Sierra Daily: August 2010

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15 posts from August 2010

Aug 31, 2010


Wait! Don't put aside last week's New Yorker for the current issue before reading Jane Mayer's magisterial takedown of the Koch brothers, the billionaire oil-baron funders of global warming denialism and the Tea Party

100830_r19927_p465movement (amid much else). For example, David and brother Charles provided funding to launch the libertarian Cato Foundation, which Mayer notes had been "peculiarly energetic" in promoting the so-called "Climategate" scandal regarding hacked emails from climate researchers at the University of East Anglia in England. Numerous independent reviews exonerated the researchers, but the climate denial industry was able to use the affair to turn the public against climate legislation in Congress.

Another Koch project is the group "Americans for Prosperity," which has carried on the campaign against climate legislation. "Americans for Prosperity has held at least eighty events targeting cap-and-trade legislation, which is aimed at making industries pay for the air pollution that they create. Speakers for the group claimed, with exaggeration, that even back-yard barbecues and kitchen stoves would be taxed. The group was also involved in the attacks on Obama’s 'green jobs' czar, Van Jones, and waged a crusade against international climate talks."

Newcomer Kochologists will also want to check out Greenpeace's invaluable report, "Koch Industries: Secretly Funding the Climate Denial Machine." And don't forget Sierra's own early contribution to the genre, Curtis Moore's 2002 "Rethinking the Think Tanks." Next time you hear some "expert" from a think tank with a bland, good-government sounding name explaining why environmental regulation will kill jobs, hurt agriculture, and promote sharia law, ask yourself who's paying his or her salary. Odds are good it's a guy named Koch.

-- by Paul Rauber 

Aug 30, 2010

Your Reaction May Vary

Will your new car make the grade? Today the EPA proposed revised window stickers for new cars that would give consumers thorough information on the environmental impacts and fuel consumption of any new vehicle.

One proposal grades vehicles from A+ to D, assessing them for fuel economy, greenhouse gases, and smog-forming pollutants. Because the grading system would compare a vehicle to all others on the market (rather than to other vehicles in its immediate category, such as “humongous SUVs”) high marks won't be earned easily.

The highest grade, A+, would go to “zero emission” electric cars with fuel economy equivalent to 117 miles per gallon and higher. Plug-in hybrid electric cars (59 to 116 m.p.g. equivalent) would get an A. Your do-good Prius hybrid? An A-minus. The EPA says that if 2010 SUVs were rated under the proposed system, only 8 would attain a grade of B+, while 68 would earn a Gentleman’s C. (No vehicles would receive an F, the EPA explains, because they all must meet strict minimum standards to be sold in the U.S.)

A second proposal covers much the same territory but without the glaring Hester Prynne stamp of disapproval. 

The auto industry is critical of the grading system. And don’t think that’s because automakers are afraid to put the environmental and fuel-consumption failings of their products front and center. That’s not it at all. They simply want to spare consumers’ feelings. Dave McCurdy, president and chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers Manufacturers, which represents 11 automakers, told the New York Times that the rating system “falls short because it is imbued with school-yard memories of passing and failing.”

The revised stickers will go into effect in 2012. You can tell the EPA what you think of the proposals here.


 --Reed McManus

Slasher Pic

In addition to his oracular powers as Sierra's advice columnist, Bob Schildgen (a.k.a. "Mr. Green") is locally noted for the greeness of his thumb. Here he explains the elements of composting to Orli Cotel of Sierra Club Radio, Parental advisory: Possibly scary scenes of Mr. Green brandishing a machete, but please note that no rabbits were harmed in the production of this video.

--Paul Rauber


Aug 24, 2010

Microbes Ate My Oil Spill

It's a B-movie plot we can all cheer: A newly discovered, fast-eating species of microbes may have devoured the Gulf of Mexico's deepwater plume of oil.

According to Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, light sweet Louisiana crude is easily digestible. It's as smooth, apparently, as a mint julep on a lazy summer day on the Gulf.

As if you weren't getting your fill of pretty oil-spill imagery, Hazen says that within two weeks of the capping of the Macondo well in July, the 22-mile-long deep-sea plume could no longer be detected. Instead, a phenomenon called "marine snow" indicated that microbes had been feasting on hydrocarbons.

--Reed McManus

Aug 20, 2010

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

OK, maybe it's Sierra's fault for not explaining things well enough. Or maybe it's the public's fault for not reading Sierra more carefully! But a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that the public remains very unclear on the usefulness of various energy-saving measures. In the study's survey of 505 participants, people overestimated the value of measures that didn't cost anything (turning off lights when leaving a room, driving less) while underestimating the value of measures that actually save a huge amount of energy, like improving home insulation. Energy-use-1

 In general, the authors reported, people seemed stuck on "curtailment"--simply doing less of something--rather than increasing efficiency, where the big savings are to be found. In fact, the savings to be wrung out of driving less, or in a more fuel-efficient vehicle, are dwarfed by those to be found from new efficiencies in buildings and industry.

 Another alarming finding: "Participants who engaged more in energy-conserving behaviors had less accurate perceptions of energy use and savings, possibly reflecting unrealistic optimism about the effectiveness of their personal energy-saving strategies compared with alternative ones." Ouch!

--Paul Rauber

How Can I Care About Something I Can't See?

In a concise, fact-filled, and very funny 5-minute clip, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and Tulane University molecular ecology professor Michael Blum get to the heart of the latest issue looming in the Gulf of Mexico: There's a 22-mile-long plume of oil floating deep in the Gulf of Mexico. But now that the Macondo well has been capped, will people stop paying attention to the effects of the BP catastrophe?  

--Reed McManus

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
All's Well That Ends Oil Well - Michael Blum
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

Aug 19, 2010

Because “Iowa Factory Farm” Doesn’t Sound Idyllic

Buy a dozen eggs from “Mountain Dairy,” “Sun Valley,” “Pacific Coast,” “Bayview,” or “Farm Fresh," among many other brands, and you may not just be buying eggs that could be contaminated with salmonella, but you’re supporting a company that, according to the New York Times, “has had run-ins with regulators over poor or unsafe working conditions, environmental violations, the harassment of workers and the hiring of illegal immigrants.”

Behind the nationwide recall of 380 million eggs is Galt, Iowa-based Wright County Egg, a company owned by factory-farming magnate Jack DeCoster, whose five Iowa poultry facilities house 7.5 million egg-laying hens that produce 2.3 million dozen eggs a week.

Which makes “Should I buy only ‘cage-free’ eggs?” this week’s top breakfast-conversation topic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service claims there is no valid scientific evidence that eggs from cage-free hens have more or less salmonella than eggs from hens raised in cages. On the other hand, the Humane Society of the United States says that “[a]ll seven scientific studies published in recent years comparing Salmonella contamination between caged and cage-free operations show that confining hens in cages results in significantly increased risk of Salmonella."

That leaves consumers in a bit of a scramble.

--Reed McManus

Aug 18, 2010

Plastic Bag Double-Feature

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch rotating in the Pacific Ocean has been well documented. Now its most iconic symbol, the immortal plastic bag, has captured filmmakers’ imaginations.

Plasticb_bag-01 In the latest issue of Sierra, You can read about the enticingly surreal short film Plastic Bag, a product of the Futurestates project.  

For a more humorous take on the throwaway totes that won’t go away, watch The Majestic Plastic Bag, a "nature mockumentary” created by Heal the Bay, a nonprofit organization raising support for a bill in the California legislature that would ban single-use plastic bags from supermarkets, convenience stores, and other outlets in the state. The tongue-in-cheek short "explores the cycle of life of this curious creature, the plastic bag, on its way to its home, the Pacific Ocean. Best line: "Meanwhile, our little bag has encountered one of nature's most deadly killers, the teacup Yorkie." 

UPDATE: On August 31, California's Senate defeated the plastic-bag bill 21-14.It would have been the first such statewide ban in the nation. The silver lining: American Samoa will ban plastic bags effective February 23.

--Reed McManus

Image courtesy ITVS

Aug 17, 2010

A Coaled Day in Hell

Last year, the Sierra Club and other enviro groups were justifiably proud of their success at stopping or delaying construction of the 100th coal-fired power plants in the U.S. since 2001. That number’s now up to 133, but there’s little time for high fives. A recent AP investigation shows just how hellbent the coal industry is on maintaining the status quo. More than 30 traditional coal plants have been built since 2008 or are under construction, the largest expansion of the industry in two decades. Their 125 million tons of greenhouse-gas emissions are the equivalent of putting 22 million new cars on the road, the AP says, and “an acknowledgment that highly touted ‘clean coal’ technology is still a long ways from becoming a reality and underscores a renewed confidence among utilities that proposals to regulate carbon emissions will fail.”

For information on the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, go here.

--Reed McManus

Seven Maids With Seven Mops

NPR's "Morning Edition" reported yesterday on the amazing shrinking cleanup crews deployed by BP in the Gulf Coast following the capping of the Macondo well: from 46,000 on July 12 to 14,000 a month later. Oil gusher stopped so problem solved, right?

 That seems to be NOAA's approach On August 4, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that "The vast majority of the oil from the BP oil spill has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead or dispersed -- much of which is in the process of being degraded."


(For larger version click here .)

Not so fast! say researchers at Georgia Sea Grant and the University of Georgia. Their study concludes that "up to 79 percent of the oil released into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon well has not been recovered and remains a threat to the ecosystem." The discrepany between their estimation and NOAA's comes down to the latter's optimistic assumption that all that "dispersed, dissolved or residual" oil has just gone away and won't trouble us again.

“One major misconception is that oil that has dissolved into water is gone and, therefore, harmless,” said Charles Hopkinson, director of Georgia Sea Grant. “The oil is still out there, and it will likely take years to completely degrade."

While we're waiting for that degradation, the oil will presumably continue to wash up n the Gulf Coast's previously pristine beaches. According to NPR, BP is now deploying a device called a "Sand Shark" that scoops up sand and sifts it, sorting out the tar balls. "In a 5-minute run, [project leader Kevin] Seilhan says, the Sand Shark has cleaned more sand than 100 people could in three hours."


Do you suppose," the Walrus said,

"That they could get it clear?"

"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,

And shed a bitter tear.

--Paul Rauber

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