Sunday, December 28, 2008

Shale Oil Development, robbing Peter to pay Paul

I read this article in the Los Angeles Times and it really hit set me off in several different directions.

Dollar signs fill the heads of oil companies and politicians, while visions of ecological disaster fill the minds of everyone else.

Oil company execs say it would be ‘unconscionable to forgo exploiting oil shale's potential’ while dismissing the ‘unconscionable’ destruction of land and the ‘unconscionable’ pollution and depletion of water resources.

Shell Oil spouts sound bites like ‘safely and responsibly’ ‘getting at’ this hydrocarbon resource simply because it is considered a ‘huge’ resource while at the same time acknowledging that the technology required to ‘get at’ this shale oil is unproven. What is known about this technology is that it would take 10 barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil and that could possibly use all of the remaining water in upper Colorado River Basin.

Where does this leave ranchers who depend on the underground aquifers for their crops and livestock, or the millions of people who would like to drink, bathe and swim in clean water downstream?

Taxpayer Rip Off
It seems congress has already decided how to best use our ‘public lands’. For oil shale development. Despite the proof of past ecological destruction, congress continues to bend to oil company pressure instead of taking the lead to develop renewable energy.

More proof of this decision comes from this industry being included in the $700-billion government bailout package. I was under the impression that the bailout was for financial institutions. Seems we were lied to again. I understand that we didn’t have any say in the first place on how this money was to be spent, but we were told the money was necessary to prevent Wall Street investment firms and banking institutions from going under not for more oil company tax breaks and investment.

No wonder Paulson refuses to allow disclosure on how this money is being spent. Bush and his cronies continue to ride the gravy train of taxpayer handouts.

Groundwater nightmare
It is not a matter of ‘if’ groundwater will be contaminated by this process, but by how much. No matter what ‘assurances’ oil companies give us that they will be ‘safe’ and ‘responsible’, their past and current performance shows they cannot be trusted.

Yet congress and the oil companies want to push forward into the darkness knowing full well they will add to the ecological mess that they have helped bring to our lands, air and water.

As the article says ‘Oil shale is a poor excuse for a fuel’. Why should we destroy even more landscape to further enrich a handful of men while taking away so much from so many?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

‘Free Recycling’ Plan Falls Short of Environmental Responsibility

Oregon lawmakers passed legislation last year that allows desktop computers, monitors, laptops and televisions to be disposed of for free beginning January 1. 2009.

The plan calls for any company that makes computers and TVs sold in Oregon must register with the state and pay a fee, generating an anticipated $350,000 to $400,000 in revenue.

The program needs to go one step further by providing an incentive to reuse still-working equipment.

Recycling consumes 20 times as much energy as reuse.

In keeping with the 3R’s of environment awareness: Recycle-Reduce-Reuse, sorting out reusable still-working computers, cell phones, radios and other devices, and then refurbishing and reselling them could make a deep cut in our waste stream and create employment opportunites.

Much of what could be recycled is thoughtlessly tossed in the trash can and what is placed in our recycle bins just gets dumped into places other than the landfill. Most of these ‘other’ dump sites tend to be foreign countries where hazardous materials are not regulated as they are in the U.S. Another dump site is the ocean where massive ‘plastic islands’ are forming. Colorful bits of plastic are being ingested by sea life which choke them to death.

However, there is evidence that we are becoming more environmentally aware but we need to do more. The complete 3 R program (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) needs to be employed and meticulously followed in order for us to truly cut down on the amount of waste we generate. It is not a matter of running out of landfill space. That mindset is the wrong way to view the problem. We need to keep useable items out of the landfill by adopting a ‘reuse before recycle’ mindset.

Using items for other than their intended first use, for example plastic bags we bring our groceries home in could then be used as trash can liners.

There are websites where you can offer your items for free to others who can make use of them. One such service is Free Mesa. If you're in Australia, a great new service is E-Cycled.

Glass, cardboard and paper we are aware of but you don’t have to have a garden to compost. Compost is a great nutrient source for your lawn. You can actually cut down on the amount of chemicals you dump on your lawn to make it greener plus it works to control damaging insect populations.

Visit to learn how simple it is to reduce waste in your daily routine.

Manufacturers are making a great impact on reducing packaging of the products we consumers buy, but the real driving force to get our waste under control is left to the consumer. We need to stop throwing away items that still have life in them. We need to shun the idea that we just have to have the latest gadget to replace the one we bought last year that still has a lot of useful life left.

Another couple of things that would go a long way to make us a truly environmentally aware society would be an incentive program to get companies to recycle and refurbish products and a reliable national directory of businesses that sells those products.

Further reading:
Book Mooch
Why Reuse Beats Recycling
Recycling Guide
Floating toxic plastic garbage island twice the size of Texas

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Progress Toward Addressing Climate Change Fails Again

Are we really committed to combating climate change? We talk a great game. We seem to recognize that something must be done. But when it comes right down to it, there is very little action.

Industrialized and developing countries get together periodically to discuss the problem and toss around ideas on how to deal with it, but in the end any solution is so watered down that it becomes ineffective.

Money is made available for developing countries, through a 2% levy on carbon trading under the UN Clean Development Mechanism, but everyone agrees that the amount raised ($80 million) is far below what is needed to build the necessary flood defenses, to develop much needed drought-resistant crops, and to produce storm warnings. This fund represents the human side of climate change, something that tends to be lost when discussing how much pollution should be cut back by industrialized nations.

The biggest polluters are of course industrialized nations, such as China, India, America, and Japan, who raise the loudest objections to pay more into the fund and consistently fail to reach agreements to make deeper emissions cuts. Understandably, developing nations are disappointed at their position and stubbornness. Everyone is paving a road of good intentions, but good intentions never get anything done.

U.N. projections are that poor nations will need tens of billions of dollars a year by 2030 to cope with climate change. Poland spent 24 million euros ($31.84 million) just to host the Dec. 1-12 conference and the only concrete result was to streamline access by developing nations to the fund while rich nations secured controls to ensure cash was properly spent.

This summit represented the halfway point between Bali in 2007 and Copenhagen in 2009. It was scheduled to reach an agreement to expand the Kyoto Protocol committing industrialized countries to make deeper emission cuts in the short-term and to produce a longer-term agreement encompassing all countries. No discernable progress was made.

EU leaders in Brussels agreed a pact on Friday to cut greenhouse gases by 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 -- after making costly concessions to east European countries. Is this going to be another disappointment of more talk and less action?

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions was never expected to be cheap or easy. It requires drastic changes in lifestyles for all of us, rich and poor alike. Everyone knew this before agreeing to get together to create an action plan to overcome our past mistakes. Time passes, pollution levels remain unaltered. The time has come to actually commit to a plan. Industrialized nations, being the biggest polluters should bear the largest financial burden to ease the rest of world of their disproportionate suffering.

This could be our last best chance to make a difference. Let’s make it effective.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another Lesson in Economics

Airfares are dropping. Gasoline prices are dropping. Instead of thanking your lucky stars for answered prayers, thank yourselves.

These happy reversals of long-standing trends are the result of a very basic factor of economics: lack of demand.

When gas prices began rising sharply we parked our vehicles and took up the mantra of environmentalist everywhere by riding public transportation. Let’s don’t blow it by returning to our old glutinous ways.

I would like to be altruistic and say we did it to save the environment, but no, we did it to save our pocketbooks.

Whatever the reason, we need to improve this trend and take the environmental reasons to heart. And if we continue to save a little money in the process, so much the better.

Of course now airlines are complaining about the lack of revenue, but please keep in mind they are crying for themselves, not for us and definitely not for the environment.

So, while we are still high on this happy news, can home mortgage rates be far behind?

Friday, November 28, 2008

EPA Should be Overhauled

The subject of coal was brought up during the recent presidential campaign cycle and President-elect Obama as well as Senator John McCain made some allusions to keeping this 19th century fossil fuel industry alive. Truth of the matter is we continue to need the energy this sooty polluting energy source provides. However, it is not the only option and the EPA is doing nothing to force this industry into cleaning up its act.

Dozens of new coal plants across the country have been put on hold in response to EPA allowing coal-burning power plants to build without addressing global warming. The coal industry’s response is to counter-sue in an attempt to prevent states from acting to fight global warming. This is just incredulous.

During the presidential campaign, the coal industry launched a $35 million ad campaign to rally public support for coal-fired electricity and to fuel opposition to legislation that Congress is crafting to slow climate change. The Australian Coal Industry spent millions to launch an offense to persuade the public that it is not a climate change villain. These advertising campaigns, quite simply, mask the harmful and polluting nature of coal-fired power plants. The public knows these advertising claims are lies. And yet they continue to try to greenwash the truth hoping the public will buy into their self-delusional pipedream.

The money spent on these greenwashing campaigns would be better spent in developing renewable energy sources. If the coal and oil industries would redirect their efforts and invest their very sizable fortunes into developing alternative energy the entire planet could get there sooner and everyone would be healthier for it. Money spent on new coal plants could also help develop wind and/or solar farms, geothermal plants or biomass development. Why fight the inevitable?

It disturbs and saddens me greatly that the EPA could issue such permits to an industry that has historically been the single most visible polluter of our environment without requiring controls on carbon dioxide. As far as I am concerned it is an indictment against the EPA. For what are they good for if they are not going to take appropriate measures to protect our environment and our health? Their action is the converse to their very name.

I can understand why the coal industry wants to do what it can to maintain its ‘business as usual’. It is the very mindset of human behavior to continue on the course that it knows best. But when that course is proving to be harmful to the health of the general population, not to mention the very environment in which we all live, then that course needs to be altered.

We as a nation have understood for decades that polluting our water, air and land cannot be tolerated. The federal government created an entire agency to protect the environment because we all know that in our endeavors to become a powerful nation we were fouling our own nests. The EPA has been given tools to combat polluters, the Clean Air Act being most notable, but continue down a path that all but proves they are in bed with these very polluters.

Other recent decisions have indicated that EPA Director Brown is, at best, sympathetic to industry polluters, and, at worst, being bought off by them. The EPA has obviously lost its mandate to protect us and therefore should be overhauled.

Finally, we will have a president that will actually listen to scientists and view them as something more than just court-jesters. The EPA better sit up and take notice.

I know the coal industry and all its related support groups employ a lot of people, but coal truly is not the answer. It has polluted our world for far too long. Alternative methods need to be employed, sooner rather than later. Monetary factors cannot dictate our future health. The only parties arguing the permits should be upheld are those who have a financial interest in having these coal-power plants be built (American Institute, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council and the National Association of Manufacturers). This sends a very loud message that they value profit over our health.

The Supreme Court will go no further than to tell the EPA that they must decide whether carbon dioxide endangers public health and welfare. But we already have tons of proof concerning the negative effects of excess carbon dioxide and where it comes from. Let us stop wasting money on more studies. Let us stop spinning our wheels trying to side-step the obvious, albeit expensive, solution. Let us develop renewable energy sources and get these industries up and running now.

Further reading:
American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity Greenwashing Dirty Coal
EPA Decision on Standards for Greenhouse Gases Draw Criticism
Is Bush interfering with EPA decision?
EPA Car Emissions Ruling Contested on Hill

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Oil Shale Drilling is Not Worth it

The US Bureau of Land Management recently announced its decision to rescind authorization for drilling leases on and near the border of Utah’s scenic national parks. This decision came after negotiations with National Park Service officials who objected to noise, lights and air pollution near Arches National Park, Dinosaur National Monument and Canyonlands National Park, all in Utah.

This may sound like a victory for environmentalists and naturalists, but it is only temporary. These oil and gas drilling leases, totaling more than 50,000 acres, will still be auctioned off December 19, 2008. This perpetual game will continue until the oil companies get their way or (as is extremely unlikely) become as environmentally ‘friendly’ as their ad campaigns like to claim they are. The arguments against drilling will still be the same and will remain just as valid.

"This is the fire sale, the Bush administration's last great gift to the oil and gas industry," said Stephen Bloch, a staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "The tracts of land offered here, next to Arches National Park or above Desolation Canyon, these are the crown jewels of America's lands that the BLM is offering to the highest bidder," he said.

The pursuit of these shale oil drilling leases at this point in time should not even be taking place due to another often overlooked fact. Oil companies currently hold leases to 90 million offshore acres, mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, and upwards of 70 million of those are not producing oil. It is estimated that if all these existing areas were being drilled, U.S. oil production could be boosted by nearly 5 million barrels a day, although it should be noted that it is impossible to estimate production. Let’s keep this point in mind when we look at how much untapped oil is estimated to lie beneath the U.S.

There is a rumor, circulated amongst those who stand to benefit from this rumor being true, that says -- there lies beneath the surface of the Rocky Mountains the largest untapped oil reserve in the world. Those people who only see dollars signs where there is natural beauty want to desperately convince the rest of us that mankind will benefit more from the extraction of this oil, with its extremely expensive extraction, production and shipping processes, than we would from leaving this natural beauty unspoiled. They are playing a tune that only financial profiteers want to listen to.

Oil shale is a misnomer being neither shale nor oil, in fact an immature source-rock which has not yet generated any oil and needs to be heated at 600 °F to yield oil by pyrolysis. In fact they should be classified with coal and peat.

The process, which is both economically and environmentally unsound and irresponsible, would extend the oil era by decades, if useable oil could be extracted. This would increase the odds of significant global warming and is not my idea of taking responsibility for our future.

An example of the shale oil extraction process would be to extract tons of rock to the surface, heat and crush it to extract the oil, distill the product to separate out the contaminated by-products and the result is a low-grade form of synthetic crude oil. Where do these contaminated by-products go? Into surface and ground water, of course. There will also be erosion, sulfur gas emissions, and air pollution caused by the production of particulates during processing, transport, and support activities.

Another process called ‘in situ conversion’ involves cooking the rock at 650-700 degrees F. while still in the ground and would contaminate ground water from the hydrocarbons created. So, Shell oil, in 2004, received approval from Rio Blanco County, Texas, state and federal officials to conduct a $50 million, two- to four-year study of a groundwater freezing process in hopes of containing these produced hydrocarbons. The obvious problems here are 1) the process is creating hydrocarbons; 2) the resultant hydrocarbons will be hot enough to melt the ice and will therefore, eventually, contaminate the surrounding rock anyway; 3) this money could used for alternative energy research. Their mentality is that the consumer will cover the cost of all of this in the end, therefore the experiment will become cost effective. Thank God for consumers, right?

This is the type of mentality that needs to be reversed. How about putting consumers ahead for a change and come up with something that does not dip so deeply into our pockets nor destroys what we absolutely must have for survival: a clean and functioning environment?

Just because you have always made money burning fossil fuels does mot mean you must continue to do so. Branch out into other fields that are more friendly to us and the environment and will not eventually choke us all to death. I am certain that your entrepreneurial ‘gifts’ will find ways to make money off of the endeavor.

Drilling for oil on land results in rearranged landscape, wildlife habitat disrupted probably for decades, piles of barren, jagged rock where once stood unspoiled natural beauty, contaminated rivers and streams, large swaths of trees cut down or mountains leveled and open pits left in the wake of profit seekers along with unsightly roads crisscrossing the land to access these pits. Also, the waste generated from the extraction process will require land to be withdrawn from traditional uses for decades.

We in this nation have turned a page in some small regard, when we told the auto industry they cannot be bailed out for their irresponsible business practices. Let’s show the oil companies the error of their ways and face them in the direction of developing alternative energy sources. Also, while on the topic of telling corporations of our displeasure with their wasteful practices, there is a movement underfoot to stop the shipping of food over long-distances because of the adverse effects of the very act of shipping. Pollution and the amount of fossil fuel burned to get food from around the world to your local grocer is very wasteful. Likewise, shipping fossil fuel to local gas pumps is wasteful. The pollution released into the air surrounding our national parks is already taking a toll on those parklands. Producing additional pollution inside the parks by these trucks transporting oil through them would prove to be even more devastating.

The days of fossil fuels are numbered. Some businesses realize the financial liabilities associated with greenhouse emissions and yet they refuse to bow to the obvious. This point needs to be drilled to the point that these individuals abandon the destruction of nature’s beauty and the disruption of our food chain just for their personal profit.

This nation needs to collectively wake up to the fact that burning fossil fuels is killing us. Why should our health and welfare take a backseat to oil company executives profit? Whenever an oil crisis surfaces they like to tell us that the expense of extracting shale is now acceptable. The reality is that the destruction of nature is never acceptable. It is not the only alternative to “business as usual”.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ocean is Growing Acidic

New research by scientists at the University of Chicago have documented that the ocean is growing more acidic faster than previously thought.

These findings correlates with increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide generated by human activities.

Yet another reason to slow down our consumption of fossil fuels. But, other human activities produce carbon dioxide as well, such as by producing cement and by carrying out land clearing and forest combustion. These activities only result in approximately 22% of the current atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The process of generating electricity is the single largest source of CO2 emissions in the United States, representing 41% of all CO2 emissions.

Carbon dioxide is produced naturally through plant photosynthesis, animal respiration, plant and animal decay, volcanoes, and diffusion out of the oceans. Without this natural production of CO2, life on our planet would cease to exist. The balance of oxygen and carbon we need for life began to change with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. At that time humans began adding to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the rate of CO2 production has steadily increased to the point that global warming has become a critical issue.

Carbon dioxide emissions have risen from 280 ppm in 1850 to 364 ppm in the 1990s. This increase has caused about 50-60% of the global warming. Fossil fuel combustion for energy generation causes about 70-75% of the carbon dioxide emissions, being the main source of carbon dioxide emissions. The remaining 20-25% of the emissions are caused by land clearing and burning and by emission from motor vehicle exhausts. Most carbon dioxide emissions derive from industrial processes in developed countries, such as in the United States and in Europe. However, carbon dioxide emissions from developing countries are rising. In this century, carbon dioxide emissions are expected to double and they are expected to continue to rise and cause problems after that.

When fossil fuels are burned to produce energy the carbon stored in them is emitted almost entirely as CO2. The main fossil fuels burned by humans are petroleum (oil), natural gas and coal. CO2 is emitted by the burning of fossil fuels for electricity generation, industrial uses, transportation, as well as in homes and commercial buildings. In 2006, petroleum supplied the largest share of domestic energy demands, accounting for an average of 47 percent of total fossil-fuel-based energy consumption in 2006. Coal and natural gas followed in order of importance, accounting for 27 and 26 percent of total fossil fuel consumption, respectively. The figure below displays emissions for each of these sectors, by fuel type in 2006.

The first person who predicted that emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and other burning processes would cause global warming was Svante Arrhenius, who published the paper "On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground" in 1896. However, it wasn’t until the 1930’s that it was confirmed that atmospheric carbon dioxide was actually increasing. In the late 1950s when highly accurate measurement techniques were developed, even more confirmation was found. By the 1990s, the global warming theory was widely accepted, although not by everyone. Whether global warming is truly caused by increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is still debated.

The University of Chicago study is based on 24,519 measurements of ocean pH spanning eight years, which represents the first detailed dataset on variations of coastal pH at a temperate latitude, where the world's most productive fisheries live.

"Of the variables the study examined that are linked to changes in ocean acidity, only atmospheric carbon dioxide exhibited a corresponding steady change," said J. Timothy Wootton, the lead author of the study and Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.

"The acidity increased more than 10 times faster than had been predicted by climate change models and other studies," Wootton said.

"This increase will have a severe impact on marine food webs and suggests that ocean acidification may be a more urgent issue than previously thought, at least in some areas of the ocean," he added.

"Many sea creatures have shells or skeletons made of calcium carbonate, which the acid can dissolve," said Catherine Pfister, associate professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago and a co-author of the study.

Climate alarmists are striving to convince us that we have a moral responsibility -- if not a religious duty -- to do all in our power to reduce our CO2 emissions and thereby "save the planet" from a catastrophic warming that they claim will otherwise lead to the extinctions of millions of species of plants and animals. If this unfortunate fate would indeed result from continued "business as usual" anthropogenic CO2 emissions, their "proselytizing" on this issue would be justified. But what if they are wrong? And, what if their policy prescriptions actually cause the very catastrophe they claim they will cure?

Only you can decide for yourself your position on this debate. But before you make that decision, please gather the facts and don’t bury your head in the sand and think someone else will take care of it. We are all contributing to the problem and will take all of us to do something to change it.

Whether you choose to follow the science or not, there is definitely a correlation between the increase of carbon dioxide and the warming of our planet. You cannot ask for more clearly defined proof than this.

Further reading:
CO2 Science
NASA maps shed light on Carbon Dioxide’s Global Nature
Climate Change – Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Ocean’s Carbon Balance
What is the Carbon Cycle?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bio-based Butanol as an alternative fuel

Scientists have been feverishly studying many alternative fuels in an effort to break our tether to fossil fuels. Realistically, they are trying to find the next big money maker, but who can blame them.

Nasib Qureshi, chemical engineer, has been trying to perfect a modified method of producing biobutanol from wheat straw since 2003. he reasons that wheat straw is present in abundance and its cost would be lower than corn-glucose dependent feedstock.

Another reason for the interest in using biobutanol as fuel is its several advantages over ethanol. New pipelines are not required for transportation of biobutanol – existing pipelines will do. Biobutanol is less corrosive compared to ethanol. Biobutanol is less prone to water contamination. Biobutanol can be used alone in internal combustion engines or it can be mixed with gasoline. Biobutanol provides more energy per gallon than ethanol.

Biobutanol can also be produced from fermented sugars drawn from corn glucose. But large scale commercial production of such biofuels was not possible due to high recovery costs, low yields and easy availability of conventional fuels. But conditions are different now. Our environment is more polluted, reserves of conventional fuels are not going to last forever and gasoline prices keep fluctuating alarmingly.

Clostridium bacteria is one of scientists favorite means of stimulating fermentation. Preparation of biofuels mainly involves four preparatory steps such as pretreatment, hydrolysis, fermentation and recovery. These steps have to be carried out separately and sequentially. But Qureshi and his team members deviated from this traditional method and combined three of the four steps. They employed a procedure known as “gas stripping” to extract the biobutanol. First the wheat straw has been pretreated with dilute sulphuric acid or other chemicals. Next the material is fermented in a bioreactor containing three different types of commercial enzymes and a culture of C. beijerinckii P260, a strain Qureshi obtained from Professor David Jones of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Here Qureshi has combined the two steps.

The bacteria and enzymes do their jobs simultaneously. First the enzymes hydrolyze the straw and release simple sugars then the bacterias start fermenting those sugars into acetone, butanol and ethanol. Butanol is produced in greatest quantity but other two are also valuable components. “Feb batch feeding” method increased the butanol production. Qureshi says he is planning to scale up production levels in 2009. “Then, we’ll look at the economics of using hydrolyzed wheat straw to see how we’re doing and move this process forward.”

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Vaporizing Garbage into Gas

Every year so much garbage ends up in America’s landfills that we are becoming the Saudi Arabia of trash. These dumps emit more of the greenhouse gas methane than any other human-related source. The Atlanta-based company Geoplasma has created an innovative method of using plasma technology to turn rotting rubbish into usable power for up to 50,000 homes and at the same time reduce the amount of methane into the atmosphere.

Engineers have developed an efficient torch for blasting garbage with a stream of superheated gas, known as plasma. When trash is dropped into a chamber and heated to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, its organic components—food, fluids, paper—vaporize into a hot, pressurized gas, which turns a turbine to generate electricity. Steam, a by-product, can generate more. Inorganic refuse such as metals condense at the bottom and can be used in roadbeds and heavy construction.

Several small plasma plants exist around the world for industrial processes, but Geoplasma is constructing the first U.S. plasma refuse plant in St. Lucie County, Florida. The plant is scheduled to go online by 2011; it will process 1,500 tons of garbage a day, sending 60 megawatts of electricity to the power grid (after using some to power itself).

Emissions are far lower than in standard incineration, and the process reduces landfill volume and methane release. Power prices are projected to be on par with electricity from natural gas. The difference, says Ron Roberts, St. Lucie County’s assistant director of solid waste, is that “you’re getting rid of a problem and making it a positive.

Photo Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Forests to Serve as Fire Sentinels

Researchers at MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering have discovered that trees carry an electric charge due to a difference in acidity between the tree and the soil it sits in. This electrical charge can be harnessed to power a web of sensors designed to measure temperature and humidity and broadcast the data from tree-to-tree.

Current Forest Service fire sensors are spread too widely to cover all localized temperature and humidity changes. A network of existing trees can be used to fill in gaps where needed without the use of additional batteries.

This is truly green technology that supports itself. Using nature to work with us without destroying any of it.

The group's results were published in the science journal Public Library of Science One (PLoS ONE), and they’ve already started a commercial company to develop the sensors that can harness that tree-power. The sensor network, being developed by Voltree Power, is slated to begin in spring 2009 on a 10-acre plot of land provided by the Forest Service. The coverage area would consist of four trees per acre.

Sensing changes in climate could also give advanced warnings of severe weather, or the sensors could be altered to detect human activity in off-limits areas, or smuggling activity.

Monday, September 1, 2008

More Doom and Gloom from Global Warming Scientists

We have all become too familiar with the incessant prophecies of how our planet is going to heat up to the point that global geography is going to change. The debate is about what is causing it and when will it happen.

Now scientists have come up with yet another prediction: the earth’s oceans will rise 1-2 feet over the next century instead of the previously predicted 1-4”.

The bottom line is we just don’t know the extent to which melting ice sheets are going to change the face of the earth.

Modern scientists have developed computer models to predict all sorts of outcomes but there still remain too many factors in order to reach a clear conclusion. And this isn’t taking in account a host of unknown factors.

Should we change our lifestyles based on unknowns? Historically, no one but the truly freaked-out alarmists ever has. This situation is becoming too reminiscent of the “chicken little” syndrome which will quite possibly lead many people to ignore these predictions altogether.

I say we rid ourselves of fossil fuel dependency because it is good for the environment and our health.

Global warming has been shown to be a part of the natural cycle throughout planet Earth’s existence. We are either going to experience it within the next 100 years or 1,000 years, but it will happen.

In the meantime, while the finger pointing continues and while scientists gather and calculate new findings, let us all individually concentrate on not contaminating our water, air and land and develop habits to the keep the Earth clean and humming along for the benefit of us and the planet.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wooden Hotel Keycards

How many times have you checked into a hotel and been given a non-biodegradable plastic key card to access your room? My wife and I take several trips around the country each year, for vacation and visiting family and friends, and we have always been under the impression that these key cards are reprogrammed for each new visitor. Apparently, so many of these cards are lost or taken home, only to be thrown in the trash anyway, that a typical 200-room hotel will go through roughly 12,000 plastic keys per year. This amounts to close to 1,300 tons of plastic becoming waste each year in the United States alone.

To answer this problem, Sustainable Cards, a Colorado based business, has created wooden hotel keycards. These cards have been used in Europe for years. They are biodegradable and are therefore a preferred alternative to gift cards and membership cards.

The cards will make their U.S. debut at the Democratic National Convention in Denver where approximately 70,000 biodegradable keycards will be distributed.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Growing Plastic in Switchgrass

When we think of plastic we might immediately picture carrying our grocery purchases home in those ubiquitous bags that end up floating on the breeze or being re-used to pick up after your dog. But no matter how they are used far too many of them are ending up in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and causing problems for marine wildlife.

We have grown accustomed to seeing plastic in everything from toys to electronic products to cars, boats, trains and planes. Traditionally, plastic has been made from petroleum, that substance we all love to hate but are unfortunately doomed to need until we adopt a better and cleaner energy replacement.

One company has found an alternative method of producing plastic. Massachusetts-based biotech company Metabolix has discovered a way to actually grow the plastic in the leafs of perennial plants. So far, switchgrass is the leading candidate to host this process. Anything left over after the harvest can go towards ethanol production.

By applying the knowledge gained from metabolic engineering, scientists at Metabolix have been able to produce what is being called biobased plastic. Their proprietary line of bioplastics is known as Mirel and can be used for everything from credit cards to plastic containers and even vehicle components.

Three immediate advantages of growing plastic instead of using petroleum is that, one, it becomes part of the movement to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels, two, it makes a positive impact on global climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and three, it will biodegrade to carbon dioxide and water in all environments with biological activity including soil, home composting, industrial composting, septic systems, wetlands, rivers and oceans.

Many plastics breakdown into smaller components over time (usually a very long time) but according to company statistics, Mirel will completely disappear in marine water within just over 40 days.

They tested injection molded bioplastics cups through 20 dishwashing cycles and found no change in either dimensional form or molecular weight. What this tells me is that injection molded bioplastics will still take time to break down and since most people use these type of cups once and toss them out, they will remain in the environment, however, probably not as long as traditional plastic cups. They do not give any stats on how long this form of bioplastics will break down. Bioplastic drinking cups, picnic plates and utensils will surely end up on the market, so we will require an adjustment in how we view them as throwaways since they will obviously have a longer useful life.

In 2006, Metabolix and Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) formed a joint venture company operating under the name of Telles to commercialize Mirel bioplastics. ADM has begun construction of the world's first Mirel biorefinery located in Clinton, Iowa. This new facility will produce 110 million pounds of Mirel plastic resin per year with start up scheduled for late 2008. Telles is responsible for the manufacturing, marketing and sales of Mirel worldwide.

Currently applications they are targeting are packaging, consumer disposables, erosion control, agriculture and any other application that requires sustainability, and/or biodegradability.

Finally, we will be able to bring our love affair with plastic back out into the open.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Can you say Disingenuous?Can you say Disingenuous? Or Insincere, snow-job, sham, hypocrite?

George W. Bush, environmentalist. Sort of leaves a foul taste on a truthful tongue.

European leaders, American governors, corporate executives, evangelical preachers, key lawmakers and environmentalists have been pressing Bush to lead what they see as a bid to save the planet for years.

And now that he is about to leave the White House he decides he wants to be remembered as an environmentalist.

As if this will counter seven years of wasteful environmentally unfriendly policy and practices.

He has refused to believe global warming is a serious threat and actively went about disregarding the Kyoto Protocol.

He considered climate change as nothing more than leftist political agenda. He disregarded scientific finds and even went so far as to have scientific reports re-written or stricken from review because they didn’t fit with his personal belief.

And now he wants to be known as an environmentalist.

His negotiators infuriated counterparts at this month's talks in Bali by resisting a mandatory cap on carbon emissions. And just hours after Bush signed a basically useless energy bill, the administration invalidated an effort by California and 17 other states to impose tougher tailpipe emission rules, hiding behind the excuse that it makes more sense to have a single national policy, which we know will never be drafted mush less passed.

And now he wants to be known as an environmentalist.

This is nothing more than another paint job, another imagined feather in his cap for another self-imagined “job well done”.

Of course, any policy he will try to get passed involving cutting gasoline consumption and greenhouse gases will be just drastic enough so that they wont pass and then he can say he tried but congress was against him.

This sudden show of consciousness is his top advisors focusing on reformulating his legacy and he isn’t fooling anyone except his own lapdogs.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Government Regulation versus Biodiversity

Just what does George Bush have against science? Now he wants to overhaul the Endangered Species Act in favor of any and all agencies that a federal agency would fund, build or authorize that might harm endangered wildlife and their habitat.

Let’s look at the possible reasons that he (or the highest bidding lobbyist) might have for overhauling an environmental strategy that worked so well for over 30 years.
1 He is utterly naïve in believing that civil and construction engineers know enough, and care enough, about wildlife and their habitat, that they alone can make responsible decisions affecting environmental safety and survival, even if it leads to increased costs for their projects.

2 Biodiversity is over rated and environmental protection is just a scheme to place a higher value on dumb animals than on mankind.

3 Mankind’s place in this world is to rule over all we survey. Wildlife is here to serve mankind and if they can’t survive along side us on their own then it just proves their lowly, subservient status beneath human kind.

4 Any money spent on protecting wildlife that does not directly lead to making more money for this administration’s supporters is a waste of time and effort because, well, see #2 and #3.

5 Environmentalist are using the plight of endangered species to hamper attempts by resource-profiteers to extract fossil fuel resources from the planet that will further pollute the land, air and water.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and National Fisheries Service are the experts in determining whether a project is likely to jeopardize any endangered species or habitat. And they have been doing a great job at it for roughly 35 years. Perhaps too good of a job, according to Bush and his gang of profiteers.

Conservative Republicans have tried unsuccessfully in congress to eliminate what they consider unnecessary laws to protect wildlife that only cause delays and cost increases on many infrastructure projects. The Department of Interior proposal, which does not require congressional approval, is aimed at ‘correcting’ the habit of federal action agencies have of ‘erring on the side of caution’ concerning wildlife habitat protection. In other words, civil engineers and project managers are tired of tip toeing around possible biodiversity destruction and want to get on with their projects without deferring to the edict of environmental policy.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said “We believe federal action agencies will err on the side of caution in making these determinations". This places immense faith in project managers to put the welfare of the environment over getting their project done and getting paid quickly so they can get on to the next project. this faith is obviously misplaced.

At stake here is nothing less than the continued health of biodiversity, struggling against an administration that places far more importance on making profit for its financial benefactors than on the healthy existence of this planet. The incessant need for humans to control the environment rather than to live with it is bringing us all closer to the point of strangulation.

The importance of biodiversity cannot be overstated. Diversity is the basic building block of a healthy, flourishing environment. Without it mankind will cease to exist.

The weakening of U.S. environmental policy is nothing more than a transparent attempt to allow oil companies to determine if their exploration and oil drilling practices will be harmful to wildlife. We know far too well what decision would be made if choosing between drilling to extract oil or saving the life of some animal that they couldn’t care less about.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Chevron cries Foul over its environmental damage

Chevron and Texaco (which is owned by Chevron) are dumping toxic oil wastes into Ecuador’s Amazon rain forest’s rivers and streams and are upset because the indigenous people are taking them to court over it.

For the past five years, a group of U.S. trial lawyers, on behalf of thousands of indigenous Indian peasants, have been trying to get Chevron to clean up the mess and admit its responsibility for the many resulting cases of cancer and physical deformities that local Indian tribes are suffering from.

After a court appointed expert recommended Chevron be required to pay between $8 billion and $16 billion to clean up the rain forest, Chevron executives finally decided it was time to disclose the issue to its shareholders. After the initial shock at the prospect of losing their investment money, an army of Chevron lobbyists and trial lawyers descended on Washington DC to try to get the federal government to force Ecuador to drop the case. Isn’t it remarkable that the very people who would sue anyone for dumping toxic sludge on their own lawns are going off screaming and crying to the federal government to prevent having to pay for their part in doing the same thing to someone else?

Chevron, who has profited greatly from being given the rights to extract millions of dollars in oil from Ecuador, has the audacity to ask the U.S. government to yank special trade preferences for Ecuador if that country doesn’t drop the case.

This is the same corporation who recently pushed a new global ‘Human Energy’ advertising campaign. This ad was devised, created and broadcast all during the time that Chevron’s treachery was taking place in Ecuador. This ad campaign, boasting ‘conservation and responsible exploration’ is aimed at engaging people in today’s energy issues and highlighting the steps Chevron is taking to bring more energy supplies to the global marketplace. Funny, but I remember that ad highlight how their extraction practices are poisoning acres of rainforest, polluting miles of river beds, killing countless fish and wildlife and giving cancer to hundreds of Ecuadorian people. All in the name of bringing energy to Americans.

I guess they did not count on their campaign to raise awareness about the major issues to actually raise awareness about their careless and harmful practices.

They have spent millions on trying to convince the public that they are working together with consumers in areas of vital importance, such as supply and demand, energy efficiency and climate change while at the same time spending millions to gag the Ecuadorian government for uncovering its environmental irresponsibility.

Oil companies are only about finding more oil and pulling it out of the ground and moving it using the cheapest method possible, and maximizing their investments in drilling rights and refinery capacity. If the environment gets in the way of either goal, the environment pretty much loses. In this case a country and its citizens are slated to lose because under this current administration oil is king and oil corporations hold the keys to the kingdom. With their high-priced lawyers and such powerhouse lobbyists as former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, former Democratic senator John Breaux and Wayne Berman, a top fund-raiser for John McCain—all with access to Washington's top decision makers the odds are stacked against the lowly native Indian tribes of a third world country, no matter how much wealth Chevron has plundered from them.

Chevron has the low class to argue that it has been victimized by a "corrupt" Ecuadoran court system while the plaintiffs received active support from Ecuador's leftist president, Rafael Correa—an ally of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. It is odd that the fact of this relationship between Ecuador and Chavez did not matter to Chevron as long as they were making a profit. No matter who the Ecudoran people have sided with, basic morality dictates that no corporation or shareholders should profit from the harm they bring to bear on indigenous peoples.

Corporations think that just because they have invested millions in their country, even for the purpose of making many more millions in profit from it without sharing it with the host nation, that they should be free of any harm they bring to that country. Since Chevron and the U.S. government tout globalization, this case should be tried in a world court.

Now, to add a twist to this story, trial lawyers in the case have retained their own high-profile D.C. super lobbyist, Ben Barnes, a major Democratic fund-raiser. And they have tapped a capital connection that may pay off even more. Roughly two years ago, when Attorney Steven Donziger who is coordinating the D.C. opposition to Chevron, first got wind that Chevron might take its case to Washington, he went to see Barack Obama who just happens to have been a schoolmate at Harvard Law School. During the course of several meetings, Donziger showed his old friend graphic photos of toxic oil pits and runoffs. He also argued strongly that Chevron was trying to subvert the "rule of law" by doing an end run on an Ecuadoran legal case. Obama was "offended by that," said Donziger. Obama vetted the issue with Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (who has long worked on Latin American human-rights issues), and in February 2006 the two wrote a letter to the then U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman urging the administration to permit the Ecuadoran peasants to have "their day in court."

In light of this, Chevron’s plea for help in Washington has taken on a new urgency because if Obama becomes president this case could remain in Ecuador. But we are no longer naïve enough to believe that you can count on what a President of the United States says he will do and what he actually does.

It is going to come down to whether an American company commands bigger clout than a Central American country with a long standing U.S. bilateral relationship.

The fact that Chevron withheld information from its shareholders concerning an ongoing lawsuit with a foreign country who helps provide profits says very little about the relationship Chevron’s corporate board holds with its shareholders. What else are they hiding?

Chevron and Texaco mow share space on the list of the world’s worst corporations for human and global responsibility along with Citgo which is owned by Venezuela.

Source: Newsweek

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Permaculture: A Revolution in Food Security

A new term has entered our lexicon, peak oil. What the everyday consumer is supposed to envision upon hearing this term is that the world has already extracted half of the planet’s natural oil resources and from this moment on the rate of production has entered a terminal decline. What this means to us of course is that the price of oil will only go higher due to its increasing scarcity and our ever increasing population size and our continued dependence on fossil-fuel-burning industry. British Petroleum (BP) claims we have not reached this ‘peak’ point while other oil companies say we have. And the debate continues without any clear way of knowing if we have reached peak oil because no one knows exactly how much oil is available under the planets surface.

Personally, I don’t know who to believe because I am not an expert, so I, like the rest of us, am at the mercy of those who are, or claim to be, experts. I do, however, believe we should aggressively research alternative energy sources no matter how much oil remains to be extracted. The longer we wait to actually adopt an alternative energy source(s) the more money we are throwing at big oil who clearly have no real interest in pursuing an alternative to using their product and the more environmental damage we are doing to the planets surface, air and water.

In the meantime, while we watch our government drag its feet in setting token and ineffective attempts at environmental policy while agribusiness and oil executives suck every dollar out of our pockets, there is a movement underway that has, unwittingly, been developing for years by individuals covering a wide spectrum of people who call themselves home gardeners, urban farmers, weekend garden ‘hobbyists’, and lately, locavores.

Permaculture and the increasing desire to become self-sufficient and sustainable is a lifestyle whose time has returned. Farming communities survived quite well for many, many years before we became industrialized and traded our independence for the convenience of having such things as: out-of-season fruits and vegetables every day of the year, and someone else to grow and can our foods.

With the emergence of recent issues concerning food safety, food and gas prices, genetically modified food, greenhouse gas emissions, transportation of food over great distances, and food freshness and quality, more and more people are becoming painfully aware of the dangerously vulnerable position we are being forced into. The continued reliance on agribusiness, government, big oil and even financial organizations to provide for our daily necessities is in jeopardy.

I am convinced that communities everywhere need to create local, sustainable, community gardens to supplement each individuals home gardens for the purpose of creating community food surplus in case of national emergency. I realize I may sound alarmist, but our nations cupboard is bare.

I recently discovered a group based in Nevada City, California, called Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy. APPLE is a grassroots group striving for a more self-reliant, sustainable local economy (as opposed to global economy that the world’s money changers are pushing for). They produce locally what they consume locally, as much as possible. It is an intuitive idea that I believe many people have been craving as an answer to our need for food safety and community activism. It is a means of re-establishing our own control over what we eat and how it is grown.

They have produced over 100 videos, they call them conversations, featuring everyday individuals who adopted permaculture and have taken the step towards sustainability in their own yards. Be sure to watch #51 “An Experiment in Back Yard Sustainability” and #100 “Suburban Permaculture with Janet Barocco and Richard Heinberg”.

One such video, entitled “How Much Food Can You Grow in Your Yard?”, shows an urban lot, measuring 75’ by 125’, in Port Townsend, Washington. The home owner, Judy Alexander, takes us through her self-sustained property re-educating us on how it is possible to grow enough food to sustain your family and have excess for neighbors, friends, or community storage.

Whether you agree or disagree with the narrators assessment that we have reached a peak of human innovation, information, wealth and health, check out the many other videos for some very educational insight to what it can be like to regain our independence and get back the satisfaction that being in touch with land brings.

There are of course many other groups out there creating their own sustainable Eden. One of my personal favorite experiments in permaculture is taking place at the “Little Homestead in the City”. They call themselves eco-pioneers living a homegrown revolution on a sustainable, real-life original urban homestead. They have set an excellent example of how anyone can create an environment that reaches out to the community at large and can therefore inspire others fulfill their own need for independence. It truly is a revolution.

Our dependence on oil is becoming more and more expensive in terms of cost of extraction and production which gets passed on to the consumer, and in the cost of damage to the environment in terms of exploration, extraction and burning of oil which is felt by everyone. We are being forced to accept higher food prices as the result of short-sighted use of food crops for the production of bio-fuels instead of using non-food crops. In our rush to sever ties to foreign oil we are made to believe that the only immediate answer is to damage the environment further by increasing the number of offshore oil wells.

Through the use of the internet and our increased access to each others gardens and skills, through blogs and websites as educational tools, we are all becoming more empowered to take the course of our future into our own hands, to grow our own food, and share the excess with neighbors in an attempt to get this food revolution off the ground.

Further reading:
Instant Permaculture for the Suburbs

Are we running out of oil?

Why peak oil is probably about now

Permaculture Institute

Homesteading Today

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ever Wonder Where Your Discarded Computer Goes?

There are many websites dedicated to informing the public where to send their used computers, televisions, cell phones, iPods, etc. Sometimes the product manufacturer even allows you to send your product back to them when you are done with it. (See below). But where do these items go after they have left your possession?

There are no precise figures but activists estimate that 50-80% of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons of electronic waste collected for recycling in the U.S. yearly ends up in Africa and Asia where labor and cost of recycling is lower. Though this is a profitable activity and there are several licensed companies that recycle computers and their components; there are also many other companies who are not authorized, and which subject their workers to very hazardous environments while recycling computer parts.

Workers in these countries use hammers, gas burners and their bare hands to extract the precious metals and toxic chemicals, such as cadmium, lead, chromium, flame-retardants and mercury. Unsafe methods of disposing of computer components include landfills, burning to extract metals such as copper from printed circuit boards, or breaking and throwing components such as CRT monitors. In all these methods, toxins are released into the air, soil, and groundwater.

Greenpeace said they tested the environment around dump sites in Ghana, West Africa, and discovered higher than normal levels of carcinogenic substances, as much as 100 times above levels found in uncontaminated soil. The two scrap yards that were tested are at Abogbloshie in the centre of Accra, the main centre for recycling computers in Ghana, and in the city of Koforidua in the country’s Eastern Region.
Photo: ever wonder where-recycled computers

The group also noted the presence in most of the samples of other chemicals such as phthalates, which interfere with reproduction, and in one of the samples of a high level of chlorinated dioxins, known to promote cancer. “The nature and extent of chemical contamination found at these sites in Ghana is similar to that previously exposed by Greenpeace for e-waste open-burning sites in China and India,” the group said.

The most troubling of all is that children are employed to retrieve metal parts, mostly made of either aluminum or copper.

Greenpeace said container-loads of old and often broken computers, monitors and TVs arrive in Ghana from Germany, Korea, Switzerland and the Netherlands “under the false label of ’second-hand goods’”.

Considering the fact that estimates show that manufacturing one PC requires about 240 kg fossil fuels, 1.8 tonnes of materials, 22 kg chemicals and about 1,500 liters of water, this production process is one of the most environmental-resource-intensive ventures we participate in. Many people are tempted to buy a replacement computer because a new one is on the market or they just get tired of the old one and replace it even though it is still useable.

Environmentalists are pressuring governments around the world to find safer ways to dispose of electronic waste that are creating “toxic stews” in places like China, India and Pakistan. But they can’t do it on their own.

We can help cut down on e-waste by using the device to its fullest potential life span or at least ensure it will go to someone or some organization that will use it until it dies for good. We may not be able to stop how the waste is handled once it goes overseas but we can cut down on the amount that goes there if we would only become more responsible and not buy new when there is still useable life left. Remember: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

Further reading:
Computer disposal, donation, and recycle information

Step by Step Guide to Recycle a Computer Properly

E-waste Piles Up in U.S. and Abroad

When PCs Pollute

Recycling Resources:
Tech recycling for the Upgrade-Happy

Recycling E-Waste

Electronic Product Management Directory

Recycling E-Waste

Friday, August 8, 2008

Monsanto Backs Away From Bovine Growth Hormone

The public has been told for years that rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), which has been used extensively by large dairies to boost milk production, has no effect on the human body.

The products are not required to be labeled by the U.S. FDA as having rBGH as an ingredient, thanks to our wonderful lobby system allowing the appropriate people to be paid off. The use of the hormone has been a concern of consumers, food safety organizations and scientists. Regulatory bodies in both Canada and Europe rejected the hormone due to numerous animal and human health concerns.

Now Monsanto, the company who makes it, wants to rid itself of it. “News of Monsanto’s divestment of Posilac is one more sign that no-one wants the growth hormone rBGH used in milk production, not even the company that makes it,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “In the last year we’ve seen retailers including Walmart, Kroger, and Starbucks fall like dominoes in the race to meet consumer demand for artificial growth hormone-free milk. “

Could it be that consumers are finally getting through to agribusiness? Don’t count get your hopes up just yet. The only reason this venture failed is because “rBGH is not used by small-eco-friendly farms. The artificial hormone has contributed to the growth of mega-dairy operations that cram together thousands of cows generating mountains of waste that are toxic to us and to our environment,” explained Hauter.

When Monsanto was unable to get the FDA to limit the number of “rBGH-free” labels used by these small dairy farms they went to state governments to try to get them to regulate against their use. Having failed this, Monsanto decided it was time to back away from its use.

In cows treated with rBGH, significant health problems often develop, including a 50% increase in the risk of lameness (leg and hoof problems), over a 25% increase in the frequency of udder infections (mastitis), and serious animal reproductive problems, i.e., infertility, cystic ovaries, fetal loss and birth defects.

Because rBGH use results in more cases of mastitis, dairy farmers tend to use more antibiotics to combat the infections, the residues of which also may end up in milk and dairy products. These residues can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals and contribute to the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria, further undermining the efficacy of some antibiotics in fighting human infections.

The next step is to find clearly identifiable links between human health problems and rBGH use and Monsanto will face a mountain of lawsuits.

This story is not yet finished.

Further reading:
What is rBGH?

Milk: America’s Health Problem

Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer

Institute for Responsible Technology: Your Milk on Drugs

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Plant Photosynthesis Leads to Cheap Storage of Solar Energy

The amount of sunlight that strikes the Earth in one hour supplies the entire planets energy needs for one year. Current technology to store excess carbon-free electricity during the day, to be used during heavily overcast days and at night, is too cost prohibitive and grossly inefficient to realize its full potential as a cheap, reliable, renewable energy source.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have devised a simple method that will overcome both the high cost and the inefficiency of current solar electrical storage. They can now mimic plant photosynthesis to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen and then recombine them inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.
(Photo credit: MIT/NSF; the new, efficient oxygen catalyst in action in Dan Nocera's laboratory at MIT.)

Daniel Nocera Matthew Kanan were inspired by plant photosynthesis to use a catalyst consisting of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode to produce oxygen gas from water, another catalyst produces hydrogen gas. Electricity, whether produced from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source, runs through the electrode resulting in oxygen gas. Another catalyst, using platinum, can produce hydrogen from water.

The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it's easy to set up, Nocera said. "That's why I know this is going to work. It's so easy to implement," he said.

Electrolyzers currently in use by industry are not suited to artificial photosynthesis because they are very expensive and require a highly basic (non-benign) environment that has little to do with the conditions under which photosynthesis operates.

This new discovery, along with solar panels as thin as paint for homes and cars, and with nano flakes revolutionizing the transformation of solar energy to electricity, will greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and address global climate change. The biggest obstacle remaining is the government in legislating the switch-over from electricity-by-wire from a central source and big oil, who will not want to see the loss of income to their already abundantly over-flowing coffers. For individual home owners, the future is indeed looking brighter.

Further reading:
Home Windows Could Cut Carbon Emissions in Half

Cheap New Solar Panels

Nanosolar Powersheet That Could Change the World

Cheap, Green Solar Panels

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Republicans Think Properly Inflated Tires Is A Joke

It has been proven countless times that if you keep your car’s tires properly inflated and keep your car properly tuned you will get increased gas mileage.

Senator Obama made this same statement and Republicans have turned it into a joke by making this one of their daily talking points; Rush Limbaugh is having a field day; and Republican National Convention is sending tire gauges labeled “Barack Obama’s Energy Plan” to Washington reporters.

This illustrates the ignorance that we need to overcome to get this country on the right path to energy efficiency. Efficiency experts say that keeping tires inflated can improve gas mileage 3%, and regular maintenance can add another 4%. If everyone followed this advice then this nation could reduce our demand on oil by several percentage points.

Also, if we cut down on idling, we can improve fuel economy another 5%, and cutting down on speeding and unnecessary acceleration, will increase mileage as much as 20%. It truly is in our own hands to cut back on our oil dependency. And this will help lower gas prices. We have already witnessed this in that the recent decline in the number of miles driven has lowered gas prices. We are not powerless and doomed to be forever dependent on big oil, as the Republicans would have us believe.

Why is it that the simplest, easiest and most cost effective solution is often seen as a waste of time and therefore not taken seriously? This is exactly the time to say “it is the little things that add up to make a big difference”.

Their mantra is to get as many people as possible involved, with their hands out, to make as much money as possible from some unnecessarily complicated plan in order to ‘fix’ what can so easily be taken care of yourself.

Now, republicans have made this a political joke which will only serve to make more people think it is a waste of time. And it backfires on them by showing us all how unconcerned they are with reducing our dependence on oil. Once again the republicans have screwed up our future because of their ignorance. Only people who are affiliated with the oil industry would think this is a useless and dumb idea.

The latest rally cry is to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but we currently receive about 50% of crude oil and petroleum products from the Western Hemisphere (North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean including U.S. territories) during 2006. We imported only 16% of our crude oil and petroleum products from the Persian Gulf countries of Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. During 2006, our five biggest suppliers of crude oil and petroleum products were:
# Canada (17.2%)
# Mexico (12.4%)
# Saudi Arabia (10.7%)
# Venezuela (10.4%)
# Nigeria (8.1%)

The republicans grand plan for reducing oil prices is to expand offshore drilling which even they admit will only meet about 1% of this nation’s demand by 2030. How is that going to reduce prices today? Expanding offshore oil drilling will only benefit big oil by expanding their profit.

Instead of wasting campaign dollars on ads to attack Obama for trying to do something positive, these juveniles that call themselves republicans need to research the much publicized effectiveness of car maintenance to get better gas mileage and therefore reduce our dependence on foreign oil and lower the price of gas by decreasing the demand on gasoline, which is exactly what the voters want.

Please do something really big for yourself, drive responsibly, keep your car tuned up, and keep your tires properly inflated. Simple actions on your part and, yes, it does make a difference.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Carbon Capture Sequestration is Needed Soon

The world’s population continues to grow and along with it so grows our dependence on electricity. The world is not adopting alternative and renewable fuel sources such as solar, wind, wave, etc quickly enough, so plans are being drawn up to build new coal-fired power plants around the world.

E.on, the German energy giant based in Düsseldorf, Germany, wants to build a new coal plant at Kingsnorth in Kent, England. Protesters and scientists want to stop the plan from going forward unless it is linked to a carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility which would store its emissions underground. The proposed plant has no CCS plans for Kingsnorth and so its CO2 emissions would vent into the atmosphere. Protesters will not be able to stop the proposed construction of the plant and an E.on company spokesman said they have obtained injunctions to give police more powers to arrest protesters.

With the threat of violence between environmentalists and power plant owners heading towards the boiling point, CCS research needs to be finalized soon.

E.on currently has three new pilot projects to develop CO2 capture technology in cooperation with other companies based in Canada, U.S. and Japan. The three test plants will all be built in Germany. The three projects join four existing projects that E.on is pursuing together with Alstom, Hitachi Power Europe, Siemens and TNO.

The purpose behind cooperating with so many different companies is to test the capture mechanisms with several plant construction methods.

Germany appears to be taking their role in this potentially lucrative field very seriously. Just how serious is England in its quest to be one of the world’s leaders in carbon capture technology? Despite its promise of ‘urgent detailed implementation plan’s for carbon capture nearly five years ago, it is still only intending to help fund one small-scale project which should be operational by 2014. Companies taking part in the competition to build this demonstration plant are not even sure how much money they will receive.

This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only just began working on the regulatory framework for this potential weapon against climate change. Estimates suggest there is enough geologic space in the U.S. to store more than 3,000 gigatons of CO2, enough to store emissions from nearly 1,000 coal-fired power plants for a millennium. CCS, however, is in its infancy and not practiced on a broad scale in the U.S. but actual production needs to take place in order to keep up with Germany.

The European Union is testing several projects and on Wednesday gave Norway additional funds for an experimental CCS project at a gas-fired power plant. The Alberta government in Canada said last week it will spend $2 billion on major CCS projects.

Other countries pursuing CCS include Australia and Japan. By 2012, the global CCS market could top $236 billion.

With coal providing 25% of global primary energy needs and generating 40% of the world’s electricity, as well as being one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, there is doubt that coal will be replaced by alternative energy sources any time soon. This is manly due to the cheaper cost of burning coal versus oil or natural gas.

Research into CCS is urgently needed in order to keep up with the inevitable rising trend in building new coal-fired power plants. And it appears we are on the right track, but it is going to take at least another five to ten years before we begin seeing clearer skies around these mammoth polluters. Whether we will see CCS come to fruition in time to be our saving grace from choking out the planet remains to be seen. But with Germany taking the lead in the race we will know the answer sooner than we would from these other countries.

Further reading:
World Resources Institute
Science Daily

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

California’s Workable Solution to Funding Solar?

Two California cities have come up with an innovative method that could incentivize the much needed move towards the use of solar panels. The solar loan law, sponsored by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), will ‘allow’ cities and counties to make low-interest loans to homeowners and businesses to install solar panels, high-efficiency air conditioners and other improvements to save energy.

The best part of the package is that homeowners can pay back the loans as part of their property taxes. If they move, the improvements and loan balance are transferred to the next owner.

This plan reduces the upfront costs associated with solar panel installation and reduces the risk that the investment will be lost when people sell their homes.

Three thoughts come immediately to mind.
One-(on the positive side) the installation of solar panels will increase the resale value of homes, a much needed incentive for this crippled housing marketing, although it still won’t guarantee the homes sale.
Two-(on the potentially negative side) the wording of this bill is suspicious in that it uses the word ‘allow’. There are no guarantees that cities will actually loan money to property owners and there is no incentive for them to do so.
Third-(on the negative side) rebates of the cost of the systems are running about 25% and are declining due to several factors, one being homeowners are simply not taking advantages of them. So, unless the home owner is motivated by the possibility of reselling excess energy back to the power company, I don’t see this bill being of much use to anyone.

Palm Desert, a city with an aging population and high air-conditioning costs, already has a list of interested customers and has created the Palm Desert Energy Independence Program to offer the loans, setting a goal of reducing energy consumption by 30% over five years.

Berkeley has decided to support the loan program and has created “Berkeley FIRST”, but it is still in the planning stages.

Everyone is familiar with solar cells, they have been used for years, mainly on calculators, emergency road signs, parking lot lights, and even accent lights around your home. But it will probably take a major increase in the cost of power production similar to what is happening at the gas pump before people will get serious about adopting this cleaner power source.

Last year, Colorado State University discovered a method of manufacturing low-cost high-efficiency solar panels that will be ready for mass production by the end of 2008. Perhaps this will be the push needed to jump start the “solar revolution”.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Higher Food Prices and Biofuel Production, There is a Connection

As everyone without the power to do anything about it already knows, the push for biofuels is the leading factor in the increase in worldwide food prices.

Despite what our government has been trying to push off as fact, a new study has proven they are lying to us. And here is why.

Biofuels is a new market with the potential of huge profit for corporate America therefore the American government is doing everything it can to ensure its success, even at the risk of causing millions of world citizens to go deeper into poverty or to die of starvation, even at the risk of costing millions of Americans more money at the supermarket, even at the risk of alienating American voters. Money talks louder than any group of protesters and any group of people writing blogs trying to get the truth out to fellow Americans who refuse to take the time to educate themselves to what is really going on.

The World Bank reports that biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75% while our government holds fast to its claims that biofuel production’s effect is only 3%. Any thinking person can look at how much corn has been diverted from food production to biofuel production (over one third) and can reasonably conclude that food prices are going to suffer.

This report was completed in April 2008 and has yet to be published because the World Bank is worried about embarrassing an America President who has attained the lowest approval rating of any past President.

Also, the British government has withheld its own report on the impact of biofuels, the Gallagher Report, which states that plant based fuels have played a “significant” part in pushing food prices up to record levels.

Does anyone out there have any doubt remaining about where the loyalties of the powers that be lie? Those loyalties are certainly not with the voters who put them into office.

The U.S. government doesn’t want the everyday Joe to know that ethanol can be made cheaper from other non-edible substances because if a significant number of Americans know this then the government would look foolish over giving so much in subsidies to corn farmers. But then again the Bush administration has already shown that it doesn’t give a damn about what Americans want, it’s all about how much money corporations can make.

Bush continues his charade of the causation of higher food prices by placing the blame on higher demand from China and India. But the World Bank study disputes that "Rapid income growth in developing countries has not led to large increases in global grain consumption and was not a major factor responsible for the large price increases."

Even successive droughts in Australia, calculates the report, have had a marginal impact. Instead, it argues that the EU and US drive for biofuels has had by far the biggest impact on food supply and prices.

The report points out biofuels derived from sugarcane, which Brazil specializes in, have not had such a dramatic impact. But sugarcane for biofuel production does not create a large enough market as does corn for biofuel and therefore American corporations would not stand to make as much money from using it.

Producing and using ethanol would help ease global warming, to some extent, but why do we have to pay for this in higher food prices and more deaths?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Drive Faster or Save Nature?

Why destroy natural habitat and bleed our bank accounts just so we don’t have to change our ways?

According to the Alliance to Save Energy the best way to deal with rising gas prices is to:
- drive 5% less
- slow down
- inflate your tires

Sounds simple enough.

If everyone followed these simple steps U.S. oil consumption would decrease by 1.3 million barrels a day, immediately.

If we do this then we would not need to search for more oil. Oil companies could not say they have to rip out nature to feed our unquenchable thirst for more oil.

We are still using plastic bags and plastic water containers by the billions. We are still driving like there is no shortage. I get passed by people on the freeway every day. Somebody out there is not slowing down. Somebody out there is still buying water in plastic bottles.

Figures claim that we are driving less, and mass transit ridership is up. Let’s don’t just rely on them to reduce our dependence on oil let’s all jump in and help.

We all complain about being forced to pay more for gasoline and instead of following these simple common sense steps that would save us money and cut down on the amount of oil we consume the U.S. wants to drill for more oil. When George W Bush wants to drill for more oil it should send up a red flag that we should not drill for more oil. He is only going to help his ‘big oil’ friends bottom line. Face it people we have reached maximum capacity without destroying more natural habitat. And we can do something about it.

Please, slow down, quit accelerating so hard, and maintain your vehicle. Think about what your personal habits are costing every one. If you don’t care about what it is costing everyone else then think about how much money you personally could save if you just followed these simple, very reasonable, steps.

Where are you going in such a hurry?

According to Julius Pretterebner, a vehicles and alternative-fuels expert at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a consultancy that does a lot of work for the oil companies, how fast people drive and how quickly they accelerate is responsible for 10% to 30% of fuel consumption.

Are Americans so unyielding to reason that we refuse to follow simple, common sense steps that will save us money.

We can’t slow down those fools who think they have to pass everyone on the road but we certainly have the power not to be one of them.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Listen to the Children

Too often we adults shun advice from children as too naïve and not worth our time to listen to.

Here is a twelve-year-old who has something meaningful and worthwhile to say and actually says it better than most adults. She addressed the United Nations meeting in Brazil with an elegance and style far beyond her years.

Please, take the time to listen, it is only a five minute segment of her speech but in that short time she paints reality far more succinctly than any adult I know ever has.

From her we have so much to learn and just maybe we can learn to share what we have with those who have nothing.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bunge Foods Responds Harshly to Protestors

I found this request for help on Rainforest Action Network website and want to pass it along to as many people as possible. Please help if you can.

Last week, thousands of indigenous people and small farmers in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul peacefully blocked roads, railways and invaded dams to draw attention to the global food crisis and policies that favor agribusiness over small farms. Despite the non-violent nature of their actions, six of the participants protesting in front of a Bunge soy-crushing facility were attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets, suffering severe injuries.

Bunge claims to defend human rights, but the company's actions speak far louder and more violently than its words.

Rainforest Action Network is calling on us to take action and hold Bunge accountable for these actions.

Bunge has blocked all incoming e-mails from anybody using Get Active—one of the most common online organizing tools. They effectively blocked emails from RAN supporters. Hence the fax action.

You can click here for more information on how to take action, including joining the RAN action to fax Bunge CEO Alberto Weisser’s office, demanding that he take action to prevent attacks on peaceful demonstrators.

Hundreds of people protested at the Bunge soy-crushing facility, where they were hoping to reclaim bags of food staples produced by family farmers that were supposed to be distributed to the community.

Military police swarmed the peaceful gathering and attacked non-violent protestors. We must hold U.S. corporations accountable for the violence that occurs in and around their facilities.

Bunge allowed a peaceful protest for food to become a violent confrontation between a corporation that benefits from record grain prices and hungry people who are increasingly displaced from their land by soy plantations.

Bunge Foods is a Bunge North America Company whose parent company is Bunge Limited headquartered in White Plains, New York. Bunge is one of the largest grain traders, grain millers, oilseed crushers and shortening and oil refiners.

From their website: “Our integrated agribusiness, fertilizer and food products businesses position us to meet the world’s growing demand for affordable, high quality food and capitalize on global trends in demographics, agriculture and economics. Integration enables us to supply global needs efficiently and create value in a variety of market conditions.”

It seems their goal to ‘capitalize on global trends’ overrides people’s right to peacefully protest.