Blue Marble - June 2010

When Fannie and Freddie Attack

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 4:15 PM EDT

Few new ideas brighten the faces of clean-energy advocates as much as Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, the Berkeley-born financing tool that's spreading quickly throughout the country. The three-year-old model has put rooftop solar panels, high-efficiency furnaces, and other home improvements within reach of thousands of American homeowners, and there's hope it could reach many more, creating jobs along the way.

It works by allowing property owners to pay for energy projects through an addition to their property tax bill, paid back over 15 to 20 years. If the owner sells the property after, say, installing a $15,000 solar array, the unpaid balance is passed on to the new owner (who also reaps the electricity-bill savings). In this way PACE overcomes two major barriers to greening buildings: high upfront costs and fear that owners will lose out if they move before their investment has paid for itself.

The Obama administration has endorsed PACE with $100 million in stimulus-act funding. Twenty-two states have passed legislation allowing and encouraging municipalities to start PACE programs. San Francisco, Sonoma and Placer counties in California, and Boulder County in Colorado have all recently launched programs, and Los Angeles and San Diego are set to begin ones later this year.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Markey: Why's BP Still Getting Away With Heavy Dispersant Use?

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 2:56 PM EDT

BP has not been meeting the directive from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard to slash dispersant use in the Gulf, as David and I reported Wednesday. On Thursday, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pressed the EPA and the Coast Guard on why the company is being allowed to violate their orders.

Markey points out that BP has not eliminated surface application of the chemicals. While they've cut them, "volumes hover around 10,000 gallons” every day. And on several days, BP has surpassed the 15,000 gallon limit on undersea application at the spill source.

“Million of gallons of chemical dispersant have been added to the Gulf waters, contributing to a toxic stew of chemicals, oil and gas with impacts that are not well understood,” wrote Markey. Markey has also been pressing BP on the issue of undersea plumes of oil, which is likely caused by these dispersants.

Meanwhile, the EPA has not yet concluded its own tests on both Corexit, BP's dispersant of choice, and alternatives. Markey acknowledged that "this type of scientific evaluation takes time to accomplish," but argued that the federal government should at least be pushing BP to meet the goal of reducing the use of Corexit as they finalize those tests.

Are Happy Meals Really a "Creepy and Predatory Practice?"

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 2:08 PM EDT

McDonald's Happy Meals toys are in the news again, but not for their cadmium-laced veneers or potentially choke-inducing tiny parts (see a Mother Jones slideshow of recalled toys for more in that vein). No, this week the entire concept of Happy Meals sits in the hot seat. "McDonald's is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children," says Center for Science in the Public Interest litigation director Stephen Gardner. The watchdog group has given McDonald's 30 days to pull toys from the menu—or face a lawsuit for illegal and deceptive food marketing.

But are the millions of burger dollars pumped into kid marketing really why—as Corporate Accountability International put it—"one in three children born today will become diabetic during their lifetime as a result of a McDonald's-style diet?" Argues Slate writer Rachael Larimore:

If you're going to punish McDonald's for catering to kids, are you also going to restrict how much programming the networks can air targeted to children? Are you going to tell Nintendo that they can release only so many games rated "E for everyone"?...it's not fair to blame one company or one industry for a disease that has a multitude of causes. That just lets the parents off the hook.

The concern over the seductive qualities of Happy Meals could mean the end to a childhood tradition of getting a fun surprise along with those chicken McNuggets. But at the rate the meals are now being consumed worldwide, maybe it's a tradition that has gotten a little out of hand.

G20 Looks to Weaken Fossil Fuel Subsidy Agreement

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 12:06 PM EDT

At a largely disappointing G20 summit last September, one of the few bright spots was the agreement that member nations would phase out fossil fuel subsidies. But as G20 prepares to meet this week in Toronto, it looks like that commitment will be substantially watered down.

Leaked draft language (PDF) obtained by ClimateWire indicates that leaders may weaken the language on fossil fuels, suggesting that commitments will be "voluntary" and "member specific":

We reviewed progress made to date in identifying inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and we agree to continue working to develop voluntary, member-specific approaches for the rationalization and phase out of such measures.

"This is quite worrisome," said Steve Kretzman, head of Oil Change International, a group advocating for the subsidy cuts. "This amounts to saying they may phase out fossil fuel subsidies if they feel like it."

It's not yet known which G20 member(s) are responsible for the less-ambitious language. It might not be the US this time, despite America's reputation when it comes to international agreements. Obama's 2011 budget called for the elimination of 12 tax breaks for oil, gas, and coal companies, which is expected to raise $39 billion in the next 10 years. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and several other senators have drafted a bill that would follow through on that, which looks likely to be included in the Senate's energy, oil spill, and (possibly) climate legislation next month.

The G20 meeting starts Sunday in Toronto.

Bobby Jindal's Berm Warfare

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 7:23 AM EDT

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is at war with the federal government over his plans to build protective barrier islands, or sand berms, to shield the state's coast from BP's oil spill. He called a news conference yesterday to blast the government for standing in the way of his plan. "We don't have time for red tape and bureaucracy," Jindal told reporters. "We're literally in a war to save our coast."

But Jindal's attack, critics say, is pure political grandstanding from an politican who's been floated as a potential Republican presidential candidate. They say he's putting his desire for the limelight ahead of the state's long-term environmental interests and possibly making the coast more vulnerable to storms.

The roots of the current showdown strech back to last month, when Jindal raised a fuss in order to get an expedited permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to construct sand berms off the coast of his state. The berms, he said, would protect the nation's second oldest wildlife refuge, Breton National, and Chandeleur Islands from the oil coating the Gulf. The FWS granted the permit on the condition that the state pipe in sand from a point further up the island chain, rather than harvesting it from the the shoreline of the Chandeleur Islands, a critical nesting area for birds like the brown pelican and an essential barrier to protect the refuge from storms.

The state agreed to those conditions, which are clearly outlined in the permit. But when construction began on June 13, the state said the piping wasn't ready. The federal government, in turn, agreed to allow the state remove sand from the prohibited area for about a week until the piping arrived. That grace period has expired, but Louisiana says the pipes still aren't ready. It wants to keep removing sand from the off-limits area, but this time the federal government put its foot down.

"You don't want to destroy the village to save the village," Tom Strickland, the U.S. Interior Department's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, told reporters Wednesday. "It's a question of whether we're going to impair that island chain in a way that it may not ever be able to be restored."

Enviro News Roundup: Should Gulf Coast Strip Clubs Get a Cut of the $20 Billion?

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 7:10 AM EDT

Today in BP oil disaster news:

BP is now reinstalling the containment cap after a robotic vehicle hit it yesterday and forced crews to remove the cap.

Speaking of BP, if you've seen their work in the Gulf, wait until you hear what the company has planned for the Arctic.

The country's third largest pension fund, the $132.6 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund, is suing BP for losses incurred following the Gulf disaster. "BP misled investors about its safety procedures and its ability to respond to events like the ongoing oil spill, and we're going to hold it accountable," said New York State comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

Among the many tough decisions ahead for oil spill fund czar Kenneth Feinberg? Whether a strip club that caters to oil-rig workers should get a piece of the $20 billion fund oil spill victims.

The House passed a bill to grant the power of subpoena to the presidential oil spill commission on Wednesday evening.

Emergency workers in Pensacola Beach, Fla. found an oil-covered dolphin stranded on the beach yesterday.

In climate news:

Yesterday's White House meeting on climate and energy policy was delayed due to the unscheduled spanking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. No update yet on a new date and time for the meeting.

Environmental groups are circulating a memo of the highlights of Sen. Lindsey Graham's flip-flopping on climate change, as Climatewire reports. It seems like just yesterday the South Carolina Republican was our best hope for bipartisanship on an energy package, doesn't it?

A measure to suspend California's landmark climate law will be on the ballot in November. Now, state environmental groups are fighting to protect AB32.

Ninety seven percent of climate researchers agree with the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: the planet is warming, and humans are causing it. The new study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The IPCC also released the names of the 813 scientists who have been selected to contribute to its fifth assessment report on climate change, which is due out in 2014.

Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) worries that if Congress takes action to curb global warming pollution, old people in the south are going to die. Yes, that's if we take action, because he worries about whether they can afford air conditioning, not about warming up the planet. He knows this because he's a doctor, of course. "They’re gonna get dehydration and people are gonna have a lot of problems and it’s gonna have a greater impact on our health care system and people are gonna die because of that," says Broun. "And it’s gonna kill jobs too."

And in other environmental news:

Democrats in the House are trying to broker a deal with natural gas companies to get them to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, a process to extract natural gas from the ground. Some companies are using toxic substances, but they are currently exempted from disclosing them under the Clean Water Act.

The New York Times Magazine contemplates the end of tuna.

After three years of discussion about how to reduce whaling, the meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Agadir, Morocco, fell apart yesterday. "Fundamental positions remained very much apart," according to the IWC chairman Anthony Liverpool.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Arsenic in Water Kills 1 in 5 in Bangladesh

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 5:59 PM EDT

It's a sad reality I wrote about in The Last Taboo: To avoid getting sick from waterborne diseases—chronic diarrhea, hookworm, dysentery, typhoid, cholera—in their monsoon ponds, the people of West Bengal, India, and of Bangladesh have been turning to tube wells. But a different death awaits from well water—cancers of the skin, bladder, and lung, among others. Thankfully, there are solutions.

According to a new study in the medical journal The Lancet, between 33 and 77 million people in Bangladesh have been exposed to arsenic in the drinking water. The World Health Organization calls it the largest mass poisoning in history.

The findings:

  • One in five deaths in Bangladesh (population: 125 million) is associated with exposure to water from wells with arsenic concentrations greater than 10 micrograms per liter.
  • Arsenic exposure is with increased mortality due to heart disease and other chronic diseases in addition to the more familiar medical consequences of arsenic exposure: skin lesions, cancers of the skin, bladder and lung.
  • An increase of nearly 70 percent in all-cause mortality was found among those exposed to the highest concentration of arsenic in water (150 to 864 micrograms/liter).
  • Researchers also found a dose-related effect that included increased mortaility even at relatively low levels of exposure, including the Bangladesh safety standard (50 micrograms/liter) and the WHO recommended standard (10 micrograms/liter).

The poisoning is the result of well-intentioned efforts on the part of aid and development agencies in the 1970s when 10 million tube wells were built to combat waterborne diseases. While the new wells reduced exposure to some diseases, they also yielded water contamined with arsenic, which occurs naturally in the region.

The arsenic can be avoided by digging deeper wells—an approach already yielding safer drinking water for roughly 100,000 people in Bangladesh—and by deploying filtering systems.

I wrote about the benefits of a a deeper tube for well Supta Halder, her extended family, even her cows, in The Last Taboo.

"Will It Take a Submarine Ride to Show These BP Executives That These Plumes Exist?"

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 4:37 PM EDT

According to a senior House member investigating the Gulf oil disaster, BP still won't admit that oil is gathering in large plumes in the Gulf of Mexico, despite a new report from the federal government that shows the plumes do indeed exist. BP has been denying their existence for some time, and continues to and hide information that indicates otherwise, said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Wednesday.

Last month, shortly after BP CEO Tony Hayward argued that there was "no evidence" that these plumes exist, Markey sent the company a letter asking them to validate those claims, which BP then provided. But Markey says that BP's response to his inquiry "omits information publicly available on EPA's website that used BP's own data," as well as independent analysis that have been conducted on areas beyond the well site. (The documents BP provided are all posted on the Select Committee website.) Markey accused the company of "making questionable assertions using flawed and incomplete analysis" in a statement Wednesday.

When Hayward testified to House members last week, he was similiarly dismissive of the plumes. Hayward argued that there was only "oil in very low concentrations ... distributed throughout the column," when asked at the June 17 hearing. On Friday, Markey sent another letter to the company asking for more data to support their claims that these underwater plume don't exist. The company has not yet responded to that request.

But the latest government report, issued Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, "confirms the existence of a previously discovered cloud of diffuse oil at depths of 3,300 to 4,600 feet near the wellhead."

"NOAA and the EPA have confirmed these plumes exist. Independent scientists have confirmed these plumes exist," said Markey. "Will it take a submarine ride to show these BP executives that these plumes exist?"

No Nation Is an Island When It Comes to Malaria

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 4:33 PM EDT

Back in the 1950s, the World Health Organization initiated the Global Malaria Eradication Program, which successfully eradicated malaria in 25 countries. Interestingly enough, almost all of the countries that succeeded were islands or adjacent to countries that also eliminated malaria (the two exceptions were Israel and Chile). The lesson was a simple but important one: When it comes to disease control, it matters who your neighbors are.

Researchers at the University of Florida took this idea to heart in a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences aimed at improving malaria elimination strategies. The underlying hypothesis of the study is that many national campaigns fail to eradicate malaria because they try to do so only within their national boundaries—borders drawn by colonialism, war, natural resources, and treaties. The borders of malaria, on the other hand, are determined by factors like climate, mosquitoes, and human migration. So the researchers analyzed migration patterns, malaria transmission maps, and global population data in order to determine the natural boundaries for malaria endemics in different regions of the world.

Backlash on Possible Sea Turtle Burning

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 3:03 PM EDT

So remember that video last week where a boat captain said endangered sea turtles were being burned alive by BP? People are not taking kindly to it, voicing their opposition on Facebook and elsewhere. Credo Mobile* has jumped on the story, issuing a petition telling BP to "Stop blocking the rescue of endangered sea turtles before you burn them alive in your 'controlled burns.'" By today the petition had more than 75,000 signatures.

While wildlife conservation organizations are still reporting they haven't seen any burned turtles, the position and trustworthiness of rescue boat captain seen on the video has been confirmed. And it seems that it's indeed very possible Kemp's Ridleys were killed in the controlled burns, where trawlers use booms to corral oil into a pool before setting it on fire. To date, there have been at least 275 controlled burns in the Gulf, consuming 9.32 million gallons of oil. UC Davis's Dr. Mike Ziccardi, who's heading turtle rescues in the Gulf, wrote me in an email today that:

"Like you, we are very concerned about the possibility of there being impacts to turtles related to controlled burn operations, as juvenile turtles and spilled oil can aggregate in mats of seaweed... Burn operations target these areas when sufficient oil is present, so these are also places where there is risk of harming turtles." Ziccardi noted that his operations had not seen any burned turtles, "but our targeted on-water collection efforts do target very similar areas."