Sierra Daily: December 2011

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7 posts from December 2011

Dec 22, 2011

We Heart TransCanada?

TransCanada, the energy giant trying to build the contentious Keystone XL pipeline that would bring Alberta tar sands oil to Texas refineries, announced this week that it is purchasing $470 million (Canadian) in solar projects. Its nine utility-scale solar projects will generate 86 megawatts of electricity.

Meanwhile, we await the latest news on whether Congress will force the Obama administration to fast-track a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, an effort that will likely doom the project vociferously opposed by environmental groups: The State Department says any rush will force a denial of the permit.

-- Reed McManus

The Next Big Thing


Since pandas and elephants get the bulk of their nutrients from woody plants, their excrement could provide the key to cheap and effective biofuel. The feces of the two species contain the same gut bacteria that efficiently convert lignocellulose--the woody stuff in plants--to sugars. Researchers at Mississippi State University (working with pandas) and at the Dutch technology company DSM (working with elephants) say that such bacteria could be key to producing cellulosic ethanol from biomass like wood chips, switchgrass, and corn stover.

Putrefying ponds of hog excrement are one of the nation's fastest-growing sources of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Now Duke University and Duke Energy have teamed up to harness pig-poop power, using the methane from a 9,000-head hog farm in North Carolina to run an electrical turbine. The project, which produces enough electricity to power 35 homes, has won support from Google, which is searching for ways to offset the carbon footprint of its energy-hogging data centers.

Dried flakes of human waste fuel Thames Water, Britain's largest water and sewage company. The flakes, which resemble instant-coffee granules, are made from dehydrated sludge, the fecal goo left behind after wastewater is treated. Once dry and powdery, the stuff can be burned, providing 16 percent of the utility's energy and reducing its carbon footprint by 550 tons a year.

—Dashka Slater

Dec 20, 2011

The Raw-Milk Menace

Peter and Maria Hoey

One morning last August, federal agents and local sheriff's deputies swooped down on a health food store in Venice, California, to seize and destroy dangerous contraband: raw milk and room-temperature eggs. James Stewart, the 64-year-old founder of Rawesome, a club that distributes farm-fresh food to 1,600 members, was charged with six felonies and seven misdemeanors, including conspiracy to process milk without pasteurization.

The bust was part of a series of raids by the Food and Drug Administration apparently aimed at wiping the raw-milk mustache from America's face. In April, FDA agents, U.S. marshals, and a Pennsylvania state trooper descended on Amish dairy farmer Dan Allgyer, of Kinzers, Pennsylvania, who sells unpasteurized milk from his three dozen cows to a small buyers' club in Maryland. Allgyer was charged with transporting raw milk across state lines.

Both raids were preceded by a yearlong clandestine investigation. "They had undercover agents, hidden cameras," says Stewart's lawyer, Ajna Sharma-Wilson. "Millions were spent investigating this."

The FDA's interest in raw milk can be traced to Michael Taylor, a former lobbyist for Monsanto who now serves as the agency's deputy commissioner for foods. Taylor helped Monsanto win FDA approval for its artificial bovine growth hormone in the 1990s and then tried (unsuccessfully) to get the agency to keep dairies that don't use the additive from labeling their milk "rBGH-free."

Taylor portrays the raw-food crackdown as part of an effort to stamp out food-borne illness, even though none of the milk in question has been linked to contamination or illness. The FDA was less interested when 1,600 people were sickened in 2010 by Salmonella enteritidis from Iowa's Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms; while inspectors found numerous health and safety violations, no one has been prosecuted.

—Dashka Slater

Dec 09, 2011

Newt Gingrich, Sierra Clubber

NewtI am happily reminded by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post's "Wonkblog" that among the many difficult-to-explain-now previous positions of GOP front-runner Newt Gingrich is the fact that he was once "a dues-paying member of the Sierra Club." That honorable element of Gingrich's CV was cited in 1995 by then-Club executive director Carl Pope in an open letter to the then- House speaker in Sierra magazine (sadly pre-digital!). Wrote Pope:

You might find it useful. . . to reflect on the years from 1984 to 1990 when you were a member of the Sierra Club, and on the clear environmental values you articulated at that time. . . . As a Sierra Club member, Mr. Gingrich, you opposed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, calling it a "188-day quick fix" for America's energy future. "Fuel efficiency and conservation measures have a greater potential for providing longterm energy security for our nation," you said in response to a Sierra Club questionnaire. "The dramatic increases in fuel efficiency seen in America's automotive fleet are evidence of how we can meet energy needs of the future."

In 1988, you joined a majority of your colleagues in pledging support for the tough Clean Air Act that Congress later passed. You specifically advocated strong controls on toxic emissions--controls that would require the EPA to set deadlines for regulating cancer-causing poisons in our air. In all these positions you had the full support of the Sierra Club, leading us to endorse you for election on several occasions.

With Gingrich now leading the Republican pack in many polls, perhaps he will soon be seeking the Club's endorsement once again. Stranger things have happened in this election season.

--Paul Rauber

Image: Newt 2012

Dec 08, 2011

Santa's Carbon Footprint

As the big climate conference in Durban, South Africa, totters toward its conclusion, delegates are turning a blind eye to a previously unexamined source of greenhouse gases: Santa. Activists are focusing on issues like the growing U.S. export of coal to Asia, but what about Santa's worldwide coal-export racket? And just imagine the carbon burden imposed by his perverse siting of a major industrial facility on the rapidly melting North Pole. Thanks to Ethical Ocean for the expose. (For a larger image go here.)


--Paul Rauber

Dec 01, 2011

Crying In Your Beer

Hops2ThinkProgress alerts us to the latest in a string of news stories about the impact of climate change on beer production: According to Jenn Orgolini, sustainability director for Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery, climate change is affecting the supply of key ingredients like barley and hops, not to mention water.

“This is not a problem that’s going to happen someday, and this is not a problem that’s just going to impact some industries,” Orgolini told the Durango Herald. “If you drink beer now, the issue of climate change is impacting you right now.” Among those impacts: higher prices for raw materials or scarcer products such as specialty hops. According to Orgolini, more beer is produced in Colorado than in any other state.

But it's not called global warming for nothing: In drought-stricken South Africa, cricket star Dale Steyn has been recruited by South African Breweries as the company's first water ambassador, "In 20 or 50 years' time, what will the world's most valuable asset be? Between oil, gold and water, it will no doubt be water," says Steyn.

You can read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent, sobering report on the erratic and destructive weather events that we should learn to expect, but you might want to pour yourself a cold one first. If you really want to test your drinking skills, ThinkProgress offers a full round of articles about global warming’s impact on coffee, peanut butter, chocolate, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July.

-- Reed McManus

Image: Hops. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Pollution Progress You Can See From Space

Here's what sulfur dioxide pollution from major coal plants looked like from 2005-2007, courtesy of the ozone monitoring equipment on NASA's Aura satellite:Seusaso2_omi_2007

And here's the same view in the time period 2008-2010:


What changed? That would be the application of the EPA's Clean Air Interstate Rule, which made coal-fired power plants (the black dots in the images) limit emissions of sulfur dioxide, a pollutant associated with acid rain and respiratory health problems. (See NASA's Earth Observatory site for a groovy sliding image comparison device.) The satellite data confirmed that application of the rule cut SO2 emissions by nearly half.

Just last month an attempt to stymie further progress on clean air was narrowly defeated when a number of Republican senators joined all but two Democrats to quash an attempt, led by Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to block the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which addresses the dirty fumes that drift from one state to another. The rule will go into effect in January, 2012, contributing not only to the beauty of future satellite images but the health of 6-year olds like Peter.

--Paul Rauber

Image by NASA Earth Observatory 

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