Sierra Daily: October 2011

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23 posts from October 2011

Oct 28, 2011

Not-So-Electrifying Progress

Runabout 4A new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History unintentionally shows just how far we haven’t come with electric cars. Electrifying Cars, part of the museum’s larger America on the Move exhibition, “showcases two cars—a 1904 Columbia electric runabout, the best-selling car in the United States at the turn of the century and a 1913 Ford Model T touring car, a gasoline car equipped with an early type of electric starter and electric headlights. The cars, along with a battery charger for General Motors’ EV1 and images of additional electric models, car owners and power sources, follow the historical, cultural and physical development of the electric car.”

The museum’s collection includes an actual 1997 GM EV1, but it hasn’t been on public display since a few weeks before the 2006 release of Chris Paine’s documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? (Pure coincidence, the museum said at the time. They just needed the space.) Material about the museum’s EV1 is available online:  Pages from a 14-year-old EV1 owner’s manual offer enticing verbiage that only a few drivers -- among them the owners of the all-electric Nissan Leaf (on sale since 2010) and Tesla Roadster (on sale since 2008) -- can experience today. “You will be among the first to experience life without oil changes or smog checks. You will no longer need to get a tune up. And you will never hear a mechanic say, “Sounds like you need a new muffler.” The document’s kicker, now a lot more ominous given that GM unceremoniously scooped up and crushed almost all the EV1 models in 2003, is: “You have so much to forget.”

Maybe we’ll get it right this time. A couple of months ago, my colleague Brian Foley noted the Obama administration’s commitment to electric vehicles and a recent study by Pike Research forecasting an annual market for plug-in electric vehicles of 289,000 by 2016 and 303,000 by 2017. And Paine's follow-up doc Revenge of the Electric Car paints an encouraging picture of our electric car future. (Though there's still that lingering EV trepidation: The New York Times describes the film as "a snapshot of a major industrial shift on its way to a tipping point.")

For updates on the all-electric vehicles almost ready to hit the market, go here, and check out the Sierra Club's Go Electric campaign.

-- Reed McManus

Image: 1904 Columbia electric runabout. (National Museum of American History)

Oct 27, 2011

Dead Polar Bears Tell No Tales

Polar bearYou may recall some years ago a spate of news stories about drowned polar bears being spotted in the Arctic waters. These stories stemmed from observations made in 2004 by federal wildlife biologist Charles Monnett and colleagues, who spotted the dead bears in the course of observing the migration of bowhead whales. They recorded their sightings and subsequently published a short, peer-reviewed article in 2006 in the journal Polar Biology. Monnett and the others speculated that absence of pack ice was the cause, and that "drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future" if climate change continues to warm Arctic waters.

The paper, with its alarming and vivid focus, was featured in Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Turth. Thus began an investigation of Dr. Monnett that continues to this day by the Interior Department's Javert-like Office of Inspector General. As the months go by, the focus drifts--once toward Monnett's role in contracting for a Canadian study of polar-bear movement, more recently toward a misplaced routing slip on an internal agency poster--but always returning to the merits of the Polar Biology article. But as reported by Public Employees for Environmental Ethics, a watchdog group providing legal representation to Monnett, the latest IG interview yesterday revealed that IG was aware of two additional polar bear carcasses that had been seen floating in the same waters Monnett observed--a detail that would seem to buttress his case, not undermine it.

"At this point, the IG agents appear to be desperately grasping at straws to justify this 18-month fiasco of a probe,” says PEER executive director Jeff Ruch.

The Interior Department unit Monnett works for is the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE, pronounced "bummer"). You may remember it as the unit formerly known as the Minerals Management Service that had to be completely reorganized after its staff was found to have partied and occasionally slept with oil company representatives with whom they were doing business. (See "Sex, Drugs, and Royalties," January/February 2009.) As Monnett told investigators, "We work for an agency that is, especially then, extremely hostile to the concept of climate change, that's hostile to the idea that there was any effects of anything we do on anything." Even under new management and a new name, BOEMRE's fossil-fuel bias seems to have survived intact.

--Paul Rauber

Image by iStock


Clearing the Way for Solar

Today the Department of Interior announced the 17 sites in six Western states where it wants to see solar power facilities on public lands. The plan refines a draft released in December that singled out two dozen potential sites. According to AP, “five sites in Nevada, four in Colorado, three in Utah, two each in California and Arizona, and one in New Mexico were identified as ideal for solar development.The sites comprise 285,000 acres, down from about 677,000 acres in December, and reflect the department's judgment that the targeted land has the highest potential for solar development with the fewest environmental conflicts.”  “We are simply saying that in the public domain, these are the places with the best solar energy, and these are the places with the least conflicts,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a conference call with reporters. "This is going to make a difference in terms of reducing the energy sprawl,” Barbara Boyle, a senior representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, told Reuters. “And it will really put solar in places where the infrastructure is there and where the conflicts with the environmental and cultural resources are minimized." A 90-day public comment period begins on Friday. The final report will be issued as soon as next summer.

–- Reed McManus

Oct 25, 2011

Baby 7 Billion

The other day I asked my 9-year-old to guess how many people there were in the world. "A couple million?" she suggested. I pointed my thumb upward. "A hundred million?" Thumb still up. "A billion?" Thumb up, at which point she gave up. Demographers calculate, I informed her, that any day now (if it has not happened already), the 7 billionth human will be born. She was shocked. As well she might be! Since she was born, according to this ingenious calculator from the (UK) Guardian, 700 million more souls have joined us. Since I was, back in the middle of the last century, the world's population has increased by more than 250 percent.

Talking about this clearly very large problem is remarkably difficult. The subject is riddled with rhetorical and moral landmines, often becoming literally inhumane. What a relief, then, to find the smart discussion going on at RH Reality Check on the occasion of Baby 7 Billion. I hope you get the food and schooling you need, Baby, because we're going to need everyone's help to get out of this one.

--Paul Rauber 

Top of the Hill

My respect for Sierra Club Legislative Director Debbie Sease was cemented years ago when one idle Sunday morning I happened to watch her on a C-Span call-in show discussing the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Every other caller seemed to want to proclaim that Sease and her colleagues were job-killing green gestapos or otherwise just plain horrible people. (And this was before the tea party movement ever got its bearings.) Sease deflected the incoming fire with aplomb, turning each conversation into the proverbial “teachable moment” to discuss issues important to the Sierra Club, environmentalists, and the planet. It's a skill that has served her well for more than three decades on Capitol Hill. Sease “navigates the unnatural environs of Washington, D.C., with a savviness that has saved vast tracts of wilderness,” Utne Reader wrote when it named her one of “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World in 2011” earlier this month. For a full understanding, don’t miss “The Most Influential Conservationist You've Never Heard Of,” High Country News’ exhaustively delightful profile of Sease, in its May 1, 2011, issue. Here’s the spoiler: Sease’s secret is New Mexico.

--Reed McManus

Oct 21, 2011

The Global Carbon Web


Countries use fossil fuels in many different ways. Most simply, they extract them domestically and use them domestically. Since coal fields and oil deposits are not equally distributed, there is also a major international trade in fossil fuels. Thirdly, some countries use fossil fuels (either their own or imported from elsewhere) to manufacture products that are then exported (think about the mountains of plastic items shipped to the United States from China).

In a heroic effort at number crunching in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Steven J. Davis, Glen P. Peters, and Ken Caldeira have attempted to map these various streams, the result of which you see above. The map shows the 37% of world carbon emissions that come from fossil fuels that are traded internationally, and the further 23% that are "embedded" in manufactured products. It also makes very clear who's responsible: Most of those arrows are pointed at the United States and Europe. This suggests, the authors argue, that the easiest way to put a price on carbon is to do so at the point of extraction: the wellhead in Saudi Arabia, or coal mine in Wyoming.

The geographical concentration of carbon-based fuels and relatively small number of parties involved in extracting and refining those fuels suggest that regulation at the wellhead, mine mouth, or refinery might minimize transaction costs as well as opportunities for leakage.

Now we've just got to get it past the U.S. Senate. . .

--Paul Rauber

Mass Efficiency


According to a state-by-state ranking by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), the Bay State bests California as the nation’s most energy-efficient state for the first time in the five years the organization's annual scorecard has been in effect. The ACEEE grades states based on utility and public benefits programs, transportation policies, building energy codes, combined heat and power, state government initiatives, and appliance efficiency standards.

Says ACEEE: “A new, diverse set of states has followed a group of leading states by adopting significant energy efficiency policies, which will lead to innovative and effective programs.” According to USAToday, “California takes second place, followed by New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Connecticut and Maryland, which made its first appearance in the top 10 and is one of the six most improved states." On the other hand, “the 10 states most in need of improvement (from dead last to #42) are: North Dakota; Wyoming; Mississippi; Kansas; Oklahoma; South Carolina; West Virginia; Missouri; Alabama (also one of the top six most improved states); and South Dakota.”

-- Reed McManus

Image: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy

Oct 19, 2011

Out With the Tide...and the Cheer, Gain, and All.

Wash1-articleInline 2Bundled up in comfy fleece when you go out to join a beach clean-up day? Think twice when you get home to wash your clothes. According to research published in Environmental Science & Technology (and brought to our attention by the New York Times Green blog) “waste water from washing machines is an important source of plastic pollution in oceans.” The researchers, based in Ireland, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, will go only so far as to say that the ingestion of “microplastics” (plastic debris smaller than one mm in size) are “a potential pathway for the transfer of pollutants, monomers, and plastic-additives to organisms with uncertain consequences for their health,”  but they are alarmed at the potential scale of the problem: They found microplastic contamination at 18 shoreline sites worldwide on six continents. Notes the Times: “Researchers found that the proportions of synthetic fibers in marine sediments were akin to those found in artificial textiles. Examining washing machine waste water, they found that 1,900 fibers can rinse off a single garment during a wash cycle and that those fibers look just like the microplastic debris on shorelines.”

-- Reed McManus

Image: Environmental Science & Technology

Drill, Baby, Drill: Been There, Doing That

"9-9-9" aside, the most notable job-creating plan among Republican presidential candidates remains the same one we heard so much about in 2008: "Drill, Baby, Drill." That, in essence, is the economic plan put forward by Texas Governor Rick Perry:

His energy plan has four parts: use executive decrees to allow new or additional drilling in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and federal lands in the West; roll back or weaken environmental regulations; dismantle the E.P.A. and replace it with a “scaled-down agency”; and reshape subsidies and tax credits for different parts of the energy industry, in what appears would be a move away from renewable energy.

The problem with extracting ourselves to prosperity, as Matt Yglesias points out, is that we're already trying it--and it's not working. "The premise that regulatory curtailment of natural resource extraction explains the recession has no evidence to back it up," he writes. "Employment in natural resource extraction is extremely robust," as evidence for which he appends this graph, from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis:Mining
Not the clearest in the world, perhaps, but red = U.S. Government jobs, green = private industry, and blue = thet mining and drilling sector. Obviously they're not hurting. Yglesias sums up:

Nothing about the current situation suggests that special regulatory favors to the resource extraction sector are a necessary part of the cure. If you have some independent freestanding belief that the United States at the end of the Bush administration was unduly interested in environmental protection, then fair enough. But these industries are growing despite any Obama-era regulatory initiatives and despite the general economic downturn.

Green jobs, of course, are growing too. But for many conservatives, it's become an article of faith that they somehow don't count. Great post on the subject from Mother Jones' Kevin Drum here, but this is his conclusion:

The logic seems to be (a) global warming is a myth, (b) therefore anything associated with global warming is bad, (c) solar power is associated with fighting global warming, so (d) solar power is bad. Or something like that. I certainly can't think of any other reason why Republicans are so unanimously in love with subsidies for nuclear and coal and so passionately opposed to renewable energy in nearly every form. It's as if supporting renewables is an implicit admission that clean energy is a good thing, which in turn is an implicit admission that global warming is real. And since that's a left-wing hippie thing to believe in, they can't support renewables.

--Paul Rauber



Oct 18, 2011

That Bright Spot in the Economy? Solar Jobs.

PrimeStarSolarArrayGELet the sun shine on the economy. According the National Solar Jobs Census 2011, released on Monday by the research organization the Solar Foundation, the solar industry grew 6.8 percent nationally in the year ending in August. That’s compared to an overall U.S. job growth of under 1 percent during the same period.

GreenBiz sums up the sunny numbers. One in every four solar jobs is in California: 25,575 of the 100,237 solar-related jobs nationwide. Colorado comes in second, with 6,186 solar jobs, followed by Arizona, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Texas, Oregon, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Based on its survey of solar employers, the industry group expects solar job growth to accelerate by 24 percent over the next year.

-- Reed McManus

Image: U.S. Department of Energy

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