Blue Marble - April 2009

Friday Cocktail: THE OVERDOSE: Three Parts Dead Zone, One Part Mercury, Sprig of Carbon Capture

| Fri Apr. 17, 2009 4:20 PM EDT

Round 1: First a report from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute that low-oxygen dead zones in the ocean could expand significantly over the next century. We already know the number of dead zones is doubling every decade. We already know that climate change is exacerbating dead zones in two ways.

First, more rainfall in some areas leads to more agricultural fertilizers and manures running off into the sea and growing more dead zones—as in the Gulf of Mexico. Second, warming in other areas reduces prevailing winds that produce oceanic upwelling—as in the Oregon dead zone.

Now the MBARI research, published in the journal Science, suggests a third mechanism at work. As more CO2 dissolves from the atmosphere into the ocean, marine animals will need more oxygen to survive. In other words, a dead zone will get deader faster. This is in addition to the excess CO2 causing changes to the pH of seawater. You know, the ocean acidification threatening the very foundations of life.

Pour me another and let's talk about the next round which might help solve the problems of this one.

Round 2:
Australia's Kevin Rudd, professed greenie, has launched a carbon capture institute. This is a government-funded initiative to coordinate and accelerate carbon capture and storage projects worldwide. "Our vision is to build an institute that will galvanize global efforts to demonstrate and deploy CCS technology," Rudd told the initial meeting of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI) in Canberra, reports NatureNews. "This recognizes the cold hard reality that coal will be the major source of power generation for many years to come."

This is where the "professed greenie" part comes into play. Matthew McDermott of Treehugger calls it a deal with the devil.  Australia is the world's leading exporter of coal and a big user of the stuff. So Rudd promises to pony up US$72 million a year for the GCCSI to figure out a way to enable them to keep doing that. The public-private partnership has received pledges of support from some twenty governments so far, including the US and China, plus more than 40 industrial companies.

Well, let's hope they really can figure out a way to mitigate the highly unmitigatable. Because, let's face it, otherwise they're running the world's biggest Ponzi scheme.

Round 3: A new paper in Environmental Science and Technology finds that the warming Arctic is not only changing the landscapes and seascapes but poisoning the landscapes and seascapes too. Mercury levels in seals and beluga whales eaten by Inuit in northern Canada have reached levels considered unsafe in fish. The problem is worse in low-ice years, meaning the problem is gonna get worse. Arctic residents are being exposed to other pollutants melting out too: DDT and PCBs that leached from the atmosphere decades ago and became entombed in ice and permafrost, now flowing into streams, rivers, and the Arctic Ocean.

Round 4: The Overdose, please.
 

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EPA Declares Greenhouse Gases Pollutants

| Fri Apr. 17, 2009 11:57 AM EDT

Two years after the Supreme Court directed the Environmental Protection Agency to determine if greenhouse gases were a threat to public health and the environment, the EPA formally concluded Friday that carbon dioxide and five other gases should be declared pollutants that could be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

The EPA's findings aren't surprising; most everyone knew these gases—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride—were harmful. Those who denied it were simply denying the reality of climate change. Unfortunately for us, men and women from that pack of stubborn detractors ran the federal government for the last eight years.

David Doniger at the Natural Resources Defense Council touched on this when he credited President Obama and EPA director Lisa Jackson with "going a long way to restore respect for both science and law. The era of defying science and the Supreme Court has ended."

Doniger is correct; the EPA's declaration does go a long way. But that just demonstrates how out of touch—whether because of hard-headed ignorance or the influence of lobbyists and money from polluting industries—the last administration was with the real world. A federal agency acknowledging and accepting scientific evidence is always going to look like a big stride in the right direction if that agency has spent the last decade doing the exact opposite.

As for the polluters affected by the EPA's declaration, the Times reports they are cautiously reacting to the news because they're hopeful the climate change legislation in the House Energy and Commerce Committee will give them a break. That would have been the case during the 16 years John Dingell headed the committee. But Henry Waxman is much less polluter-friendly than Dingell was during his tenure in the House.

Salazar in SF: March of the Polar Protesters

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 6:42 PM EDT

At a University of California San Francisco campus this afternoon, environmentalists made quite the display. People dressed as polar bears (at least 5), sea turtles (4), dolphins (2), jellyfish/coral (2), a kangaroo, and a seal. Two surfer girls in bikini tops walked past, leaving a trail of what looked like crude oil on the cement. ("It's actually chocolate," one confided.) The polar bears and surfer girls mingled in front of the university's conference center in hopes of influencing Deparment of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who was in San Francisco to hear public comment on offshore drilling plans. While Salazar criticized Bush's plan to drill "the entire Eastern seaboard, portions of offshore California and the far eastern Gulf of Mexico with almost no consultation from states, industry or community input," he and Obama are considering expanding existing offshore operations.

At the podium, Salazar received emotional suggestions and comments from the hundreds who packed the hall. Salazar often asked follow-up questions, sometimes uncomfortable ones. Scott Johnson, from CalWind, asked Salazar to consider offshore wind projects, but when asked how much electricity on-shore turbines in California currently generated, Johnson couldn't quote a figure. The goal, Salazar told the crowd, wasn't to favor one form of energy over another. "We need to have a comprehensive energy plan going forward," Salazar said. "We recognize that some of the energy sources we have are necessary to keep the nation going economically." Oil and gas, Salazar said, "have never been off the table" and warned the crowd that "we may not be able to do what's popular."

As the hall cleared for lunch, polar bears and politicians wandered out into the hot sunshine. In front of the Peasant Pie shop, non-profits and activist organizations tended booths and a small stage to further voice their concerns, not all drilling-related. Shay Wolfe, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, was in a polar bear suit, manning the tables. "We've been here since 7:30," she said. Her organization was concerned with offshore drilling, yes, but not perhaps as much as last-minute Bush regulations that “took away the scientific review requirement under the Endangered Species Act." Wolfe said Salazar has until May 9 to revoke those regulations. A San Francisco Baykeeper representative said her group was there to show support for the other environmental groups, but also yes, to say no to drilling. None of the groups brought up economic issues.

As the rally continued, Center for Biological Diversity attorney Miyoko Sakashita and her infant son Kai danced to the music in matching furry white polar bear suits. "I think people can relate to polar bears," said Wolfe. "We hope he [Salazar] got our message... we sent polar bears to greet him."

Kick The Sick Habit: Bay Versus Bag

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 6:50 PM EDT

Nice video from Save The Bay. It's the latest in their campaign to reduce plastic bag pollution in San Francisco Bay Area. You know, the endless crap that traps wildlife and never biodegrades and breeds like rabbits because we insist on accepting a new one of the evil airborne, waterborne immortals every time we buy any little thing.

Did you know the average plastic bag has a use-time of 12 minutes?

California taxpayers spend approximately $25 million every year to collect and landfill plastic bags. San Jose City staff estimates that it costs at least $3 million annually to clean plastic bags from creeks and clogged storm drains. Single-use bag production depletes resources and contributes to carbon emissions and global warming. We consume 14 million trees  and 12 million barrels of oil to produce the billions of plastic and paper bags we throw away in the United States every year. 

Save The Bay is trying to get Bay Area cities to charge 25 cents on paper and plastic bags from all retailers. Hopefully that'll encourage more people to use less plastic and pony up for durable reusables.

Accompanying the video, a few busted myths:

Myth: Recycling plastic bags is the best solution to the litter problem
Fact: Plastic bag recycling is expensive and doesn’t work

Despite a 15-year effort in California, recycling plastic bags has failed. Less than 5 percent of all single-use plastic bags are actually recycled. Plastic bags cost municipal recycling programs millions each year because bags jam sorting equipment. The frak ups cost San Jose about $1 million a year. Failed recycling means billions of plastic bags are thrown away to blow onto streets and float into waterways.
 

Spam's CO2 Emissions

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 3:42 PM EDT

In addition to being a giant waste of your time, spam emails are also a colossal waste of electricity, according to a recent study commissioned by the research division of McAfee (a company with, just so you know, a vested interest in convincing you that spam is evil).

Some fun little statistical nuggets from the study:

 

• Globally, annual spam energy use totals 33  billion kilowatt-hours (KWh), or 33 terawatt hours (TWh). That’s equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes in the United States, with the same GHG emissions as 3.1 million passenger cars using two billion United States gallons of gasoline
• The average GHG emission associated with a single spam message is 0.3 grams of CO2. That’s like driving three feet (one meter) in equivalent emissions, but when multiplied by the annual volume of spam, it’s like driving around the  Earth 1.6 million times.

HT New Scientist and Rebecca Skloot, via Twitter.

San Francisco Supe Proposes Government Ganja Shop

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 1:55 PM EDT

San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi wants the city to get into the drug dealing business by opening up a city-run medical marijuana dispensary. Though the law's as likely to pass as Cheech Marin is to sponsor a major public art exhibition--or something like that--it has at least been good for a chuckle: "The mayor will have to hash this out with public health officials," a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom told the SF Chronicle. "It's the mayor's job to weed out bad legislation, and to be blunt, that sounds pretty bad."

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Google Health Records: Ready for Prime Time?

| Tue Apr. 14, 2009 4:17 PM EDT

The short answer: Not so much. From the Boston Globe (via ProPublica):

When Dave deBronkart, a tech-savvy kidney cancer survivor, tried to transfer his medical records from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to Google Health, a new free service that lets patients keep all their health records in one place and easily share them with new doctors, he was stunned at what he found.
Google said his cancer had spread to either his brain or spine - a frightening diagnosis deBronkart had never gotten from his doctors - and listed an array of other conditions that he never had, as far as he knew, like chronic lung disease and aortic aneurysm. A warning announced his blood pressure medication required "immediate attention."
"I wondered, 'What are they talking about?' " said deBronkart, who is 59 and lives in Nashua.

The culprit: Bad billing records. Read the rest of the Globe story for deets.

If Google's wicked smart crew can't get the backend of a health care e-record repository right, can anyone?

I Will Use the Space Solar Farm to Rule the Earth

| Tue Apr. 14, 2009 2:25 PM EDT

It does not matter to me that the Solaren Corp denies that their space-based solar farm, designed to take advantage of sunlight unfiltered by our dingy atmosphere, could be used to blow up buildings like in Independence Day, even if they try and make it explicitly clear:

[Solaren’s director of energy services Cal Boerman] also dismissed fears, raised in the past, that the transmission beam could hurt birds or airline passengers who stray into its path. The beam would be too diffuse for that. "This isn't a laser death ray," Boerman said. "With an airplane flying at altitude, the sun is putting about four or five times more energy on the airplane than we would be."

Sure it isn't a laser death ray... until I focus its stellar energy beam using the lenses secretly hidden in my fashionable spectacles and aim it directly at downtown Canada! Just a note: my plans to rule your puny little planet may interrupt Pacific Gas and Electric power service, as the company has agreed to buy enough electricity from it to power 150,000 homes once the array comes online in 2016, but that just helps my evil scheme, since not only will I be able to blow up your grocery stores and cinemas with my laser death ray, but you will also be prevented from watching TV. …But wait a minute. If you can't watch my reign of blazing cosmic destruction on CNN, how will you know about my demands for all humans to relocate to the donut factories and start producing dozens more maple logs which shall then be shot in rockets to my space lair, where I'll still be manning the aforementioned laser death ray? Curses! Well, you win this time, environmentally-conscious humans and your overlords PG&E, but I'll be waiting.

Ethanol or Water: Which One?

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 7:17 PM EDT

Growing and producing ethanol costs a lot more water than anyone realized. Nevertheless we make some 9 billion gallons worth every year in the US. That's 13 to 17 percent of US corn production—with more coming down the pipeline.

But we could be a lot smarter about the process. Based on water use alone, some places grow reasonably cost-effective bioethanol while others produce an absurdly environmentally expensive brew.

Previous studies estimated that a gallon of corn-based bioethanol uses from 263 to 784 gallons of water from the farm to the fuel pump. But a new study assessed irrigation data from 41 states and found it's as high as 861 billion gallons of water. And some places cost 2,100 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol.

Bottom line: Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, California and New Mexico should not be growing ethanol. In the authors' words: Continued expansion of corn production in these regions is likely to further aggravate expected water shortages there.

Better growing states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky. The authors conclude: The time left for improving water consumption is limited… and immediate action needs to be taken in order to prevent a problem shift from energy supply to water sustainability.
 

Forum Sneak Peek: Is Organic and Local so 2008?

| Sat Apr. 11, 2009 12:02 AM EDT

So. Are you still peeved at Paul Roberts for dissing locavores and heirloom tomatoes? Well, grasshopper, Monday afternoon you'll have a chance to get in the ring with him and other foodies all answering the question: Is organic and local so 2008? If so, what's next?

Stay tuned for our MoJo Forum on organic food next week. In the meantime, you might want to reread Spoiled, watch Bryant Terry cook a vegan recessionista fave, or chow down on our meaty report about the future of food.

Update: The Food Forum is live.