Blue Marble - February 2010

Permafrost Recedes 80 Miles in 50 Years

| Wed Feb. 17, 2010 4:23 PM PST

The southern limit of permanently frozen ground has receded 80 miles north in the past 50 years in Canada—suggesting that permafrost in the James Bay region will completely disappear in the near future.

The researchers measured the retreat of the permafrost border by observing hummocks known as "palsas" that form naturally over ice contained in the soil of northern peat bogs. Palsas harbor distinct vegetation: lichen, shrubs, and black spruce.

Aerial photos taken in 1957 showed palsas present in seven bogs lying between the 51st and 53rd parallels. By 2004, palsas were present in only two bogs. In 2005, the researchers assessed that the number of palsas in these two bogs had decreased over the course of one year by 86% and 90% respectively.

Helicopter flyovers between the 51st and 55th parallels reveal the palsas are in an advanced state of deterioration over the entire James Bay area.

Coauthor Serge Payette notes the average annual temperature of the northern sites he's studied for more than 20 years has increased 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F). He tells the Université Laval:

"If this trend keeps up, what is left of the palsas in the James Bay bogs will disappear altogether in the near future, and it is likely that the permafrost will suffer the same fate."

The paper is in Permafrost and Periglacial Processes.
 

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Chamber Kicks Off Legal Battle Over Carbon Regs

| Wed Feb. 17, 2010 1:01 PM PST

The first shots in the legal battle over the greenhouse gas regulation have officially been fired. After dropping hints of a possible lawsuit last month, US Chamber of Commerce has formally filed a court challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency's ruling that greenhouse gases endanger public health. 

Rather than attacking the underlying science behind the EPA's decision, the Chamber says it's focusing on whether it's appropriate for the EPA to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act. "The U.S. Chamber strongly supports efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, but we believe there's a right way and a wrong way to achieve that goal," said Steven J. Law, chief legal officer and general counsel for the Chamber. "The wrong way is through the EPA’s endangerment finding, which triggers Clean Air Act regulation."

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, as well as President Barack Obama and other advisers, have repeatedly said that the Clean Air Act is not ideal for dealing with climate change, and that they would prefer new legislation from Congress. But the EPA issued the endangerment finding in response to a specific directive from the Supreme Court in 2007 requiring the agency to determine whether greenhouse gases threaten human health. Once the agency reached the scientific conclusion that such pollutants are a health threat, it was automatically obliged to regulate those gases.

Although Chamber claims its not contesting the science of climate change, its submission does just that. The Chamber claims in its statement that the EPA failed to complete "careful analysis of all available data and options" before releasing the "flawed" endangerment finding. And in past statements on this subject, the Chamber has not been shy about engaging in a scientific debate on climate change. Last year the Chamber's senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs called for "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st Century" on climate change (he later backed off). And in its comments on the initial endangerment finding, the Chamber argued that climate change might actually be beneficial for humans, and that the problem of global warming could be solved if more people used air conditioners.

Sorting the Green Spin

| Wed Feb. 17, 2010 12:25 PM PST

Confused about how to be a more environmentally savvy consumer? Don't worry. So is everyone else.

A new study released today in New Scientist finds that there is little correlation between the companies that Americans think are environmentally friendly and those who are actually implementing environmentally sound practices. The magazine partnered with Earthsense, an environmental research company based in Syracuse, and Trucost, a London-based company that assesses environmental impact, to compare the perception versus the reality for more than 100 major corporations.

Whole Foods Market has the highest consumer "green" perception, though its green practices leave something to be desired, as I have noted here previously. They have done some notable things for the environment, like purchasing renewable energy, improving the efficiency of its refrigerators and reducing packaging. But they also have not disclosed their greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental data, making it hard to gage their overall impact. Thus, Trucost’s modeling rates Whole Foods "no better than conventional supermarkets such as Safeway."

Food and beverage companies tend to have a higher overall impact due to the nature of the products they sell, though most consumers don't recognize those impacts. The companies who are taking significant actions are also not recognized, like Coca-Cola, which had the second-lowest environmental impact among the food and drink producers in the study. Coca-Cola has instituted improved water efficiency into its processes, and is sourcing materials from suppliers who also use water more efficiently. While PepsiCo is taking similar steps, they have not disclosed data on their changes -- which puts their impact at roughly twice that of Coca-Cola.

Google and eBay had the lowest actual environmental impact, though neither company has much of a green image. And for some companies, they found "dramatic mismatches between perceptions and reality." One example they offer is Discovery Communications, whose impact isn't much different from fellow communication giant Viacom. But Discover has a much better green reputation, likely because they feature programs like Animal Planet and own websites like TreeHugger and Planet Green.

Part of the issue, according to Earthsense co-founder Amy Hebard is that many companies who are doing green things aren't touting them as much as they could, like due to fears that they will be seen as "greenwashing." Meanwhile, companies who aren't actually doing much apparently feel free to greenwash away, or at least benefit from consumer confusion.

But information on the actual impact of companies is improving, which might help to end some of the confusion. The number of companies participating in the voluntary Carbon Disclosure Project increased from 922 in 2006 to 2204 in 2008, and now the Securities and Exchange Commission has issued disclosure guidance for all companies. And new projects like the GoodGuide, which provides consumers with ratings for companies on demand, are gaining in popularity. (GoodGuide even includes an iPhone application that allows shoppers to scan a product in-store and see its rating.)

Obama's Nuclear Boondoggle

| Wed Feb. 17, 2010 4:00 AM PST

In its eagerness to woo Republicans with nuclear-friendly policies, the Obama administration plans to hand out $54.5 billion in government-backed loans to kick-start a nuclear renaissance. On Tuesday, it announced the first beneficiary of this largesse—and apparently the best candidate it could find was a proposed plant that's been put on hold by federal regulators due to serious safety concerns.   

The Department of Energy (DOE) will underwrite a loan of $8.3 billion to Southern Company's two planned reactors at Plant Vogtle in Burke County, Georgia—"just the first of what we hope will be many new nuclear projects," Carol Browner, the White House adviser on climate and energy, told reporters on Tuesday. Browner said the loan guarantee demonstrates the administration's commitment to working with Republicans on energy; handing major concessions to nuclear interests has been a key part of the Obama administration's strategy to pass a climate bill this year.

Yet last October, federal regulators discovered significant safety concerns in the design proposal for the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors that are slated to be used for the Georgia project and six others around the country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rejected the proposal after determining that the shield design would not protect the reactor from earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and airplane crashes. Michael Johnson, director of the NRC's Office of New Reactors, noted that the agency had "consistently laid out our questions" to Westinghouse about the design, which did not yet meet "fundamental engineering standards."

Westinghouse says it will submit a new design this month. But it's unclear when the NRC would even review the do-over. "It's ludicrous they would be handing out a loan guarantee for a reactor design that's been delayed so much, and there's no review schedule now," says Tom Clements, southeast regional nuclear coordinator for Friends of the Earth. "We don't even know if it can be licensed."

The loan guarantee is conditional upon NRC approval. But if the project ever gets off the ground, there are plenty of red flags signaling that it's a very bad investment for taxpayers. The nuclear loan guarantees are intended to finance up to 80 percent of the total project cost for new reactors. Southern Company's most recent estimate for the two reactors is $14 billion, though according to independent projections the true cost of a single reactor may be closer to $12 billion. That means that the government could pour money into a new plant, only to see construction halt when the price tag rises and there are insufficient funds to complete it. Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist with Beyond Nuclear, points out because the design has not even been finalized or approved yet, "the utility has essentially no idea how much the reactor is going to cost." (The Vogtle site has an ominous history of massive price overruns: The plant's existing reactors were originally estimated to cost $1 billion each. But by the time they were completed in the 1980s, the bill had reached nearly $9 billion per reactor.)

The nuclear industry's shaky financial outlook is well documented. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2003 that the risk of default on loan guarantees is "very high—well above 50 percent." Yet in a call with reporters on Tuesday, Chu said he had not heard of that CBO study. And the warning signs aren't only to be found in dry accounting analyses—soaring cost projections have already caused the cancellation of a number of proposed plants in the US. In February, the city of San Antonio pulled out of a partnership with Toshiba and NRG Energy to build a new reactor because the anticipated costs had spiraled out of control. That project was, until recently, thought to be a leading candidate for a DOE loan guarantee. 

Subtropical Waters Reach Greenland

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 5:28 PM PST

Subtropical waters are reaching Greenland's glaciers, driving melting and likely triggering an acceleration of ice loss. It's the first time researchers have seen such warm waters in any Greenland fjord.

Warming air temperatures, combined with warming sea temperatures, attack glaciers from both above and below, hastening their demise. Greenland's ice sheet—two miles thick and the size of Mexico—has lost mass at an accelerated rate over the last decade, doubling its contribution to sea level rise.

Oceanographer Fiamma Straneo, tells the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:

"Among the mechanisms that we suspected might be triggering this acceleration [of glacial melt] are recent changes in ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, which are delivering larger amounts of subtropical waters to the high latitudes."

Deep inside the Sermilik Fjord, researchers found subtropical water as warm as 39 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). The team also analyzed data collected by 19 hooded seals tagged with satellite-linked temperature depth-recorders. The seals' data revealed not only that shelf waters warm seasonally from July to December, but also that subtropical waters are now present on the shelf year round.

"This is the first extensive survey of one of these fjords that shows us how these warm waters circulate and how vigorous the circulation is," says Straneo. "Changes in the large-scale ocean circulation of the North Atlantic are propagating to the glaciers very quickly—not in a matter of years, but a matter of months. It's a very rapid communication."

The study in Nature Geosciences highlights how little is known about ocean-glacier interactions—a connection not currently included in climate models.
 

Oil Companies Abandon Climate Partnership

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 3:43 PM PST

The United States Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of business and environmental groups that played a major role in shaping the House climate bill last year, recently lost three major members – oil giants ConocoPhillips and BP and construction and mining equipment manufacturer Caterpillar.

The departures highlight some of the tensions that arose in the coalition as the debate over climate legislation played out. While USCAP was touted as evidence of the ability of environmental groups like Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Resources Institute to work with energy companies like Duke and Shell, some differences between the members became clear when there was actual legislation on the table. And with legislation stalled out in the Senate, the departures don't offer much hope for partnership between fossil fuel giants and environmentalists on a path forward.

As I reported last August, ConocoPhillips urged people to contact their senators and express opposition to the House climate and energy bill while still a member of a coalition supporting its passage. The House bill would not do enough to protect domestic oil refiners, and does not do enough to encourage development of natural gas, they argued (the company also happens to be the among the country's largest producers of natural gas). ConocoPhillips is also a member of the American Petroleum Institute, which orchestrated astroturf campaigns against the climate bill.

Caterpillar also faced similar criticism last year for being a member of both USCAP and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the coal front group also campaigning against the legislation.

In a statement, USCAP downplayed the departures. "USCAP is a CEO-led organization whose membership changes periodically," it said in a statement. "In fact, over the past seven months, USCAP has added three new corporate members – most recently in late October – and expects to add new members in the coming month."

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Enviros Launch Offensive Against Blanche Lincoln

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 2:44 PM PST

The environmental backlash against Arkansas Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln continues, as Sierra Club on Tuesday released new radio ads in the state objecting to her support for an effort to block climate regulations.

The 60-second ads target her co-sponsorship of a measure to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. "In these tough times, we need strong leaders to stand up to special interests, and help get our economy back on track," say the ads, titled "Choosing Sides." "But now, instead of standing up for Arkansas' future, Senator Blanche Lincoln is co-sponsoring legislation to roll back the Clean Air Act laws that protect us from polluters putting poison into the air we breathe."

Environmentalists have launched an offensive against Lincoln in recent weeks. The League of Conservation Voters last month began campaigning against her reelection bid. But Lincoln has also aggressively fought off the allegations, calling LCV a "liberal" and "extremist" group. In response to the Sierra Club ads, Lincoln's spokesman told the Washington Post that she "acted on behalf of Arkansas workers, employers and consumers to protect them from burdensome regulation," and pointing an industry lawsuit challenging the EPA's finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health.

The Sierra Club fired back a response. "We called the ad 'Choosing Sides' for a reason--it's time for Blanche Lincoln to choose between Washington lobbyists and special interests or the interests of her constituents," said Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the group. "From her response, it's clear that--as we feared--she has chosen to side with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Big Oil, polluters, and other extreme right-wing, anti-science groups instead of the job-creating clean energy businesses and natural gas industry in her own state. It's unfortunate that Senator Lincoln would put these special interests ahead of protecting the health and welfare of Arkansans and all Americans--and we hope she'll reconsider."

Energy Sec Unaware That Nuclear Loans Have 50 Percent Risk of Default

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 12:08 PM PST

The Obama administration on Tuesday announced a loan guarantee for the first new nuclear reactor to be built in the US in decades—part of a planned $54.5 billion program to kickstart a nuclear revival using government-backed loans. Yet Chu said he was not aware of a Congressional Budget Office study showing that the chances of default on these loans are "very high—well above 50 percent."

"I don't know of the CBO report," Chu told reporters during a conference call on Tuesday. "We don't believe the chance of default is 50 percent. We believe it's far less than that." The first loan guarantee, worth $8.33 billion, was awarded to two proposed reactors to be built by Southern Company at Plant Vogtle in Burke, Georgia.

As Mother Jones has reported, the proposal to encourage nuclear construction via massive federally backed loans represents a major risk for the US taxpayer. While the nuclear industry as recently as 2005 claimed the price tag for a reactor was $2 billion, independent estimates now put the cost as high as $12 billion.

In fact, the economics of the nuclear industry look so dicey that Wall Street banks—no strangers to high-risk investments—have for several years balked at financing new plants unless the government underwrites the deal. "There will be no nuclear renaissance beyond what the government is willing to underwrite," Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who is now a professor at Vermont Law School, told Mariah Blake in a recent piece for Mother Jones. And the nuclear industry has not been shy about announcing its reliance on the taxpayer. "Without loan guarantees we will not build nuclear power plants," Michael J. Wallace, co-chief executive of UniStar Nuclear and vice president of Constellation Energy, told the New York Times in 2007. That means the government would assume almost all the risk.

"Even Wall Street traders say these reactors are too risky to invest in, and that tells you something," said Ben Schreiber, climate and energy tax analyst for Friends of the Earth. "There's a 50 percent or greater risk of default. Why should taxpayers bear that risk?"

UPDATE: Stephanie Mueller, Press Secretary for the Department of Energy, sent this response on Tuesday evening: "This is a 7 year old analysis of legislation that was never enacted, and it is not germane to the current project—which has undergone rigorous financial analysis, is conditioned on regulatory approval, uses proven technology, and sets strict financial requirements to protect taxpayers.  Further, the project already has power purchasing agreements in place.  In other words, utilities have signed contracts agreeing to buy power from the plant for many years into the future, ensuring a stream of revenue."

That the study is dated is fair criticism, and the CBO is expected to issue an updated study on loan guarantees sometime soon. But the program the study examined in 2003 is not much different from the one the Obama administration is currently in the process of expanding. The CBO at that time estimated that loan gaurantees would cover half the construction cost of a new plant—the current proposals would cover up to 80 percent. And while it's beneficial that the Georgia project already has a power-purchasing agreement in place, the recent debacle with the proposed nuclear plant in San Antonio demonstrates that those agreements are hardly fail safe.

Nuclear Moves Full Steam Ahead

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 11:17 AM PST

When President Obama announced in his State of the Union address that he supports a broad expansion of nuclear energy production, critics braced for impact. Soon after, the administration said that it plans to triple the value of loan guarantees for new reactors and research safer ways to dispose of the harmful radioactive waste that accompanies nuclear energy.

Late last week, the administration declared the first of these projects would include a guarantee of $8.3 billion in loans to Southern Co for two new reactors in Georgia. Over and above the questionable environmental and safety drawbacks of nuclear energy, critics have said the total $54 billion federal guarantee could pave the way for another massive taxpayer bailout if the projects go under. This has happened before. When New York's Shoreham nuclear plant failed in the 1980s, after decades of delays and cost overruns, taxpayers were on the hook. The first generation of nuclear power plants cost the taxpayers $300 billion, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists*. And Southern Co also has a spotty record: it went $8 billion over budget on it's first two nuclear plants in the 1980s. 

NPR lays out some of the criticism of nuclear energy:

Spiraling costs, safety concerns and opposition from environmentalists have kept utilities from building any new nuclear power plants since the early 1980s. The 104 nuclear reactors now in operation in 31 states provide about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. But they are responsible for 70 percent of the power from pollution-free sources, including wind, solar and hydroelectric dams that Obama has championed as a way to save the environment and economy at the same time.

Keep in mind that nuclear power isn't completely pollution free. In fact, it spews dangerous chemical waste that even spawned Blinky the three eyed fish on "The Simpsons." The Obama administration has appointed a commission to develop a strategy to deal with the radioactive waste, but eco activists aren't holding their breath.

Instead of double down on nuclear energy, they say, the Obama administration should focus on truly renewable sources like wind and solar. But with the democrats' climate bill stalled in Congress, it has become clear that congressional democrats are eager to compromise nuclear hesitation to pass a bill, any bill.

*Sentence corrected from an earlier version. 

Should You Invest in a White Roof?

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 3:00 AM PST

Common sense fashion advice: When the weather's warm, light colored clothes keep you cool. Recent studies have shown that the same is true for buildings: White roofs and roads reflect heat instead of absorbing it, reducing scorching summer temperatures in cities (cities are hotter than rural areas because of the "heat island effect")—and possibly even slowing global warming.

The latest white-roofs study used computer simulations to figure out what might happen if every roof in every city of the world were white. The finding: An average temperature reduction of .7 degrees Farenheit. Good news in general, but here’s the problem for homeowners: Since white roofs cool buildings all year round, some people have pointed out that folks with white roofs in northern climates might end up cranking the thermostat higher than their neighbors with dark-colored roofs during winter months.

Roofs of the future might solve this problem: Last year, a team of MIT researchers came up with a prototype of high-tech tiles that change color based on the air temperature. A cool idea for sure, but unfortunately the smart tiles aren't on the market yet. So till they are, should you spring for a white roof even if you live in the chilly north? Hashem Akbari, a senior scientist and leader of the Heat Island Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, says yes, since AC typically uses a lot more energy than heat. "The wintertime penalties are only a fraction of summer time savings."

Most of the studies so far are have focused on cities—but Akbari says that white roofs make sense for folks in rural areas and the 'burbs, too. One thing to keep in mind: Whitewashing your roof won’t cut it—the roof materials themselves have to be white. "Many roofing materials come in an assortment of colors at the same cost," says Akbari. "One can select a white rather than a dark color."