Blue Marble

Clean Coal's $45m Lobbying/PR Spree

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 11:09 AM EDT

The Center for Public Integrity analyzes the coal industry's strategy to keep coal-fired power plants burning long in to the future:

As Butch Cassidy might say, “Who are those guys?”

They’re the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a collection of 48 mining, rail, manufacturing, and power-generating companies with an annual budget of more than $45 million — almost three times larger than the coal industry’s old lobbying and public relations groups combined.

CPI reports ACCCE spent nearly a quarter of that budget last year lobbying the Senate. That's more than Citigroup spent lobbying altogether last year, and double what Bank of America spent. The rest went to advertising and political donations—all in the name of convincing the public clean coal exists.

The coal industry is actually lobbying to receive support for technology that captures carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. That technology doesn't make coal any cleaner, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu says carbon-capturing technology will take ten years to prove itself. But the coal industry's lobbying and PR efforts have already reaped one huge benefit: The new draft (PDF) of Henry Waxman and Ed Markey's climate change legislation—about which the House energy committee is holding hearings all week—includes a provision what would allow new coal-burning power plants as long as they capture a large part of their carbon output. This is a major shift on Waxman and Markey's part: Only a year ago they backed a moratorium on all new coal-fired power plants.

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Suriname's Green Nobel Winner

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 9:37 PM EDT

Want some Earth Day inspiration that has nothing to do with Susan Boyle? Check out the seven Goldman Environmental Prize winners this year. From Indonesia to Appalachia, shipping to logging, these "Green Nobel" winners all have great heart. The one I spoke with, Hugo Jabine, comes from the forests of Suriname, where the Maroon community founded by freed African slaves has lived for 300 years. Goldman award materials say Jabine and his co-recipient Wanze Eduards "successfully organized their communities against logging on their traditional lands, ultimately leading to a landmark ruling for indigenous and tribal peoples throughout the Americas to control resource exploitation in their territories."

Here's how he tells it:

Review: Poisoned Waters

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 2:10 PM EDT

More than 35 years ago, Congress enacted the legislation now known as the Clean Water Act. The law had been around since its first incarnation—the Federal Water Pollution Control Act—in the Truman era, but the bill Congress passed in 1972 was a sweeping overhaul of the original act. The Clean Water Act set limits on the amount of pollutants industries and cities could discharge and gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to sue and penalize polluters that exceeded those limits.

But after Ronald Reagan came to Washington, his administration established a program of voluntary compliance with Clean Water Act standards. That program is the launching point for Frontline’s documentary Poisoned Waters (airing Tuesday at 9 pm on PBS), which examines widespread pollution in two US waterways—Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound—caused by 25 years of unregulated toxic industrial, agricultural and municipal runoff.

Narrator Hendrick Smith shows us the first striking snapshot of aquatic pollution when he joins one environmental activist on a flyover of a Purdue chicken farm in Maryland: Behind each shed of 40,000 chickens, we see huge brown splotches of phosphorus- and nitrogen-heavy chicken manure. Rainwater eventually causes the chicken waste to leach in to one of the streams that make up the Chesapeake’s massive aquatic footprint. As Smith shows, chicken waste dumped into a tributary in Richmond could eventually end up in your drinking water in Baltimore.

Poisoned Waters is filled with those types of images: Frogs with six legs, once-male bass in West Virginia rivers that have morphed into females, and an underwater waste pipe spewing a constant noxious cloud of brown goop into Puget Sound. Smith and his crew use those images as segues to the documentary’s crucial point: Any pollution that kills aquatic life can harm humans. Finding dead fish floating belly-up on the surface of a river is a bad omen for humans drinking its water.

While deregulation emerges as the main culprit for the nation's polluted waterways, Smith implicates another group of culpable offenders—us. We’ve spent years creating new chemicals for everything from pesticides to household cleaners, all without pushing for up-to-date technology to purify our water of these toxins. Smith talks to one team of scientists who test for toxins in the Potomac River, both before and after its water is run through a treatment plant just north of Washington, DC. The plant’s outdated filters only remove a third of the pollutants in the Potomac.

So what can we do about it? Poisoned Waters concludes the impetus to clean up aquatic pollution—and halt it in the future—carries the most force when it comes from the electorate. But a pure environmental argument doesn’t always resonate with the voters. As Chris Miller, an activist with the Virginia-based Piedmont Environmental Council, says, “Getting up in front of a crowd and saying, ‘The bay’s in tough shape, and the pollution’s getting worse, and we’ve gotta change our lifestyles to save it,’ really doesn’t get you anywhere.” And with three-quarters of the US population living near waterways, hundreds of millions of Americans are affected by unregulated pollution. The trick is getting us all to care.

Note: I wasn't aware PBS would be advertising this program on our site until after I watched and reviewed Poisoned Waters. —S.A.

 

Not Enough Fine Print in the Food Safety Bill

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 2:08 PM EDT

Recently Kiera Butler wrote that the Food Safety Modernization Act 2009, or HR 875, will not mean the end of organic farming if it passes. Well, the bill may not send the feds tromping through your backyard basil patch, but it's certainly worth questioning—along with the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act, or HR 759, also currently in the House. For local farmers whose produce doesn't reach the conventional food industry, how legislators construe 875 could have dire consequences.

Sure, Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), 875's sponsor, likely doesn't intend to sap the livelihoods of small farmers. But as far as I can tell, neither 875 nor 759 take into account the need for separate regulations according to farm size and financial capacity. If we really do intend to bolster small farmers, rather than letting them struggle to keep up with legislation that, by default, favors corporate farms, the bills need to be more discerning. One example?

Come Talk Trash With Us

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 12:29 PM EDT

After last week's organic food online forum, we're ready for the next course. This week's topic: recycling and waste. The modern recycling movement got its start alongside the first Earth Day, nearly 40 years ago this week. Since then, recycling's gone mainstream: Americans now recycle and compost a third of their trash, up from just 6 percent in 1970. Yet, as detailed in the current issue of Mother Jones, we're generating more waste than ever before. In just 5 minutes, we use another 1,060,000 aluminum cans, 2 million plastic bottles, and 15 million sheets of paper. We're still drowning in plastic, New York recycles only a fifth of its garbage, and trash haulers still find landfill more profitable than recycling. Then consider that municipal solid waste—that's the stuff that fills our home garbage cans and office paper bins—is just 2.5 percent of our total "Gross National Trash" output. While we've been agonizing over whether our plastic yogurt lids can be recycled, have we been missing the big picture? Is recycling giving us a false sense that we're solving our waste problem?

We put that question to four experts: Elizabeth Royte, Eric Lombardi, Annie Leonard, and Susan Strasser. Check out some highlights from their answers below the jump. Or head on over to our recycling online forum, which kicks off today. For the rest of this week, our panelists will be checking in to respond to readers, discuss and debate the future of recycling and waste, and perhaps even solve the mystery of the yogurt lid.

Friday Cocktail: THE OVERDOSE: Three Parts Dead Zone, One Part Mercury, Sprig of Carbon Capture

| Fri Apr. 17, 2009 5:20 PM EDT

Round 1: First a report from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute that low-oxygen dead zones in the ocean could expand significantly over the next century. We already know the number of dead zones is doubling every decade. We already know that climate change is exacerbating dead zones in two ways.

First, more rainfall in some areas leads to more agricultural fertilizers and manures running off into the sea and growing more dead zones—as in the Gulf of Mexico. Second, warming in other areas reduces prevailing winds that produce oceanic upwelling—as in the Oregon dead zone.

Now the MBARI research, published in the journal Science, suggests a third mechanism at work. As more CO2 dissolves from the atmosphere into the ocean, marine animals will need more oxygen to survive. In other words, a dead zone will get deader faster. This is in addition to the excess CO2 causing changes to the pH of seawater. You know, the ocean acidification threatening the very foundations of life.

Pour me another and let's talk about the next round which might help solve the problems of this one.

Round 2:
Australia's Kevin Rudd, professed greenie, has launched a carbon capture institute. This is a government-funded initiative to coordinate and accelerate carbon capture and storage projects worldwide. "Our vision is to build an institute that will galvanize global efforts to demonstrate and deploy CCS technology," Rudd told the initial meeting of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI) in Canberra, reports NatureNews. "This recognizes the cold hard reality that coal will be the major source of power generation for many years to come."

This is where the "professed greenie" part comes into play. Matthew McDermott of Treehugger calls it a deal with the devil.  Australia is the world's leading exporter of coal and a big user of the stuff. So Rudd promises to pony up US$72 million a year for the GCCSI to figure out a way to enable them to keep doing that. The public-private partnership has received pledges of support from some twenty governments so far, including the US and China, plus more than 40 industrial companies.

Well, let's hope they really can figure out a way to mitigate the highly unmitigatable. Because, let's face it, otherwise they're running the world's biggest Ponzi scheme.

Round 3: A new paper in Environmental Science and Technology finds that the warming Arctic is not only changing the landscapes and seascapes but poisoning the landscapes and seascapes too. Mercury levels in seals and beluga whales eaten by Inuit in northern Canada have reached levels considered unsafe in fish. The problem is worse in low-ice years, meaning the problem is gonna get worse. Arctic residents are being exposed to other pollutants melting out too: DDT and PCBs that leached from the atmosphere decades ago and became entombed in ice and permafrost, now flowing into streams, rivers, and the Arctic Ocean.

Round 4: The Overdose, please.
 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

EPA Declares Greenhouse Gases Pollutants

| Fri Apr. 17, 2009 12:57 PM EDT

Two years after the Supreme Court directed the Environmental Protection Agency to determine if greenhouse gases were a threat to public health and the environment, the EPA formally concluded Friday that carbon dioxide and five other gases should be declared pollutants that could be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

The EPA's findings aren't surprising; most everyone knew these gases—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride—were harmful. Those who denied it were simply denying the reality of climate change. Unfortunately for us, men and women from that pack of stubborn detractors ran the federal government for the last eight years.

David Doniger at the Natural Resources Defense Council touched on this when he credited President Obama and EPA director Lisa Jackson with "going a long way to restore respect for both science and law. The era of defying science and the Supreme Court has ended."

Doniger is correct; the EPA's declaration does go a long way. But that just demonstrates how out of touch—whether because of hard-headed ignorance or the influence of lobbyists and money from polluting industries—the last administration was with the real world. A federal agency acknowledging and accepting scientific evidence is always going to look like a big stride in the right direction if that agency has spent the last decade doing the exact opposite.

As for the polluters affected by the EPA's declaration, the Times reports they are cautiously reacting to the news because they're hopeful the climate change legislation in the House Energy and Commerce Committee will give them a break. That would have been the case during the 16 years John Dingell headed the committee. But Henry Waxman is much less polluter-friendly than Dingell was during his tenure in the House.

Salazar in SF: March of the Polar Protesters

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 7:42 PM EDT

At a University of California San Francisco campus this afternoon, environmentalists made quite the display. People dressed as polar bears (at least 5), sea turtles (4), dolphins (2), jellyfish/coral (2), a kangaroo, and a seal. Two surfer girls in bikini tops walked past, leaving a trail of what looked like crude oil on the cement. ("It's actually chocolate," one confided.) The polar bears and surfer girls mingled in front of the university's conference center in hopes of influencing Deparment of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who was in San Francisco to hear public comment on offshore drilling plans. While Salazar criticized Bush's plan to drill "the entire Eastern seaboard, portions of offshore California and the far eastern Gulf of Mexico with almost no consultation from states, industry or community input," he and Obama are considering expanding existing offshore operations.

At the podium, Salazar received emotional suggestions and comments from the hundreds who packed the hall. Salazar often asked follow-up questions, sometimes uncomfortable ones. Scott Johnson, from CalWind, asked Salazar to consider offshore wind projects, but when asked how much electricity on-shore turbines in California currently generated, Johnson couldn't quote a figure. The goal, Salazar told the crowd, wasn't to favor one form of energy over another. "We need to have a comprehensive energy plan going forward," Salazar said. "We recognize that some of the energy sources we have are necessary to keep the nation going economically." Oil and gas, Salazar said, "have never been off the table" and warned the crowd that "we may not be able to do what's popular."

As the hall cleared for lunch, polar bears and politicians wandered out into the hot sunshine. In front of the Peasant Pie shop, non-profits and activist organizations tended booths and a small stage to further voice their concerns, not all drilling-related. Shay Wolfe, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, was in a polar bear suit, manning the tables. "We've been here since 7:30," she said. Her organization was concerned with offshore drilling, yes, but not perhaps as much as last-minute Bush regulations that “took away the scientific review requirement under the Endangered Species Act." Wolfe said Salazar has until May 9 to revoke those regulations. A San Francisco Baykeeper representative said her group was there to show support for the other environmental groups, but also yes, to say no to drilling. None of the groups brought up economic issues.

As the rally continued, Center for Biological Diversity attorney Miyoko Sakashita and her infant son Kai danced to the music in matching furry white polar bear suits. "I think people can relate to polar bears," said Wolfe. "We hope he [Salazar] got our message... we sent polar bears to greet him."

Kick The Sick Habit: Bay Versus Bag

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 7:50 PM EDT

Nice video from Save The Bay. It's the latest in their campaign to reduce plastic bag pollution in San Francisco Bay Area. You know, the endless crap that traps wildlife and never biodegrades and breeds like rabbits because we insist on accepting a new one of the evil airborne, waterborne immortals every time we buy any little thing.

Did you know the average plastic bag has a use-time of 12 minutes?

California taxpayers spend approximately $25 million every year to collect and landfill plastic bags. San Jose City staff estimates that it costs at least $3 million annually to clean plastic bags from creeks and clogged storm drains. Single-use bag production depletes resources and contributes to carbon emissions and global warming. We consume 14 million trees  and 12 million barrels of oil to produce the billions of plastic and paper bags we throw away in the United States every year. 

Save The Bay is trying to get Bay Area cities to charge 25 cents on paper and plastic bags from all retailers. Hopefully that'll encourage more people to use less plastic and pony up for durable reusables.

Accompanying the video, a few busted myths:

Myth: Recycling plastic bags is the best solution to the litter problem
Fact: Plastic bag recycling is expensive and doesn’t work

Despite a 15-year effort in California, recycling plastic bags has failed. Less than 5 percent of all single-use plastic bags are actually recycled. Plastic bags cost municipal recycling programs millions each year because bags jam sorting equipment. The frak ups cost San Jose about $1 million a year. Failed recycling means billions of plastic bags are thrown away to blow onto streets and float into waterways.
 

Spam's CO2 Emissions

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 4:42 PM EDT

In addition to being a giant waste of your time, spam emails are also a colossal waste of electricity, according to a recent study commissioned by the research division of McAfee (a company with, just so you know, a vested interest in convincing you that spam is evil).

Some fun little statistical nuggets from the study:

 

• Globally, annual spam energy use totals 33  billion kilowatt-hours (KWh), or 33 terawatt hours (TWh). That’s equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes in the United States, with the same GHG emissions as 3.1 million passenger cars using two billion United States gallons of gasoline
• The average GHG emission associated with a single spam message is 0.3 grams of CO2. That’s like driving three feet (one meter) in equivalent emissions, but when multiplied by the annual volume of spam, it’s like driving around the  Earth 1.6 million times.

HT New Scientist and Rebecca Skloot, via Twitter.