Weekly Mulch: Cost-Cutting at the Environment's Peril

 

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

In Washington, the environment is under attack. The cost-cutting deal that the House passed yesterday stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of $1.6 billion, which made up 16% of the agency’s budget. Funds for clean energy were cut. Republicans put in a provision that would keep the Department of the Interior from putting aside public lands for conservation and one thatkilled the nascent climate center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

These choices represent a deeper antipathy toward nature and environmental health than the run-of-the-mill climate denialism that’s become au courant among congressional Republicans. They show that plenty of leaders in Congress do not care about basic protections that ensure clean air and clean water or that keep even small stretches of the planet safe from mining, drilling and other human interventions.

Greenlining

One idea driving these decisions is that, economically, the country can’t afford to protect the environment right now. But as Monica Potts argues at The American Prospect, in a review of two new books that cover the economy and the environment, green policies are good for business. In reviewing Climate Capitalism by L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen, Potts notes that “$2.8 billion a year is wasted because employees don’t turn off their computers when they leave work; comprehensive clean-energy and climate legislation could create 1.9 million jobs; improving indoor air quality could save businesses $200 billion annually in energy costs.”

Almost 2 million jobs! The country could use that boost right now. But those jobs depend, of course, on government action. As Potts points out, businesses won’t necessarily adopt these solutions on their own. The other book she reviews, Seth Fletcher’s Bottled Lightning, explains why electric cars weren’t developed sooner.

In short, “oil has stayed so remarkably cheap,” Potts writes. And, as she says, “The market doesn’t capture all of the costs that fossil fuels and other industrial-era processes impose on society.” Environmentally friendly policies might be good for business, but sometimes business doesn’t know it. The private sector won’t learn that lesson, either, if Washington is willing to sacrifice its administrative infrastructure for handling environmental issues.

New energy, new decisions

The country’s going to want its government to have some environmental experts left around for another reason, too. As oil and gas get more expensive, alternative energy sources are going to look more appealing. But while they might have lower carbon emissions, they raise new issues about clean air and water and about their impact on ecosystems. The EPA, for example, is currently studying the water and air impacts of natural gas, which has been widely touted as a fuel source that emits less carbon than coal.

But that may not be accurate, either. In a study obtained this week by The Hill, Robert Howarth, a Cornell University scientist, found that the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions related to natural gas production may actually far outstrip the amount coal produces. Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard explains:

While burning natural gas may emit less carbon dioxide, its extraction releases quite a bit of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas. Gas from shale—a fine-grained layer of rock below the earth’s surface—is also responsible for 30 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional natural gas. The study found that up to 7.9 percent of the methane escapes directly from the wells, leaks from pipelines, or is released in venting and flaring. While the leaks may be relatively small, methane is such a potent greenhouse gas that those leaks have a major impact, Howarth tells Mother Jones.

Fighting back against fracking

If Howarth’s study is correct, that means even worse news for communities in the gas fields that have been fighting against new natural gas drilling, only to be told that it’s for the greater good. For instance, in New York this week, Public News Service’s Mike Clifford reports that “Dozens of environmental and health groups are asking [Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers] to put the longer-term issues of air and water quality ahead of any short-term gas profits.”

The Sierra Club’s Roger Downs tells Clifford, “We’ve seen in places like Wyoming, where the oil and gas industry has been booming, children on certain days cannot go out and play; they get nosebleeds from the air quality. It’s serious stuff, and we don’t want that in New York.”

Just over in Pennsylvania, natural gas drilling has been going ahead, and Nina Berman reports for AlterNet on its impact on families:

The Spencers’ house, once valued at $150,000, is now worth $29,000. They have a methane monitor in their basement, a methane water filtration system in a backyard shed. They leave the door open when they take showers because with no bathroom windows they are afraid the house could blow up. Their neighbors were forced to evacuate once already because of high methane levels. In the middle of their yard, a shaft resembling a shrunken flagpole vents gas from their wellhead.

Right now, the EPA is studying the effects that natural gas drilling have on public health. Their findings could, at the very least, strengthen the case for putting restrictions on drilling companies to prevent pollution. But if anti-environmentalists in Washington keep cutting into the bottom line of environmental programs, families like the Spencers will have an even harder time fighting against the conditions they’re facing now.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The AuditThe Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

NOAA Faces Deep cuts in Research

In an incredible act against science, the House of Representatives voted to make deep cuts to essential NOAA programs. During a time when global warming and increasing Hurricane activity pose enormous threats to our nation. House Republicans have decided to take a stand against the future of our nation and our planet.

 June 29, 2006 -- The U.S. House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill today that would cut approximately $500 million from the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in fiscal year 2007.

The massive budget cut passed the House of Representatives less than one year after NOAA was widely praised for its success in forecasting hurricane Katrina and protecting thousands of people from death or injury. According to NOAA, the House bill would fail to fund day-to-day operations of the agency's aircraft, which are the nation's first line of defense for monitoring and forecasting hurricanes and tropical storms.

More below the fold.

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Weekly Mulch: Green Daydreams? A Clean Gulf, Energy Efficiency, and More

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Yesterday, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) took Obama administration officials to task for encouraging Americans to believe that the majority of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico had dispersed.

“People want to believe that everything is OK and I think this report and the way it is being discussed is giving many people a false sense of confidence regarding the state of the Gulf,” Markey said.

Belief, after all, is powerful force.  As coal baron Don Blankenship says, “You have to have your own beliefs, your own core beliefs, your own strengths and do what you think is right. You can’t do what others believe is right, you have to do what you believe is right.”

But what if your beliefs, even those backed up by science, are wrong? If you believed government officials who reported the oil in the Gulf of Mexico had dispersed—wrong. If you believed McDonald’s or Sara Lee really was helping save the planet—wrong. (Does anyone actually believe that one?) And if you believed you were conserving tons of energy by flicking off the light switches when you left the room—wrong again!

Gullible Greens

Wait, what? Yes, it turns out that environmentally friendly folk don’t know how little energy they save by line-drying clothes, recycling bottles, or turning off the lights, Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drumwrites. Don’t worry! Those activities still conserve energy. Just not as much as you might have thought.

Drum’s evidence comes from a study that asked people to estimate the amount of energy they were saving by engaging in a given activity. Green-minded people tended to miss the mark on how much energy certain activities conserved. Perhaps they want to believe their conservation activities have a more dramatic impact, the studies’ authors suggested.

There’s a kicker, though. “The most accurate perceptions about energy use, it seems, are held by numerate, conservative homeowners who don’t bother trying to save energy,” Drum writes. Ouch. Apparently, knowing how much energy they’ll save, conservatives decide it’s not worth it to even try.

“A green-tinged fog”

But perhaps energy conservationists aren’t to blame for their own confusion. After all, as Anna Lappéwrites at Yes! Magazine, corporations increasingly are using green messaging to sell their products:

McDonald’s recently launched an “Endangered Species” Happy Meal, “to engage kids in a fun and informative way about protecting the environment,” explains project partner Conservation International…. Earlier this year, Sara Lee unleashed with much fanfare a new line of “Earth Grains” bread that promotes “innovative farming practices that promote sustainable land use” as part of what the company calls its “Plot to Save the Earth.”

Lappé calls the confusion created by these campaigns “a green-tinged fog” that consumers can get lost in. And in the same way that green advertising is increasing, tips for green living are proliferating, which could explain the confusion about which ones are actually useful.

Government spin

But for the government, there’s no excuse for spreading misinformation. For instance, earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report showing that most of the oil in the Gulf had either been collected or dispersed. Scientists questioned the report from the very first day of its release, and this week evidence is mounting that the report misrepresented the situation in the Gulf.

At the Washington Independent, Andrew Restuccia writes that a group of scientists in Georgia have released a report countermanding the claims of the government’s study, and that other scientists have found a 21-mile smear of oil still in the Gulf.

Riki Ott reports at Chelsea Green on a more vivid argument against the Obama administration’s claims that the oil in the Gulf is no longer a problem:

Off Long Beach, Mississippi, on August 8, fisherman James “Catfish” Miller tied an oil absorbent pad onto a pole and lowered it 8-12 feet down into deceptively clear ocean water. When he pulled it up, the pad was soaked in oil, much to the startled amazement of his guests, including Dr. Timothy Davis with the Department of Health and Human Services National Disaster Medical System. Repeated samples produced the same result.

How’d it happen?

So what is the government’s excuse? Right now, NOAA is standing by its analysis, Restuccia reports. Bill Lehr, a senior scientist with the agency, said yesterday that NOAA will release more documentation supporting its claims in two months.

“I assure you it will bore everybody except those of us that do oil spill science,” he said, according to Restuccia.

But as Ott explains, part of the government’s issue is the standard they’re using to evaluate the fate of the oil to begin with:

The problem is the ‘rigorous safety standards’ are outdated. The protocol relies on visual oil. What of the underwater plumes? The chart produced by NOAA last week shows, in effect, that over 50 percent of the oil (not to mention dispersant) is still in the water column as dispersed or dissolved oil. Scientists have found that the oil-dispersant mixture is getting into the foodweb.

In other words, just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. And in this case, what NOAA believes is less important than the scientific facts on the ground. To deal with the oil spilled in the Gulf, NOAA and its partners might have to admit that they were wrong.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The AuditThe Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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