Blue Marble - April 2010

Enviros Take Aim at Michele Bachmann (R-Crazytown)

| Thu Apr. 15, 2010 9:58 AM EDT

On Wednesday, the League of Conservation Voters added Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann to its annual list of Congress' worst environmental offenders. The group selects members of their "Dirty Dozen" list to target for electoral defeat, and this year they decided to add a special "people's choice" category with an online vote—and Bachmann won by a "landslide," the League said.

Bachamann's take on global warming is among the more creative in Congress. See, for example, her floor speech on the subject during last summer's debate of a climate bill:

Carbon dioxide is natural. It occurs in Earth. It is a part of the regular lifecycle of Earth. In fact, life on planet Earth can’t even exist without carbon dioxide. So necessary is it to human life, to animal life, to plant life, to the oceans, to the vegetation that’s on the Earth, to the, to the fowl that—that flies in the air, we need to have carbon dioxide as part of the fundamental lifecycle of Earth.

Global warming, she says, is "all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax." Last April, she called for an "armed and dangerous" revolution against measures to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. She also believes that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge "is the most perfect place on the planet to drill." For all of this and more, she has received a 2 percent lifetime score from LCV.

Bachmann fired back yesterday, calling LCV an "ultra-liberal group obsessed with arcane restrictions that do little to help the environment and a great deal to harm the economy."

Unseating Bachmann might be an environmental victory, but who else will provide such colorful commentary on climate?

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More on Veggie Burgers and Neurotoxins

| Wed Apr. 14, 2010 5:20 PM EDT

UPDATE: Veggie burger rumors are flying! Some readers and other news organizations have alleged that the study I wrote about on Monday was funded by the pro-meat, anti-soy group the Weston A. Price Foundation. But this morning, I spoke with Cornucopia Institute director Mark Kastel, who said that the Weston A. Price Foundation did not contribute any funding to the "Behind the Bean" (pdf) study. More here.

On Monday, I wrote about a recent study by the Cornucopia Institute that found that many popular veggie burgers are made with hexane, an EPA-registered air pollutant and a neurotoxin. Commenters had lots of interesting discussions and good questions, many of which require far more knowledge of the subject than I have to answer. So I called up Charlotte Vallaeys, the lead researcher on the Cornucopia Institute's soy study "Behind the Bean," (pdf) to talk about some of the issues readers have raised.

One commenter points out that "Soy protein, soy protein isolate, and textured vegetable protein all contain processed free glutamic acid (MSG)." Is there MSG in most fake meat?

Vallaeys says many fake meat products do in fact contain ingredients that are made from some of the same compounds as MSG (and processed free glutamic acid is one of them), though the Cornucopia Institute has not investigated the health effects of these compounds. Mayo Clinic's page on MSG is here.

How about other soy products like tempeh and tofu? Are they often made with hexane, too?

Tempeh is rarely made with hexane, and most tofu isn't either, unless it's advertised as low fat or fat free. "If the product is made with whole soy beans, which most regular tofu is, that's not hexane extracted," says Vallaeys. "But some tofu companies are now coming out with a low-fat line of tofu, which is often done with hexane-extracted soy."

"I switched to using mostly Quorn products because they are soy free. Are they bad, too?"

Vallaeys says she hasn't looked into Quorn fake meat directly. I did a cursory search, though, and found that the main ingredient is a mycoprotein, a fungus. From this explanation of how mycoprotein is made, it doesn't seem like hexane is involved, but man! Talk about a processed food.

"If any cooking oils, margarines, or other products that use oils don't say 'expeller pressed' on the ingredient statement, they are likely processed with hexane." True?

That's right, says Vallaeys. "It's not just soy-based oils either. Hexane is used to extract oils from corn and other plants, too."

"Hexane's boiling point is well below grilling temperature (69C, about 157F). That's cooler than even a toaster. Is there any evidence that the slightest bit remains in a veggie burger?"

Vallaeys: "The evaporation argument is often used by the companies that make these products. But what happens to the food when you cook it with this neurotoxic compound? Does it react with other substances and create new compounds before it evaporates? That really has not been studied. We think there should be more testing done on what these substances do to the food.

Another commenter referred to a study where researchers fed hens hexane. Basically, they found that the hens could consume a whole lot of the stuff before experiencing adverse effects. So doesn't this mean we shouldn't worry about the miniscule amounts of hexane residue that may or may not be present in fake meat?

"That study is about hens, and as far as we know, there haven't been any studies done on humans," says Vallaeys. But she also notes that when it comes to human health effects of hexane, the residue issue isn't the main point. "The bigger picture here is that hexane is being released into the atmosphere—since it's an air pollutant. It leads to smog, which is ground-level ozone, which leads to a whole bunch of health problems, like asthma in kids. These effects are very real."


 

Coal: Back to the Future?

| Wed Apr. 14, 2010 5:16 PM EDT

In the House debate over climate and energy legislation last summer, coal got a big slice of the pie. A $60 billion slice to be exact, in the form of subsidies to develop carbon capture technology (a.k.a. "clean coal"). But much of the coal industry spent millions of dollars in attempts to torpedo the legislation. On Wednesday, a House panel put the leaders of some of the country's biggest coal companies on the hot seat, grilling them about what exactly they see as the future for their industry in what is almost inevitably going to be a carbon constrained world.

The hearing comes as coal is getting more scrutiny in Washington. There is, of course, the increased attention to mine safety in the wake of last week's tragedy in West Virginia. And the Environmental Protection Agency also recently announced new guidelines governing the controversial practice of mountaintop removal. Meanwhile, the threat of greenhouse gas regulations through either Congress or the EPA looms in the distance, with the Senate expected to take up debate of a bill in the coming weeks.

The panelists before the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming represented the different perspectives in the coal industry on the subject–from complete denial of problems in the industry to embracing the fact that coal faces an uncertain future. At one extreme was the Ohio Coal Association president Michael Carey, who thinks global warming is a fantasy and attempts to regulate greenhouse gases are part of a "war on coal." Then there was Gregory Boyce, CEO of Peabody Energy Corporation, who admitted that "the science is strong" on climate change, but says that technology to capture and store emissions "should be available before regulation" begins (Steven Leer, CEO of Arch Coal, had a similar take).

And at the other end, you have Rio Tinto, a mining company that is part of the US Climate Action Partnership, the business-environmental coalition key in shaping the House climate bill, which has been working on climate issues since 1998. Preston Chiaro, chief executive for energy and minerals at Rio Tinto, made a clear case for engaging positively on legislation: "We will either shape policy, or we will have policy thrust upon us."

The panel yielded some colorful exchanges between legislators and the coal executives, as Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) went after Carey's "war on coal" comment. "We don't give $60 billion to Al Qaeda," said Inslee. "That's a war."

"If there is a war here, it is a war on our grandkids," he continued. At at another point in the hearing, young protesters wearing face masks and covered in black soot stormed to the front of the room to deliver lumps of coal to the CEOs.

Rep. Ed Markey, chair of the committee and co-author of the House climate bill, made a similar plea for the industry to look at the billions in support they included in their bill. "I ask that you embrace the provisions of the Waxman-Markey bill that light the way ahead for your industry," said Markey, adding later, "This legislation we passed in the House is intended on helping the coal industry."

Wednesday's panel was more theater than anything else, with House climate advocates attempting to put coal interests on the spot and highlight some of the competing view points on the future. But what these CEOs think about climate and where their businesses are heading is indeed interesting as we look down the road. These are big players in Washington; mining interests spent $26 million on lobbying last year, with Peabody ($5.8 million) and Arch Coal ($2.7 million) topping the list of spenders. Rio Tinto wasn't far behind, at $1.1 million. Coal companies have also spent millions through the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

Despite the millions they spend on lobbying and PR for so-called "clean coal," most companies are investing very little of their own funds in developing the technology. Instead, they keep calling for more government support, while most are working hard behind the scenes to defeat the kind of legislation that would give them that support.

Will major coal interests change their tune when the Senate debate heats up? Markey remained optimistic that they could be encouraged to work with Congress on solutions. "I still believe there is ... a way of passing legislation with the coal industry in support," said Markey after the hearing. "That's my goal, that's my hope. Whether or not we can realize that remains to be seen."

Climategate: Officially a Fake Scandal

| Wed Apr. 14, 2010 2:51 PM EDT

Despite relentless noise from climate skeptics about the so-called "Climategate" email scandal, an independent review released today cleared the scientists involved of wrong-doing.

East Anglia University, home of the Climatic Research Unit whose servers were hacked to obtain the emails in question, commissioned an independent review council to look into whether there was any evidence of malfeasance among scientists involved in the email exchange. The panel concluded:

We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it. Rather we found a small group of dedicated if slightly disorganised researchers who were ill-prepared for being the focus of public attention. As with many small research groups their internal procedures were rather informal.

The panel did note that there is a need for greater collaboration between climate scientists, outside of just the small group at CRU. But the university called the conclusion "gratifying."

Other independent analysis has also made it clear that skeptics are making a lot of noise out of nothing. The Science and Technology Committee of the British House of Commons also looked at the case and declared earlier this month that there was no evidence that scientists had misrepresented climate data. They did, however, cite CRU director Phil Jones, for improper handling of freedom of information act requests. An inquiry at Pennsylvania State University into the role of climate scientist Michael Mann also reached a similar conclusion: the climate evidence is solid, even if the researchers might have behaved poorly. East Anglia has commissioned a separate Independent Climate Change E-mail Review investigation, which is still underway.

The reviews haven't put a damper on the efforts of climate skeptics to exploit the emails. The Heritage Foundation and Competitive Enterprise Institute are planning an event on it later this week titled, "The Climategate Scandals: What Has Been Revealed And What Does It Mean?"

PG&E's Energy Empire

| Wed Apr. 14, 2010 1:44 PM EDT

The largest electricity provider in California has now committed $35 million to a campaign to essentially crush any dreams of public utilities. Pacific Gas & Electric has a measure on the ballot for this June that would require a two-thirds vote for public utilities to open up shop or solicit new customers. Since that kind of majority is hard to finagle, Prop 16 could be a death sentence to competition against PG&E.

PG&E spends millions of dollars each year to defeat a public utilities option, but every few years it becomes an all-out rhetorical faceoff. The company calls its 2010 measure the "Taxpayers' Right to Vote Act," though the state attorney general made them change its official title. It was considered too misleading.

Last month at an investor conference, Peter Darbee—PG&E's CEO and the force behind the proposition—implied that their goal is to prevent votes from happening in the future. It seems Darbee is hoping that the two-thirds vote will deter utilities from trying to put a dent in PG&E's empire:

"The idea was to diminish, you know, rather than year after year different communities coming in as this or that and putting this up for vote and us having to spend millions and millions of shareholder dollars to defend it repeatedly, we thought that this was a way that we could sort of diminish that level unless there was a very strong, you know, mandate from voters that this was what they wanted to do."

The driving force against the initiative is the political action committee Utility Reform Network, which has raised about $43,000 to fight PG&E's $35 million. Meanwhile, there's a vote next month on executive pay at the company—a weighted event considering it paid $84.5 million in executive bonuses as the company recovered from bankruptcy in 2004. But you won't see that history on the Yes On Prop 16 Facebook page. The page does say that you should vote yes because "Right now we don't have the right to vote before local politicians spend or borrow public funds to set up government-run electric utilities."

The first comment that comes up on the profile page is "how do I unfan this? I clicked on it by accident." If only it were that easy.

Can Kerry Find the Climate Bill Sweet Spot?

| Wed Apr. 14, 2010 1:36 PM EDT

Can John Kerry muster the mojo to pass a climate bill in the Senate? He's expected to unveil his much-anticipated legislation next week, ahead of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and he and his senate colleagues are pushing to get the details in order in the final days before release.

On Tuesday, he met with Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the duo that lead the House fight last summer. Following the meeting, Kerry tweeted that he hopes "their legislative karma rubbed off." It will certainly have to if the Senate is going to move a bill this year.

Markey told reporters on Wednesday that he is "encouraged with the progress" that Kerry, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have made so far in getting together a bill that can pass this year. "I'm optimistic they can find a way of bringing enough senators on board to pass legislation this year in the Senate," said Markey.

Of course, there has been plenty of concern in the House that all the heavy lifting and compromise that went into passing the Waxman-Markey bill last June might be ignored, and that the Senate would produce something that looks substantially different than their bill. But Markey seemed optimistic both that Kerry can find a path forward, and that they could work out the details between the chambers.

"I think the bill may be different, and then in the conference committee we can work to find a final formula," said Markey. "Their goal is to find the 60 votes that are needed. I am going to leave it to Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman to find a formula that is necessary to accomplish that goal."

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Internet Dating For Wild Horses?

| Wed Apr. 14, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

High Country News reports on the Bureau of Land Management's latest attempt to figure out what to do with all the wild horses caught in the annual roundup: An eBay-style auction site:

Since the Bureau of Land Management became responsible for wild mustangs in 1971, eligible horses and burros have been swishing their tails in government corrals and pastures, just waiting—for you. These mares, and many others, were "gathered" from BLM land, where they often run roughshod over fragile habitat and compete with wildlife for forage. Hoping to pick up the sluggish pace of adoptions, the BLM now holds auctions online in addition to in-person sales. It's eBay in the true sense of the word. You can browse a gallery of headshots that beg your affection. Or at least the shelter of your corral.

My favorite part of the program: Extreme Mustang Makeover, where adopters compete to see who can best "gentle" their horses. The prize ain't too shabby: $100,000! Wonder if any of the horse-taming prisoners Michael Behar wrote about in his Mother Jones story "Mustang Redemption" are eligible to win?

Read Michael Behar's story here. See a photoessay about the prison program here.

Call for a Barometer of Life

| Tue Apr. 13, 2010 5:40 PM EDT

Some of the world's leading conservation biologists are calling for $60 million in spending to accelerate our understanding of Earth's biodiversity. In a new paper in Science, the authors suggest we need a tool for measuring our progress towards saving the living planet—a tool they call the Barometer of Life.

We currently know of less than 2 million of an estimated 10 to 20 million species on Earth. Of these, only 48,000 have been scientifically assessed. Most assessed species are larger mammals, birds, amphibians, reef-building corals, freshwater crabs, cycads and conifers—leaving the vast majority of species poorly understood or completely unknown, including many plants, invertebrates, reptiles, fishes, and fungi.

"We urgently need to ramp up current efforts to catalogue a far more representative selection of our vast biodiversity, while we still can, and we should focus first and foremost on those areas of highest extinction risk," says Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International and Chair of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group. "Such information will also help governments and communities to design appropriate responses to climate change and to other pressing conservation challenges."

Assessing the 48,000 known species costs about $4 million a year. Most assessments are carried out by thousands of volunteers and coordinated by the Species Survival Commission. The authors say we need to increase that spending to $60 million a year in order to more than triple the number of species assessed to 160,000—including many more of the lesser known species in the lower taxa.

The paper is called The Barometer of Life—which, sadly, Science has not chosen to make open access. (Why? This is a clarion call by the big guns and everyone needs to have the chance to access it.) The authors, leading scientists in their field, decided to join forces in order to voice their concerns that the rate of progress in saving Earth's biodiversity was too slow. From the abstract:

"On 11 January 2010, the United Nations inaugurated the International Year of Biodiversity in Berlin. This initiative is timely, because the environmental movement suffers from an imbalance between its sense of urgency and its intensity of activity. Center stage is now occupied by concerns for the physical environment—in particular, climate change, pollution, and depletion of nonrenewable resources. However, if the living world is to be kept in anything approaching a sustainable condition that can adapt to changes, then politicians, government officials, scientists, and the public will need to give biodiversity the urgent attention that they are starting to give to the physical environment."
 

Pressure Mounts on Massey to Oust Blankenship

| Tue Apr. 13, 2010 2:23 PM EDT

Pressure is mounting against Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine where an explosion last week killed 29 miners—and exposed Massey's longtime disregard for worker safety in the process.

Change to Win Investment Group, a union-affiliated organization which advises union pension funds that have invested in Massey, is pressuring the company's board to fire Blankenship, calling the explosion a "tragic consequence of the board's failure to challenge" its CEO's "confrontational approach to regulatory compliance." New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, trustee of the state's Common Retirement Fund which controls $14.1 million in shares of Massey stock, is also calling for his removal. "Massey’s cavalier attitude toward risk and callous disregard for the safety of its employees has exacted a horrible cost on dozens of hard-working miners and their loved ones," DiNapoli said yesterday. Politicians like Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) have also criticized the company's leadership for failing to protect workers.

Those who follow the coal industry know that Blankenship has never cared much about workers (see David Roberts, "Hating on Don Blankenship before hating on Don Blankenship was cool"). Mine safety enforcement, Blankenship said last year, "is as silly as global warming" (and he thinks global warming is pretty silly). The Washington Independent is keeping a running tally of safety violations at Massey mines. It's horrifying that it would take the death of 29 miners to expose the fact that Blankenship and Massey put their workers in harm's way every day, but at least they're getting the attention they deserve now.

Fracking: As Safe as Coca-Cola!

| Tue Apr. 13, 2010 2:10 PM EDT

The natural gas industry would like us to believe that the chemicals they're injecting into the ground in order to extract gas are as harmless as Coca-Cola. Therefore, they should be shielded from the scrutiny of federal regulators. No need to investigate—just take their word for it!

In comments to the Environmental Protection Agency obtained by Mother Jones, Penneco Oil Company, an oil and natural gas business based in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, says that it will "strongly oppose" increased regulation of hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a "fracking," and questions why the EPA would even want to investigate the controversial practice of injecting water and chemicals into shale, coal beds, and other geological formations to extract natural gas.

Here's one clue: Natural gas extractors have been found to use compounds containing toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. A congressional investigation recently found that companies have injected hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel-based chemicals into the ground. Yet the industry is currently exempt from Clean Water Act standards, and companies are not even required to disclose exactly what their fracking fluids contain. The industry claims such information is proprietary.

Natural gas interests are fighting hard against efforts to subject the industry to tougher scrutiny. Shortly after the EPA announced that it would take a closer look at fracking due to concerns about water contamination, the industry began demanding protection under a climate bill. Penneco goes so far as to argue that the EPA is just making things up:

We are concerned that bureaucratic machinations have caused the EPA to hypothesize a problem and that EPA is now seeking research to justify a solution to a nonexistent problem. We are adamant that this process should start from the context of reality; Hyrdrofracking is a modern industrial and technological success which has delivered clean reliable energy to millions of American homes, reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy -- and that the research should work forward from that premise.

Instead, Penneco wants the EPA to take a more "positive" approach to its investigation. The company "would like to see questions for research prefaced and asked from the positive regarding hydraulic fracturing." For example, "What has been the benefit to America's streams and waterways as a result of hydraulic fracturing allowing for fewer acres of disturbance while increasing the amount of recoverable reserves?"

But perhaps the most comical part of the submission comes when the company claims that injecting diesel fuel and other toxic chemicals into the ground is no more dangerous than soda pop:

The formula for Coca-Cola is a closely guarded secret—though the ingredients are disclosed. In its dilute form—as a beverage—Coca-Cola is a known acid. It is entirely likely that in transport, as a concentrate, Coke may qualify as a toxic chemical. Perhaps, on game day at a stadium, where the stadium may have thousands of gallons of Coke syrup waiting to be mixed with carbonated water, the stadium may have high levels of toxic chemicals on hand. However, as we all know, there is no practical risk and the substance is relatively harmless. We believe that the same reasonable standard of common sense needs to be employed with hydraulic fracturing chemical studies.

Thus, Penneco concludes, any study from the EPA should consider the "absolute benefit that our society and the environment have reaped as a result of the introduction of hydraulic fracturing technology." Glad that's settled!

If Congress places limits on carbon dioxide, the demand for natural gas is only expected to grow—along with pressure by the industry on lawmakers to let it operate without scrutiny.