Weekly Mulch: Green products, green energy

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Ed. note: This week’s Mulch is pint-sized and will run on Monday rather than Friday. We’ll be back to our regular schedule next week.

Some people live off the grid, eat local food, and have an energy footprint so minuscule that even the canniest hunter couldn’t track them down. But the rest of us buy from supermarkets, get our energy from at least in part from traditional sources like coal, and occasionally forget to turn off the lights when we leave the house. For those of us who are still living with one foot in the old energy world, here are a few helpful hints about what you should buy and what the consequences of shifting to “clean energy” sources like natural gas and nuclear energy are.

Green consumption

Mother Jones’ Julia Whitty points out a useful tool for correcting any misconceptions about how green a company actually is. It’s an assessment that graphs public perception of a company’s environmentalism against its practices. Besides making sure you’ve got the right idea about Starbucks or Nike, Whitty writes, “You can also get a pretty good sense of how sectors perform in relation to other sectors: food and beverage, bad overall; technology, better overall.”

One of the biggest energy expenditures that many of us indulge in is airplane travel. Just one flight can enlarge your carbon footprint dramatically. Although flying may never be truly green, Beth Buczynski reports at Care2 that one airline is moving in the right direction. British Airways is planning the first “sustainable jet fuel” plant.

The plant will make a biofuel, which generally has plenty of drawbacks, but this one sounds pretty good. The company says it will source its raw materials from local waste management facilities and produce relatively harmless waste products.

Hot air from natural gas companies

But the hazards of many “clean energy” sources make going off the grid sound better and better. More and more information is coming out about the environmental hazards that accompany the mining of natural gas, one of Washington’s new energy fascinations. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a report on natural gas late last week, and Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones that Halliburton, a major player in this industry, admitted to using 807,000 gallons of diesel-based chemicals in the extraction process, which involves pumping large amounts of water deep into the ground.

“Even though the natural gas industry is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, it’s still required to limit the amount of diesel used in fracturing, under a December 2003 agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency,” Sheppard writes. “Halliburton and BJ Services appear to have violated the agreement, according to yesterday’s disclosure.”

That doesn’t inspire confidence in these companies’ assurances that their techniques will not contaminate water sources.

Another meltdown

Nuclear power sounds better than ever to the government, investors, and even some environmentalists. If you need a rundown of the issues involved in nuclear energy production, Grist’s Umbra Fisk has answers to questions like “is nuclear really better than coal?”

One of the strongest objections to nuclear power, however, is the financial risk of investing in nuclear infrastructure. “Nuclear power offers all the fiscal risks of a “too big to fail” bank, with the added risk of being too dangerous to fail as well,” writes Sam McPheeters for The American Prospect.

“And although current nuclear defenders love to crow about the free market…the industry operates with an exponential financial handicap over all other energy technologies, gas and coal included,” McPheeters explains. “Factor in overruns, plant cancellations, and chronic mismanagement, and the only genuine advantage nuclear holds over renewable energy sources is that its infrastructure currently exists.”

Maybe it’s time to invest in solar panels after all.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members 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 Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Organic farming is carbon sequestration we can believe in

The phrase "carbon sequestration" is often used in connection with so-called "clean coal" technology that doesn't exist. Scientific debate over the best methods of carbon capture and storage tends to weigh the costs and benefits of various high-tech solutions to the problem.

But Tim LaSalle, CEO of the non-profit Rodale Institute, reminds us in a guest column for the Des Moines Register that an effective means of sequestering carbon in our soil already exists:

By using organic agricultural methods and eliminating petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pest-and-weed control, we build - rather than destroy - the biology of our soil. While improving the health of the soil we also enhance its ability to diminish the effects of flooding, as just one example. In some laboratory trials, organically farmed soils have provided 850 percent less runoff than conventional, chemically fertilized soils. This is real flood prevention, not sandbag bandages for life-threatening emergencies.

When the soil is nurtured through organic methods, it allows plants to naturally pull so much carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil that global warming can actually be reversed. Farms using conventional, chemical fertilizer release soil carbon into the atmosphere. Switching to organic methods turns a major global-warming contributor into the single largest remedy of the climate crisis, while eliminating toxic farm chemical drainage into our streams, rivers and aquifers.

Using such methods, we would be sequestering from 25 percent to well over 100 percent of our carbon-dioxide emissions. Microscopic life forms in the soil hold carbon in the soil for up to 100 years. This is much more efficient than inserting foreign genes. Healthy soil already does that at such remarkable levels it usually can eliminate crop disasters, which means greater food security for all nations. And the beauty is, investing in soils is not patentable, enriching just some, but instead is free to all.

Where has this science, this solution, been hiding? It has been intentionally buried under the weight of special interests - that are selling chemicals into our farming system, lobbying Congress, embedding employees in government agencies and heavily funding agricultural university research.

A few years ago, the Rodale Institute published a detailed report on how Organic farming combats global warming. Click that link for more facts and figures.

For more on how groups promoting industrial agriculture lobby Congress, see this Open Secrets report and this piece from the Green Guide on The New Food Pyramid: How Corporations Squash Regulation.

Expanding organic farming and reducing the amount of chemicals used on conventional farms would have other environmental advantages as well, most obviously an improvement in water quality both in farming states and downstream. Last week the National Academcy of Sciences released findings from the latest study proving that chemicals applied to farms are a major contributor to the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico:

The study, conducted at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency, recommends setting pollution reduction targets for the watersheds, or drainage areas, that are the largest sources of the pollution that flows down the Mississippi River to the gulf.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was urged to help fund a series of pilot projects to test how changes in farming practices and land use can reduce the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus. The report, written by a panel of scientists, did not say how much money would be needed. Agricultural experts and congressional aides said it wasn't clear whether there was enough money in federal conservation programs to fund the necessary projects.
[...]

The government has been debating for years about how to address the oxygen-depleted dead zone, or hypoxia, in the gulf. The dead zone reached 8,000 square miles this year, the second-largest area recorded since mapping began in the 1980s.
[...]

Agricultural groups don't want mandatory controls put on farms.

However, a scientific advisory board of the EPA has recommended reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing to the gulf by 45 percent. More than 75 percent of those two pollutants originates in nine states, including Iowa, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Here's a link to more detailed findings about how agricultural states contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Organic farming is also good for rural economic development because it employs more people. I'll write more soon on the economic benefits of implementing other sustainable agriculture policies.

There's more...

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