A Patriotic Pall In the name of energy independence, the coal industry takes a bad fuel and makes it worse
Alternative energy is all the rage these days. But buyers beware! In a brazen application of lipstick to a pig, coal companies are branding liquefied coal as an "alternative fuel." True, it is an alternative to oil; the problem is, it's a significantly worse one.
Using a technology employed by Nazi Germany when it was cut off from oil supplies by the Allies, coal can be made into a diesel fuel. Its main selling point is that we don't need to go abroad to get it, since we have large domestic supplies. Coal to liquid (CTL), as it's known, can thus offer energy independence. That promise--different from renewability, although often confused with it--is very attractive to the U.S. military and especially the Air Force, as liquefied coal can be refined into an extremely pure jet fuel.
To capitalize on that desire--and to jump-start the industry--coal- state legislators are proposing that the Air Force sign a 25-year contract for nearly a billion gallons of fuel a year. That's in addition to a bulging pinata of proposed tax breaks and loan guarantees worth as much as $10 billion, a greater subsidy than currently supports any alternative fuel other than corn ethanol.
But CTL is the dirtiest way to fuel a vehicle, generating twice the greenhouse-gas emissions of gasoline. A Prius run on CTL would produce almost as much carbon dioxide as a gas-fueled Hummer. Even in the best scenario, in which expensive and as-yet unproven technologies are employed to capture and store the resulting CO2 when the coal is liquefied, CTL's greenhouse-gas tally would still be 4 percent higher than gasoline's.
When CTL's subsidy package came before the Senate in June, it unexpectedly failed--not so much because of coal's environmental defects, sadly, but because both parties wanted to be seen as coal industry saviors. (Big Coal is very generous to its backers on the Hill.) But that is surely not the end of it. Peabody Coal boasted on its Web site that liquefying its assets would increase their value by 1,250 percent. "With stakes like that," says Alice McKeown, the Sierra Club's CTL lobbyist, "this issue will be back." --Paul Rauber
MILITARY FUELISHNESS A study commissioned by the Pentagon has concluded that the military's reliance on fossil fuels poses a grave risk to national security. The armed forces use 16 times more fuel per soldier now than in World War II, and the Department of Defense is the nation's largest energy consumer--a situation the report calls "unsustainable."
PARK AND PAY To help fund maintenance backlogs, the National Park Service is raising entrance and vehicle fees by up to 167 percent at a third of U.S. national parks. By 2009, vehicle fees will be as much as $25. After fee increases ten years ago, a study found that park attendance dropped by 1.5 percent while attendance at destinations without such increases rose more than 11 percent. At Yosemite National Park, the number of annual visitors has decreased 20 percent since 1996, the year before the park's entry fee jumped from $5 to $20.
BETTER WAY TO TRADE Bowing to new political realities, the Bush administration agreed in May to allow environmental and labor protections in pending trade agreements. Pacts with countries like Colombia, Panama, Peru, and South Korea will now require enforcement of national and international environmental rules. Proponents of fair trade hope this will finally address problems like illegal mahogany logging in the Amazonian rainforest, but the Bush administration will still have to do the enforcing.
WATCHING THE WATCHERS How tough is the Bush EPA on environmental lawbreakers? Not very. According to the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group, lawsuits against polluters have dropped by 70 percent, civil penalties by 24 percent, and criminal fines by 38 percent since President George W. Bush took office. The project's founder, Eric Schaeffer--who directed the EPA's Office of Regulatory Enforcement until resigning in protest in 2002--blamed the poor showing on staffing shortages, inconsistent policy goals, and weakened regulations and laws. "I don't think it's because polluters have gotten nicer," Schaeffer says. --Dashka Slater
You Breathe What You Pay For
The states that have invested the most in energy-efficiency programs (what Duke Energy CEO James Rogers calls "the fifth fuel") are, for the most part, the ones that produce the least carbon dioxide per resident.
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked states by their commitment to such programs as appliance standards, building energy codes, and tailpipe emissions controls, as well as public spending and tax incentives. Its five most virtuous picks: Vermont, Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, and Oregon.
They also top an Associated Press analysis of Department of Energy data on per-capita carbon dioxide emissions. The AP's dirtiest states per capita--Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska, West Virginia, and Louisiana--are all coal- or petroleum-dependent ones that haven't paid much mind to efficiency.
To give credit where it's due, the most sparing state when it comes to CO2 emissions is Idaho, which lands in the middle of the pack on efficiency investment. Alas, the Gem State's formula of little industry and many potatoes may not be exportable. --Reed McManus
Eat the Whales ...
... or save them? The International Whaling Commission's schizophrenic character was on full display at its annual meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, in May. Last year the body, under the strong influence of Japan, was moving toward lifting the moratorium on commercial whaling that has been in effect since 1986.
This year the commission reaffirmed that the moratorium was still justified, but by a bare majority. Japan, which had proposed allowing small-scale whaling for four coastal communities, backed down when it became clear the move would be rejected. Over vociferous opposition, Japan vowed to continue its "scientific whaling" (the remains of which end up at the fish market in Tokyo) and to expand it to include humpback whales in Antarctica.
Intentional killing, however, is not the only threat to the world's whales. Many become entangled in fishing gear or die after being struck by ships. In addition, changes to the marine environment from global warming and ocean acidification could prove as lethal as yesterday's industrial-scale hunt. --Nancy Lord
During the 30 years it operated in the Peruvian Amazon, Occidental Petroleum dumped an estimated 9 billion barrels of toxic oil byproducts into the water the Achuar Indians use for fishing, drinking, and bathing. In May, the tribe (whose 4,500 members live below Peru's $64-per-month national poverty line) sued the oil giant (whose 2006 revenues topped $18 billion) in California Superior Court. Occidental claims that it has no responsibility because it sold its Peruvian concession in 2000 to Pluspetrol, an Argentine company. Pluspetrol has agreed to clean up its operations, but not what Occidental left behind.
Celebrated foodie Alice Waters is one of 200 chefs asking Congress to study ways to restore wild-salmon runs on the West Coast. Wild salmon is tastier and healthier than the farmed alternative, but many runs are facing extinction thanks to hydroelectric dams and degraded habitat. (Last year federal fisheries managers shut down almost 90 percent of commercial fishing along the California and Oregon coasts to allow salmon to spawn on the Klamath River.) The chefs hope that consumer demand for wild salmon will spur legislative protections for what they describe as "our country's last great wild meal."
Driving in Manhattan has always seemed insane. Now New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) wants it to be insanely expensive. To reduce the Big Apple's greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent over the next two decades, the mayor has proposed that his city enact "congestion pricing," an $8-a-day charge for cars, and $21 for trucks, entering Manhattan below 86th Street. New Yorkers who leave their cars behind could spend the money they save on hybrid taxis, which get twice the mileage of gas-powered ones. Bloomberg wants the city to convert its entire 13,000-vehicle taxi fleet to hybrids over the next five years. A state commission studying the mayor's congestion plan will issue a report by February.
The Clean-Plate Club
Food waste in Hong Kong has doubled over the past five years and now accounts for about a third of its garbage. In response, some restaurants are fining greedy patrons who order more than they can eat. One restaurant charges for each piece of uneaten sushi; others charge by the ounce. --Dashka Slater
As The World Warms Quick thinking before we slowly fry
IN GOOD STANDING A recent report in the journal Science offers new evidence that paying poor countries to keep their forests intact is a quick and easy way to put a lid on growing greenhouse-gas emissions. Tropical deforestation releases almost 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, accounting for nearly one-fifth of world carbon emissions. Unless the logging is curtailed, it would add up to an estimated 87 billion to 130 billion tons of CO2 by 2100, "greater than the amount of carbon that would be released by 13 years of global fossil-fuel combustion," says Pep Canadell of the Global Carbon Project.
ZACH BRAFF, THE SOPRANOS, AND NOW THIS! In June, much-maligned New Jersey offered another gift to the nation when its legislature passed a measure to cut the state's global-warming emissions by 80 percent by 2050, a goal matched only by Minnesota. Like California's landmark greenhouse-gas legislation, the Garden State's law does not specify how the target will be met. It will be up to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to work with other state agencies over the next year to recommend ways to meet the goal.
LEAF WEEPERS Lobsters, dairy cows, New York apples, maple syrup, ski areas, cranberries, and fall-foliage tourism would be among the economic casualties of unchecked climate change in the Northeast, according to a recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report, assembled by a team of researchers and economists, is one of the first attempts to identify how global warming would affect individual states, and it provides solutions for individuals, businesses, and governments. For details, go to ucsusa.org.
WE'RE NUMBER TWO China has surpassed the United States as the world's top producer of carbon dioxide, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. It's not because of any great reductions made by Americans but because of China's booming economy, its reliance on coal for power generation (more than 70 percent, compared with 50 percent for the United States), and its population of 1.3 billion. (Measured per capita, China's greenhouse-gas emissions are about a quarter of the United States'.) This year China unveiled a national climate plan that would improve its energy efficiency by 20 percent, increase its use of renewable energy to 10 percent, and cover roughly 20 percent of the nation's land with forest by 2010. Like the United States, China refuses to commit to mandatory caps on carbon emissions.
WHAT IF THERE'S NO ICE TO MAKE LEMONADE? Northern countries are taking advantage of a boom in global-warming tourism. In May, Air Greenland began nonstop flights between Baltimore and Kangerlussuaq, a settlement of 600 people on the world's largest island. And Svalbard--a remote chain of Norwegian islands in the Arctic replete with reindeer, seals, polar bears, and, now, retreating ice--is advertising itself as a destination for climate-concerned tourists. Svalbard may become more popular with this December's release of The Golden Compass, a film based on the novel of the same name by Philip Pullman. In the fantasy, the islands are ruled by intelligent, armored polar bears. Maybe they can be enlisted in the climate cause. --Reed McManus
Prozac River This is your stream on drugs
Gender-blended salmon in Oregon, transgender trout in Colorado--all across the country, fish with both male and female sexual characteristics are appearing downstream of sewage-treatment plants. You'd think it would get the attention of testosterone-drenched Capitol Hill, at least, that bisexual bass are showing up in the Potomac.
More and more trace substances are turning up in our waterways, from bodily wastes and millions of individuals and institutions disposing of outdated or unwanted pills by flushing them down toilets. A recent study of mud at the bottom of Portland, Oregon, creeks revealed a medicine chest of estrogen, antidepressants like Prozac, and perfumes and cosmetics. Caffeine and antibiotics are also widespread.
It doesn't take much estrogen to cause alarming deformities. In the case of fish, abnormalities start appearing at concentrations in the parts-per-trillion range. So how are people affected? No one knows. We do know that treated wastewater increasingly flows from our taps. Las Vegas dumps 58 billion gallons a year of treated sewage water into Lake Mead, and thence into the Colorado River--the water source for San Diego. New Orleans, which relies on the Mississippi River for its water, drinks the effluents from nearly half of the U.S. urban population.
At present, sewage-treatment plants aren't designed to remove the pharmaceuticals we flush and forget. That's why the Sierra Club is calling on the EPA to conduct new health and safety studies of the chemicals and to ban the worst. Some communities are setting up drug "take-back" programs at pharmacies and police stations so that consumers have an alternative to flushing them and overmedicating our waterways. --Paul Rauber
MILES TO GO
Worries about U.S. dependence on foreign oil, record-breaking gas prices, and greenhouse-gas emissions helped the U.S. Senate overcome auto industry clout in June when it passed an energy bill that mandates the first major increase in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards in 25 years. The bill would require automakers to sell cars and light trucks that get an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a jump from the current 27.5 for cars and 22.2 for trucks. Nobody expects Detroit to shrink from the fight as the House takes up the debate, which is expected to reach full throttle this fall. (See "Lay of the Land," March/April 2006.)
WILD MEANS WILD
Salmon that spawn, live, and die the old-fashioned way just aren't the same as those raised as "salmon herds" in hatcheries. That's the conclusion of a Seattle federal district court judge, who rejected the Bush administration's policy of lumping together wild and hatchery-raised fish when making endangered-species decisions. (See "Bold Man and the Sea," November/December 2004.)
ENERGY'S BROAD BRUSH
Why don't we just put power lines everywhere? That's the position of the Department of Energy, which unveiled its first two "national interest electric-transmission corridors" this spring. The agency used authority that Congress gave it in 2005 to overrule states, ignore environmental laws, and exercise eminent domain in order to fast-track utility projects. (See "Lay of the Land," September/October 2006.) The DOE's mid-Atlantic corridor includes the entire states of Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey, along with large chunks of five others. Another corridor includes substantial portions of Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California. In May, Representatives Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) introduced legislation that would repeal the provision.
Running Out the Clock Bush's environmental exit strategy
For many Americans eager to be rid of the most anti-environmental president in history, January 20, 2009, can't come soon enough. The feeling seems to be mutual: On nearly every major environmental issue, the Bush administration is putting off decisions until it's out the door. Here's a sample:
In April, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks. President George W. Bush then directed the agency to come up with appropriate rules--by the end of 2008. "It appears," says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), "that the president wants to run out the clock to the end of his term."
Climate change was front and center at the June meeting of the G8 nations. The United States' response was to nix every substantive item in the draft proposal. Instead, Bush proposed further studying the issue: In order to set "a long-term global goal" of reducing greenhouse gases, the United States would meet with 14 other major nations for a series of "aspirational talks," with the intention of reaching an agreement--by the end of 2008.
Under court order to improve pitifully weak water-quality standards for factory farms, last year the EPA set itself a deadline of July 31, 2007. But this May, claiming that a delay was needed "to provide time for the agricultural community to adjust to the new requirements," the rules were put off--until February 27, 2009.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has failed to grant endangered-species protection to a single new species since May 2006. Meanwhile the haha plant in Hawaii and the summer run of Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon in Washington State have gone extinct. For them, the clock really did run out. --Paul Rauber
Illustrations, from top: Victor Juhasz, Debbie Drechsler, Lloyd Dangle, Christoph Hitz, Josef Gast; used with permission.