Blue Marble

The Garbage Game

| Thu Nov. 15, 2007 8:44 PM EST

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Treehugger posts notice of the Garbage Game produced by The Gotham Gazette. You get to play at garbage commissioner and dig into the stinky reality of New Yorkers throwing away 64,000 tons of garbage a week, 7 billion pounds a year, for a billion dollars a year. You get to decide what to do with your empty water bottles, frayed towels, apple cores, the 3.6 million tons of diapers Americans throw away yearly. Where are you going to send your city's garbage? Next door? Overseas? Learn the consequences of your decisions. Best of all, play the game with your kids and enjoy the light in their eyes when they realize the effects of the profligate lifestyle you're generating on their behalf.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge,and other writings, here.

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Timber! Katrina's Dead Trees Release as Much Carbon as Stored in US Forests Yearly

| Thu Nov. 15, 2007 8:06 PM EST

051021_katrinatrees_hlg_10a.hlarge.jpg Scientists from Tulane and the University of New Hampshire using NASA satellite data calculate that Hurricane Katrina killed or severely damaged 320 million large trees in Gulf Coast forests. The damaged trees subsequently released large quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere—the equivalent of 60-100% of the net annual carbon sink in all US forest trees. Why? Because dead trees no longer photosynthesize and can't store carbon. Plus, dead wood is consumed by decomposers whose communities grow in keeping with the bumper crop, and who then "exhale" large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The August 2005 hurricane damaged or destroyed 5 million acres of forest across Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. "It is surprising to learn that one extreme event can release nearly as much carbon to the atmosphere as all U.S. forests can store in an average year," said Diane Wickland, manager of the Terrestrial Ecology Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Climate change forecasts predict more larger and powerful storms like Katrina more frequently in the future.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge,and other writings, here.

Coal Sponsors Tonight's Democratic Debate

| Thu Nov. 15, 2007 7:11 PM EST

cnncoal.jpgThink Progress points to the full-page ad in today's New York Times stating that tonight's Democratic presidential debate on CNN is sponsored by the "clean coal" industry. Wow. Aren't euphemisms fun? Sort of the magical realism of the political world. According to Think Progress, the coal industry's "clean" agenda would have us:

• Expand coal production by using government-funded technology to convert coal to vehicle fuels, thereby producing twice as much global warming pollution as gas production, and consuming huge amounts of water to boot. • Crank out as many new power plants as possible before limits on greenhouse gas pollution take effect. Nearly 150 coal-fired power plants are already on the drawing board. • Delay and weaken any limits on CO2 pollution, even though scientists tell us we need a 20% reduction by 2020, and an 80% reduction in 2050 [actually, we need more than that and faster too]. • Convince Congress to give coalies free "allowances" to emit greenhouse gases rather than force coal-fired plants to buy them in cap-and-trade auctions.

The coal industry's sponsorship of tonight's CNN debate in Las Vegas appears to be an attempt to pressure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who has stood firmly against the construction of three proposed major coal-fired power plants in his home state: REID: "I want to help Nevada become the national leader in renewable energy and energy independence. We have vast wind, solar and geothermal resources and we're wasting energy every day we're not tapping into those free, clean, and reliable power sources… As proposed, these coal plants are old news, the way of the increasingly distant past."

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

The Dirtiest Dozen Polluters

| Wed Nov. 14, 2007 9:08 PM EST

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Southern Co's Plant Scherer in Georgia is the biggest CO2 emitter in the US and 20th worst in the world

Among 50,000 power plants worldwide, which are the biggest CO2 emitters? The Center for Global Development has analyzed that. Turns out Australians are (still) the biggest per capita emitters (11 tons of power-sector CO2 emissions per person per year). Americans are the biggest overall (>9 tons pp). China (2 tons pp) and India (0.5 tons pp) are still lightweights per capita, though seriously competitive on a cumulative level.

Globally, power generation emits nearly 10 billion tons of CO2 per year. The 8,000 power plants in the US spew more 25 percent of that. Roughly 2.8 billion tons per year. The US's biggest CO2 emitter is Southern Co, the sty (pig or eye, your choice) of the nation, with annual emissions of 172 million tons, followed by dirtbags American Electric Power Company Inc, Duke Energy Corp, and AES Corp.

Here are dirtiest dozen individual plants in the US. All are coal-fired. Any in your hood, parading as do-gooders?

• The Scherer plant in Juliet, GA: 25.3 million tons • The Miller plant in Quinton, AL: 20.6 million tons • The Bowen plant in Cartersville, GA: 20.5 million tons • The Gibson plant in Owensville, IN: 20.4 million tons • The W.A. Parish plant in Thompsons, TX: 20 million tons • The Navajo plant in Page, AZ: 19.9 million tons • The Martin Lake plant in Tatum, TX: 19.8 million tons • The Cumberland plant in Cumberland City, TN: 19.6 million tons • The Gavin plant in Cheshire, OH: 18.7 million tons • The Sherburne County plant in Becker, MN: 17.9 million tons • The Bruce Mansfield plant in Shippingport, PA: 17.4 million tons • The Rockport plant in Rockport, IN: 16.6 million tons.

The least dirty CO2 region in the US is the West Coast, where much of the electric power is generated by nuclear and hydroelectric plants.

Number one worst power plant the world is Taichung Lung-Ching Township Taiwan, at 41.3 million tons a year.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Hard-Working Microbes Make Hydrogen At Record Rate

| Wed Nov. 14, 2007 8:21 PM EST

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Bacteria break up fermented plant waste in a microbial electrolysis cell, forming hydrogen

Researchers at Penn State University have coaxed common bacteria to produce hydrogen in a new, efficient way. Using starter material that could theoretically be sourced from a salad bar, the team has charmed bacteria from wastewater into generating abundant, clean hydrogen from cellulose or vinegar with a little zap of electricity. In a table-top reactor, no less.

Other systems produce hydrogen on a larger scale, reports the National Science Foundation, but few if any match the new system for energy efficiency. Even with the small jolt of electricity, the hydrogen provides more energy as fuel than the electricity needed to drive the reactor. The overall efficiency of the vinegar-fueled system is better than 80 percent, far better than the efficiency generating the leading alternative, ethanol. By perfecting the environment for the bacteria to do what they already do in nature, the new approach can be three to ten times more efficient than standard electrolysis.

Good news. And further proof that bacteria are our friends.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

What's the Best Way To Fuel A Car?

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 7:40 PM EST

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According to a new Rand Corporation study, diesel and hybrid cars and light trucks provide more societal benefits than gas or E85 vehicles. For the antiRands out there, listen up for a minute.

The research forecasts the benefits and costs of three alternatives to the gas-powered internal combustion between 2010 and 2020. Advanced diesel and hybrid technologies showed well. E85 did not. Comparisons were made for three vehicle types: a mid-sized car, a mid-sized SUV, and a large pick-up. The cost-benefit comparisons were made for individual consumers, and for society, on a per-vehicle basis over the life of the vehicle. The results placed advanced diesel first, followed by hybrid, gasoline, and last of all E85.

Consumer considerations included technology costs, fuel savings, mobility, and performance. Societal considerations included tailpipe pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy security costs (from greater dependence on expensive and unstable foreign oil supplies [not to mention oil spills…]). The report noted that if the cost of hybrid falls significantly, its benefits will likely equal or exceed the diesel. It also noted that E85's dismal results are the result of the high costs of producing the fuel.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Two Black Seas: Oil Spills Updates

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 6:39 PM EST

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What do San Francisco Bay and the Black Sea have in common these days? Black waters fouled by crumbling ships, possibly bad seamanship, single-hulled tankers, and what always seems to be chronically inadequate first responders.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that the spill in San Francisco Bay has wafted north to foul the oyster beds in Point Reyes National Seashore, shutting down the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which produces more than 80 percent of Marin County's oyster crop. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports the bar pilot responsible for bringing the Cosco Busan into the bay claims the ship suffered from an inexperienced crew and faulty radar. Meanwhile, the Marin Independent Journal reports that frustrated residents of the seaside town of Bolinas have taken matters into their own hands, rescuing birds and scooping up fist-sized blobs of oil with colanders, laundry baskets and fishing nets:

"Ultimately, if they're not going to send help, we're going to have to do it ourselves," said Bolinas resident Hermione Healy, who with her sister Krishna fished for oil that she described as "looking like pieces of asphalt floating by."

And once again Google maps are bringing the disaster closer to home, wherever you are, including this one from KCBS:


View Larger Map

Halfway around the world, the Strait of Kerch, connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, is reeling from the effects of up to 10 ships sunk in a monster storm Sunday.

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Looking north up the narrow Kerch Strait dividing The Black Sea from the Sea of Azov.

The Volganeft-139 tanker was carrying about 1.3 million gallons of fuel oil when the storm sundered it, losing at least half its load so far. The AP reports the ship was constructed for river use and was unfit to endure severe weather at sea. So far, more than 30,000 birds—some of the thousands migrating south from Siberia at this time of year—plus countless fish have been killed in an what officials are calling an ecological catastrophe. The Moscow Times reports that a freighter carrying 2,000 tons of sulphur sank nearby at nearly the same time:

"We hope that in the water sulphur will not form any substances dangerous to humans," Mitvol [deputy head of the Natural Resources Ministry's environmental watchdog] said. Several hours later, another freighter carrying sulphur sank off Kavkaz, Interfax reported… The same storm, which is expected to rage for up to three days, also sank a freighter with scrap metal off Sevastopol… The hull of [another] oil tanker Volganeft-123 cracked after being hit by high waves, but it was afloat and its oil products were not leaking.

Let's face reality. Oil, once spilled, is bloody hard to unspill, no matter the circumstances. Get ready for talk about double-hulled tankers to resurface. Get ready for nothing to come of it. Again.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

The USDA's E. coli Loophole

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 3:54 PM EST

3ec1.jpgWhat do you do with meat that's contaminated with E. coli bacteria? Slap a "cook-only" label on and sell that shit (pun definitely intended), says the USDA.

The Chicago Tribune reports on a little known "E. Coli loophole:" If the deadly bacteria is found in meat during processing, companies can still sell the meat if they label it as "cook-only." The reasoning seems sound, since cooking kills the germs, but inspectors say the practice is more dangerous than it appears:

...some USDA inspectors say the "cook only" practice means that higher-than-appropriate levels of E. coli are tolerated in packing plants, raising the chance that clean meat will become contaminated. They say the "cook only" practice is part of the reason for this year's sudden rise in incidents of E. coli contamination.

E. coli has been making headlines a whole lot lately. First there was the spinach scare; then the Topps recall; and just a few weeks ago, the Cargill recall. There's no evidence that the cook-only loophole has to do with any of this, but it sure doesn't make hamburgers sound any more appetizing.

San Francisco Oil Spill an Avoidable Disaster

| Sun Nov. 11, 2007 9:33 PM EST

Why wasn't a boom, a protective barrier which would have isolated last week's spill to the area directly surrounding the ship, utilized almost immediately? No telling yet, but early on Fish and Game said that private companies would handle the spill cleanup, companies hired by the ship's owners. Huh? That's the proper response an environmental and homeland security hazard? Let the industry mop up?

More on this, at MoJoBlog.

No Justice In Climate Change

| Thu Nov. 8, 2007 4:00 PM EST

Global-warming-maps_hi-res-sm.jpgWhen it comes to global warming, discussions tend to get real abstract, real fast. How will climbing temperatures actually affect you? Well, it depends where you live—and how rich you are (or aren't). According to a forthcoming study, climate change will disproportionately impact the world's poor.

Jonathan Patz, a professor of public health and the environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of the study's lead authors (and also an IPCC author). Patz says it's time for those of us in the gas-guzzling-est of countries to come to terms with the painful (and inconvenient) truth: Our lifestyle is bad news for the developing world—and we've got an ethical problem on our hands. In a UW-Madison press release, Patz says:

If energy demand drives up the price of corn, for example, this can inflict undue burden on poor or malnourished populations or shift agricultural areas away from other traditional food crops.

And then there are the health issues:

There are many serious diseases that are sensitive to climate, and as earth's climate changes, so too can the range and transmission of such diseases....Many of these climate-sensitive diseases, such as malaria, malnutrition, and diarrhea, affect children.

This isn't the first time someone has pointed out the unfairness of climate change. Among others, Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier has noted that her people's carbon output is a tiny fraction of the U.S.'s, yet global warming is already threatening the Inuit way of life. The IPCC has also predicted that poor people—particularly those in Africa—will be hardest hit by climate change.

To read the study, you'll have to wait till next week, when it will be published in the journal EcoHealth, but you can already check out these cool maps—one shows countries' relative carbon outputs, while the other shows their vulnerability to the effects of climate change.