Blue Marble - September 2009

DEP Issues Citation to Pennsylvania Driller as a Third Spill Occurs

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 5:25 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the ProPublica website.

Pennsylvania environment officials have charged Cabot Oil and Gas with five violations after nearly 8,000 gallons of hydraulic fracturing solution spilled from a pipe system in two separate incidents near the town of Dimock last week. The department reported that a third, smaller spill, occurred at the site Tuesday morning.

According to the state, Cabot failed to prevent a fracturing fluid discharge, failed to keep that discharge from escaping into the environment and from entering a creek, and inappropriately dammed that creek after the spill, among other violations. The company could face fines topping $130,000.

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Newsweek's Green Biz Rankings: Gutsy or Greenwash?

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 2:44 PM EDT

Newsweek has just released its first-ever environmental ranking of America's 500 biggest companies. And the winner is...Hewlett-Packard. The mag gives HP props for e-waste recycling, renewable energy use, and its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. OK, but what about those annoyingly wasteful printer cartridges? More on that in a sec. But first, a few selected rankings: Dell is #2, Johnson & Johnson #3, Starbucks #10, McDonald's #22, Wal-Mart #59, Whole Foods #67, Halliburton #169, and Monsanto #485. Energy and oil companies bring up the rear, with ExxonMobil down at #395 and Peabody Energy coming in dead last.

As interesting as it is to pore over the rankings, do they mean anything, or are they—like US News and World Report's college list—just another exercise in self-reported accomplishments, stat rigging, and brand polishing? Green business guru Joel Makower says there are undoubtedly rough spots in Newsweek's methodology, but overall he's impressed: "I'd rather step back and admire this first effort, however imperfect, and salute the team for doing what hadn't previously been done, or done well: brought together a wealth of data on a broad spectrum of the world's biggest companies to provide a snapshot of the green business world." TreeHugger's David DeFanza is more skeptical, noting that the rankings seem to emphasize a company's green "intentions" over its real-world impacts, creating "an unsettling discrepancy between environmental-friendliness and 'greenness.'" 

DOL's Child Labor Report Useless

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 1:10 PM EDT

I like kids. They think their bellybuttons are hilarious and can zone out to a screensaver. So I wanted to learn how to avoid consuming products made by kids when I heard about the new Department of Labor report on international child labor. Unfortunately, the 194-page report (PDF) is essentially useless to consumers. It doesn't tell you which companies are producing goods with child labor abroad, and doesn't even commit that the goods listed are absolutely produced by children. Instead, the report just lists "Bangladesh: Footwear" and "China: Cotton" as products that could possibly be made with child labor. Or possibly not. On page 29 the report states:

"It is important to understand that a listing of any particular good and country does not indicate that all production of that good in that country involves forced labor or child labor... There may be firms in a given country that produce the good in compliance with the law... Labor conditions may differ widely in different regions of the country, among other variables. The identity of specific firms or individuals using child labor or forced labor was beyond the statutory mandate."

Fantastic. Not only will the DOL not tell me which Ecuadoran banana packers use child labor, they can't even tell me that all or most Ecuadoran companies use kids to pick bananas. So what's the point of the report? The report lists so many items (cotton from 15 countries, rice from 8) that it's impossible to avoid them all. Basically, this report just makes me feel guilty about buying everything from Ghanian cocoa to Argentinian grapes, while leaving me no tools or information to counter it. Since I'm in California, I'll at least try to make sure all my fruit and vegetables are local. I can definitely avoid the disturbingly child-produced "pornography" from Colombia, Mexico, Philippines, Russia, Thailand, and Ukraine. But beyond that, I'll just have to look for a better report, one that actually gives American consumers specific information on child-produced goods.

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday September 23

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 7:28 AM EDT

News on Blue Marble-ish subjects from our other blogs and around the Web you might have missed.

Baucus Bill Changed: Baucus says he'll change the bill to favor middle-income Americans.

Green Girl: Model Gisele Bundchen becomes a goodwill UN ambassador for climate. [Environmental News Service]

Save Me, Will Ferrell!: New video by Ferrell worries about fate of healthcare company execs.

Hot Seat: In speech, Obama says US is making strides in fighting climate change.

Junk Science: New bill would sponsor study of junk food marketing in schools. [Consumerist]

Adios, Cloves: Clove cigarettes, beloved by drama geeks everywhere, shut down by the FDA.

Putting the "Eye" in iPhone

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 4:37 PM EDT

How's this for creepy: University of Washington engineers have manufactured some distinctly sci-fi contact lenses with the potential to radically alter the way wearers see the world. So far, the lenses contain a single LED, but the inventors say their brainchild could soon be projecting words, pictures and other information just in front of your iris. This, on the heels of several recent advances in augmented reality, seems like it's making the tech dreams of futuristic flicks like Iron Man a reality, complete with jet-pack propulsion and fashion that favors the metallic.  

The practical applications abound, but the creepy Terminator factor is still relatively high, especially when you see the pictures. And then there's the marketing strategy. According to the authors: 

We already see a future in which the humble contact lens becomes a real platform, like the iPhone is today, with lots of developers contributing their ideas and inventions.

Apps for your eye? Heaven forfend!  

'Pull the Plug' on Pandas?

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 3:41 PM EDT

BBC wildlife expert Chris Packham has said it's time to "pull the plug" on pandas. Packham, who hosts a BBC program on wildlife, says the giant panda has "gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac. It's not a strong species." Packham went on to explain that pandas receive far too much conservation funding because they're cute and cuddly, and that captive breeding programs are useless because there isn't enough wild habitat to sustain them.

I'll agree with Packham that there likely isn't enough habitat to sustain giant pandas, partly because that habitat is shrinking all the time due to China's recent economic ramp-up. But China isn't just thinking of conservation when it breeds pandas: Nearly 200 pandas have been rented out to zoos around the world at $1 million a year... each. And if those pandas have cubs abroad, those cubs also belong to China and must be paid for ($600,000 each). 

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EPA Takes Another Step Toward Regulating Emissions

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 3:18 PM EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency took a significant—if wonky—step forward on addressing global warming on Tuesday, with the announcement that the agency has finalized rules on greenhouse gas emissions reporting.

The new rule will require all major polluters to begin collecting and reporting their greenhouse-gas emissions. The EPA already puts out an annual inventory of their emissions, but this takes reporting down to every individual source emitting 25,000 metric tons or more of CO2 per year. Congress directed EPA to write the new rule in 2007, but the Bush administration never acted on the requirement. The registry will be a key element in regulating carbon dioxide.

The rule will cover approximately 10,000 sources, accounting for roughly 85 percent of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions. Electric utilities, oil and chemical refineries, major manufacturers, iron and steel producers, and concentrated animal feeding operations will need to start collecting data on January 1, 2010 and reporting that data by 2011. Heavy-duty vehicle and engine manufacturers will have a one-year delay on the new rule, with reporting set to begin in 2012.

Obama tipped his hand on the announcement of the new rule in his speech to the UN, noting the new rule as a sign of domestic progress. "For the first time ever, we'll begin tracking how much greenhouse gas pollution is being emitted throughout the country," said Obama.

"The American public, and industry itself, will finally gain critically important knowledge and with this information we can determine how best to reduce those emissions," said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in a statement.

The rule could play a key role in guiding the number and distribution of carbon credits under a cap-and-trade system, should Congress enact a plan in the near future. Or, in the absence of a new law governing emissions, it signals that the EPA is moving forward on regulations with or without Congress.

Cute Animal in Danger: Snow Leopard

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 7:29 AM EDT

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin struck a blow for wildlife this week, reintroducing critically endangered snow leopards to the Caucasus where they have been extinct since the 1920s. Putin's act was the fulfillment of a promise he made earlier after Russia won the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. It's a move, some say, meant to reduce anxieties that construction for the Olympics will damage the local environment.

Though the snow leopard became extinct in the Caucasus, there are still an estimated 6,000 of the big cats living in the Central Asian mountains. It's hard for scientists to know exactly how many snow leopards truly exist in the wild, since the animals live between 10,000 and 17,000 feet elevation. Getting to snow leopard habitat is dangerous--due to unstable local politics as well as the intense cold--so instead of setting up observation posts, researchers sometimes set up camera traps to collect data. Although the leopards' harsh natural habitat provides some measure of protection, poaching continues to be the main threat to the species: the animals' beautiful, distinctive coat is highly valued and their bones are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Climate change, it's been suggested, will also reduce available habitat and possibly prey species.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday September 22

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 7:06 AM EDT

News from our other blogs, and around the Web, you might have missed.

Repubs' Redux: Kevin Drum wonders what conservatives are offering as healthcare reform.

Opposite Day: In Germany, some customers sell power to the electricity company.

Red in Tooth: A Kenyan drought is hurting elephant populations. [National Geographic]

Obama's Climate Shot: Obama's address at the UN may give climate change legislation a much-needed jumpstart.

For the Birds: Native American tribe is penalized for killing bald eagle for religious purposes. [Los Angeles Times]

Becoming a Statistic: The US ranked #37 in WHO's rating of health care systems.

 

5 Creative Uses for: Coffee Filters

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

A few weeks back, I posted about alternative uses for coffee. If you have extra coffee, chances are you also occasionally have extra filters. The reuse gurus over at AltUse.com have done it again with these brilliant ideas. Use filters to:

1. Filter cork out of wine. Place an unbleached filter over your glass and before you pour the wine. Minimal impact to taste.

2. Stop a razor nick from bleeding. Tear off a small piece of filter and cover the nick. Stems bleeding fast.

3. Clean windows. Use filters instead of paper towels. Picks up dirt and dust without leaving lint behind.

4. Absorb food grease. Durable filters soak up excess oil without disintegrating. Works for bacon, pizza, french fries, or any of your other favorite greasy foods. Bonus: After frying, pour leftover oil through a coffee filter, then use it again.

5. Line house plants: Prevent soil seepage by placing a coffee filter in the bottom of a plant pot.