Biofuel Takes a Beating Should the bounty of the land fill your belly ... or your tank?
ALMOST EVERYONE IS GANGING UP on biofuel. Several developing countries led the charge against the alternative combustible at a recent United Nations food conference in Rome, blaming it for soaring worldwide food prices that prompted riots in Haiti and food scarcities in Africa. But because of the clout of the United States and Brazil, proud sponsors of corn- and sugarcane-based fuels, respectively, all the conference could muster was a vague promise to study the impact of biofuel production on the world's food supply.
While biofuel's backers won the skirmish, they're losing the battle as the once vaunted fuel outcompetes food for precious agricultural land. Last year then-U.N. food envoy Jean Ziegler called using arable land to make fuel a "crime against humanity." A recent survey by the National Center for Public Policy Research shows that most Americans want Congress to reduce or eliminate its mandate that the United States produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel annually by 2022 (nearly half of which would come from corn). And in June corporate heavy hitters Kellogg's, Tyson Foods, and Kroger joined the fray as members of the Food Before Fuel lobbying campaign. (Manufacturing costs have risen with the price of corn, which makes up much of industrial agriculture's feedstocks and the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens many processed products.)
No one disputes that U.S. subsidies for corn ethanol have caused food prices to increase, but calculations differ: The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the biofuel push has raised world food prices 3 percent, while the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute claims the figure is as high as 30 percent, and a recent World Bank study suggests it could be as much as 75 percent.
Biofuel bashing tends to oversimplify the multiple causes of the world's food crisis, but the debate highlights the need, says Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, "to move to biofuels that are produced on land that can't be used to grow food or forest, or are made from waste." Until alternative technologies are embraced, says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, "crop-based biofuels will continue to deprive the hungry of desperately needed food." —Reed McManus
W Watch: Keeping Tabs on Washington
This Is Your Brain on Lead EPA scientists say the federal limit on airborne lead should max out at 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air. But agency superiors, under court order to rewrite the 30-year-old federal standard for the deadly metal by September, have proposed a looser standard of 0.3 micrograms. Meanwhile two new studies reveal the stakes: Lead-exposed children have smaller brains and are more likely to be arrested for violent crimes when they grow up.
Smoggy Logic A new federal regulation makes it easier to build coal-fired power plants near national parks by changing how air-pollution levels are calculated. Instead of measuring a plant's peak emissions, regulators will now average them out over a year, thereby making emission spikes magically disappear. Staffers at both the EPA and the National Park Service say the new math will mean worsening air quality at national parks like Zion, Badlands, and the Great Smoky Mountains.
Got a Rocket in My Faucet Perchlorate, a toxic component of rocket fuel, has been found in drinking water in 35 states as well as in most lettuce and milk. Researchers report that even low doses of the contaminant disrupt thyroid function and impede fetal development. Still, in May the EPA announced that there is a "distinct possibility" the agency will decide not to regulate it. Meanwhile Congress is considering bills that would require the testing of water supplies for perchlorate and force the EPA to set a standard within a year.
X Marks the Spot In May the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a $489 million recovery plan for the northern spotted owl that aims to restore its populations in Oregon, Washington, and California over the next 30 years. Could this signify the end to one of the longest-running environmental debates? Alas, instead of protecting the bird's old-growth and mature forest habitat from logging, the plan focuses on secondary threats like wildfires and competition from the barred owl, potentially allowing more logging. —Dashka Slater
By the Numbers: Slim City
Data does not include industrial and non-highway transportation sources. For the complete list, go to tinyurl.com/6c8a8w.
Want to reduce your carbon footprint? Move to Honolulu and toss off your shoes as you stroll Waikiki Beach. Of the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, Hawaii's capital topped a list prepared by the Brookings Institution that ranks cities by per-capita global-warming pollution.
Honolulu's favorable weather gives the city a tanned leg up, of course. But the city of 377,000 is also compact, hemmed in by mountains, and boasts a well-used transit system.
High-density living and well-developed public transit are key factors that help push other cities to the top of the Brookings list. The metro areas that fill out the bottom slots tend to depend on cars for transportation and coal for energy.
In general, though, residents of metropolitan areas--two-thirds of the U.S. population--have smaller carbon footprints than the average American. —R.M.
The Walrus and the Kempthorne
The Arctic has another pretty face to worry about. Last summer was dismal for the Pacific walrus, with arctic sea ice shrinking to its lowest levels since measurements began in 1979. The tusked behemoths use the ice as a platform from which to dive for clams and mussels in the shallow waters over the continental shelf, but in 2007 the ice receded into deeper waters, and as many as 6,000 walruses were forced onto the land.
Walrus habitat is "melting away" in the face of global warming, says Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. The group is suing Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne for failing to act on a petition to list the Pacific walrus as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Listing the Pacific walrus won't prevent sea ice from melting, but it could give legal ammunition to those seeking to protect its Chukchi Sea habitat from oil and gas development. The Bush administration has given seven oil companies permission to search for fossil fuels in areas where walruses and polar bears live. "If the walrus is going to survive," Cummings argues, "we need to protect its habitat, not turn it into a polluted industrial zone." —Dashka Slater
Best Buy has launched the first ongoing electronics recycling program offered by a major retail chain, according to As You Sow, a corporate accountability group that pushed the electronics giant to develop a "take back" policy. Customers can bring their obsolete TVs, computers, cameras, and other gadgets to 117 stores in its Minneapolis, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., markets, whether or not they were originally bought at Best Buy. If all goes well, the company will expand the program to all 922 outlets nationwide.
Pay Now or Pay Later
The San Francisco Bay Area has become the first region in the nation to charge for carbon emissions, levying a 4.4-cent fee for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted. Twenty-five hundred businesses are expected to pay the fee, but many will end up being charged less than a dollar. Oil refineries, on the other hand, will pay upwards of $200,000 apiece. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District will use the money to track greenhouse-gas emissions.
By March 2009, every cup of joe served at McDonald's cafes and restaurants in Australia will have been certified by New York-based nonprofit Rainforest Alliance as sustainably grown. The nonprofit's frog-logo certification means that the beans were raised on South and Central American plantations that minimize chemicals and don't contribute to deforestation. The fast-food giant says it is already serving the environmentally friendly java in the United Kingdom and Ireland and at its 484 Aussie "McCafes." Alas, the company's current menu does not include making its U.S. outlets McSustainable.
Worried about the environmental backwash of yachting? Take heart. Austrian company Frauscher has developed the first hybrid speedboat, a 25-foot runabout priced around $175,000. Traditional diesel engines are most polluting while idling or powering up in the harbor, but electric alternatives, maxing out at five or six knots (about six or seven miles per hour), are too slow to thrill your average weekend commodore. The hybrid uses the electric motor to power up and put-put out of the harbor, then switches over to diesel in open water. —D.S.
This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.
As the World Warms Quick thinking before we slowly fry
GO SLOW IN OSLO (AND SAVE CO2) To save fuel, the Norwegian unit of Scandinavian Airlines has reduced the cruising speed of its jets by 10 percent, to about 485 miles per hour. On a 224-mile flight between Oslo and Bergen, the reduced speed eliminates 926 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions while adding only three minutes to the flight.
TWENTY PERCENT SOLUTION A new Department of Energy report says the United States could get 20 percent of its electricity from windmills by 2030--the same amount it currently gets from nuclear plants. The wind-generated watts would decrease coal consumption by 18 percent and natural-gas consumption by 11 percent, for a total annual carbon dioxide reduction of 825 million metric tons.
In July oil baron T. Boone Pickens unveiled a proposal to tap all that potential wind energy to fuel power plants. Pickens says this would free up natural gas for use as a transportation fuel and reduce the United States' imported-oil habit by a third. "I've been an oil man all my life, but this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of," Pickens says on his Web site, pickensplan.com.
DDT REDUX Decades-old deposits of DDT-contaminated ice are melting in the western Antarctic Peninsula, causing the pesticide, which has been restricted since 1970, to migrate back into the food chain. Researchers estimate that as much as 8.8 pounds of DDT are being released into the Antarctic each year through glacial melt. Their theory explains why Adelie penguins continue to have the same DDT levels in their bodies that they had 30 years ago.
ON THE ONE HAND ...
The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has teamed with climate-change denier Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and other groups to oppose climate-change legislation. Calling the link between human activity and global warming "speculative," they insist that limiting carbon emissions will make fuel and food more expensive. On the climate-change bill the Senate debated in June: "It could wreck our economy, destroy jobs, and harm the poor." Their campaign, dubbed We Get It, claims to take a "biblical, fact-based approach to global warming."
ON THE OTHER ...
Some Evangelical Christians have been lobbying Republican members of Congress to support climate-change legislation, arguing that the world's poor will suffer disproportionately from global warming. "People God cares about are being hurt by the early impacts of climate change," explains the Web site of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, founded in 2006. In March, 46 pastors and leaders, including three former Southern Baptist Convention presidents, criticized the denomination for being "too timid" in its response to global warming.
It only feels as if it takes as long to protect a giant sequoia as it does to grow one. In June a three-year battle to block logging proposals in California's Giant Sequoia National Monument came to a close when the timber industry abruptly withdrew its appeal of a 2006 court ruling that had stopped its tree-cutting plans. (See "Sierra Club Bulletin," May/June 2005, and "Lay of the Land," November/December 2006.)
By November, Florida expects to have finalized a deal to pay $1.75 billion to buy out U.S. Sugar Corporation and resurrect roughly 300 square miles of cane fields around Lake Okeechobee as a water source for the downstream Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. (See "Lay of the Land," November/December 2007.)
In June the U.S. Supreme Court slashed the punitive damages assessed against Exxon Mobil Corporation for the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, from $2.5 billion to $500 million. The court majority determined that punitive damages cannot exceed what the company has already paid oil-spill victims to compensate them for economic losses, a total of about $500 million. Exxon has spent $3.4 billion in cleanup costs and penalties. In 2007 the company earned its highest annual profits ever: $40.6 billion. (See "Pick Your Poison" at sierraclub.org/sierra/pickyourpoison.) --Reed McManus
The Times We Might Have Had Calculating the cost of guzzling fuel
NOW THAT U.S. DRIVERS MORE CONCERNED WITH saving greenbacks than being green are eyeing fuel-efficient cars, Sierra thought we'd spell out the advantages in terms that fit their budgets. At early-summer gas prices of $4.04 per gallon, how much money might they save over five years by switching to the 46-mile-per-gallon Toyota Prius hybrid, and how might they spend that windfall?
First up, the driver of a ten-mpg Lamborghini Murcielago LP640. It'll take a lot to convince its designer-sunglasses-adorned owner to give up such a high-fashion-statement vehicle, but its $25,450 fuel premium over the Prius would cover a seven-night stay in a deluxe king suite at Dubai's luxurious Burj Al Arab Hotel, first-class airfare included.
The Chevy Suburban SUV driver trying to eke out 14 mpg on the way to the supermarket should consider this: With an extra $15,000 in the savings account, a family of four could take two weeklong vacations to Disney World. Instead of tooling around in an all-wheel-drive Honda Pilot SUV, a ski-bum family could downsize to a hybrid sedan and invest the $11,000 gained in a pair of tire chains and a weeklong trip for four to Vail, Colorado, airfare and snowboard rentals included.
You care enough about your offspring to drive a Chrysler Town & Country minivan, but the extra $9,300 you're spending on gas could have bought two years of summer camp for two kids, plus a year's worth of piano lessons.
The Nissan Maxima? You could use the extra $8,670 on a nice bathroom remodel. And the Lexus GS 350 may spell luxury, but its $8,000 fuel premium over the hybrid could pay for a year's membership at a swanky country club. —Michael Fox
Gas Pains Are drill rigs the answer?
GASOLINE IS HEADING FOR $5 PER GALLON, and President George W. Bush thinks we need to start looking elsewhere for oil. With potentially 18 billion barrels of black gold thought to be sitting off our coasts, why not just go after that? According to a recent Gallup poll, 57 percent of Americans think drilling in currently off-limits coastal and wilderness areas is a pretty good idea.
But the federal agency in charge of researching the issue, the Energy Information Administration, isn't exactly gushing at the prospect. If the ban on offshore drilling in federal waters is lifted this year, the EIA sees the first oil reaching the market in 2017, with virtually no effect on oil prices: "Because oil prices are determined on the international market ... any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant," the agency declares in its Annual Energy Outlook 2007.
We won't find a quick fix on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, either. The EIA reported in May that allowing oil drilling there wouldn't produce oil until 2018 and would only reduce oil prices between 75 cents and $1.44 per barrel in 17 to 19 years. Under the most optimistic scenarios, the refuge could supply 1.2 percent of worldwide oil, which "would likely be offset in part by somewhat lower production outside the United States."
Jason Scorse, assistant professor of economics at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, says that anyone who thinks a possible small increase in oil supply a decade from now will affect today's prices is "delusional."
And those statisticians toiling away at the EIA give us even more reason to think beyond the barrel: The agency's most recent analysis says the world's demand for liquid fuels (mostly oil) will increase by a third by 2030. —M.F.
Photos, from top: Corbis, Martin D. McReynolds; used with permission.
Illustrations, from top: Debbie Drechsler, Peter and Maria Hoey, Josef Gast, Peter and Maria Hoey; used with permission.