Blue Marble

Crunching the Numbers on Obama's California Auto Move

| Mon Jan. 26, 2009 1:56 AM EST

President Barack Obama's EPA now looks likely to reverse Bush and allow California and 13 other states to set their own stricter auto emission and mileage standards. By 2016, the California rules will require automakers to show a 30 percent overall reduction in their vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions. That's not bad considering that at least 40 percent of the 16 million new cars sold each year come from states that want to adopt the California standards (and that the California rules might just become the national default anyway). The transportation sector accounts for 26 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions--the largest single chunk after the catch-all category of "industry."

By 2015, the California rules are at least 3 miles per gallon stricter than federal standards. That translates into a first-year savings of at least 200 million gallons of gas. It doesn't seem like much when you consider that each day the United States uses about 390 million gallons of gas, but the savings will grow each year as more new cars hit the road, until 2020, when the California standards become 7 mpg more stringent than the federal rules and things really get interesting.

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The GAO Slams EPA's Regulation of Toxics

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 4:06 PM EST

Yesterday the Government Accountability Office released its annual list of government programs that it considers to be at risk of waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement and due for reform. The list included three new programs: the financial regulatory system (duh), the FDA's regulation of drugs (Vioxx, and this), and the EPA's regulation of toxic chemicals. The last has received little press, except here and here in Mother Jones (MJ contributor Mark Schapiro also published a book on the subject), which makes the GAO's bold suggestions much more striking.

The GAO says the EPA has a huge backlog of unperformed assessments that are needed to determine whether individual toxic chemicals should be regulated:

Overall the EPA has finalized a total of only 9 assessments in the past 3 fiscal years. As of December, 2007, 69 percent of ongoing assessments had been in progress for more than 5 years and 17 percent had been in progress for more than 9 years. In addition, EPA data as of 2003 indicated that more than half of the 540 existing assessments may be outdated. Five years later, the percentage is likely to be much higher.

Of course, as we've pointed out, Europe has stepped into this vacuum with a much more stringent set of toxics regulations that essentially puts the burden of proving the safety of chemicals upon the industries that use them. The logical thing would be for the US to simply adopt Europe's approach, and that's essentially what the GAO is now suggesting. The government should "shift more of the burden to chemical companies for demonstrating the safety of their chemicals," the GAO says, "and enhance the public's understanding of the risks of chemicals to which they may be exposed."

Palin: Don't Save the Whales

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 11:28 AM EST

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As a fierce high school basketball player, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was dubbed "Sarah Barracuda," a nickname that was revived on the campaign trail last year, when she served as John McCain's enforcer. Now the "Barracuda" is picking a fight with one of the biggest mammals in the sea.

Last week, the state of Alaska announced it plans to mount a legal challenge to the listing of the Cook Inlet beluga whale under the Endangered Species Act. (Placing the belugas on the endangered list requires a review of federally funded or permitted activities that could affect the health of the whales, the establishment of a recovery plan, and the designation of "critical habitat.") This marks the second time in a year that Palin's administration has squared off with the federal government over an ESA listing. Over the summer, her administration sued Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne after his agency conferred threatened status on the polar bear.

Money Is the New Weight

| Tue Jan. 20, 2009 9:49 PM EST

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So, how are your New Year's resolutions to get happy and healthy coming along? For Gary Ryan Blair—aka the GoalsGuy—your resolutions are really working out.

Blair is the mastermind behind GotResolutions.com, which encourages people to make every choice count. (And to make one of those choices buying a GoalsGuy video seminar, of course.)

Of the site's 38,000 visitors in 2009, debt relief is one of the trendiest resolutions. Blair says that for the first time in his self-help career, he's guiding more people trying to lose debt than lose weight.

Blair's advice? Don't be afraid to confront the "good, bad, and ugly truths" of these tough times. Such counsel may seem crucial for some. But be forewarned—the program costs $59.95.

—Nikki Gloudeman

Obama's New Fuel Sucking Limo

| Tue Jan. 20, 2009 9:02 PM EST

the_beast300.jpgBack when he was a mere senator, Barack Obama declared that "When it becomes possible in the coming years, we should make sure that every government car is a plug-in hybrid." Now that he's leader of the free world, he's rolling a bit differently. The new presidential limo, which entered service this morning, is a fuel-sucking monster. The Cadillac, nicknamed "the Beast," is so loaded with armor and security features that it takes a medium-duty truck chassis to lug it all. And despite stories like this, it is most definitely not a hybrid. Its diesel engine gets somewhere between 5 and 10 mpg. Ouch.

So is Obama breaking his pledge to spend taxpayer money on hybrids whenever possible? There aren't any plug-in hybrid limos out there, but there are regular hybrid ones, though none as heavy as the Beast. But heavy doesn't rule out going hybrid. Peterbilt makes a hybrid medium-duty truck, and Treehugger notes that Obama once earmarked money to make hybrid Hummers. To be fair, the new presidential limo was probably on the drawing board way before Obama was elected. Yet it's not too early for the president to start leaning on the recently bailed-out General Motors to get working on the next generation of fuel-efficient presidential bunkers on wheels.

Not all energy-efficiency geeks are upset that Obama's carbon tireprint is getting even bigger. One poster on the message boards over at CleanMPG, the hypermiler hangout, is willing to cut the guzzler-in-chief some slack: "There are only two good reasons for personal FSP's. The Military and the President." In hypermiler lingo, FSP means fuel sucking pig. Still, a plug-in hybrid with 8-inch armor would still set a pretty cool example for those of us with less demanding security specs.

Photo courtesy US Secret Service

Bush's Last-Minute Land Grab Halted

| Tue Jan. 20, 2009 4:08 PM EST

This weekend, a last-minute Bush maneuver that would have made more than 110,000 acres of federal land available to oil and gas exploration was halted by a temporary restraining order issued by a District Court judge, reports the Los Angeles Times. As we wrote in our September/October 2008 issue, environmentalists say the recent attempts to free up public lands for oil and gas companies were "parting gifts" to the energy industry by Bush's Interior Department. Made official in mid-December, the move would have given oil and gas companies the right to begin drilling in sensitive riparian areas and key wildlife corridors throughout Utah. Several environmental groups, including the NRDC and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, filed suit against the government to stop the Interior Department from leasing the lands. In his decision this weekend, Judge Ricardo Urbina found that the groups' logic held, and that any energy development would be "...far outweighed by the public interest in avoiding irreparable damage to public lands and the environment." Some of the leased lands, which included parts of Canyonlands National Park and Dinosaur National Monument, contained ancient rock art and other sensitive cultural resources. However, though Judge Urbina's ruling keeps Utah's public lands safe pending a decision by the Obama administration, it doesn't help the land in five other states that have also been slated for increased drilling by the Bush administration.

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PETA Says: Save the Sea Kittens

| Fri Jan. 16, 2009 7:33 PM EST

lol_seakitten300.jpgDoes this count as Friday cat blogging? Your answer to that question will reveal just how kooky or clever you think PETA's new "Save the Sea Kittens" campaign is. What is a sea kitten, you ask? It's the animal-rights group's cuddly new name for what is commonly known as fish. According to PETA, fish have an image problem: They're scaly, slimy, and, uh, fishy. (And they don't blink. Creepy.) "Who could possibly want to put a hook through a sea kitten?" asks PETA. We've done lots of serious reporting on overfishing and other threats to the animal formerly known as fish, but it's hard to imagine anyone taking those issues more seriously if we'd talked about the plight of the sea kitten. And besides, humans kill lots of animals even though they're cute (baby seals) or feline (tigers). Fish don't have a PR problem, they have an edibility problem. So I propose only using the term sea kitten only for ridiculous seafood news. Like, say, actors claiming to have gotten mercury poisoning from eating too much raw sea kitten.

The Betty Boop Eyelash Drug vs. the Recession

| Fri Jan. 16, 2009 11:40 AM EST

It wasn't nearly as jarring as it should have been to see these two headlines 'above the fold' in the NYTimes earlier this week: "Banks in Need of Even More Bailout Money" and "Love the Long Eyelashes. Who's Your Doctor?"

Yup. As America crumbles, we're performing plastic surgery on the dead and gearing up to pay $120 a month for stupid eyelashes. First it was frozen foreheads. Now it's Betty Boop eyelashes.

Allergan, the company that turned an obscure muscle paralyzer for eyelid spasms, Botox, into a blockbuster wrinkle smoother, hopes to perform cosmetic alchemy yet again. At the end of the month, the company plans to introduce Latisse, the first federally approved prescription drug for growing longer, lusher lashes.

So what if an already overburdened doctor will have to make time for the hordes of Barbie-obsessed women who'll need a prescription? So what if the medication (cuz that's what it is; it's intended for glaucoma patients) has nasty side effects like changing your eye color, darkening your eye lids,and causing red eye and eye itch? Isn't that worth a possible 25 percent increase in your lashes?

So what, when this nirvana awaits you:

"People would say to me 'Are you wearing false eyelashes?'—even my own mother asked," said Cindy Ross, vice president for sales at Young Pharmaceuticals in Wethersfield, Conn., who participated in the Latisse clinical trial.

Ms. Ross said she liked the effect so much that she had a doctor prescribe the glaucoma drug to use on her lashes until Latisse becomes commercially available. "I wouldn't stop," Ms. Ross said. "I found a way to get it."

So what if it makes you a criminal?

So what, as long as you look marvelous?

Hopefully, there's a way to cross reference patient numbers (and I think there'll be more than a few metrosexuals slavering this stuff on their eyes) with bankruptcy filings, or numbers of people demanding help with the mortgages they could never afford.

Am I living in the same America as everyone else? The one where we need to resume the frugality of our grandparents?

Is Google Destroying the Environment?

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 9:06 PM EST

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An article published Sunday in The Times of London made the dramatic claim that two Google searches emit the same amount of CO2 as boiling a kettle of tea. But flaws in the widely-cited story have put the paper in, er, hot water.

The Harvard physicist quoted in the article said he never singled out Google. And the search giant countered by saying the figure was many times too high, with the techie explanation:

Together with other work performed before your search even starts (a typical search) amounts to 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, or 1 kJ. For comparison, the average adult needs about 8000 kJ a day of energy from food, so a Google search uses just about the same amount of energy that your body burns in ten seconds.

If the rebuttals are right, it's comforting news for search junkies the world over. My Google Web History revealed 90 searches yesterday alone, or—if the article was correct—45 kettles of tea.

Still, it would be good to know exactly how much carbon dixide people burn daily googling Britney Spears or Bristol Palin's baby name. Then again, it might just be depressing.

—Nikki Gloudeman

Obama Keeps Bush's White House Chef

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 1:40 PM EST

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Remember the hubub over whether Obama would plant a White House garden and pick a chef who serves sustainably-grown foods? Well, nevermind. It turns out that Bush's chef, Cris Comerford, sources much of her food from local farmers and some of it from a White House roof garden. And, according to previous Bush chef Walter Scheid, Laura Bush "was adamant that in ALL CASES (his emphasis) if an organic product was available it was to be used in place of a non-organic product." Who knew? Obama, I guess, who's decided to keep Comerford on. Let's just hope he applies her philosophy to the nation's food system, because that, at least, would be a first.

Image: Cris Comerford