Blue Marble

Baby Bottle BPA Bye Bye

| Fri Mar. 6, 2009 5:28 PM EST

Today's heartening public health news from WebMD:

The top six makers of baby bottles in the U.S. have agreed to stop using the polycarbonate plastic chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in their bottles...
The FDA is studying bisphenol A, but hasn't issued any warnings about BPA in baby bottles or other consumer products.
But the National Toxicology Program issued a report last year that includes "some concern" about BPA's possible effects on the brain, prostate gland, and on behavior in fetuses, infants, and children, and "minimal concern" for effects on the mammary gland and an earlier age for female puberty in fetuses, infants, and children.

Read MoJo's Plastic Panic investigation for a primer on BPA.

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Vote The Rock

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 8:40 PM EST
Whether we like it or not, we're going to have to learn how to sequester CO2. Current suggestions include storing liquid or gaseous CO2 underground in saline aquifers, depleted oil wells, and porous coal seams. These "solutions" however come with nuclear-bomblike thrills of unintended consequences: notably, sudden and unintentional leaks.

But there's another idea. Turning carbon back into a solid. Which just happens to be  a way to permanently get rid of CO2 emissions. Our ally in that mission is rock. And geologists have now mapped 6,000 square miles of ultramafic rocks at or near the surface in the US (map [pdf]) that could absorb more than 500 years of America's CO2 production. Most of these formations are clustered along the east and west coasts, some near major cities, including New York, Baltimore, and San Francisco, making the sequestration process downright convenient—someday. Soon. We hope.

Here's how it works: Ultramafic rocks originate deep in the Earth and contain minerals that react naturally with CO2 to form solid minerals—a process known as mineral carbonation. Columbia University’s Earth Institute scientists are experimenting with ways to speed up a process that under natural conditions takes thousands of years.

One model involves capturing CO2 directly from power-plant smokestacks and other industries, dissolving in water and piping it underground, while capturing the heat generated by the reaction to accelerate the process. The first major pilot study is underway in Iceland, where a collaboration of international researchers will inject CO2-saturated water into basalt formations, also good sequesters. The rock should absorb 1,600 tons of CO2 from a nearby geothermal power plant over 9 months.

That's not all. Another mapping effort is underway in Oman, where peridotite formations might mineralize as much as 4 billion tons of CO2 a year—about 12 percent of the world’s annual output. And another pilot study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will eventually inject 1,000 tons of C02 into rock under land owned by a paper mill in Washington.

But wait, there's more. Hazardous tailings left behind by asbestos mining in Vermont and California could finally be neutralized by CO2 sequestration. The asbestos was mined from peridotite formations and the tailings are just waiting to gobble CO2 and return to their former lives as mantle rocks benign enough for your mantlepiece.

Finances F**k Future Fuels

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 11:23 PM EST
The recession has walloped investment in clean energy. That means we're no longer on track to avert the worst impacts of climate change, according to a new analysis.  (Were we ever on track?)

Anyway… New Energy Finance says that although a depressed global economy will reduce CO2 emissions, funding for energy solutions is decreasing faster and that's likely to have a worse impact on emissions in the long run.

Here are the stats: Investment in clean energy—make that, renewables, energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage—grew from $34 billion to $150 billion between 2004 and 2008. But investment needs to reach $500 billion a year by 2020. That is if we want CO2 emissions to peak before 2020.

There is currently a generalish consensus that continued growth of emissions beyond 2015 or 2020 at the latest will lead to severe and irreversible climate change (though this will only meet the IPCC's relatively generous standard not the 350ppm number that Bill McKibben wrote about recently). The new analysis predicts that a peak before 2020 now looks highly unlikely .

So what do we do? Well, for those who have enough money that they actually do things like make investment decisions, why not move your money to where it's going to count in more ways than mere money? Invest in clean energy. For those of us who do not have anything resembling spare change, invest in a cleaner energy lifestyle. You know: eat more vegetarian; buy more locally; drive less; kill your clothes dryer; air your clothes more & wash them less (another grandmother solution); buy used; think about the long run more. We've talked about these solutions before.

As for why we continue to not do these things, at least on a societal level, Chris Goodall at CarbonCommentary makes some interesting, well, commentary.

How to Build the Smart Grid Smartly

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 7:58 PM EST
The Smart Grid transmits information between utility companies and household appliances, allowing you to automatically dial back energy use during peak hours. "In theory, the Smart Grid offers a user-friendly way to curb our electric appetites," Jenn Kahn wrote our in energy issue last May. "The most compelling thing about the Smart Grid is that it could change the way we use energy without requiring us to do anything."

Having read our magazine, I suppose, President Barack Obama recently set aside $4.5 billion in the stimulus bill to build a national Smart Grid. (At the time Kahn wrote her piece, Smart Grid boosters were pining for a meager $400 million in R&D funding). But it turns that the Smart Grid requires us to do at least one thing before it will pay off: figure out how to build it. It's going to be harder than we thought:

Smart grid operation standards have not been designated yet despite a provision in the 2007 energy bill calling for the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology to come up with standards with the help of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other organizations so that the technology can easily communicate on the same platform -- a concept known as interoperability. That lapse combined with the general lack of public knowledge about the smart grid and how to manage energy in real-time could be a recipe for failure, [Alaska Senator Lisa] Murkowski said.
"We are playing more than a game of catchup here," Murkowski said. "This is too important to get it wrong."

So the Smart Grid isn't exactly shovel-ready. The electric industry needs nine months to a year to agree on standards for the grid, the Times reports. But Kahn's piece illustrates why rushing the grid would be a mistake:

In one scenario, the utility—and eventually, our appliances themselves—would do the thinking, raising and lowering the power pulled into our houses so subtly that we'd hardly notice it. In the current "dumb" grid, information runs in one direction: from the user to the utility. As a result, there's usually no way for consumers to know about real-time rate changes until weeks later, when the added cost shows up on their electricity bill. In a smart system, usage and rate information would flow both ways and also arrive in real time.
But is the Don't Tread on Me nation ready to hand control of the thermostat over to for-profit utilities that don't always have our financial best interest at heart? (See the 2001 Enron-triggered California energy crisis.) It's not impossible. Many of us have come around to paying our bills automatically. With the appropriate protections in place, there's no reason to think that consumers would balk at a chance to save money and energy—so long as that six-pack stays cool.
Congress will need to write those protections into law if it wants the Smart Grid to be credible with consumers. It will also need to ensure the grid doesn't become a mishmash of competing technologies:
In the absence of federal standards for the Smart Grid and smart appliances, any utility that dared to update its grid would have to gamble that its new features would remain compatible with next-generation technology. As Steve Hickok, deputy administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, puts it, "No one wants to get stuck with a Betamax."
In both cases, only the government has the authority to pull this off. That's why, despite the time and work, the $4.5 billion is ultimately money well-spent.

Easy Fixes: Vinegar and Chickenshit

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 9:06 PM EST
Two interesting papers in the science lit today on home-brewed solutions to industrial-strength problems. The first: contaminated water can clean itself if simple organic chemicals such as vinegar are added. The second: chicken manure cleans soil that's been contaminated by crude oil.

The vinegar solution was tested on groundwater tainted by former textiles factories, smelters, and tanneries. The leftovers of these industries produced harmful chromium compounds that cause cancers and all kinds of kidney, liver, lung and skin troubles. But add dilute acetic acid, aka vinegar, and—presto!—the oxidized chromate became non-soluble. That means it's no longer bio-available and can be left safely in the ground without risk to the surrounding ecosystem. The vinegar feeds and grows naturally-occurring bacteria which then alter the chemistry of the chromium compounds, rendering them harmless.

Good job bacteria!

The chicken guano solution was used on soil contaminated by crude oil spills. Conventional clean-up bears a heavy environmental cost since detergents become pollutants themselves and persist in the environment for a long time. Better to bioremediate: use natural or engineered microbes to metabolize the organic components of crude oil. But too often that requires expensive nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers with their own hefty environmental price tags (decreased soil quality). But when chicken manure was added to the soil—presto!—nearly 75 percent of the oil was broken down after two weeks. At least 12 different species of oil-munching bacteria liked the chickenshit menu and responded by metabolizing the oil.

Let's dig back through our great-grandmothers housekeeping diaries and find out what else they (probably) knew that we've forgotten?

Obama Restores Scientific Review to Endangered Species Act

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 5:38 PM EST

President Obama issued a memorandum Tuesday requesting the heads of all federal agencies consult with scientists and other experts to determine if their actions could harm threatened and endangered species.

Consulting with experts at either the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was required by law under the Endangered Species Act until December, when the Bush Administration issued a midnight ruling allowing agencies to skip scientific review.

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12,000 Climate Activists Can't Be Wrong

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 1:44 AM EST

Ah, the party planner's problem. You send out an invitation, and what happens if they all say yes? 

I'm just back from today's magnificent civil disobedience outside the Capitol power plant. It began around 1 p.m., with the morning's snow still swirling—and out of the snow hundreds and then thousands of people arriving, signs in hand, many wearing green hardhats, all ready to go for a march. And what a march—down a few blocks off Capitol Hill into a strange semi-wasteland of overpasses, newly built luxury condos now unoccupied in the housing bust—and a big ugly power plant.

We marched a lap around the complex, dropping off color-coded contingents at each of the five gates—green flags with several hundred people at the first, red at the second. The mass of us gathered outside the main gate, before a small stage, and then listened to half the most important folk in the environmental movement, from Gus Speth to Wendell Berry to young indigenous activists to some guy named Jim Hansen. Cheering, singing, dancing, shivering.

The only problem was, too many people. We simply overwhelmed the police, who were prepared to arrest 500 but not ten times that many. And so they simply refused. Short of actually assaulting cops, which no one had the slightest interest in, it was simply impossible to get arrested. We were all risking it—we were standing where we weren't supposed to for hours on end. And we shut down the plant for the afternoon.

Not only that, of course, but since Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid had actually caved in last week, announcing they'd end 103 years of burning coal in the plant and convert it to natural gas, there was no obstacle to declaring victory, utter and complete. 

I was the slightest bit disappointed, because I'd looked forward to eating out for a long time on the story of sharing a cell with Berry and Hansen and Terry Tempest Williams and Janisse Ray and Kathy Mattea and all the other good folks who were out there standing their ground. It would have been one hell of a stretch behind bars, and we could have written some kind of great letter from jail. 

But much better to see the wide smiles on the faces of the thousands of college kids who made up much of the crowd. The kind of wide smiles that come with saying: 'so this is how it works.' It's not impossible. All it takes is a movement, which now we've got to build.

The Horseshoe Crab Economy

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 8:14 PM EST
It's also a global economy that affects millions. Notably, millions of little shorebirds known as red knots, whose numbers have declined 75 percent since the horseshoe crab fishery in Delaware Bay exploded. Prior to 1992, 100,000 crabs a year were caught. In 1997, more than 2 million. The result: 90 percent fewer crab eggs for visiting shorebirds to eat.

Here's the background: A lot of migrating shorebirds depend on Delaware Bay as a feeding stop. Red knots can't live without it. Until 1992 the Bay was a dependable fuel station on their annual 18,600-mile migration between the Arctic and the southern tip of South America and back. That's right, 18,600 miles a year. Fifty percent more flying than the average American drives per year. All from a bird weighing 6 ounces.

Now a new study has found the proportion of red knots visiting Delaware Bay who manage to pack on enough weight to survive the winter in Tierra del Fuego dropped along with the crab eggs. In fact the proportion of birds who made their target weight by their target departure date declined between 50 and 75 percent between 1997 and 2007.

This despite fisheries restrictions enacted in 1997 to help red knots recover. But, tell me, what kind of restrictions allow a 2007 horseshoe crab hunt bigger than the 1990 hunt?

Idiot restrictions. I wrote about other amazing long-distance fliers in Diet for a Warm Planet: how their thriftiness equals their prosperity. We all need to learn from these extraordinary feathered economists. Especially those who practice idiot economics.

Your Water Bottle Is One-Quarter Oil

| Fri Feb. 27, 2009 9:12 PM EST
Still want to drink it? Because the truth is that bottle of water is up to 2,000 times more energy intensive than just turning on the tap. No one really knew that until now.

Researchers at the Pacific Institute in Oakland California ran the numbers and found that bottle production alone wastes 50 million barrels of oil a year (that's 2.5 days of US oil consumption). Add to that energy the energy needed to process the water, label the bottles, fill the bottles, seal the bottles, transport the bottles, cool them prior to sale… well, you get the idea.

Bottom line: Bottled-water drinkers in the US alone in 2007 squandered the equivalent of 32 to 54 million barrels of oil. Triple that number for worldwide use. For perspective, imagine each bottle is one-quarter full of oil.

As reported at Treehugger: Bottled-water drinkers are the new smokers.

Since oil and water don't mix, turn on the tap. Still want a container? Try reusable Nalgene or stainless steel. Not without impact but durable at least. Traveling overseas to the lands-of-unclean waters? Pony up for a Katadyn bottle/filter combination. I can personally attest that this all-in-one system is a miracle worker of good intestinal and environmental health.

Concerned about the one in six humans who must live in the lands-of-unclean waters? Consider tossing a doubloon or two at the LifeStraw people who've found a nifty and inexpensive way to survive deadly water supplies.

Obama Hearts the EPA

| Fri Feb. 27, 2009 2:43 PM EST
Boy, what a reversal of fortune for the Environmental Protection Agency. After suffering years of neglect, staff cuts, and intimidation, it now stands to see its budget increased by 34 percent--among the largest bump for any federal agency in percentage terms. Much of the increase would fund clean water projects and restore the Superfund Tax, which expired in 1995, raising an estimated $6.6 billion by 2014 for hazardous waste cleanup. As if to underscore the EPA's return to favored agency status, Michelle Obama spoke at agency HQ while her husband was unveiling his budget yesterday. "Your work will not only save our planet and clean up our environment," she said. "It's going to transform our economy and create millions of well-paying jobs." Her optimism reminds me of Bush's love for his faith-based initiatives, but at least this time around there's a bit more evidence behind the hope.