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Author ArchiveSarah Laskow

Weekly Mulch: House Republicans Push for Renewed Offshore Drilling

Posted May 6, 2011 @ 10:56 am by
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by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Ed. note: This is the final edition of the Mulch. To keep up with the best environmental coverage the progressive media has to offer, follow The Media Consortium on Twitter or connect with us on Facebook.

Drilling Derrick

House Republicans passed a bill yesterday afternoon that would require the Obama administration to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. As oil prices shoot up, Republicans have pushing for more domestic drilling, even as oil companies report record profits.

As Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard reports, oil companies have used those profits in record buybacks of company stock. “This spending spree comes not only as the gas price debate has resurged in Congress, but also as companies lobby to keep the $40 billion in tax breaks and loopholes that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats want slashed from the 2012 budget,” Sheppard writes.

The long war

The most recent debates over off-shore drilling, oil profits, and oil subsidies are just one front in the long war to preserve the environment and push back against climate change. There are strategies available here that have yet to be deployed. At Grist, David Roberts offers four that could help fight climate change: put a price on carbon; deploy existing clean energy technology on a much more massive scale; invest large amounts of money in research and development; and invest in infrastructure.

As far as these four policy proposals go, he says, right now, “The U.S. is doing all of them poorly,” and he does not believe that it is possible any more to reverse climate change. As he writes, “Climate change won’t be solved, it will be managed, by us, by our kids, by our grandkids.”

Those kids, however, are not ready to accept their fate without a fight. Yesterday, a group of teenagers filed suit against the federal government for failing to guard a public trust—the atmosphere. As Alec Loorz, who is sixteen years old and a plaintiff in one suit, writes at Earth Island Journal, “The government has a legal responsibility to protect the future for our children. So we are demanding that they recognize the atmosphere as a commons that needs to be preserved, and commit to a plan to reduce emissions to a safe level.”

Loorz explains why he’s fighting the government on climate policy:

Our addiction to fossil fuels is messing up the perfect balance of nature and threatening the survival of my generation. If we continue to hide in denial and avoid taking action, my and I generation will be forced to grow up in a world where hurricanes as big as Katrina are normal, people die every year because of heat waves, droughts, and floods, and entire species of animals we’ve come to know disappear right before our eyes.

The future vs. now

That’s not a world that I’d want to live in. But the current state of affairs isn’t so pleasant, either. No matter what we do, it seems, we wreak havoc on the world around us. At Care2, for instance, Miranda Perry reports that sonar technology, which was known to harm sea mammals like whales and dolphins, also can damage invertebrate animals, like squid found dead on the shore:

Biologists speculated that the giant squid were affected by the sonar, which can range from 157 and 175 decibels and frequencies between 50 to 400 Hertz in marine activities such as oil and natural gas prospecting.

“[W]e hypothesized that the giant squid died in one of two ways: either by direct impact from the sound waves or by having their statocysts practically destroyed and [the squid] becoming disoriented,” marine biologist Angel Guerra told National Geographic. Now, that hypothesis is backed by proof.

And it’s not only animals that are damaged by human activities: it’s us, too. The toxins constantly filtering into the air, for instance, contribute to health problems like asthma. As Susan Lyon and Jorge Madrid write at Campus Progress:

Asthma rates are higher in places with bad air quality, and though asthma has no known cure it can be controlled by limiting exposure to asthma triggers such as smog and particulate air pollutants. Poor air quality caused by exhaust from cars, factory emissions, smoke, and dust can aggravate the lungs and can worsen chronic lung diseases, according to the EPA. Coal-fired power plants are also a big part of the problem.

Rolling back protections

It is clear that our way of living in the world is damaging it. But when governments all over the country should be pushing harder than ever to protect the environment, in many cases, they’re trying to roll back protections already in place.

Public News Service’s Glen Gardner reports that in Florida, a program called Florida Forever, which helped conserve water resources and wildlife habitat, may be sacrificed to the state budget crunch. And The Florida Independent’s Travis Pillow reports that, at the same time, “The Florida House of Representatives just gutted the power of ordinary citizens to challenge decisions made by environmental regulators….[C]hallengers would have less of a say in permitting decisions that affect water quality. The person or company seeking the permit would be able to rebut any of their arguments, with new evidence, without giving the challenger a chance to respond.”

On both the state and federal level, policy makers have failed to safeguard the environment and are leaving a mess for younger generations to clean up.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Greening the Royal Wedding is the Least of Our Worries

Posted Apr 29, 2011 @ 10:52 am by
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by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

The biggest news for the environment this week might just be that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge took pains to add a couple of green touches to this morning’s Royal Wedding. The flowers were seasonal, the food locally grown, and the emissions offset.

At Care2, Laura Bailey has a few more ideas for couples inclined to green a wedding: Wear a vintage wedding dress. Exchange heirloom rings. Give guests environmentally friendly wedding gifts. Ask them to donate to a charity instead of stocking your household with kitchen appliances.

Anyway…

Those of us who don’t live in the fantasy land of British royalty do have bigger problems to worry about: tornadoes, jobs, climate change. At Grist, David Roberts argues that America’s inability to act on this last problem is tied to the general insecurity running rampant:

Americans are so battered and anxious right now. Median wages are flat, unemployment is high, politics is paralyzed. Middle-class families are one health problem away from ruin, and when they fall, there’s no net. That kind of insecurity, as much as anything, explains the American reticence to launch bold new social programs.

The first step to solving climate change, in this formulation, is to give average people two legs to stand on financially. Once Americans feel more confident about today, they’ll be more like to worry about the big problems of the future.

No nuclear

It’s vital that the country get to a place where real discussions about how to deal with the threats of climate change can happen, because the solutions the country’s relying on now won’t cut it in the long term. Take nuclear energy. It plays a key role in America’s energy strategy for the future, despite the compelling reasons for building fewer, not more, plants.

At AlterNet, Norman Solomon, a writer with a long history of arguing against nuclear energy, writes that California needs to shut down its two nuclear plants. He’s worried about the near-term consequences of creating nuclear power in an earthquake-prone zone but also about the long-term impacts of pro-nuclear policies:

The Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo and the San Onofre plant on the southern California coast are vulnerable to meltdowns from earthquakes and threaten both residents and the environment.

Reactor safety is just one of the concerns. Each nuclear power plant creates radioactive waste that will remain deadly for thousands of years. This is not the kind of legacy that we should leave for future generations.

This week also marked the 25th anniversary of the meltdown at Chernobyl. At The Nation, Peter Rothberg reminds us that nuclear accidents wreak havoc for years to come. The Chernobyl meltdown, he writes, “has caused tens of thousands of cancer deaths, and showed just how far-reaching the ramifications of a serious nuclear accident could be.” Rothberg and Kevin Gostolza also rounded up a list of ten great anti-nuclear songs.

No oil

Nuclear isn’t the only current energy source that poses intolerable risks. As the price of oil has rocketed upwards in the past few weeks, the country has started freaking out and, as Marah Hardt writes at Change.org, in Alaska, state officials are pressuring the federal government to open up oil drilling there. But as Hardt points out:

Spills can and will happen.  And in the freezing, extreme conditions of the Arctic—think extended periods of darkness, fog, sub-zero temperatures, hurricane-force storms, and lots of moving sea ice—clean-up efforts would be nearly impossible.  Just this past February, an oil spill off Norway’s only marine reserve proved how difficult clean-up operations can be, even in relatively calm conditions: oil leaked underneath sea ice, where it was impossible to reach, and surface skimming booms quickly clogged with ice, rendering them useless.

No energy?

No matter what we do, however, gathering the energy used to power our lives will take some toll on the environment. A large portion of clean energy in states like New York, for example, comes from hydroelectric power—dams. But dams are environmental villains of long-standing, as well.

In the West, dams along the Colorado River are negatively impacting the region’s national parks, Public News Service’s Kathleen Ryan reports:

David Nimkin, NPCA’s Southwest regional director, says all of the parks in the [Colorad River] basin, including the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and the Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, are seeing the sometimes-unintended consequences of placing dams along the river, from unnatural water flow patterns, to the introduction of non-native fish species, or increased river sediment and temperatures.

“The dams also fragment the system as whole, creating small isolated little ecosystems and areas that are not consistent with overall river conditions.”

With these sorts of choices, sometimes it is easier to worry about the little changes we can make to assuage our environmental consciences: recycled wedding invitations might not save the world, but they might hurt it that much less.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Cost-Cutting at the Environment’s Peril

Posted Apr 15, 2011 @ 11:55 am by
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Creative Commons, Flickr, alsokaizenby Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

In Washington, the environment is under attack. The cost-cutting deal that the House passed yesterday stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of $1.6 billion, which made up 16% of the agency’s budget. Funds for clean energy were cut. Republicans put in a provision that would keep the Department of the Interior from putting aside public lands for conservation and one that killed the nascent climate center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

These choices represent a deeper antipathy toward nature and environmental health than the run-of-the-mill climate denialism that’s become au courant among congressional Republicans. They show that plenty of leaders in Congress do not care about basic protections that ensure clean air and clean water or that keep even small stretches of the planet safe from mining, drilling and other human interventions.

Greenlining

One idea driving these decisions is that, economically, the country can’t afford to protect the environment right now. But as Monica Potts argues at The American Prospect, in a review of two new books that cover the economy and the environment, green policies are good for business. In reviewing Climate Capitalism by L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen, Potts notes that “$2.8 billion a year is wasted because employees don’t turn off their computers when they leave work; comprehensive clean-energy and climate legislation could create 1.9 million jobs; improving indoor air quality could save businesses $200 billion annually in energy costs.”

Almost 2 million jobs! The country could use that boost right now. But those jobs depend, of course, on government action. As Potts points out, businesses won’t necessarily adopt these solutions on their own. The other book she reviews, Seth Fletcher’s Bottled Lightning, explains why electric cars weren’t developed sooner.

In short, “oil has stayed so remarkably cheap,” Potts writes. And, as she says, “The market doesn’t capture all of the costs that fossil fuels and other industrial-era processes impose on society.” Environmentally friendly policies might be good for business, but sometimes business doesn’t know it. The private sector won’t learn that lesson, either, if Washington is willing to sacrifice its administrative infrastructure for handling environmental issues.

New energy, new decisions

The country’s going to want its government to have some environmental experts left around for another reason, too. As oil and gas get more expensive, alternative energy sources are going to look more appealing. But while they might have lower carbon emissions, they raise new issues about clean air and water and about their impact on ecosystems. The EPA, for example, is currently studying the water and air impacts of natural gas, which has been widely touted as a fuel source that emits less carbon than coal.

But that may not be accurate, either. In a study obtained this week by The Hill, Robert Howarth, a Cornell University scientist, found that the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions related to natural gas production may actually far outstrip the amount coal produces. Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard explains:

While burning natural gas may emit less carbon dioxide, its extraction releases quite a bit of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas. Gas from shale—a fine-grained layer of rock below the earth’s surface—is also responsible for 30 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional natural gas. The study found that up to 7.9 percent of the methane escapes directly from the wells, leaks from pipelines, or is released in venting and flaring. While the leaks may be relatively small, methane is such a potent greenhouse gas that those leaks have a major impact, Howarth tells Mother Jones.

Fighting back against fracking

If Howarth’s study is correct, that means even worse news for communities in the gas fields that have been fighting against new natural gas drilling, only to be told that it’s for the greater good. For instance, in New York this week, Public News Service’s Mike Clifford reports that “Dozens of environmental and health groups are asking [Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers] to put the longer-term issues of air and water quality ahead of any short-term gas profits.”

The Sierra Club’s Roger Downs tells Clifford, “We’ve seen in places like Wyoming, where the oil and gas industry has been booming, children on certain days cannot go out and play; they get nosebleeds from the air quality. It’s serious stuff, and we don’t want that in New York.”

Just over in Pennsylvania, natural gas drilling has been going ahead, and Nina Berman reports for AlterNet on its impact on families:

The Spencers’ house, once valued at $150,000, is now worth $29,000. They have a methane monitor in their basement, a methane water filtration system in a backyard shed. They leave the door open when they take showers because with no bathroom windows they are afraid the house could blow up. Their neighbors were forced to evacuate once already because of high methane levels. In the middle of their yard, a shaft resembling a shrunken flagpole vents gas from their wellhead.

Right now, the EPA is studying the effects that natural gas drilling have on public health. Their findings could, at the very least, strengthen the case for putting restrictions on drilling companies to prevent pollution. But if anti-environmentalists in Washington keep cutting into the bottom line of environmental programs, families like the Spencers will have an even harder time fighting against the conditions they’re facing now.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: The EPA Can Regulate Carbon, For Now

Posted Apr 8, 2011 @ 11:11 am by
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by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Solar Panels

This week, the House voted to shut down the carbon regulation program at the Environmental Protection Agency, but the Senate rejected four different measures that would have stopped or delayed EPA action. The EPA, as mandated by the Supreme Court, has been moving forward with regulations that would require carbon polluters to apply for EPA permits and to use the best available method to start limiting carbon emissions.

The Office of Management and Budget has promised that if Congress does vote to end the regulation program, “senior advisors would recommend that [the president] veto the bill,” as I report at The American Prospect. But as David Roberts points out at Grist, that does not mean President Obama would follow that course. Roberts writes:

I don’t see a promise there. I see wiggle room where his advisers can “recommend” a veto and he can ignore their recommendations. And of course this leaves aside whether Obama would veto a spending or appropriations bill with an EPA-blocking rider.

Making a better choice

The legislators who are supporting the anti-EPA bill often argue that the power to deal with this issue should rest with them, not the executive branch. But they also argue against the EPA’s regulations on the grounds that they’ll cost American companies money, leading to higher costs for consumers and fewer jobs.

It’s true: Dealing with carbon is expensive. Right now, Americans simply aren’t paying for the damage being done to the atmosphere, and many of us don’t seem to care.

In Orion Magazine, Kathryn Miles writes about this problem in a review of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, a new collection of essays on the problem of climate change:

As editors Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson argue in their introduction, neither scientific data nor externally imposed regulation will change hearts and minds — let alone our behavior. “What is missing,” they contend, “is the moral imperative, the conviction that assuring our own comfort at terrible cost to the future is not worthy of us as moral beings.” And so, rather than focus on atmospheric theory and tipping-point statistics, Moral Ground seeks to inspire action through a recognition of our species’ commitment to ethical behavior.

Choices

In some cases, making ethical environmental choices does mean paying more, at least temporarily, for clean energy, for products that create carbon pollution, for gas and oil. But there are also ways to fight climate change while saving money.

Composting, for example, costs nothing and produces something of value. In New York, the Lower East Side Ecology Center collects food scraps, composts them, and sells the finished product at the Union Square Farmer’s Market. As Kara Cusolito writes at Campus Progress, “Composted food scraps—whether from food prep or leftovers — turn back into the rich, fluffy soil that farmers and gardeners need to grow more food.” Farmers, for instance, can stop buying fertilizer if they start composting. Cusolito quotes one farmer who puts the choice in perspective: “Saying plants can’t grow well if they’re not conventionally fertilized is like saying people can’t be as happy if they’re not on drugs.”

The price of solar energy

Clean energy isn’t free of negative consequences, though, and clean energy advocates increasingly are butting heads with environmentalists who want to minimize the impact of new energy sources.

As dependence on natural gas, which counts as clean when compared with coal, grows in this country, worries about the threat of gas drilling to water sources is rising. At Earth Island Journal, Richard Ward of the UN Foundation, which supports natural gas as a clean energy source, and Jennifer Krill, executive director of Earthworks, lay out the cases for and against natural gas. Krill argues:

If the natural gas industry wants to be “clean,” it should embrace policies that mean no pollution of groundwater, drinking water, or surface waters; stringent controls on air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions; protection for no-go zones, like drinking watersheds and sacred and wild lands; and respect for landowner rights, including the right to say no to drilling on their property.

But Krill notes the gas industry hasn’t show much interest in pursuing those compromises. And out west, some conservationists are objecting to the influx of solar panels on fragile desert lands. One group, Solar Done Right, for instance, “doesn’t disagree that much more solar energy is needed in order to decrease fossil fuel consumption and reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, but they do disagree with developing solar facilities the way utilities build massive coal- or gas-fired power plants,” reports David O. Williams for The Colorado Independent. Instead, the group argues that solar energy can thrive in the “built environment,” on rooftops and on sites that are not environmentally vulnerable.

No matter what we do, there will be some costs to getting off of carbon, both for the economy and for the environment. But if the world does not decrease its carbon emissions, the costs will be much higher.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Obama Lacks Vision on Energy, Stomach to Defend EPA

Posted Apr 1, 2011 @ 11:11 am by
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by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

President Obama made an energy speech this week that had little new to offer, while on Capitol Hill, Republicans were pushing to relieve the government of its last options to limit carbon emissions. In the House Republicans have passed a bill that would keep the EPA from regulating carbon, and in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid repeatedly pushed back a vote on the same issue.

But as Eartha Jane Melzer reports at The Michigan Messenger, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has become the latest senator to propose taking away the EPA’s authority over greenhouse gasses this week. If the Senate decides it wants to pursue this policy, it will have plenty of options to choose from.

Conflicting news leaked out about how strongly the Obama administration was willing to stand up for the EPA’s right (granted by the Supreme Court) to treat carbon as a pollutant under the Clear Air Act. Grist’s Glenn Hurowitz noted an Associated Press story with a comment indicating that the White House was telling Congress they’d have to compromise on this issue. But on Thursday the White House reassured progressive bloggers that it was opposed to any amendments to funding bills that furthered “unrelated policy agendas.”

The energy speech

The energy speech that President Obama delivered at Georgetown this week, however, did not do much to reassure climate activists that the administration will put forward a strong vision on these issues. The president talked about decreasing our dependence on foreign oil and set a goal of having 80% of the country’s electricity come from clean energy sources by 2035.

But as David Roberts at Grist writes, Obama skirted some of the trickiest issues. “The core truth is that for the U.S., oil problems mostly have to do with supply and oil solutions mostly have to do with demand,” he says. “America becomes safer from oil by using less. From the Democratic establishment, only retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is telling the public that truth.”

Is clean energy green energy?

President Obama is right that the country has room to pursue more clean energy opportunities. As Public News Service’s Mary Kuhlman reports, America is behind in the clean energy race. The Pew Environment Group just released a report that, according to Kuhlman, “finds the United States as a whole is falling behind in the global clean-energy race….The U.S. maintained the top spot until 2008, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts, but fell in 2010 to third behind China and Germany.”

But as I point out at TAPPED, when politicians use the words “clean energy,” they’re generally talking about mid-point solutions like natural gas and nuclear energy. President Obama’s proposed standard does not necessarily support renewable energy — wind and solar projects that are truly sustainable.

The alternatives

And as Gavin Aronsen writes at Mother Jones, renewable energy projects need more support. “The near-term future of solar power in the US will also depend on whether President Obama’s stimulus money keeps flowing,” he explains. “For now, energy companies have until the end of the year to qualify for funding. Meanwhile, some solar advocates are suggesting alternatives like installing panels on urban rooftops.”

If these projects flag, the alternative to renewable, or even clean, energy is not appealing. The world is beginning to depend on energy sources that require greater effort and create more environmental damage. Oil from tar sands is one such source, although as, Beth Buczynski reports at Care2, “a research group at Penn State spent the past 18 months developing a technique that uses ionic liquids (salt in a liquid state) to facilitate separation of oil from the sands in a cleaner, more energy efficient manner. The separation takes place at room temperature without the generation of waste water.” Sounds like an improvement!

Does genetically modified alfalfa do a body good?

The Obama administration is not only disappointing on energy issues. At GritTV, Laura Flanders talks to New York Times food writer Mark Bittman about the future of organic food, and the two agree that the only person whose agriculture and food policy they can wholeheartedly endorse is Michelle Obama’s. Too bad she’s not part of the administration.

One recent gripe is the Department of Agriculture’s decision to approve genetically modified alfalfa. “Essentially it’s the beginning of the end of organic,” Bittman said. “Once you introduce alfalfa, which pollinates by the wind, you can’t guarantee that any alfalfa doesn’t have genetically modified seed in it. And alfalfa is used as hay, hay is used to feed cows, there goes organic milk. There goes a lot of organic meat.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Interior to Lease More Wyoming Coal; Michigan’s Unfinished Oil Spill Clean-Up

Posted Mar 25, 2011 @ 11:01 am by
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by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Oil Spill265

The renewable era is still far away. Despite the attention and rhetoric that has been given over to green energy projects, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced this week that coal companies would be able to take a whack at mining 2.35 billion tons of coal in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. A new oil slick appeared off the coast of Louisiana. And Japanese authorities warned Tokyo residents that the city’s water contained levels of radioactive material unsafe for infants to consume.

The black rock

Grist’s Glenn Hurowitz calls Big Coal’s new opportunities in Wyoming “an enormous expansion in coal mining that threatens to increase U.S. climate pollution by an amount equivalent to more than half of what the United States currently emits in a year.” The Powder River Basin is the most productive coal region in the country, and as the Interior Department noted in its announcement of the coal lease sale, Wyoming as a whole accounts for 40% of all coal used in domestic electricity generation. (In John McPhee’s 2005 New Yorker piece on coal trains, he follows coal mined in the Powder River Basin to a power plant in Georgia, for instance.)

The DOI emphasized the role of coal in the country’s energy mix and its importance for creating jobs in Wyoming; Hurowitz read a different message in this announcement. His analysis is scathing:

Despite his administration’s rhetorical embrace of clean energy, Obama is effectively using modest wind and solar investments as cover for a broader embrace of dirty fuels. It’s the same strategy BP, Chevron, and other major polluters use: tout modest environmental investments in multi-million dollar PR campaigns, while putting the real money into fossil fuel development.

Exposure to radiation

At Truthout, H. Patricia Hynes has a similarly dour view of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the country’s nuclear power plants. “This regulatory agency has never seen a nuclear plant it didn’t like,” she writes.

Since the nuclear crisis in Japan, American leaders have been at pains to remind nervous citizens that nuclear energy is cleaner than coal and will continue to contribute to U.S. power. But as Hynes points out, even in the absence of crisis, nuclear plants come with consequences: they leave behind radioactive tailings, depleted uranium and spent nuclear fuel. And during their life cycle, Hynes writes:

Nuclear power plants routinely release small amounts of radioactive isotopes during operation and they can release large amounts during accidents. For this latter reason, a 2003 expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences recommended that potassium iodide pills be provided to everyone 40 and younger who lives near a nuclear power plant to protect against exposure to radioactive iodine.

Of course, the risks in a crisis are great, too. In Japan, people living near the Fukushima plant are being exposed to levels of radiation higher than they should be, Democracy Now! reports. Aileen Mioko Smith, director of Green Action, in Kyoto, told Amy Goodman, “The Japanese government admitted that 30 kilometers outside—this is not an evacuated zone—a person could have been exposed to as much as 100 millisieverts of radiation. That would be twice the amount of the evacuation threshold established by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization. And yet, the Japanese government refuses to evacuate people from beyond a 20-kilometer—that’s a 12-mile—area.”

Snake oil

The full impact of the nuclear crisis in Japan may not be obvious for years; that’s one of the reasons radiation exposure plays on people’s fears so effectively. One of the scary things about nuclear meltdowns or oil spills or coal smog is that it takes a long time for the negative effects to be dealt with. Michigan, for instance, is still struggling with the aftermath of the oil spilled in the Kalamazoo River this summer.

This spill was smaller than the BP disaster, but as Change.org’s Jamie Friedland reports, activists are finding oil in supposedly cleaned sections of the river and a clean-up worker was fired after he witnessed and then talked about other workers hiding oil they were supposed to be dealing with. And, Friedland writes, the county-level task force that was supposed to be watching the process has accomplished little in its short existence.

These sorts of stories are playing out all of the time, on larger and smaller scales. As Care2′s Beth Buczynski writes, another well in the Gulf Coast is leaking. It has released only a small amount of oil, but it’s a reminder that our energy system is routinely polluting the environment.

These pollutants pose a danger to people, too, and for years after they have entered the system. At In These Times, R.M. Arrieta writes about the impacts of development by Lennar Corporation at Hunters Point Naval Ship yard, a Superfund site. Arrieta writes, “When Lennar started grading a hillside, heavy equipment breaking the serpentine rock in the hill released plumes of naturally occurring asbestos. Nearby residents complained of bloody noses, headaches, breathing problems and increased incidents of asthma attacks.”

That is just one of the problems the community has encountered so far. It’s convenient to believe we can regulate and control the dangerous materials we introduce into the environment, but all too often, it turns out, we can’t.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Saying No to the Nuclear Option

Posted Mar 18, 2011 @ 11:30 am by
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by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Nuclear Power Plant Michigan City

Faced with the nuclear crisis in Japan, governments around the world are confronting the vulnerabilities of their nuclear energy programs. Some European countries, such as Germany and France, are considering more stringent safety measures or backing off of nuclear development altogether, but in the United States, the Obama administration is pushing forward with plans for increased nuclear energy production.

Ultimately, these questions are the same that the country faced after last summer’s Gulf Coast oil spill. As we search for more and more clever ways to fill our energy needs, can we write off the risk of disaster? Or are these large-scale catastrophes so inevitable that the only option is to stop pursuing the policies that lead to them?

The risks of nuclear

As Inter Press Service’s Andrea Lund reports, anti-nuclear groups are using the Japanese disaster as just one example of the disadvantages of nuclear power. Linda Gunter, of the group Beyond Nuclear, told Lund:

Even if you get away from the safety issue, which is obviously front and centre right now because of what’s happening in Japan, and you look at solutions to climate change, then nuclear energy takes way too long to build, reactors take years to come online, they’re wildly expensive. Most of the burden of the cost will fall on the U.S. taxpayer in this country, so why go there?…The possibility of it going radically wrong, the outcome is so awful that morally you can’t justify it. The reliability of nuclear power is practically zero in an emergency when you have this confluence of natural disasters.

And, as Maureen Nandini Mitra writes at Earth Island Journal, there are plenty of nuclear plants that are at risk. “More than 100 of the world’s reactors are already sited in areas of high seismic activity,” she reports. “And what’s happening in Japan makes one thing clear – we have absolutely no idea if any of these plants are actually capable of withstanding unprecedented natural disasters.”

Build up

The irony of nuclear energy is that the world started relying on it in part to mitigate the perceived threat of nuclear weapons. Jonathan Schell writes in The Nation about nuclear power’s transition from warheads to reactors:

A key turning point was President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace proposal in 1953, which required nuclear-armed nations to sell nuclear power technology to other nations in exchange for following certain nonproliferation rules. This bargain is now enshrined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which promotes nuclear power even as it discourages nuclear weapons….

Eisenhower needed some proposal to temper his growing reputation as a reckless nuclear hawk. Atoms for Peace met this need. The solution to nuclear danger, he said, was “to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers” and put it “into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace”—chiefly, those who would use it to build nuclear power plants.

While the threat of nuclear war still looms, since World War II, the nuclear materials that have caused the most damage have been those in the energy industry. And, as Schell reminds us, soldiers still have nuclear weapons in hand, as well.

The nuclear era

The Obama administration has always been gung-ho about nuclear energy: The president is from Illinois, after all, where Exelon Corp., one of the countries’ biggest nuclear providers, is based. Even in the face of Japan’s disaster, the administration is not backing off of its push for nuclear, as Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones:

Nuclear power is part of the “clean energy standard” that Obama outlined in his State of the Union speech in January. And in the 2011 budget, the administration called for a three-fold increase in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, from the $18.5 billion that Congress has already approved to $54.5 billion. “We are aggressively pursuing nuclear energy,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in February 2010 as he unveiled the budget….In Monday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Jay Carney said that nuclear energy “remains a part of the president’s overall energy plan.”

The state of safety in the U.S. nuclear industry isn’t particularly reassuring, though. As Arnie Gunderson told Democracy Now!‘s Amy Goodman, almost a quarter of American nuclear plants rely on the same design as the one currently faltering in Japan. Even worse, experts have known for decades that the design of this reactor is not safe. Gunderson explained:

This reactor design, this containment design, has been questioned since 1972. The NRC in 1972 said we never should have licensed this containment. And in 1985, the NRC said they thought it was about a 90 percent chance that in a severe accident this containment would fail. So, that we’re seeing it at Fukushima is an indication that this is a weak link. It’s this Mark I, General Electric Mark I, containment. And we have—essentially one-quarter of all of the nuclear reactors in the United States, 23 out of 104, are of this identical design.

It’d be reassuring if the U.S. government could promise that our superior safety standards would overcome these dangers. But, as Mother Jones‘ Sheppard writes, the day before the earthquake in Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended the life a Vermont plant using this very design, over the objections of the state’s legislature.

Stumbling with stellar fire

Whatever the attractions of nuclear energy, it’s a dangerous business. The Nation‘s Schell puts it best when he argues that the fallibility of humankind is the biggest risk factor. He writes:

The problem is not that another backup generator is needed, or that the safety rules aren’t tight enough, or that the pit for the nuclear waste is in the wrong geological location, or that controls on proliferation are lax. It is that a stumbling, imperfect, probably imperfectable creature like ourselves is unfit to wield the stellar fire released by the split or fused atom.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Conservatives and Liberals Remain In Denial About Climate Change

Posted Mar 11, 2011 @ 11:35 am by
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by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Rough Sea Ice At Sunset

The negative impacts of climate change are coming on more quickly than anyone expected. According to a new NASA study, ocean waters are creeping steadily upwards, at rates faster than predicted, Maureen Nandini Mitra reports at Earth Island Journal:

“That ice sheets will dominate future sea level rise is not surprising – they hold a lot more ice mass than mountain glaciers,” Eirc Rignot, the report’s lead author said in a statement emailed by NASA yesterday. “What is surprising is this increased contribution by the ice sheets is already happening.”

This is just the latest warning sign that climate change is happening and that its negative effects will occur more quickly than anyone has prepared for. This will happen despite Republicans’ insistence that there is no hard scientific proof of climate change, and that “just because you might be in the minority doesn’t always mean you’re wrong,” as Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) put it this week at a House subcommittee hearing on climate science.

Dealing with it

This problem is not going to go away. The economist and blogger Tyler Cowen wrote this week that left-wing economists have a “reluctance to admit how hard the climate change problem will be to solve, for fear of wrecking any emerging political consensus on taking action.” In response, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum comments, “Actually, liberals spend a ton of time talking about how hard climate change is. Still, there’s something to this. As hard as we say it is, it’s probably even harder than that.”

How hard? On Democracy Now!, Naomi Klein argued this week that progressive environmental groups have been pussy-footing around the scope of the issue entirely. She said:

What I see is that the green groups, a lot of the big green groups, are also in a kind of denial, because they want to pretend that this isn’t about politics and economics, and say, “Well, you can just change your light bulb. And no, it won’t really disrupt. You can have green capitalism.” And they’re not really wrestling with the fact that this is about economic growth. This is about an economic model that needs constant and infinite growth on a finite planet. So we really are talking about some deep transformations of our economy if we’re going to deal with climate change. And we need to talk about it.

That’s a tall order for green groups, however, when they’re having a hard time convincing conservatives that climate change even exists. As Klein says, refusing to believe in climate change has become one way that conservatives define themselves, politically, and the pull of ideological identification outweighs any rational attitude toward the science in question.

The example of agriculture

In many cases, solutions to the problems of climate change are clear. Only habit and political intransigence keep them from being put into action.

Agriculture is a great example of this tangle. Industrial farming pollutes earth, water, and air, while sustainable methods of farming promote global health. What’s more, they create as much, if not more, product than industrial farming techniques. This week the United Nations confirmed these benefits in a report on “eco-farming,” what Americans generally call sustainable agriculture. Inter Press Service reports:

“An urgent transformation to ‘eco-farming’ is the only way to end hunger and face the challenges of climate change and rural poverty,” said Olivier De Schutter, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food. … Yields went up 214 percent in 44 projects in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa using agro-ecological farming techniques over a period of 3 to 10 years… far more than any GM [genetically modified] crop has ever done.

Despite this sort of success, the argument that agribusiness is necessary to feed the world is still running rampant. At Grist, Tom Philpott has been picking apart a series of articles from The Economist that explains, as Philpott puts it “how industrial agriculture is the true and only way to feed the 9 billion people who will inhabit the world by 2050.”

But as Philpott notes, sustainable farming can feed the global population and is better for the planet as well. The United Nations, he writes, has:

found that ‘ecological agriculture’ could ‘assist farmers in adapting to climate change’ by making farm fields more resilient to stress. So why isn’t eco-agriculture catching on? The report cites a bevy of obstacles, none of them technological:

“[L]ack of policy support at local, national, regional and international levels, resource and capacity constraints, and a lack of awareness and inadequate information, training and research on ecological agriculture at all levels.”

Obvious solutions

Indeed, it can be incredible how simple solutions to seemingly intractable problems can be. For instance, IPS reports, yet another UN report has found one solution to mitigating global hunger: Push back against gender inequality. IPS’s Alan Bojanic and Gustavo Anriquez write:

The UN agency’s report estimates that if women had the same access to agricultural assets, inputs, and services as men they could increase yields on their farms, and this increase could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by roughly 2.5 to 4 percent.

Moreover, such a growth in agricultural production could in turn bring 100 to 150 million people out of hunger – that is about 12 to 17 percent of the 925 million undernourished people that exist in the world according to FAO’s latest estimates.

Dealing with the problems of climate change might be harder than liberals often admit. But some of the simplest solutions haven’t even been tried yet.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Activist Tim DeChristopher Convicted of Two Felonies

Posted Mar 4, 2011 @ 11:33 am by
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by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

SALT LAKE CITY, UT USA

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher was convicted yesterday of two felony counts. DeChristopher was on trial for bidding on more than 22,000 acres of public land that he could not pay for: his two crimes are making false representations to the government and interfering with the land auction.

DeChristopher made the $1.79 million bid in order to “do something to try to resist the climate crisis,” he told Tina Gerhardt, in an interview published by AlterNet. But, as Kate Sheppard explains at Mother Jones, the judge threw out “the defense that his actions were necessary to prevent environmental damage on this land and, more broadly, the exacerbataion of climate change.”

“They’re hoping to make an example out of me.”

DeChristoper now faces the possibility of  a $75,000 fine and 10 years in prison. In an interview with YES! Magazine‘s Brooke Jarvis, before the trial started, DeChristopher said he had faced the possibility that he would be found guilty.

“There is still the possibility of acquittal, but I think the most likely scenario is probably that I will be convicted,” he told Jarvis. “The prosecution has been very clear that they’re hoping to make an example out of me, to convince other people not to fight the status quo.”

Wild lands

What is the status quo? Bureau of Land Management land, like the parcel DeChristopher bid on, is owned by the government, which often leases out the rights to develop the natural resources, like gas and oil, to private companies.

Up until 2003, the Department of the Interior had the option of setting aside some of its lands for preservation, pending final Congressional approval. But during the Bush administration, the DOI gave up that option and only considered uses like recreation or development for its holdings.

Back in December, the current Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, reversed that policy, again putting on the table the option of using public lands for conservation purposes. But as I write at TAPPED, Republicans are throwing a hissy fit about the change.

Truth or consequence?

The Republicans’ argument goes something like: Using public lands for conservation will deprive Americans of jobs and hurt the bottom lines of states with large tracts of public lands. What they don’t discuss is the potential damage that drilling for, say, natural gas could cause. The Mulch has been writing about the dangers of hydrofracking for awhile now, but over the past week The New York Times began weighing in on the issue with a long series on the dangers of hydrofracking.

The Times‘ series brings even more evidence of hydrofracking’s dangers to light—in particular, about the radioactive waste materials being dumped into rivers where water quality is rarely monitored. As Christopher Mims reports at Grist, the series has already prompted calls for new testing from people like John Hanger, the former head of Pennsylvania’s environmental protection department, which has not been among the staunchest opponents of new drilling protects. According to Mims, Hanger has written that:

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection should order today all public water systems in Pennsylvania to test immediately for radium or radioactive pollutants and report as soon as good testing allows the results to the public. Only testing of the drinking water for these pollutants can resolve the issue raised by the NYT.

Or, as Mims puts it, “No one has any idea if the radioactive material in the wastewater from fracking is appearing downstream, in drinking water supplies, in quantities in excess of EPA recommendations.”

Tar and feather ‘em

Fracking is not the only environmentally destructive practice that the energy industry is increasingly relying on. Earth Island Journal has two pieces looking into the tar sands industry in Canada. Jason Mark’s piece is a great introduction to the history of the tar sands and takes a sharp look into the impact development has had on the community and the environment.

And Ron Johnson details the U.S.’s connection to the destruction: The federal government is considering approving a pipeline that would allow the oil from the tar sands to travel to Texas refineries. Johnson writes:

Green groups warn that the pipelines will keep North America and emerging economies hooked on oil from the Alberta tar sands for years to come. By greasing the crude’s path to market, the projects will encourage further reckless expansion of the tar sands. That would delay the transition to a renewable energy economy, while further degrading Canada’s boreal forests and spewing even more CO2 into the atmosphere.

A new regime

The decision to approve the pipeline lies with the executive branch. But all of Washington isn’t a particularly friendly place to green groups and their causes these days.

For example, as Care2′s Beth Buczynski reports, the newly empowered House Republicans have done away with one of the smallest green programs the Democrats put into place, an initiative to compost waste from House cafeterias. They’ve justified the cut by saying it was “too expensive,” but as Buczynski writes, “Spending must be dramatically reduced, yes, but also strategically. It’s interesting (and disheartening) to see which programs the new GOP House has targeted first.”

It’s a small thing, but it shows how committed Republicans are to the status quo: They’re not even willing to mulch their leftover salad.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Why Natural Gas Companies Fear Josh Fox, Gasland, and the Oscars

Posted Feb 24, 2011 @ 5:10 pm by
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by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

The natural gas industry is afraid that Josh Fox, director of the muckraking film Gasland, might win an Oscar on Sunday. Earlier this month, an organization called Energy in Depth, backed by the oil and gas industry, sent the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a letter in which it argued that Gasland, Fox’s exposé on the natural gas industry, should be removed from consideration for best documentary feature because it contained inaccurate information.

After dealing with the industry for the past couple of years, Fox is not surprised by this tactic. “What this points to is the culture of that industry, which is bullying, which is aggressive, which is outlandish in their tactics, which will stop at nothing,” he told AlterNet.

The film is still up for consideration, and the industry should be worried about the impact its nomination, let alone a victory, could have. Even if the film doesn’t win on Sunday, millions of viewers will see a clip of the film that documents the real threat of environmental devastation that comes along with natural gas drilling and, in particular, with hydrofracking.

Nothing natural about it

The Media Consortium’s Weekly Mulch has been tracking the fight over natural gas drilling. As noted back in September, Sandra Steingraber, in Orion Magazine, has called the rise of hydrofracking “the environmental issue of our time.” In a more recent dispatch for the magazine, Steingraber reports from an Environmental Protection Agency hearing on fracking, a technique for extracting otherwise hard-to-reach gas from the ground.

In upstate New York, where the hearing was held and where natural gas companies have been buying up drilling rights and properties for the past couple of years, residents are hugely concerned about this issue: four hundred people signed up to speak, for 120 seconds each, as Steingraber reports, over two days. One speaker in particular stuck out to her, though:

An older man rose to speak….And then he let ten seconds of silence fill the theater….After hours of ceaseless, rapid-fire speech, the sudden hush flowed through the overheated room like cool water. Someone giggled nervously. And then, finally, he spoke. That silence, he announced, represented the sounds of migratory birds. And tourists. And professors. And organic farmers. And thus with no words at all he reminded the audience of all the good members of our beloved community who would — if our land filled up with drill rigs, waste ponds, compressor stations, and diesel trucks — disappear, exit the cycle. As in, forever.

At Change.org, Austin Billings has another account of what natural gas drilling is putting at risk—the Bridger-Teton National Forest, miles of “spectacular hills and tall pine forests” that, Billings writes, “just kept going” as he drove through them. A company called Plains Exploration and Production Company is working to sink more than 130 natural gas wells in this area, Billings reports, a project that will strew the area with “pipelines, compressor stations, industrial water wells, truck staging areas, and other industrial features.”

Push Back

If Josh Fox wins an Oscar, however, natural gas projects like this one will face even more opposition. And that opposition matters. Just ask Costco, which caved in this week to a Greenpeace-led campaign against its sales of unsustainable seafood. For months, Greenpeace and its allies have been pushing the chain of wholesale grocery stores to sell only fish that can be captured or farmed in a sustainable way. The chain agreed to remove 12 “red list” species, at the highest risk for extinction, and to take other actions to promote sustainability and ocean conservation.

“It was a long and arduous process,” said Casson Trenor, Greenpeace’s seafood campaigner, said, according to Change.org’s Sarah Parsons. “I’m really happy with where we’ve gotten to, and I think it says a lot about our methods and how effective we can be.”

Guilty pleasures

Of course, fish is not the only food that’s damaging to the environment. So much of what’s available to eat is damaging to the environment. Grist reported last week that Girl Scout cookies are made with palm oil, the production of which is driving deforestation in Indonesia. Earth Island Journal’s Maureen Nandini Mitra follows up by pointing out that Thin Mints aren’t the only sweet that sucks up palm oil: her list includes M&Ms, Snickers, and Twix, as well as Clif energy bars.

Another point against those treats: They usually don’t come in recyclable packaging. On the other hand, it’s a little bit of a mystery what happens to the recyclable containers tossed into the recycling, especially those with a little food gunk left on them. For those worried about their fate, Mother Jones’ Kiera Butler has done a substantial public service by ferreting the best approaching to cleaning out recyclables. The takeaway: They can be a little bit dirty. ”It’s not a giant deal if containers have little food residue on them,” Butler reports, but “the cleaner your containers, the more they’re worth on the recyclables market.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of  The Media  Consortium.   It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of  articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network  of leading independent media outlets