutter or Colusa County, California: CalWest/FlickrGas well drilling in Sutter/Colusa County, California CalWest/FlickrThere isn't supposed to be much fracking in California. In the past, the state's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) has said that it "does not believe that fracking is widely used" in the state. More recently, the division allowed that the practice is "used for a brief period to stimulate production of oil and gas wells," but added (PDF) that "the division doesn't believe the practice is nearly as widespread as it is in the Eastern U.S. for shale gas production."

Californians, then, should be able to breathe a sigh of relief, since the controversial practice of fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, has been linked to a host of environmental problems, including air pollution, groundwater contamination, and possibly even earthquakes.

But according to a report (PDF) just released by the Environmental Working Group, fracking is much more common in California than the regulators would like you to believe. A team of EWG investigators has unearthed dozens of industry documents and academic papers indicating that the practice has been going on in at least six California counties for 60 years or more. And evidence suggests that it's still going strong: "We asked Halliburton, 'What percentage of wells are you fracking in Kern County, for example?,'" says Bill Allayud, EWG's California Director of Governmental Affairs. "And they said 50 to 60 percent of oil wells." A 2008 paper by the Halliburton subsidiary Pinnacle Technologies detailed the widespread current use of fracking in California.

The DOGGR didn't respond to the multiple emails I sent asking for comment, and EWG says that in a meeting earlier this month, division officials claimed again that it did not have any information about fracking in California. But the really strange thing is that the practice is clearly on the agency's mind: In 2010, the DOGGR requested funding to broaden its regulatory program to include new oil extraction technologies like fracking. It received more than $3.2 million for that very purpose in its 2010-11 budget, but according to the EWG report, so far it has not used the funds to regulate fracking. "They told us that regulating fracking is not on their plate," Allayud says. "Until they see manifest harm, they won't act." 

Does Dry Cleaning Cause Cancer?

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 4:00 AM PST
A shuttered dry cleaner

Rarely do I darken the doorstep of a dry cleaner. That's mainly because I am too cheap and lazy; I admit to having inflicted some verboten wash cycles on my few dry-clean-only dresses, followed by a sheepish line dry. The result is usually wrinkly but passable. I'm lucky: As you probably could have guessed, freshly pressed suits are not the prevailing style at MoJo HQ. But I know plenty of people, especially men, who have to haul their collared shirts to the dry cleaner every week.

Unfortunately, all that dry cleaning takes a toll on the environment. The main reason is the chemical solvent that the vast majority of the nation's 34,000 dry cleaners use: tetrachloroethylene, or "perc" (short for another one of its names, perchloroethylene), which has found its way into soil, streams, and even drinking water. This month, in its first update on perc since 1988, the EPA officially identified it as a "likely human carcinogen." It also changed the chemical's reference dose—the amount of a substance considered to safe to ingest every day—from 0.01 miligrams per kilogram of body mass a day to 0.006 mg/kg, a decrease of 40 percent.

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