Blue Marble - January 2011

Republicans Target Energy Spending

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 11:15 AM EST

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)'s Republican Study Committee on Thursday released a list of programs they'd like to see cut as part of the Spending Reduction Act of 2011. Clean energy, efficiency, rail, and climate programs were all atop the two-page list of cuts, reaffirming the fact that when Republicans say they want an "all of the above" energy plan, they really mean just coal, oil, gas, and sometimes nuclear.

On the cutting room floor, if the committee gets its way: the Applied Research program at the Department of Energy, Amtrak, and the Washington Metro, among other programs that help reduce energy use and develop new techonologies.

David Roberts at Grist highlights the cuts that target clean energy and transportation programs. Here are some of the major ones:

  • Energy Star Program. $52 million a year.
  • Intercity and High Speed Rail Grants. $2.5 billion a year.
  • Department of Energy Grants to States for Weatherization. $530 million annual savings.
  • Amtrak Subsidies. $1.565 billion annual savings.
  • Technology Innovation Program. $70 million annual savings.
  • Applied Research at Department of Energy. $1.27 billion annual savings.
  • New Starts Transit. $2 billion annual savings.
  • FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership. $200 million annual savings.
  • Subsidy for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. $150 million annual savings.
  • Eliminate the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program. $56.2 million annual savings.

Most of these are small changes in the grand scheme of things the federal government spends money on. Notably the list doesn't include cuts to defense or, more pertinent to the energy conversation, cuts to our investment in highways. And our research and development expenditures for energy are already paltry compared to other federal programs.

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday January 21

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 8:46 AM EST

Posts from our other blogs on Blue Marble-appropriate topics.

Healthy Fight: Talking Democratic strategy on health care repeal.

Pen v. Pharma: Generic drug studies get you a journal article, patented drugs get used.

Sticks and Stones: The Hitler-ization of health care reform debate.

Minority Stake: Why 50% oppose health reform but only 37% want to repeal it.

Free Market: If it were really up to the free market, we wouldn't have health care.

Hyde and Seek: Making the Hyde Amendment law could stop all insurance for abortions.

Change of Mind: Rep. Issa was hot on investigating ClimateGate. So why not now?

Poor Choice: Rep. King wants government insurance, but only for poor people.

By the Numbers: Numbers on what's at stake if health care is repealed.

Fear and Loathing: Insurance companies reverse antipathy toward Obama's health bill.

Orphaned: Haiti's orphans still have too little food, medicine, and clothes.

 

Michelle Obama Doesn't Kill People. Cars Kill People.

| Thu Jan. 20, 2011 3:35 PM EST

A new report from the Governor's Highway Safety Association is getting lots of press today because some reporters, rather bizarrely, have tried to blame the increase in pedestrian deaths in 2010 on First Lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign.

Yes, you read that right. See the original piece in The Examiner and the followup in the Daily Caller.

The reporters in question posit that perhaps the increase in the number of pedestrians struck by cars last year, after four years of decline, is because people are out exercising more, choosing to walk when possible instead of hopping in the car. TBD has a good post in which the GHSA's executive director, Barbara Harsha, explaining that she never said that at all. The group isn't sure exactly what caused the uptick in deaths—and they certainly can't pin it on Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative.

And as TBD's Dave Jamieson aptly concludes, "If the 'Let’s Move' campaign is so effective that herds of inexperienced joggers are suddenly getting run over, then we need to put Mrs. Obama in charge of more nationwide initiatives, starting with the economic recovery."

But here's what blows my mind in all the buzz: It all blames those who have the audacity to travel by foot. They've been brainwashed by the First Lady, and they're too absorbed in their cell phones and iPods to get out of the way of oncoming traffic. There seems to be no attention to those doing the running-over. The report actually notes that "both drivers and pedestrians are increasingly distracted by cell phones and other portable electronic devices," while stopping short of attributing blame for the increase to any one cause. 

The real problem may be that we just don't have transportation infrastructure designed for those traveling by foot. "Unfortunately for pedestrians, many roadways are designed for motor vehicles," the report explains, citing this anecdote from the state agency in Nevada:

Like many other places in the southwest, the road network in Clark County consists of arterials that are designed as six lanes with intersections jumping to eight lanes. In urban area that bisects freeways or beltways, intersection can be as large as 12 lanes! Streets are flat with wide lanes that are comfortable for speed and there are few places marked for pedestrians to cross the street. On major arterial streets the norm is to have nowhere for up to a mile stretch for pedestrians to safely cross the street.

The report's recommendations focus on this problem—not on, say, convincing the public not to exercise. Suggestions include consideration of pedestrians in the state's highway safety plan, installing pedestrian crosswalks and signals that would "reserve roadway space and time for pedestrians," and strengthening state laws to require vehicles to stop—rather than just yielding—to pedestrians in crosswalks. Those might actually prevent some pedestrian deaths and obesity.

Study: 84% of Nutrition Labels On Kids' Foods "Misleading"

| Thu Jan. 20, 2011 2:32 PM EST

Labels on the front of foods marketed to children tout all sorts of nutritional benefits, from high protein and natural flavoring to heaps of fiber and vitamin C. But most of those claims are just feel-good marketing designed to mask the fact that our kids are being sold junk food. This is according to a study released yesterday by the Strategic Alliance, a California-based group of nutrition and exercise experts. It concludes that 84 percent of the nutritional claims made on the front of 58 "better for you" products were misleading; most of the products didn't even meet the basic nutrition standards set by the US Department of Agriculture and the National Academies of Science. 

Among the worst offenders:

  • Dora the Explorer Fruit Shapes calls itself "an excellent source of vitamin C, naturally flavored, 90 calories per pouch, and gluten free." But 58 percent of its calories come from sugar.
  • The "Meal Facts" panel on Kid Cuisine All Star Chicken Breast Nuggets advertises "white meat chicken, excellent source of protein, no artificial colors or flavors." Yet 38 percent of its calories come from fat.
  • Apple Jacks touts its high fiber and low fat content, but derives 48% of its calories from 
    sugar—its primary ingredient.

 "Without FDA regulation, instead of giving more information to parents struggling to make the best decisions for their kids, the system  is deceiving them," said the study's author, nutritionist Juliet Sims. "The question is: Do food companies want to be on the side of parents and give them helpful information, or don’t they?" 

Susan G. Komen Causes Cancer (and Other Pro-Life Myths)

| Thu Jan. 20, 2011 8:02 AM EST

To get a sense for the conspiratorial hogwash circulating among pro-lifers, look no further than sites like StopAbortionBreastCancer.org, which claims that the Susan G. Komen Foundation—a nonprofit that raises more than $300 million a year to battle breast cancer—is actually helping cause the disease by supporting abortion provider Planned Parenthood.

Here's the reasoning: A mother's breasts mature after delivery, making them more resistant to cancer. Abortion halts this maturation process, leaving her breasts susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of the estrogen that pregnant women produce in quantity. "Pink Money organizations" like Komen are "denying the truth about the fatal link between abortion and breast cancer in order to comply with international abortion agendas," the site claims.

The Komen-bashing is spearheaded by pro-life outfits like the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer and the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute whose brochures call elective abortion "the single most avoidable risk factor" for cancer. The institute's Angela Lanfranchi, a New Jersey surgeon, claims that "29 out of 38 worldwide epidemiological studies show an increased risk of breast cancer of approximately 30% among women who have had an abortion." Pro-life TV show Facing Life Head-On (which won a regional Emmy in 2010) dedicated a segment last year to "Komen's Dark Side." "Is it really 'morally permissible' to cause breast cancer in one room if screening for it in the next?" opines pro-life blogger Jill Stanek.

New Year, New Life

| Wed Jan. 19, 2011 7:11 PM EST

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

It's the New Year and time for a new start and what better to celebrate all in life that is new? For the next couple of months we'll be focusing on just that. So check out this video featuring polar bear cubs, baby elephants and sleepy young meerkats...

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Obama and Hu Talk Climate

| Wed Jan. 19, 2011 5:25 PM EST

There are certainly a number of major issues on the agenda this week as Chinese President Hu Jintao meets with Barack Obama in Washington, from human rights to currency manipulation. The one that has gotten scant attention is climate policy, though the two superpowers remain the focal point of global negotiations on the subject. Climate issues got passing notice in Obama's remarks at their joint press conference today, as he noted that they are deepening the working relationship on energy:

We’re renewing our long-running cooperation in science and technology, which sparks advances in agriculture and industry. We’re moving ahead with our U.S.-China clean energy research center and joint ventures in wind power, smart grids and cleaner coal. I believe that as the two largest energy consumers and emitters of greenhouses gases, the United States and China have a responsibility to combat climate change by building on the progress at Copenhagen and Cancun, and showing the way to a clean energy future. And President Hu indicated that he agrees with me on this issue.

Obama added later in the remarks:

And finally, China’s rise is potentially good for the world. To the extent that China is functioning as a responsible actor on the world stage, to the extent that we have a partner in ensuring that weapons of mass destruction don't fall into the hands of terrorists or rogue states, to the extent that we have a partner in dealing with regional hotspots, to the extent that we have a partner in addressing issues like climate change or a pandemic, to the extent that we have a partner who is helping poorer countries in Asia or in Africa further develop so that they, too, can be part of the world economy—that is something that can help create stability and order and prosperity around the world. And that's the kind of partnership that we’d like to see.

Hu also noted their plans to work together on global challenges, listing climate change as one of them. I can imagine, though, that the conversation on this subject wasn't entirely as chummy as the remarks would imply, however. The US last month lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization about China's subsidies for clean energy, arguing that the country is unfairly stacking the deck in favor of their products.

What Kinds of Chemicals Are In Our Bodies?

| Wed Jan. 19, 2011 1:25 PM EST

There have been a few developments in the past week that indicate that we should probably pay more attention to the chemicals we are collecting in our bodies and what their impacts might be.

A study published last week in Environmental Health Perspectives looks at the presence of chemicals in the bodies of pregnant women, finding that 99 to 100 percent of pregnant women tested positive for a number of potentially hazardous chemicals. These include DDT, flame retardants, substances used to make non-stick pans, and phthalates, a variety of chemicals found in many beauty products and plastics. Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco, conducted the study using data from the Centers for Disease Control.

While the study does not investigate how much risk those chemicals may pose to the women or their children, Woodruff notes in the school's release that her results should encourage other researchers to take a closer look at the individual and cumulative impacts of the chemicals humans are exposed to on a daily basis:

"It was surprising and concerning to find so many chemicals in pregnant women without fully knowing the implications for pregnancy. Several of these chemicals in pregnant women were at the same concentrations that have been associated with negative effects in children from other studies. In addition, exposure to multiple chemicals that can increase the risk of the same adverse health outcome can have a greater impact than exposure to just one chemical," Woodruff said.

The New York Times' Andy Revkin has a good post on why some of the headlines on this study may have been a bit misleading. But it's certainly worth highlighting the need for additional research.

In a similar vein, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences held a three-day summit last week looking at the role of environmental chemicals in the development of obesity and diabetes. The meeting was designed to plan a research agenda on the subject.

Several studies in the past year have investigated potential links between chemical exposure and obesity. (See this study exploring the impacts of prenatal exposure to the "obesogen" tributyltin for one example.) Jennifer McPartland, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, examinedsome of the developing science in this area in a blog post Wednesday, "Do these chemicals make me look fat?"

Are we sure that there are negative effects from all the chemicals we are exposed to? Of course not. But we're also not sure that they're safe—particularly not when you're considering the potential cumulative and compounded effects.

The Coal Hard Truth

| Wed Jan. 19, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Ken Ward has a great piece in the Charleston Gazette yesterday that revealed a previously confidential document demonstrating that there was a less environmentally devastating alternative to the proposed waste disposal plan for a West Virginia strip mine that the Environmental Protection Agency rejected last week. Citing the "irreversible damage" to water and the environment in the surrounding region that would be caused by the proposed waste disposal plan, the EPA last week took the unprecedented step of revoking the mine's permit under the Clean Water Act.

The 48-page document reveals that Arch Coal, the parent company of mine-owner Mingo-Logan Coal, could have reduced its damage to waterways by half, with very little increased cost for mining coal. But the company rejected that option, seeking instead to use "destructive and unsustainable mining practices," as the EPA put it last week in announcing their decision. Ward reports:

Permanent and temporary stream burial could have been cut from 8.3 miles to about 3.4 miles under one alternative mining plan developed for EPA by engineer John Morgan of the Lexington, Ky.-based firm Morgan Worldwide.
The alternative mining plan would have raised production costs for Arch subsidiary Mingo Logan Coal Co. by 55 cents per ton, about 1 percent of the expected per-ton sales price, according to the report obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The full report is here, and Ward offers some more details on it here. The EPA referred to its efforts to find an alternative plan in its announcement last week, but this really demonstrates that there were efforts made to appease the company seeking to undertake the biggest mountaintop removal operation in West Virginia history. After more than a year of discussions between the EPA and Mingo-Logan and apparently with an alternative plan in hand, the company still refused to take the less-destructive path.

You wouldn't know this from listening to the state's politicians or the mining industry, who spent last week maligning the EPA for vetoing the permit. The state's acting governor, Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin, organized a "Rally for Coal" this week in Charleston to protest the move. They've all painted this as an attack on the coal industry, but it's pretty clear that attempts were made to work with the Arch Coal—the company just didn't want to take them.

Go East, Young Whale

| Tue Jan. 18, 2011 6:21 PM EST

A 13-year-old western Pacific gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is shining some light on the travels of his kind.

Flex—as he's called by researchers—was tagged on 4 October on his summer feeding grounds in the Okhotsk Sea off Sakhalin Island, Russia. 

Western Pacific gray whales are among the most endangered whales on Earth, with a population of only 113 to 130 individuals. In contrast, the gray whales who migrate along the western coast of North America—known as the eastern Pacific gray whales—comprise a population estimated at between 15,000 and 22,000 individuals.

Gray whale. Photo by Jim Borrowman, Straitwatch, courtesy NOAA.Gray whale. Photo by Jim Borrowman, Straitwatch, courtesy NOAAThe good news is that as recently as 1972 Flex and the western grays were believed extinct.  Still, the margins are thin. The IUCN Red List categorizes the western grays as critically endangered—the last stage before extinction:

[B]ased on an extinction probability exceeding 50% within three generations, or a projected continuing decline of the subpopulation in combination with a mature population size less than 250. In addition, the small absolute subpopulation size, and the estimate of at most 35 reproductive females means that the subpopulation would easily qualify as Endangered.

Until now, no one has known where Flex and his kin go after leaving the Okhotsk Sea. At this time of year the eastern grays have migrated south to the breeding lagoons along Mexico's Baja Peninsula.
 
But the western whales—or at least, Flex—show no signs of heading for warmer water.
 
Image: the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.*Image: the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.*
You can see in the inset map Flex's journey for the first 101 days after tagging. In the last two weeks he's swum halfway across the Bering Sea.
 
As of 13 January 2011, Flex's transmitter had  sent 1,427 messages along a journey of 4,840 kilometers/3,007 miles. That's 47 kilometers /28 miles a day. But the story is actually way more interesting than that. From the Marine Mammal Institute site: 
"Flex" departed the Kamchatka coast on 3 January and took one week to cross most of the Bering Sea before arriving at the slope edge of the eastern Bering Sea shelf on 9 January. Since 3 January, he has covered 1,689 kilometers/1.049 miles in 238 hours for an average of 7.09 kilometers/4.4 miles an hour. Since attaining the slope edge, he has trended to the south, toward the Pribilof islands. During the last several days we have obtained individual transmissions during several orbits, so we know the tag is still attached and functioning, but not enough transmissions to obtain reliable locations. Some of this may be due to regional bad weather.
But based on the disturbing Nature paper this week revealing the unacceptably high cost of tagging penguins—both in terms of mortality for penguins and skewed data for researchers—the question arises: Is there any harm to a whale weighing many tons from a tracking device the size of a small cigar? Might this tiny tag be skewing Flex's behavior in any way? From the abstract of the king penguin study:
Over the course of a 10-year longitudinal study, banded birds produced 39% fewer chicks and had a survival rate 16% lower than non-banded birds, demonstrating a massive long-term impact of banding and thus refuting the assumption that birds will ultimately adapt to being banded. Indeed, banded birds still arrived later for breeding at the study site and had longer foraging trips even after 10years. One of our major findings is that responses of flipper-banded penguins to climate variability (that is, changes in sea surface temperature and in the Southern Oscillation index) differ from those of non-banded birds. We show that only long-term investigations may allow an evaluation of the impact of flipper bands and that every major life-history trait can be affected, calling into question the banding schemes still going on. In addition, our understanding of the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems based on flipper-band data should be reconsidered.

UPDATE: Bruce Mate, Director of the Marine Mammal Institute, fills me in on the gray whale tagging program:

The tagging of western gray whales was preceded by an efficacy study on the much more common eastern gray whales in 2005 and 2009. The latter was on the "resident" summer gray whales feeding here in the Pacific NW, with lots of follow-up photographs to look at "wound healing". These photos have been reviewed by a group of three marine mammal specialist veterinarians, who felt there were no major impacts and that what they saw caused them "no concern, These results were reviewed by whale specialists at the IWC and IUCN, who approved the results before we tagged western gray whales.

Meanwhile, stressors on western gray whales are growing. The Anchorage Daily News reports that in the past four years five females have died entangled in fishing gear.

And just yesterday the World Wildlife Fund announce that Sakhalin Energy Investment Company—partly owned by Shell—has announced plans to build a major oil platform near crucial feeding habitat of the western grays in waters  already besieged by multiple oil and gas exploration and development projects. The company will conduct a controversial seismic survey this summer. WWF states their concerns:

"We still do not know how badly the whales were affected by major seismic activity last summer—and will not know until the whales return to their feeding grounds again this year and scientists can determine if any are malnourished. It is totally inappropriate for Sakhalin Energy to plan another seismic survey in 2011 before we have the opportunity to examine the health of the animals," said Doug Norlen, Policy Director at Pacific Environment. 

Other concerns regarding another offshore platform:

  • Potentially disrupting the whales' feeding behaviors 
  • Increasing the chance of fatal ship strikes
  • Increasing the risk of an environmentally catastrophic oil spill on the whales' feeding grounds

You can follow Flex's travels here. The site is updated weekly.

The paper:
  • Claire Saraux, et al. Reliability of flipper-banded penguins as indicators of climate change. Nature. 2011. DOI:10.1038/nature09630
 
*This research was conducted by A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IEE RAS) and Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute; in collaboration with the University of Washington, Sakhalin Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, and Kronotsky State Nature Biosphere Reserve. The research was contracted through the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with funding from Exxon Neftegas Ltd. and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd.