Blue Marble - January 2013

Why You Should Be Optimistic About Renewables, In One Chart

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 1:40 PM EST

When it comes to America's energy future, it seems like all we ever hear about these days is natural gas. To hear the deafening outcry over fracking, to see the flares of North Dakota's drilling boom twinkling in space, you'd think we'd gone ahead and set every other type of power production to low simmer on the backburner. Turns out, it just ain't so. The latest update from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent government agency that regulates interstate electricity trading, reveals that in 2012 wind was the fastest-growing energy source, adding a full seven percent more megawatts than natural gas. Dig it:

new renewables
Chart by Tim McDonnell

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Farewell, Obama's "Green Dream Team"

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 1:02 PM EST
Energy Secretary Steven Chu speaks at a Bike to Work Day event in May 2009.

Another member of President Barack Obama's cabinet is on his way out the door. On Thursday night, Bloomberg News reported that Energy Secretary Steven Chu is planning to leave the Obama administration. The Nobel Prize winner plans to announce his intentions next week, according to sources "familiar with the matter."

Chu came to Washington from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, where he served as director. He's a nerd's nerd—a guy who does physics problems for fun and continued to bike to work in Washington (at least when the Secret Service would allow him to). He has been an advocate of a better energy policy and expanded government investment in research and development in his post at the department. But he often found himself stymied by the politics and bureaucracy of Washington, as The New Republic chronicled last year. He also found himself on the hot seat when the solar company Solyndra went bankrupt shortly after receiving a $528 million loan guarantee from the DOE.

With Chu's departure, there will be only one person left from Obama's original "Green Dream Team," a term environmental groups endowed upon the president's appointees to key departments. Green jobs guru Van Jones is long gone. Climate "czar" Carol Browner resigned two years ago, and the special post created for her was dissolved a few months later. Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has said she plans to depart in February. EPA head Lisa Jackson also announced her plans to leave the agency at the end of December. And earlier this week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signaled that he, too, is signing off. Meanwhile, the change of leadership at the State Department—with John Kerry likely taking over for Hillary Clinton—is expected to shape our international climate policy as well as key decisions like the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline.

That leaves only one of President Obama's original "green" appointments in place (at least as far as we know right now)—Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley. This is pretty significant, as the appointees on in these posts have pretty major roles in shaping environmental policy. The administration keeps saying that climate and energy will be an important issue in the next term, but there's no question that a change of leadership in all the key agencies will impact what happens in the next four years.

Plastics Suck Up Other Toxins: Double Whammy for Marine Life, Gross for Seafood

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 7:21 AM EST

Photo courtesy of Kent K. Barnes / kentkb

Some plastics are worse than others for the marine life that accidentally or intentionally eat them. That's because not only are the plastics themselves toxic but some also act as sponges for other toxins. Unfortunately the most commonly produced plastics also absorb the most chemicals. This according to a new study in early view in Environmental Science & Technology

"It surprised us that even after a year some plastics would continue to take up contaminants."

The researchers measured the absorption of persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—specifically polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—to the five most common types of mass-produced plastics:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Recycling symbol #1. Example: Water bottles.
  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE). Recycling symbol #2. Example: Detergent bottles. 
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Recycling symbol #3. Example: Clear food packaging
  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE). Recycling symbol #4. Example: Plastic shopping bags
  • Polypropylene (PP). Recycling symbol #5. Example: Yogurt containers, bottle caps.

From this research it seems that stuff made from polyethylene and polypropylene likely poses a greater risk to marine animals (and presumably the people that eat them) than products made from PET and PVC. Though the authors note that PVC is carcinogenic and toxic all by itself.

Laysan albatross carcass filled with ingested plastic debris, Midway Island. Nearly all carcasses found here have marine debris in them. It's estimated that albatross feed their chicks ~10,000 lbs of marine debris annually on Midway. Andy Collins, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

The authors were also surprised to find how long the plastics kept absorbing the contaminants. At one site they estimated it would take 44 months for high-density polyethylene to stop absorbing POPs.

"As the plastic continues to degrade, it's potentially getting more and more hazardous to organisms as they absorb more and more contaminants," says lead author Chelsea Rochman (UC Davis). 

The research was conducted over a year at five sites in San Diego Bay with pellets of each type of plastic immersed in seawater and retrieved periodically for absorption measurements. 

The paper:

  • Chelsea M. Rochman, Eunha Hoh, Brian T. Hentschel, and Shawn Kaye. Long-Term Field Measurement of Sorption of Organic Contaminants to Five Types of Plastic Pellets: Implications for Plastic Marine Debris. Environmental Science & Technology (2013). 
 

Chart: The Black Triangle Suffocating Beijing

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 7:01 AM EST
Beijing Coal Map

In 2008, Beijing pulled off what some (myself included) considered a miracle: banishing choking smog to reveal an Olympic city bathing in blue. They reportedly took a million of the city's 3.3 million cars off the road, and closed down factories and construction sites.

But try as they might, in the years since the Olympics, city officials have rarely replicated that success, despite replacing the city's coal-fired power stations with natural gas, capping its annual coal consumption at 20 million tons by 2015, forcing heavy trucking to go nocturnal, and limiting car exhaust and construction dust.

The recent crisis that featured "beyond index" rates of pollutants and a thick, blanket of smog that choked the city for days, proves why Beijing just can't do it alone. China's enormous boom in cars often gets blamed, but in fact the bigger problem lies farther afield.

The chart above shows that without controlling emissions across the country—especially from neighboring coal-producing provinces like Hebei and Shanxi—prevailing winds will keep blowing toxic smog Beijing's way. Climate Desk has compiled data from NOAA, Greenpeace, and CARMA to show 38 power plants that lie in the path of the winds that brought smog to Beijing during its pollution crisis from January 10-12.

The pollution is bad news for people's health: A recent study by Greenpeace East Asia and Peking University’s School of Public Health estimated that 8,572 premature deaths occurred in four major Chinese cities in 2012 because of the smog.

A note about the data: CARMA produces a detailed list of carbon-emitting power plants around the world—but for China, it can be tricky to get their precise locations and emissions because there is no public disclosure database provided by the government. The area displayed on the map is a rough approximation.

Ontario Cares Aboot Coal

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 2:06 PM EST
Ontario's coal-fired Lambton Generating Station is scheduled to close this year.

Ontario, Canada's most populous province, will become the first jurisdiction in North America to boot coal completely out of its energy mix, the province's Minister of Energy, Chris Bentley, announced last week. By the end of 2013, Ontario will shutter 17 of its 19 coal-fired power plants, leaving less than one percent of the province's energy mix provided by coal, and close the last two next year, a decision Bentley says was fueled by concern about global climate change and local health.

The phase-out has been coming down the pipeline since 2003, and it's already paying off: Canada's Pembina Institute found that greenhouse emissions from Ontario's energy sector fell by 30 million tons in the last decade.

The move is made somewhat easier by the fact that Ontario was never a major coal addict to begin with: In 2011, less than three percent of its total power generation came from coal; that same year in the US, the share was 42 percent. And part of what has tended to make coal so intractible in the US—thousands of jobs on the line—is a non-issue for Ontario, which never had its own coal mining industry, importing most of its supply from the US, Bentley said. The province, although a net electricity exporter, also imports a little of its power from adjacent US states and Canadian provinces; a spokesperson for Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator said they had no way to know whether any of the imported power came from coal-fired plants.

Ramping down coal over the last several years has given Bentley time to shore up other energy resources to fill the supply gap, including a booming wind industry—which more than tripled in the last five years—and, like in the US, a growing dependency on natural gas.

Down here south of the border, although our appetite for coal is waning, industry lobbyists and GOP pols from states like West Virginia are raising hell, and we're still pretty far from zero. And even though the US has its own unique challenges in confronting coal compared to Ontario, Bentley says he learned one thing from his experience cutting it out that can apply to his US counterparts: "There are far more people who are supportive than the critics would like you to believe."

Pet Fish Could Give You Freaky Antibiotic-Resistant Skin Diseases

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 12:19 PM EST

Have a freshwater fish tank at home? Stop petting Nemo and Wanda for a minute, and take a deep breath. Ornamental fish in the US, many of which come from Asia, are hosting antibiotic-resistant bacteria which could spread diseases to their human owners, a new report put out by researchers at Oregon State University reveals.

"The range of resistance is often quite disturbing," the authors wrote in their report, which was published in the January edition of the Journal of Fish Diseases. "Imported ornamental fish are commonly colonized with bacterial species of potential human and animal harm."

The researchers examined 32 freshwater fish, including common household species like neon tetras, cory catfish, and flame gouramis. They found that the fish, which came from Colombia, Florida and Singapore, had antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could potentially spread to humans, including Staphylococcus, which causes Staph infections of the skin; Aeromonas, which gives you stomach flu symptoms; and a type of Mycobacterium that causes skin lesions (not to be confused with the kind that breeds tuberculosis.)

The fish were most resistant to the antibiotics Tetracycline, which is used to treat infections like chlamydia in humans, and Bactrim, which is often used to treat women's urinary tract infections and bronchitis. The authors point out in the report that "this is not surprising considering the widespread use of these classes [of antibiotics] in the ornamental fish industry." However, the researchers also found that the fish were resistant to some antibiotics that aren't commonly used. "We don't know why that is, it could be industry testing that's going on somewhere,"  Tim Miller-Morgan, a veterinary aquatics specialist with Oregon State University who co-authored the report, told Mother Jones. The report notes that frequent and unregulated use of antibiotics is a growing problem in the ornamental fish industry, which is worth about $900 million. 

But there is good news: Miller-Morgan says that "the overall risk to human from these infected fish is low," although he suggests that individuals who have compromised immune systems consult their doctors, and people with open wounds refrain from cleaning their fish tanks. "You just need to be aware," he says. "I wouldn't stop keeping ornamental fish."

But if, after reading this report, you're hell-bent on getting rid of Goldy and Phish, you can always copy what the scientists did: Kill them "via decapitation followed by exsanguination" and then cut out their kidneys.* "This is the quickest, most humane way to kill the fish," given that "results can be compromised when an anesthetic is used," Miller-Morgan says. 

This is why I'm not a biologist.

*Please don't actually do this to your pets. 

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Ken Salazar, Obama's Secretary of the Interior, Is Heading Home

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 11:34 AM EST

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Wednesday morning that he will not be sticking around for President Obama's second term. Instead, he's heading home, he said. "Colorado is and will always be my home," he said in a statement. "I look forward to returning to my family and Colorado after eight years in Washington, D.C."

Salazar had a rough four years at DOI. He came in pledging to "clean up the mess" at one of the most problem-plagued federal agencies. But he hit a number of snags—including the Deepwater Horizon spill early in his time at Interior, which was blamed at least in part on failed oversight. Other problems related more to political backlash from Republicans who objected to DOI's land protection efforts—which seemed to surprise the former senator from Colorado.

I wrote a profile of Salazar for High Country News last year that looked at his tenure and his desire to return to the West:

Salazar is nothing if not a measured man, as today's event demonstrates. He speaks slowly and deliberately, throwing in colloquial quips. His policies tend to be equally moderate, and it's hard to get him to say anything remotely controversial. More than one reporter has wondered if he's intentionally boring in public. That's probably another reason every story about Salazar relies on his hat for color; it's usually the only showy thing about him. He looks shorter, and thinner, without it. It's hard to picture him putting a boot to anyone's neck, as he threatened to do to BP at the height of the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill. Even the policies that most rankle his Republican critics have hardly been radical. In his three years as secretary, though, he's watched the middle ground shift radically beneath him. His work at Interior often seems to be an endless exercise in trying to find it once again.
You can tell the struggle is wearing on him by the wistfulness with which he discusses the West. When asked whether he would spend a second term at Interior, his response is vague. "I'm there for the foreseeable future," he says. "Looking beyond that, I don't know."

Little Green Corvette: Four Sweet, Fuel-Efficient Cars at the Detroit Auto Show

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Alan Baum has to shout into the phone for me to hear him over the cacophony of the Detroit Auto Show, which opened Monday. Around him, thousands of journalists swarm from one new car to the next, lights flash, DJs spin, and the cream of the world's automotive crop glistens. "A lot of show and not a lot of substance," Baum, an industry analyst, jokes.

Just to look around at the "performance" cars on display here, from hulking pickups to lightning-fast sports cars, you might not be able to tell that this is the first major car show in Detroit since the introduction last fall of President Obama's new fuel efficiency standards, which will require all cars and light-duty trucks to operate at 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly doubling current requirements. The  administration predicts that this move will save Americans nearly $2 trillion at the pump. The cars below— featured this week in Detroit—are already taking steps in that direction.

2014 Corvette Stingray:

corvette
Courtesy General Motors

Let's be honest: no one is buying one of these for the great gas mileage. It's more like the car you fantasize about at fourteen and later take a soul-sucking job on Wall Street just to afford. But the simple fact that the Stingray, one of the gas-guzzling belles of the Detroit ball, takes even one step in a green direction is a sign of how deep the efficiency paradigm has penetrated the auto industry, says industry analyst Don Anair. Ironically, high-tech fuel-management equipment in the engine actually adds weight to a car that has traditionally tried to shave pounds wherever possible for the sake of speed and aerodynamics.

While it's true that the Detroit show has its of share super-green cars (like the futuristic Tesla Model X and a marked-down version of the classic Nissan Leaf), Baum says the real progress is on prioritizing fuel efficiency on updates to familiar models that used to be all about style or power. Fuel efficiency standards and record-high gas prices be damned, in Detroit the floor is still packed with muscle-bound models, but a recent analysis by Baum's firm found that from 2009 to 2013 the number of popular vehicles with improved fuel efficiency more than doubled, from 28 to 61, of which only a third are tiny subcompacts.

Volkswagen CrossBlue:

crossblue
Courtesy Volkswagen

Volkswagen has taken an all-of-the-above approach to greening its fleet, Baum says, rolling out everything from plug-in electrics to hybrids to diesel (which is more efficient than normal gasoline). The CrossBlue might look like it was designed expressly to ferry hoardes of middle-schoolers to soccer practice, but it's more a concept car than one you'll soon find at the local dealership. It combines hybrid technology with diesel power, and reflects a growing US market for diesel engines: Jeep also introduced a new diesel Grand Cherokee.

"Automakers are supportive of fuel efficiency requirements because that's what consumers want anyway," Baum says, adding that as major manufacturers like Ford invest more heavily in highly efficient vehicles, they acquire a perverse fear of falling gas prices, which would diminish the economic incentive for consumers to spend more on an efficient car.

Still, history shows that car manufacturers need a regulatory boost to keep pushing on the fuel efficiency front, says Don Anair, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. After Congress passed the first federal fuel economy standards in 1975, efficiency innovation stagnated until 2007, when new legislation upped the ante. In 2010, the Obama administration set higher standards for the immediate future, and finally last fall set the historic long-term goals that automakers are now striving to reach; already, over the last few years emissions from cars have dropped. "The effect of the standards is to raise the overall effort," Anair says.

2014 Mercedes E-Class:

e-class
Courtesy NAIAS

If you’re buying one of these, saving a few bucks at the gas station probably isn’t a major concern for you. Still, some of the same green technology that gained fame in the by-contrast proletarian Prius has made its way into luxury vehicles like this one as well: a hybrid engine that turns off while idling, a feature I always found a bit spooky but which Anair says is increasingly common.

Atomic Scientists: Humans Still Pretty Close to Self-Annihilation. Drink!

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 4:51 PM EST

Last year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the minute hand on its "Doomsday Clock" one minute closer to midnight. This year, the group of scientists decided to keep the symbolic timepiece at 11:55, signaling that its members don't believe things are getting any better when it comes to global annihilation.

The clock, which has been around since 1947, was created to symbolize the threat of nuclear power, but now also represents other man-made threats to humanity.

Back in 2010, the group was optimistic, as it elected to set the clock back by one minute. But this year the group says that the world has been consumed by economic threats, to the detriment of other pressing issues like nuclear proliferation and climate change. Members of the BAS wrote a letter to President Barack Obama citing those concerns, and asking him to "partner with other world leaders to forge the comprehensive global response that the climate threat demands, based on equity and cooperation across countries." They wrote:

2012 was the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States, marked by devastating drought and brutal storms. These extreme events are exactly what climate models predict for an atmosphere laden with greenhouse gases. 2012 was a year of unrealized opportunity to reduce nuclear stockpiles, to lower the immediacy of destruction from weapons on alert, and to control the spread of fissile materials and keep nuclear terrorism at bay. 2012 was a year in which—one year after the partial meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station—the Japanese nation continued to be at the earliest stages of what will be a costly and long recovery.

The group also noted that Obama's next term provides another opportunity to address these issues:

"We have as much hope for Obama's second term in office as we did in 2010, when we moved back the hand of the Clock after his first year in office," said Robert Socolow, chair of the Science and Security Board at BAS. "This is the year for U.S. leadership in slowing climate change and setting a path toward a world without nuclear weapons."

WATCH: Can a Fish-Sharing Program Save the Oceans?

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 7:41 AM EST


An interesting short video from the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation on what sustainable fishing means to a guy who makes his living fishing—and how his idea has changed over time. FYI when he talks about catch shares he's referring to a means of fisheries management that dedicates a secure share of fish—or the catch from a fishing area—to individual fishermen, fishing communities, or fishery associations. Here's how the Environmental Defense Fund describes the process:

With a secure privilege of the total catch and clearly defined access to resources fishermen have the ability to catch a certain amount of fish each year and are responsible for not exceeding that amount. And with this privilege fishermen are afforded great flexibility in planning their business operations. They are no longer told exactly when or how to fish and are able to enjoy the freedom to do what makes sense for them. Often fishermen have the opportunity to buy and sell shares which improves flexibility and increases economic efficiency. Fishermen are also able to coordinate harvests to meet market demands, resulting in higher prices for their catch and overall resulting in improved levels of the fishery's profitability.  

 

US catch share programs by region (click for more info): NOAA Fisheries / Office of Sustainable Fisheries

The first catch share program in the US began in 1990, according to NOAA, in the Mid-Atlantic Surf Clam and Ocean Quahog Fishery. Catch shares are currently in use in 15 US fisheries managed by six regional fishery management councils (map above).

Simulation of trend in fisheries collapse if all non-catch share (ITQ) fisheries had switched to catch shares in 1970 (dotted line), compared with the actual trend (solid line): Christopher Costello, et al. Can Catch Shares Prevent Fisheries Collapse? Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1159478

A 2008 paper in Science assessed catch share fisheries worldwide and found them highly effective: 

To test whether catch-share fishery reforms achieve these hypothetical benefits we have compiled a global database of fisheries institutions and catch statistics in 11,135 fisheries from 1950 to 2003. Implementation of catch shares halts, and even reverses, the global trend toward widespread collapse... [T]hese findings suggest that as catch shares are increasingly implemented globally, fish stocks, and the profits from harvesting them, have the potential to recover substantially.