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Lay of the Land
July/August 2008

The Clean-Energy Bandwagon | WWatch | Bright Lights, Big Emissions | Dam Shame | Bold Strokes | As The World Warms | The Diesel Car Dilemma | Songbird Swan Song | Updates

The Clean-Energy Bandwagon
Big Business backs renewable energy, but where's the federal support?

Call it the clash of the corporations. Last December, Big Oil crushed a provision of the federal energy bill that would have extended tax credits for producers of solar and wind power. Despite wallowing in record profits, the oil companies convinced squeamish lawmakers that attempts to fund the program by repealing their tax breaks would hurt consumers at the pump.

Undaunted, renewable energy supporters have returned with Big Business at their side. The heavy hitters include Dow Chemical, DuPont, and United Technologies Corporation, along with retail giants such as Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot--all eager to tap into an expanded market for energy-efficient products. They join a slew of lesser-known wind and solar energy manufacturers whose survival may depend on federal support.

In April, the Senate passed a one-year extension of the production tax credit for wind power and the investment tax credit for solar, which provide a 1.9-cent-per-kilowatt-hour incentive for the first ten years a clean-energy project operates. The credits, estimated to be worth $6 billion over their life spans, are considered vital to jump-starting costly projects.

No one's popping any corks until the latest bill is reconciled with one passed by the House of Representatives in February that would fund the credits by dunning oil and gas industries (and then signed by President George W. Bush, of course). But if Congress finds a veto-proof way to pay for the credits for another year (they've been allowed to expire three times since 1999), there's plenty to be gained. A recent study commissioned by U.S. solar and wind industry associations claims that 116,000 jobs and $19 billion in U.S. investment could be lost in just one year if the credits lapse.

The National Association of Manufacturers supports renewable energy credits on the grounds of energy security. And the American Council on Renewable Energy claims that uncertainty over the tax credits threatens projects that would generate 42 gigawatts of climate-clean electricity--enough to power 16 million homes. Now that Bush has embraced caps on greenhouse-gas emissions, perhaps the White House will help push energy legislation backed by environmentalists and corporations alike. —Reed McManus


WWatch
Keeping Tabs on Washington

COLD COMFORT After months of delays, in May the Interior Department moved to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, acknowledging that loss of sea ice caused by rising temperatures threatens its habitat. The ice melter: Officials are vague about what they will do to protect the bears but adamant that the listing won't halt oil and gas drilling in their habitat or be used to promote greenhouse-gas regulations.

DAMN THE TADPOLES Paving over a marshland just got a little easier. In March, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued new rules that permit the destruction of wetlands as long as developers help create other wetlands somewhere within the same watershed, even many miles away. The decision ignores a 2005 congressional study that found the Corps of Engineers couldn't tell whether the wetlands creation, known as "mitigation banking," was actually being performed.

CONSTITUTION-PROOF FENCE A 670-mile-long fence that divides the United States from Mexico--and cuts several wildlife habitats in two--will be completed by December unless the Supreme Court or Congress takes action. In April, the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife asked the high court to rein in the Department of Homeland Security, which waived more than 30 environmental laws to get the barrier built.

SOMETHING SMELLS Factory farms create 500 million tons of cow, pig, and chicken manure each year, making them major sources of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emissions in the United States. Nonetheless, the EPA is about to abandon rules that require these farms to report how much waste they're spewing. The losers are the farms' neighbors, who will have no way of pinpointing the source of their pollutant-induced respiratory problems. —David Ferris


Bright Lights, Big Emissions

This spring researchers at Purdue University, Colorado State University, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory unveiled a high-resolution map showing the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the United States. The image below shows emissions from power plants; cement plants; industry; and residential, commercial, and mobile sources in 2002. The Vulcan Project maps are 100 times more precise than earlier efforts and are based on data that track emissions on an hourly, rather than monthly, basis--which can help scientists as they monitor emissions and verify compliance with new global-warming rules. On the project's Web site, compelling videos show how CO2 is transported through the atmosphere (you're not immune, Montana). And the site includes a list of the counties that produce the most CO2 (top dishonors go to Harris County, Texas, home of Houston; and Los Angeles County). —Reed McManus

Check out the map. (6mb PDF)


Dam Shame

Chile has one of the longest coastlines in South America, making it a prime spot for wave energy. It has the world's driest desert, making it well suited for solar thermal. And it has 36 active volcanoes, making it a good candidate for geothermal. But the country has turned to a more destructive homegrown source of power: hydroelectricity. The $4 billion HidroAysen Project would construct five dams along the glacier-fed Baker and Pascua Rivers in remote Patagonia.

Transporting electricity from the unpeopled wilderness to cities and industry in the north would require a continuous clearcut more than 300 feet wide and 1,500 miles long, some of it across national parkland.

The environmental group International Rivers is working to apply pressure to the project's sponsors, which include Chile's two biggest wood product and pulp companies, the Matte Group and the Angelini Group. Home Depot is the largest U.S. buyer of Matte's wood products, and International Rivers hopes the home-improvement giant can be convinced to use its buying power to persuade the company that damming the Baker and the Pascua is faint praise indeed. —Dashka Slater


Bold Strokes

Green Old Parties?
Republicans and Democrats don't agree on how aggressively the country should address global warming, but as the parties gear up for their national conventions, both are tallying their events' respective carbon impacts and touting the greenness of their gatherings. In Denver, the Dems' in-house "Green Team" pledges to compost, reuse, or recycle 85 percent of the waste generated by the party faithful and to power a portion of the festivities with solar and biodiesel. The city of Denver is encouraging restaurants and caterers to serve local and organic food, and a nonprofit is providing 1,000 bicycles for use by conventioneers. The bikes will then travel to St. Paul, Minnesota, where GOP delegates will be gathering on carpets made of recycled materials, under energy-efficient lighting and nonplastic banners. Now if we could only get the parties to pay such close attention to green details after the conventions.

Hot Stuff
As glaciers melt and oil prices rise, people are starting to take advantage of energy sources right under their noses--or feet. In Paris, Orly Airport will be heated geothermally using naturally hot water that flows a mile below the departure lounge. In Boston, officials hope to capture methane gas from the city's composting facility and use it to power up to 1,500 homes. And in the U.S. West, the desert is blooming: The Navajo Nation is planning to build a 500-megawatt wind farm near Flagstaff, Arizona, while Southern California Edison has begun deploying solar cells on the rooftops of the region's big-box stores and distribution facilities. Covering two square miles of roofs, the project will generate 250 megawatts of electricity, enough to provide juice to about 162,000 homes. And California's Pacific Gas & Electric Company will buy as much as 900 megawatts of electricity from five new solar thermal plants in the Mojave Desert.

Good Point
The Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve, Canada's newest national park, will cover approximately 1.8 million acres in the Northwest Territories, preserving a spectacular wilderness where grizzlies, caribou, and Dall's sheep roam. The region is best known for the adjacent Nahanni National Park Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for the Class III whitewater runs of the Nahanni River. The new reserve's name means "stands like a porcupine" and refers to the shape of Mt. Wilson. —Dashka Slater


As the World Warms
Quick thinking before we slowly fry

THROWING HEAT Japan is struggling to meet its Kyoto Protocol emissions goals, but the Nippon Professional Baseball commissioner has a solution: Speed up baseball games. Trimming playing time by 6 percent will cut carbon dioxide emissions by more than 200 tons over the course of a season, NPB officials said. They announced new rules this spring that require players to take the field within two minutes and 15 seconds after the side is retired and that force the pitcher to throw the ball within 15 seconds of receiving it.

HIGH ON HYDROGEN This spring Boeing announced that electricity from hydrogen fuel cells spun the propeller on a custom-built, two-seat motorized glider for 20 minutes as it cruised at an altitude of 3,300 feet. The company doesn't think commercial jets will ever be completely powered by fuel cells, but it hopes to use them for smaller aircraft.

FISCAL FITNESS In April the International Monetary Fund urged countries to adopt a binding global agreement on carbon pricing--either a tax or a trading scheme. Including developing countries like China and India is crucial, the IMF says, because they will generate 70 percent of the world's global-warming emissions over the next 50 years.

BIG BLACK CLOUD Researchers have turned up an overlooked climate culprit: soot from burning coal, wood, dung, and diesel fuel. These particulates have three to four times the warming effect previously thought, making them potentially the second-largest contributor to global warming. Cooking and heating with dung and coal in China and India contribute up to 35 percent of the world's "black carbon" burden, according to a study led by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Fortunately, the particles only persist in the atmosphere for up to a few weeks, making them a ripe target for quick action. —Dashka Slater


ON THE ONE HAND ...
Casa Diablo is probably the only strip club where the hottest dish is the soy burger and the dancers won't wear leather. The owner, Johnny Diablo, has seen business thrive since he closed his Portland, Oregon, vegan restaurant last November and reopened it as a flesh palace in February--with the menu intact. Diablo is unrepentant that his two dozen dancers are stomping the traditional feminism-veganism marriage under a stiletto heel while contributing (ever so slightly) to a healthier planet.

ON THE OTHER ...
So many lovers, so few condoms. Most latex prophylactics in Brazil are imported, which is a shame given its abundant supplies of natural rubber. That equation changed in April, when the government placed an order for 100 million condoms a year from the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve in the northwestern state of Acre. Tapping and processing that native latex will create 150 jobs, assist Brazil's massive anti-AIDS campaign, and protect climate-stabilizing trees in the 2.4 million–acre reserve. —David Ferris


The Diesel Car Dilemma
They get great gas mileage, but does that make 'em green?

Will you be driving a high-mile-per-gallon diesel car into a bright green eco-future? Today automakers can't sell diesel cars in California and seven northeastern states because of their smog-creating emissions. That has virtually eliminated new diesels from the entire U.S. market even as gas prices in Europe have pushed about half of all new-car buyers there to go with the generally cheaper (in Europe) fuel.

A window into the U.S. market opened last fall when California approved the Mercedes-Benz E320 BlueTec diesel sedan. The sleek autobahn cruiser uses new technology to meet the Golden State's stringent tailpipe-emissions standards. Volkswagen is expected to follow later this year with a diesel version of its prole Jetta compact. Honda, Nissan, and other manufacturers are readying their own diesels.

Diesels get between 20 and 40 percent better mileage than similar gas-powered cars. So these new cars offer lower emissions of greenhouse gases per mile driven, even though a gallon of burned diesel produces about 15 percent more heat-trapping gases than a gallon of gasoline.

Don Anair, a vehicle analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, views the new diesels as "a positive development"--particularly if their owners fuel up with biodiesel, available at about 1,600 retail locations nationwide.

But some experts would like to put the brakes on the diesel bandwagon. Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University, says that even the new California-approved models emit more soot and smog-forming nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons than many gasoline-powered cars. That's because they meet the state's least strict standards, not its toughest. For now, the pure green option is as distant as the hydrogen-fuel-cell car (powered by wind-generated electricity, of course)--or as near as your bicycle.


Songbird Swan Song
Do your food miles trample bobolinks and warblers?

In the mid-1990s, U.S. ornithologists began noticing that populations of once common songbirds like bobolinks and wood thrushes were shrinking dramatically. For a while scientists debated whether the decline was part of some sort of natural fluctuation. But it soon became clear that the trend was steady. Barn swallows, Eastern kingbirds, Kentucky warblers--the birds that create the soundtrack of the U.S. landscape are falling silent.

"You ask anyone who has been birdwatching for 30 to 40 years--they know darn well there are fewer birds," says conservation biologist Bridget Stutchbury, whose 2007 book, Silence of the Songbirds, documents the decline.

While habitat loss and predation play a part, Stutchbury believes the chief culprit is pesticides--whose use can be blamed on the appetites of North American consumers. U.S. demand for crops like bananas, coffee, and rice, as well as out-of-season produce like strawberries, grapes, and tomatoes, has converted the songbirds' Latin American wintering grounds into pesticide-laden farming operations. There, potent organophosphates that are banned or restricted in the United States are so cheap and plentiful that farmers often apply them multiple times. Their use has increased fivefold since the 1980s.

Most Americans assume that the pesticide threat to birds ended when DDT was banned in 1972, but Stutchbury says the danger is worse today. While DDT accumulated in the bodies of predator species over time, these new pesticides work swiftly and immediately. A single application can kill 7 to 25 songbirds per acre.

Consumers, Stutchbury argues, can help save songbirds by eating local, organic, and in-season food and choosing shade-grown coffee. Ecosystems are at stake, she explains. Birds consume caterpillars that can devastate forests. "If you take birds out of the forest, bugs are going to win." —Dashka Slater


Updates

SCIENCE BY NONSCIENTISTS
According to the Government Accountability Office, EPA reviews of the health risks posed by nearly a dozen common chemicals, including formaldehyde and perchloroethylene, are hampered by the meddling of nonscientists, often in secret. Agency scientists commonly find representatives of the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and NASA looking over their shoulders and causing delays since the White House modified the EPA's review process in 2004. And according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, more than 800 EPA scientists have reported some form of political interference in their research in the past five years. Those who work in offices that write regulations or perform risk assessments were most likely to report meddling; industry groups and the White House's Office of Management and Budget were the most common sources of pressure. (See "Decoder," March/April 2007, and "Lay of the Land," July/August 2007.)

BETTER LATE THAN BRAIN DAMAGED
More than four years ago, Sierra addressed budding concerns that the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A could leach from polycarbonate bottles and harm human health. (See "Lay of the Land," November/December 2003.) This April, bottle manufacturer Nalgene announced that it will stop making products containing bisphenol-A in response to concerns from Health Canada, the Canadian health department, and the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. An April report by the U.S. program expressed concern that bisphenol-A could cause behavioral changes in infants and children and trigger the early onset of puberty in females. Retail giant Wal-Mart had already announced that it would pull all baby bottles containing the chemical from its shelves by early next year. Nalgene and CamelBak have recently introduced shatterproof bottles made without bisphenol-A.

JUMPING THE GUN
The successful reintroduction of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies has inspired wolf lovers elsewhere to help give lobos a new footing. (See "All They Need Is Wolves," May/June 2003.) But with some 1,500 wolves roaming Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, in March the feds yanked endangered-species protections for the Northern Rockies gray wolf population. In the month following the decision, 37 wolves were killed by hunters. Conservationists are alarmed that federal rules require the three states to maintain a population of just 300 wolves; they estimate that only a population of at least 2,000 will guarantee genetic diversity. In April, 12 conservation and animal-rights groups, including the Sierra Club, sued to relist the gray wolf as an endangered species.

TROJAN SUV
"CAFE to Save Billions in Gas" crowed the Detroit News in April when federal regulators unveiled a proposal to boost the fuel efficiency of the nation's cars and trucks to 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015, part of a plan to reach 35 mpg by 2020. After years of debate--and plenty of obstacles thrown up by automakers--the United States is finally ready to increase its fleetwide corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for the first time since 1985. (See "Lay of the Land," March/April 2006.) And the Department of Transportation is willing to meet congressional mandates faster than required. So what's not to like? Always read the fine print: Buried deep in the draft regulation is a provision stating that stricter limits on tailpipe emissions that have been embraced by California and 17 other states are "expressly and implicitly preempted" by federal law. Those words could win for automakers what they've been unable to win in court. In late April, 12 governors protested in a letter to Congress that the automaker-friendly agency was determined "to unilaterally re-write the Clean Air Act and claim authority over greenhouse gas emissions." —Reed McManus


Illustrations, from top: Tom Burns/Anna Goodson Management; Debbie Drechsler; courtesy of Kevin Gurney and the Vulcan Project/C. C. Miller/Purdue University, NASA, and U.S. DOE; Gilbert Ford; Peter and Maria Hoey; used with permission.
Photo by Gary Graham Hughes/International Rivers; used with permission.

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