Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Resource Wars Reprised

The previous post on oil field contracts in Iraq points up what I believe is one of the underlying drivers of the Iraq war and the American preoccupation with the Middle East. Yes, it has to do with our obvious interest in oil. But, as I said in my first post on the notion of resource wars we have a very specific concern with state control of oil resources in the Middle East. State-controlled companies tend to spend much less on exploration and development since they are used as cash cows to pay for social services and military hardware. Such companies tend to spend only what they need to spend to maintain production, and they have little incentive to spend heavily in a way that would flood the market and bring down prices.

Hence, the American interest in privatizing the production of oil in the Middle East where almost all the oil is held by state-controlled entities. Private companies are much more likely to develop oil resources quickly and to seek maximum feasible production. They have no social services or military purchases to fund and are seeking to enrich their shareholders as quickly as possible by as much as possible.

I believe that if the countries of the Middle East had been willing to open up their oil fields to private development and accelerated production, that this administration--in fact, any American administration--wouldn't have bothered to go to war. They would already have what they want: more oil supply and cheaper prices.

Of course, no Middle Eastern country is going to give control of its oil assets over to private companies, especially ones from the West, so the resource wars are likely to rage on. These wars are in my view completely misguided since a cheaper, more effective, and permanent solution to our energy woes could be found in subsidizing the broad and sustained introduction of renewable energy sources, a move that would create a vast new industry and new employment and free us from dependency on a volatile part of the world.

But, then what would we do with all the planes and tanks and carriers we own?

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You can't beat the guy who makes the rules

When a Canadian oil exploration and oil services company won a major contract to develop an Iraqi oil field, the Iraqi interim government decided that the contract needed to be rebid. The company said that certain "unknown pressures" seemed to have prompted the decision. A Turkish company also won an oil-related bid, but there's no word on that contract. Is it really a puzzle who is behind the "unknown pressures?" The Americans said that those who didn't fight in their "coalition of the willing" wouldn't be included in the division of the post-war spoils. Neither Canada nor Turkey joined the war effort.

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Bill Moyers asks if his optimism is justified

Journalist Bill Moyers was presented with the Global Environment Citizen Award by the Harvard Medical School recently. He describes himself as an optimist, but the news on the environment, particularly under this administration, has been nothing short of bleak.

How do we break through, he asked in his acceptance speech, when voters don't even seem to be motivated by their own health and well-being and that of their children?

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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Little things mean a lot

Microscopic particles that are part of our mix of air pollution are some of the most damaging because they avoid the natural filtering mechanisms of the body and settle far into the inner reaches of our lungs. The Clinton administration laid out rules to eliminate this danger, rules that were challenged by industry and ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. Much of the country remains out of compliance, leaving it to the Bush EPA to push for further enforcement measures. I would be tempted to say, "Don't hold your breath." On the other hand, that may be the only thing you can do to stay safe!

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How high is high enough?

Not surprisingly energy banker Matt Simmons thinks energy prices need to be much higher. In fact, he has a number in mind: $182 a barrel for oil. (I spoke with Simmons earlier this year for this story.) The reason he thinks the number needs to be very high is so that two things will happen: 1) Energy companies will commit huge amounts of capital to exploration to find new reserves and build new infrastructure and 2) alternative energy sources will become attractive enough to bring vast new investment into them. He reasons that this would go a long way toward creating the needed energy transition. To watch what Simmons has to say on this and other topics, click here for a video interview. The discussion of the need for high prices is toward the end and includes a call for much greater transparency from energy companies as well.

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Solar mecca?

How can it be that Germany is becoming the world's solar energy mecca? Answer: government determination. The German government has been subsidizing alternative and renewable energy for a long time in preparation for the day when fossil fuels would no longer be plentiful.

Even California, the leader in solar energy in the United States, is looking to Germany for guidance. What have we been thinking?

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Burp! You're dead!

I asked in a previous post what was keeping America's chief climate scientist up at night. One answer was a set of readings that show suddenly accelerating carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Such readings could mean we may be nearing a point at which global warming would become self-reinforcing and therefore not amenable to anything we do to stop it.

Now there's another development that is increasing concern about runaway global warming. It's called "methane burps." Huge stores of methane lie frozen beneath the arctic tundra. That tundra is warming quickly and could begin releasing its methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide at retaining heat inside the earth's atmosphere.

As the methane leaks and causes temperatures worldwide to increase, it would also lead to further releases of methane in a spiral that would be far more catastrophic than anything yet predicted.

Pure fantasy? The geologic record shows that it's happened before with devastating effects for nearly all life.

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Cooling clarity

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has a wonderfully clear summary (complete with animation) about how an abrupt cooling would take place in the North Atlantic as global warming dumps fresh water from Greenland into its adjacent waters. As the summary points out, rapid cooling in one area would be consistent with gradual overall warming of the planet.

Some global warming skeptics point to just such scenarios to say that climate science is confused and therefore unreliable. On the contrary, it is the increasing precision of measurements, observations and theory which enables climate researchers to imagine and quantify the probability of such scenarios.

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Monday, December 20, 2004

This is your food; this is your food on drugs

Few Americans realize that right now in farmers' fields genetically altered corn and soybeans are producing drugs, hormones and industrial substances such as plastics. It may not seem like a problem until you realize that these could very easily mix with corn and soybeans grown for food. Worse yet, these so-called "pharma crops" could easily cross-pollinate with crops grown for food contaminating them with drug- and plastic-producing genes.

Six scientists who are members of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have issued a report through the group calling for more stringent safety measures to keep the two kinds of crops apart at all times. The UCS did its own evaluation of the report and called for an immediate halt to all outdoor planting of pharma crops.

I addressed this issue briefly in a previous post in which the pro-GMOs scientists cited said that while GMO food crops were surely safe, pharma crops should only be grown inside of triple-locked facilities to prevent contamination.

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More talk, less action

Once again the United States wants to talk more about global warming. American negotiators at the Buenos Aires climate conference last week spoke as if they were from a difference planet. "Science tells us that we cannot say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided," one U. S. negotiator crowed. Science also cannot tell us with any certainty if or when we will have a car crash, but that hardly makes it prudent to drive 100 mph down a residential street.

The Americans would only agree to more talks and then insisted that no transcript or report be issued from such talks. After all, a report might call for action.

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How much more evidence do they need? II

This year has been the fourth warmest year on record. The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1990.

Yet, the Bush administration keeps insisting that we just don't know enough about global warming to act. Is it just willful blindness or is there something else going on here? Could it be related to heavy contributions to the Bush campaign from the coal and oil industries? Nah, that would be too obvious, wouldn't it?

Didn't the insurance industry give him money, too? They think global warming is a huge problem that's costing them billions. The coal and oil industries are the ones who benefit from doing nothing. I wonder if Bush contributors in the insurance industry think they're getting their money's worth.

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Global warming: The lawsuit

The Arctic Inuit peoples want a declaration that greenhouse gas emissions from the United States are a major cause of changes in the climate of the areas they inhabit. Such a ruling from the Organization of American States would set the stage for lawsuits seeking damages in an international court or U. S. federal courts.

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Friday, December 17, 2004

Better safe than sorry

The European Union is embracing the so-called "precautionary principle" in its regulation of chemicals as the Dec. 27 issue of The Nation outlines. (Sorry, this story is available online only to subscribers.) Until now the United States' wait-and-see approach has dominated regulation of the chemical industry and devastated many workers and consumers around the world. Now the EU is preparing to mandate a complete review of all chemicals used in industrial and consumer settings and ban or severely restrict those that don't make the cut.

Needless to say, the American chemical industry is practically apoplectic. But without the ability to purchase political clout in the EU (which outlaws the kind of political money which contaminates American politics), their only tool has been persuasion. It hasn't worked.

Even scarier--to the chemical industry, that is--is the possibility that the EU, with its newfound power, will essentially begin to set the standards for the world instead of the more pliant U.S. government.

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Welcome to RealClimate

RealClimate is a blog run by climate scientists commenting on the latest information and misinformation about climate. So far it looks like they are more than on top of things as a quick-response squad for the climate team. A blog member has already managed to order, read and critique Michael Crichton's new novel, "State of Fear," which is based on the notion that global warming is being overhyped and maybe isn't happening at all. While it's a piece of fiction, it includes a brief essay by Crichton in the back and has many footnotes as well.

The commenter gives Crichton a pretty nice spanking (in a scientific kind of way) about the book's misleading and downright inaccurate information conveyed by the fiction and the nonfiction parts of the book. He even tells us that he met with Crichton while the author was preparing the book and feels that he must have failed to convey the true state of knowledge on global warming.

I haven't read to the book yet. But I am glad to leave it to the climate team at RealClimate to evaluate it. I look forward to more good things from this blog.

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Thursday, December 16, 2004

The best laid plans...

Optimism ran high at oil's nadir in 1999 when prices hit $10 a barrel as is evidenced by this Discover Magazine piece. Many of the predictions made then haven't exactly panned out. Of course, today's comparative pessimism may also be coloring our view of the future.

But there is a difference between the two outlooks. One is based on the notion that human ingenuity will help us find whatever resources we need or find suitable substitutes, and we'll succeed at doing this in a timely manner for as many people as we can cram on the planet. Often referred to as "cornucopian" economics, I call it "faith-based" economics and I've critiqued it in three pieces found under "Favorite Posts" on my sidebar.

The other view is based on the idea that resources are, in fact, limited, especially fossil fuel energy resources which once burned are gone forever. It's important to remember that energy is the master resource. Without ample supplies of cheap energy our transport system will grind to a halt, our farms will cease to be as productive, our factories won't work, our mines will shut down, our water will cease to be pumped or purified, and on and on. Our modern technical way of life depends on the lavish use of inexpensive energy.

Whether we can build a modern technical society that depends on renewable, non-polluting energy is an open question. Whether we will do it soon enough is in danger of becoming a closed one.

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How much more evidence do they need?

How much more evidence do the Bush administration and the Congress need before they do something about global warming? Here is a sampling of stories: 1) The world's leading climate scientist says the time is now for action. 2) Spring is coming earlier. 3) In 2001 the world's first casualty of global warming prepared to evacuate because of rising sea levels.

Do we really need more study before taking the first step?

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Waterworld

The Environmental Working Group has already made a name for itself by compiling farm subsidies to individual farmers and posting them on the internet. Now the organization has through arduous research compiled a list of individual farmers in California who are receiving enormous subsidies for the irrigation water they use. Irrigation is no small matter since 90 percent of the state's water goes to agriculture. And, the issue is important to taxpayers since the water projects supplying the farmers were all built with public money and continue to run on taxpayer subsidies.

Information about who gets what amount of water is shielded from public disclosure by law. But the EWG figured out ways around the problem. The group's researchers acknowledge that they may have made some mistakes because of the indirect methods they used. Their solution: Farmers who want mistakes corrected should publicly disclose their water use and payments. I wonder how many will.

Contracts for the water are currently being renewed, and rates and usage could be locked in potentially for another 50 years. The EWG thinks that in light of vast changes in California since the last contracts were negotiated in the 1960s, special scrutiny should be given to the subsidies of megafarms which the water districts were never supposed to serve. Urban growth and the environmental damage resulting from irrigation also need to be considered, the group says.

One California farm alone receives a subsidy that may approach $4.2 million a year. Are taxpayers getting their money's worth?

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You're fired!

Professor Ignacio Chapela held his final class as a member of UC-Berkeley's environmental science department last week. Chapela became famous when he uncovered genetic contamination of Mexico's corn crop. The contamination came from genetically modified corn that had been imported from the United States for food, but planted in Mexican corn fields. He showed that the Mexican corn crop, prized as a storehouse of natural genetic diversity, might quickly be overcome by the GMO kind wiping out centuries of traditional corn breeding.

When the findings were released, a smear campaign began. It was created by fake scientists who were eventually traced to a Washington lobbying group for biotech firms. Subsequent findings have reaffirmed Chapela's research. But Chapela had also attacked the corporate takeover of science on his own Berkeley campus. That netted him a denial of tenure from the very top even though nearly all his colleagues had enthusiastically supported him at every level.

The university's chancellor may yet reverse the decision. But for now, Chapela waits to find out whether he will be allowed to teach at Berkeley again.

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Is this the best they can do?

I am going back in time to illustrate a point, a point which some right-wing commentators readily admit. There is very little that can be done to defend the Bush record on the environment. It is instructive to read Robert Kennedy Jr.'s 2003 piece in Rolling Stone and then read a critique of it by Jonathan Adler in National Review. While Adler points out what I must admit are a few puzzling errors in Kennedy's piece, he tries to use those errors--sometimes they are the result of hyperbole--to say the whole thing is wrong. He does this without actually discrediting any of the stories which Kennedy relates about how the administration has behaved. Of course, Adler is writing for the faithful who don't want to know the truth; they just want their own fantasies reinforced. But, his failure to dent Kennedy's narrative of the Bush administration's environmental crimes show that the administration is quite vulnerable on this issue, if only the public could be made aware of just how bad the damage is.

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Monday, December 13, 2004

I couldn't have said it better

Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement in Africa, has won the Nobel Peace Prize. The movement has planted over 30 million trees to date in an attempt to reclaim the environment and provide sustainability to women and their families throughout Africa. Here is an excerpt from her Nobel acceptance speech given Friday:

In this year’s prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has placed the critical issue of environment and its linkage to democracy and peace before the world. For their visionary action, I am profoundly grateful. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come. Our work over the past 30 years has always appreciated and engaged these linkages.
Maathai is truly one of the most remarkable people in the environmental movement, a visionary who sees the intersection of the environment with every aspect of life. Read the rest of her speech by clicking here.

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That's just a load of manure

What will the sponsors of chemical agriculture not say to attack organic growers? This piece on Common Dreams talks about the Hudson Institute, an agribusiness attack dog, used to bash organic agriculture.

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Michael Crichton: Climate scientist II

Why Michael Crichton would need to drum up publicity to sell books by taking an outlandish position on global warming is beyond me. It must be that he actually believes that global warming is a hoax. Science writer Chris Mooney suggests that Crichton's book will be a chance to give well-deserved payback to those who trashed the global warming movie, The Day After Tomorrow, for not being scientifically accurate. But, then the movie's Hollywood producers, unlike Crichton, never claimed they were being scientifically accurate.

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Sunday, December 12, 2004

Better living through sewage

In keeping with the notion that more is better, the Bush administration has decided to allow much larger and more frequent releases of raw sewage into American waterways. (The decision just happened to coincide with a $250 million cut in the federal loan fund that helps local sewage treatment plants upgrade.) Previously, federal policy has been to allow such releases only in extreme emergencies such as hurricanes and tropical storms. The new policy is probably illegal under the Clean Water Act.

How dangerous is it? According to a leading specialist in waterborne diseases the risk to swimmers will be 100 times greater.

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Environmentalist = Terrorist

The FBI has been investigating environmental and other groups for "terrorist" activities. The ACLU has filed several Freedom of Information Act requests across the country to find out exactly what the bureau is doing. The list of clients includes many peace groups, animal rights activists, labor unions, civil rights organizations including chapters of the ACLU, and even one police watchdog group. Among the groups on the list are the American Friends Service Committee (founded by the Quakers), Code Pink, Greenpeace, and the Oregon Wildlife Federation.

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Saturday, December 11, 2004

Of cereal and the sea

The new secretary of commerce has been running one of the world's largest breakfast cereal companies. Is he up to speed on the major environmental issues facing the country with respect to the oceans? He needs to be, says The New York Times editorial page, because the Commerce Department oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which is about to propose vast changes in the way we manage our share of the oceans. My previous post, Ocean for sale, raised questions about the nature of those changes.

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A conservative makes a plea for homeland food security

The Hoover Institution, a right-wing think tank located on the grounds of Stanford University, is not known for producing thinkers who care about the loss of farmland, the concentration of power in large agribusiness and the questionable pesticide practices of foreign growers, but this Hoover fellow has some contrary-to-type advice for the new secretary of agriculture. Victor David Hanson seems to think that food production in the United States is a security issue.

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Friday, December 10, 2004

Michael Crichton: Climate scientist

Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading takes Michael Crichton to task for his new book which portrays concern about global warming as the product of a vast, misinformed conspiracy. It seems that Crichton hasn't had time to catch up on his own reading in order to understand the current research about climate issues.

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You could cut it with a knife

A thick brown cloud of pollution sits over Asia, and it could be affecting weather for the worse there. There appears to be a nexus between recent droughts and the cloud.

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Up is down

The Bush administration is pedaling the notion that it is doing a lot to curb global warming even as it continues to reject the main global warming accord, the Kyoto Protocol. Nations meeting in Buenos Aires for a major conference on the threat had once again to put up with a U. S. story that would only seem fair and balanced on Fox News.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

You gotta see this

Worldchanging has a post on sails for cargo ships. Hybrid power comes to the high seas.

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Shame on your sweet tooth

In a piece in The Independent an author who knows a lot about sugar outlines the environmental ravages that result from growing it. Among the notable victims are the Everglades and the Great Barrier Reef.

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Burn, baby, burn

My contact at the National Christmas Tree Association says that every Christmas the organization has to contend with staged tree immolations that make real Christmas trees seem far more of a fire hazard than they really are. In fact, he says, fire marshalls often douse trees with accelerants (i.e. gasoline or some suitable combustible agent) to make the demonstration more vivid for the television cameras. He offers this clip from The Tonight Show in which a Florida fire official is caught doing just that.

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'Tis the season

I've been checking into the environmental and economic tradeoffs of artificial versus natural Christmas trees for a short piece I've just completed. The environmental curmudgeon in me is inclined to take no more than a few evergreen boughs pruned from things that will continue to live and then scatter some reusable or biodegradable decorations around the house. But if the choice is between artificial trees and real ones, I'm inclined to the real ones.

Real Christmas trees are now almost exclusively grown on tree farms, farms that wouldn't exist except for the market for Christmas trees. That means hundreds of thousands of acres of trees are growing that otherwise might not be. Those trees are typically grown on land not suitable for agriculture. This is true particularly in the West where they might grow on rocky hillsides inaccessible to and impenetrable by the plow. And, when you buy a tree, the tree farmer is naturally obliged to plant another one, sometimes more than one, to start the cycle all over again.

Beyond this, the trees are recyclable. Many communities now have curbside pickup, and most others have drop-off points. The discarded trees are turned into wood chips which are often provided to the public for free.

Real trees are also indisputably good for the U. S. economy. Almost all the natural Christmas trees sold in the United States are grown here. (A few from Canada make it across the border in border states because of transportation costs.) On the other hand, more than 90 percent of artificial trees which come into the U. S. are made in China. That's good for the Chinese, but perhaps we could have them manufacture something more earth-friendly for us. The artificial trees are made from plastic, a nonrenewable petroleum-based product, and metal. I'll admit they're convenient and reusable, but they certainly lack the aesthetic appeal of a real tree.

And, according to a survey commissioned by the National Christmas Tree Association, an organization of growers and sellers, artificial trees are typically discarded after six to nine years. Not exactly evidence that their owners are slaves to the current fake tree fashions, but an indication that artificial trees are really disposable as well as reusable.

Find a real one and have an old-fashioned Christmas.

UPDATE: A commenter posted a story from Sojourners about the lives of migrant workers on tree farms in North Carolina. You'll find it a tale similar to that of many migrant farm workers in America. (I had to erase and then repost the story to make it visible at the top of the comment area.)

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When the federal government won't do it...

...in step the states. (This has become regular fare under the Bush administration.) California has passed strict regulations calling for a substantial reduction in greenhouse gasses from cars and trucks by 2016. The automakers are complaining that they don't want to deal with a patchwork of state rules across the country. This canard is a cover for their fear that other states will adopt the California standards. What the automakers are really saying is that because the California car market is so big, it will force them to adopt the California standards for a large portion of the cars and trucks they build. Once they've done that, they may be forced to build the rest of their fleet to the same standards since they won't be able to claim that it isn't economically or technologically feasible to do so.

The states regulate all sort of things from fertilizer to insurance without federal intervention. They're smart enough to know they need to coordinate their rules with one another and do so routinely. So it's obvious that with the Bush administration in power, the automakers' protestations that they prefer federal regulation to state regulation is the same as saying they want no regulation at all. Doesn't everybody already know this game?

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Asian drama

Water problems mount in Asia as Reuters reports. This provides the specifics for the general outline discussed in a previous post.

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Your water belongs to us

A federal court ruling has made it appear that water used by an irrigation district belongs exclusively to the district. The ruling, if it stands, means that states and the federal government have to pay compensation for diverting water elsewhere even if they are doing so for fisheries management or drought relief. In California, it would strip away the doctrine that the state owns the waters and manages them for the good of all the people. The ruling would make it hugely expensive to divert water for any purpose however worthy.

The property rights people are behind this one. But, is it really their property?

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Blue Gold

It's instructive that an excellent treatment of water issues entitled Blue Gold appears on an investment website. The succinct overview of the huge challenges we face in the area of water resources is worth reading. But, as you read down, you'll get the investment advice. Most telling is a table listing the consolidation in the water industry. Privatization of water resources is fast becoming a big issue. And, consolidation of the major players is concentrating power into fewer and fewer hands. While privatization in itself can turn out to be good or bad, privatization without regulation and strict assurances that all people will have adequate water will likely lead to social and economic chaos. This article raises the issue implicitly, but doesn't really address it.

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Monday, December 06, 2004

Nuclear power, anyone?

Enviropundit has a good discussion about nuclear power which seems to be gaining some adherents in the environmental community. Peak oil authors such as David Goodstein take the view that nuclear will have to be part of our energy transition away from fossil fuels because time is running out and there are no viable alternatives to produce the needed amount of power. Enviropundit wonders about the wisdom of this and has some compelling statistics to back up her skepticism.

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Farmers' legal guide to GMOs;
class-action suit

Farmers’ Legal Action Group and the Rural Advancement Foundation International have published a Farmers' Guide to GMOs to aid farmers in understand their rights and vulnerabilities under laws protecting the ownership of GMO seeds and plants.

GMO seed-makers have targeted farmers for illegally growing their seeds, even when their seeds blow onto the property by mistake as was the case with Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser, who lost a landmark case in the Canadian Supreme Court.

But, Monsanto Corp. which sued him may rue the day it tangled with Canadian farmers. A class-action suit alleging damage to organic farmers who say they cannot grow organic canola because of widespread genetic pollution from the GMO kind is being heard in Canadian courts. (Organically grown foods cannot contain GMO-derived products.) If it succeeds, it could set a precedent for huge damages against the makers of GMO seeds who have little ability to control the transfer of genetically altered genes to non-GMO plants.

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Poke a hole in the ozone

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, November 29, 2004 (ENS) - An international conference on safeguarding the ozone layer ended here Saturday with a green light for the United States and other industrialized countries to continue using methyl bromide as a pesticide and soil fumigant. The chemical destroys the Earth's protective ozone layer, and it was supposed to be phased out in 2005, but the requesting countries say there is no effective substitute.

Here's a previous post with more information.

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We take it for granted

We hardly even think about the water that flows through our taps. And, yet clean water remains as big a problem today as it's ever been. This piece in The New York Times details the struggles over the Delaware River against the background of a recent oil spill there.

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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Sue me

Reuters reports that global warming may spawn lawsuits from low-lying nations that expect to lose considerable land mass or get swallowed up by rising sea levels in this century. The Climate Justice Program believes that as with tobacco, climate change is a broad public harm that can be addressed, in part, through legal action.

Eight states and New York City are already suing power plants for their contributions to global warming.

When people started suing tobacco companies, no one believed they could win. Will the climate lawyers prove the skeptics wrong again?

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Not good if you're salmon

Predictably, the Bush administration sided with development and industrial interests when it came time to determine what to do about the sharp drop in the salmon population in the Northwest in the past century. No dams will be taken down and so-called "critical habitat" will be reduced by 80 percent. The Christian Science Monitor has a good summary.

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Put the Endangered Species Act on the Endangered Species List

As I indicated in my previous post, Commodities bull a bear for the environment, all the normal restraints will be discarded as the rush for valuable commodities pushes aside environmental concerns. It's not just that the current administration is hostile to environmental protections. It's that they believe they don't have to hide it anymore. They believe rising prices for commodities will provide the necessary justification to override those protections in the name of relieving shortages and bringing down prices. (In this post, I tell you why, in the short run--i.e. the next several years--none of this will bring down commodity prices.)

The New York Times reports on the recent flap over putting the sage grouse on the Endangered Species List. It won't be. The key paragraph follows:

The sage grouse, whose habitat overlaps areas of likely oil and gas deposits across states like Wyoming and Montana, would likely become an economic headache to the energy and cattle industries if it were listed. A listing can trigger extensive regulation and increase costs and delays.
We can look forward to a lot more of this in the future as the commodities bull intensifies. Grist offers a good summary of how the administration plans to proceed gutting the Endangered Species Act.

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The single most effective way to fight terrorism

GET OFF OIL! If we get off oil, then we:

1. deprive the corrupt regimes of the Middle East of the money they need to stave off reform, money they and their subjects sometimes use to aid terrorism.

2. end the presumed need for our soldiers to be in Muslim countries with oil reserves, countries whose citizens resent us deeply for our interference. (In fact, when it comes to oil, our presence in the Middle East has made it harder, not easier for us to get it.)

Thomas Friedman has a piece which speaks to this quite well in the context of criticizing the Congress for reducing funding for the National Science Foundation. A big part of getting off oil will be to help scientists and engineers come up with solutions for conservation and alternative energy. But, then that seems too straightforward for this administration.

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Friday, December 03, 2004

Faith-based economics III:
Why the market price doesn't tell us the true state of oil reserves

First, you need to understand that oil is not traded in a free market. Its production and sale is highly politicized since state-owned companies throughout OPEC and elsewhere control much of the world's oil reserves. Resource economist Douglas Reynolds argues (quite convincingly, I think) that state-owned oil companies have much less incentive to invest in expanding their reserves and production. They tend to be more concerned with current profits which can be used for social and military spending. The result is that they hold back on spending for exploration. This means that not as much oil is being brought to the market as a free market might dictate.

Second, since production (until very recently) has been frequently restrained by OPEC in a effort to maintain higher prices, non-OPEC producers have been pumping their oil as fast as they can. They are taking advantage of the higher prices afforded by OPEC's efforts to boost prices. But, there is also a counter-phenomenon taking place. Whenever non-OPEC producers took too much market share from OPEC, OPEC (particularly Saudi Arabia) has boosted production, driving down prices to take that market share back. We saw this in the mid-1980s when oil traded for a brief period as low as $6 a barrel and more recently in 1999 when it traded at $10 a barrel. (The Saudis had so much excess capacity that they could almost literally flick a switch and double their oil production.)

This pattern has two perverse effects. One is that the world will run out of higher-cost non-OPEC oil before it runs out of OPEC oil. It seems like this would mean that oil is going to be cheaper in the long run. But, that's probably not the case. The other effect is to give the wrong price signals to the market. An efficient free market would result in gradually rising oil prices as the cheap stuff is used up first and the more difficult-to-get and therefore more expensive oil is exploited later. Under these conditions a gradually rising price would give signals in the marketplace that would encourage the development of alternative energy sources.

But, that hasn't really happened. True, we have seen the development of wind and solar and other alternative energy sources. But, that has mostly been the result of government subsidies. (Under the circumstances, it's a good thing that the subsidies were there or we'd be much farther behind in making an energy transition.) In general, the cheap price of oil, a price kept down by the constant threat by OPEC to flood the market, has hampered the development of alternatives to oil.

But, the day is bound to come when OPEC will no longer be able to threaten to flood the market, when the so-called "OPEC overhang" will be gone. When that happens, prices long suppressed by competition between OPEC and non-OPEC producers and by the "OPEC overhang" will suddenly skyrocket as market participants come to realize that oil is actually in short supply. (Some people say we may be witnessing just this phenomenon right now.)

This sounds like a short-lived phenomenon that would pass with the discovery and production of new oil fields, fields made profitable to develop by higher prices. There is some truth to this. When prices hit such high levels, Reynolds believes, the reserves once held back by state-owned oil companies will be brought to market. While they won't halt the inevitable decline of world oil production, these reserves and other nonconventional sources such as oil sands will make that decline more gradual than it would have been had the reserves and other sources been exploited to their maximum earlier.

But, the main problem will be that there aren't that many huge fields left to discover, even with much higher prices as I outlined in a previous post on the so-called "Mayflower Effect."

If we're unprepared, the dilemma that we'll all face then will be how much of our limited energy resources to devote to making an energy transition and how much to devote to just keeping warm. There may still be time to make that transition before the crisis comes, but it will require strong leadership, vision and sacrifice, something that seems in short supply today.

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Contrary to type

A major utility that relies heavily on coal-fired power plants has come out in favor of regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The AP story says Cinergy Corp., based in Cincinnati, favors the McCain-Lieberman bill which places limits on emissions and allows trading of emission credits. The cost of compliance would, of course, be passed on to consumers. Considering what's at stake (see my previous post, What's keeping James Hanson up at night?) it could well be worth it.

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Ocean for sale

In its December issue Utne has a nice summary of ongoing attempts to privatize the ocean for what's called "open ocean aquaculture." (Sorry, you have to be a Utne subscriber to view the article online). You can read about those efforts here and in this enthusiastic article in Wired Magazine which touts open ocean aquaculture as the solution to overfishing. You won't be so enthusiastic when you realize the full implications of such a move: privatization of the ocean, pollution, possible release of genetically altered species and more.

In case you think this is something to worry about in the future, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working on regulations to present to Congress next year.

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We're for states' rights except...

...when it comes to the siting of liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals. A Republican congressman snuck a provision into a huge omnibus spending bill which would give the federal government the ultimate authority to determine where LNG terminals will go. Until now, states had been able to claim some say in the matter. The bill is expected to pass next week.

I discussed the coming wave of LNG terminal construction in a previous post and suggested that there will be huge fights over where these facilities will go.

Well, Congress certainly saw those fights looming and decided to give the federal government a big stick. If you want to see what may be coming to a community near you, click here.

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GMO Cocaine?

Has the drug war come up against GMO technology in Colombia? That's the provocative question raised by a Wired Magazine piece on herbicide-resistant coca plants in the country. Since the article is available online and written in the form of a mystery, I won't reveal the author's conclusion here. It's worth reading as a tale of resourcefulness.

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Thursday, December 02, 2004

Blow your nose on Canada's virgin forests

North America's natural forests are being felled at a furious rate to satisfy demand for tissue paper made from virgin fiber. The Natural Resources Defense Council thinks making tissue from recycled paper would be a better idea. Cascades, Canada's second largest tissue manufacturer, meets its pulp needs using 96 percent recycled materials.

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In this case it was rocket science

The explosion of a rocket fuel plant 17 years ago released perchlorate, a toxic and explosive chemical used in rocket fuel, into the environment in Henderson, Nevada. Perchlorate was recently found in milk and lettuce samples from 15 states. Most of the samples came from California, Nevada and Arizona. The link: the chemical released by the explosion continues to flow into Lake Mead, the lake behind Hoover Dam, at an estimated rate of 500 pounds per day. The lake water is released to the lower Colorado River and used to irrigate crops eaten by humans and livestock.

"FDA researchers say perchlorate at high doses disrupts thyroid gland functions. The biggest risks are to children and fetuses. Results include delayed development, mental retardation, hearing loss and motor skills impairment. Chronic lowering of thyroid hormones due to high perchlorate exposure may also result in thyroid tumors," according to The Salt Lake Tribune. The contamination in lettuce and milk was in the parts per billion range. The effects of persistent low-level exposure aren't known.

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Oxygen isn't the only thing we lose to deforestation

Standing forests provide all kinds of benefits to us, but perhaps the clearest impact is water and soil retention. Floods and landslides triggered by heavy rainfall on denuded hillls in the Philippines this week killed 340 people. Perhaps another 150 are missing and thought to be dead. Decades of illegal logging led to the latest tragedy. The country is losing almost 250,000 acres of forest each year.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Nanosolar

It's the name of a company that believes it can make thin films that will act as solar cells to produce electricity. This would make it practical to put solar electricity in many more places than is currently feasible according to Investor's Business Daily.

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The 'benefits' of global warming

In a previous post I noted that a British think tank says we can look forward to many benefits from global warming. These must be the benefits I didn't know about as reported by Reuters.

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Global warming 'a hoax'

It's no surprise that the British think tank which is calling global warming a hoax has links to the Bush administration. Bush is upset with Tony Blair for pushing ahead on a response to global warming. The Guardian has the story. The think tank, which has the respectable sounding name of International Policy Network, makes the odd and seemingly contradictory assertion that global warming (which they claim isn't happening) will have many benefits. I guess they're covering all the bases. The think tank has received substantial support from ExxonMobil, proof once again that some people are willing to say anything for money, even at the risk of destroying their own reputations.

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Lakoff says, 'Watch your language'

Linguist George Lakoff says environmentalists need to change the way they frame things in order to regain the edge in the fight for environmental protection. His main point: the frame around an issue always trumps the facts. If you get the frame right and make it persuasive, then and only then can people be persuaded by your facts.

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Oil under the ice;
global warming in the past

A recent scientific expedition to the Arctic has retrieved cores from the ocean bed that provide tantalizing hints about the presence of oil and gas. The core samples will also give researchers an abundance of information about climate conditions at the North Pole many millions, perhaps ten of millions of years in the past. This will help them put the current global warming trend into a broader context.

Indications about the presence of oil and gas are consistent with predictions by the U. S. Geological Survey's World Petroleum Assessment that vast reserves are available in the Arctic, something discussed in a previous post, Do high oil prices foreshadow a deeper crisis?.

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