Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Commodities bull II: An oncoming train

I promised in a previous post, Commodities bull a bear for the environment, that I would discuss why no one, neither politicians nor corporations, can do anything in the short run to stop the current bull market in commodities.

To understand this it is useful to go back to the end of the last bull market and see why it ended. By the early '80s the prices of most basic commodities had crashed. The reason: high prices had led to vastly expanded exploration for and discovery of minerals and vastly expanded planting of food and fiber crops worldwide. These actions increased supply beyond what the market needed and led to surpluses. Hence, the prices of many commodities plummetted.

But the pain in the resource sector continued long after the top in prices was in. Since it takes up to a decade to find and develop a mine, for example, investments already in progress when the bull market ended continued. Of course, at the time, no one knew that the bull market had ended. People had been conditioned to believe that every pullback would be followed by even higher prices. (It was very much like what happened in technology stocks in the late '90s.) So, investment continued to flow into the resources sector causing a further increase in the supply of basic commodities.

Another example: While farmers' decisions about growing many crops can change from year to year depending on market conditions, some agricultural products require a multi-year commitment. Coffee trees take three or four years to bear fruit. That means a commitment to increase coffee plantings made at the top of the bull market might not have any effect until four years later when the new supply would enter an already glutted market.

In this way a bear market in commodities tends to feed on itself as continued hope for higher prices pushes up supply and plans made long ago come to fruition in a period when inventories of raw commodities are already swelling.

Eventually, after many years--sometimes a decade after the top--companies, investors and farmers lose heart. Gradually, they slow their search for minerals which have now become far less profitable in the wake of large surpluses. They may pull up unprofitable coffee trees and plant something else in hopes of making a better profit. In the end, a final wave of smart, productive people leave the resource sector: farmers retire and sell their land for development; even worse, many farmers simply lose their farms as the debt they built up while expanding crushes them; unprofitable mines close; mining geologists leave the field and few train to enter it; mining engineers find work elsewhere; marketing executives move away from the agricultural marketing, and so on. The best and the brightest MBAs have long since abandoned their jobs in the commodity futures pits and in the offices of grain merchants and bullion dealers and taken up residence on Wall Street to trade stocks and bonds.

What happens next? With fewer crops being grown and fewer minerals being found even as demand grows, shortages eventually appear. Prices rise, mildly at first, and then more swiftly as perceived shortages lead to the hoarding of materials essential to keep factories going. (In the past couple of years the entry of the Chinese into world commodity markets to get materials to expand their factories and keep them going has already created some parabolic moves in certain key commodity prices.)

With few new mines opening up and little exploration occurring, the next several years are marked by higher and higher prices for all things taken from beneath the earth. The booming mining industry now starts to look in earnest for new supplies at a furious rate. But, the long lag times between exploration and discovery and between discovery and development mean those supplies won't be forthcoming in any quantity for years. The same is true in the farm fields and orchards which are also expanding. Surplus stores of grain have been whittled down as demand has risen. Basic crop prices rise and farming becomes a superbly profitable line of work. Certain crops that require multi-year commitments such as coffee are planted again in hopes of reaping lucrative returns in an undersupplied market. And, there is a shortage of mining and oil drilling equipment and expertise. The now much-in-demand expertise departed long ago when times were bad. Profits rise; salaries inflate; investors pour money into new mines and resource-related industries; and the cycle begins its inexorable move toward a crest.

These dynamics are developing before our eyes. Because of the long lead times needed to develop new supply for many resources, nothing done today will have much effect on prices or supply for several years to come. Any proposed actions which are touted as providing quick results should be treated with skepticism. Actions such as opening public lands, sometimes protected lands, to private exploration will be done in the name of alleviating shortages; but this will often be done with an eye toward rewarding political contributors.

Sadly, such shortsighted moves will do nothing to address the profoundly serious resource issues we face in the areas of energy, water, soil and climate. When prices are low, few people worry about natural resources. When prices are high, all people want is to have more of what is scarce right away. To rely on the highs and the lows of the commodity cycle to guide us in making intelligent choices in the area of resources is the height of folly. We need a deeper and less financially driven context in which to consider critical natural resource issues.

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Sunday, November 28, 2004

The promise: a hydrogen economy,
the cost: more nuclear power

The main problem with producing hydrogen is that it takes more energy to extract it than you can get out of the resulting hydrogen. In other words, hydrogen is currently a net energy drain. That means it is NOT an energy source, but rather an energy carrier.

Still, if the difference between energy in and energy out in hydrogen production can be narrowed, the universe's lightest element might be useful as a non-polluting transportation fuel. This would require that energy used to produce it doesn't pollute more than the gasoline and diesel engines currently in use. Right now, since so much of the electricity that would be harnessed to make hydrogen is produced with coal and natural gas, it's doubtful we'd end up with less pollution as a result. (There is also the question of natural gas supply which is getting increasingly tight.)

The New York Times reports, however, that researchers have found a way to greatly reduce the energy input in producing hydrogen. The catch: They do it with nuclear power. The kind of reactor necessary is not in widespread use and many of them would have to be built in order to accomplish what the researchers envision.

Apart from all the problems inherent in the production of nuclear power--what to do with the radioactive waste, the risk of accident, the vulnerability to attack--the researchers make an assumption which may not turn out to be true, to wit: uranium is plentiful.

It's true that uranium fuel for nuclear reactors has been in oversupply since the early '80s when high uranium prices and concerns over future supplies led nuclear utilities to stockpile vast quantities of the fuel. Those huge stockpiles depressed the uranium market, severely curtailing exploration efforts and crippling the uranium mining sector.

But that has now suddenly changed. Uranium fuel recently doubled in price from $10 a pound to $20, and it looks like Canada, where great stores of uranium ore are thought to reside, appears to be in a uranium boom. That may mean more supply in the years to come, but even uranium is not an unlimited resource. Like oil, it will reach a peak in production sometime in this century and thereafter decline.

No one knows for sure how much uranium the new mining boom will uncover. But, the answer to that question would go a long way in determining whether nuclear power could help create a hydrogen-based economy.

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Friday, November 26, 2004

Farmers, golf course owners and Bush say 'yes' to ozone depletion

A widely used agricultural chemical which damages the ozone layer, the layer of the atmosphere that protects us from dangerous solar radiation, is supposed to be phased out in 2005 according to an international treaty signed by the United States in 1987 called the Montreal Protocol. But, the Bush administration is seeking what's called a "critical use" exemption to allow U. S. farmers, golf course owners and others to continue to use methyl bromide.

Here is what the The New York Times reported on the issue earlier this year. Here is what the the EPA has to say about the stuff. It's not pretty.

But, maybe good looking golf courses are worth the loss of the ozone layer, even if it means no one will be able to go out into the sun to play golf.

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Worse than PCBs

A flame retardant found in plastics used in computers, televisions, furniture and carpets has turned up in Lake Michigan and its concentrations are growing. PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, persist in the environment like their cousins, PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. The PBDEs are also showing up in people. Many Europeans countries have already banned the chemicals.

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The people get it

During the recent election Colorado's voters mandated that 10 percent of the state's electricity must come from wind and solar sources by 2015. In its story The New York Times highlights the case of a Colorado State student who's already making that goal come true on his own campus. Such people will be the heroes of our energy future. And, the people of Colorado are showing that they are smarter than the utilities which opposed the referendum.

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"Flat-earth" thinking

The Bush administration remains one of the last bastions of "flat-earth" thinking when it comes to global warming. As The New York Times reports, a recent study of the Arctic concluded that vast changes are already underway in global climate due to global warming. The study elicited opposition from the Bush administration which said that only "voluntary measures" should be used to control greenhouse gasses, cited as the main contributor to the problem. In the Bush lexicon "voluntary" is a code word for "We aren't going to do anything."

The U. S. was one of eight nations with Artic territory that participated in the study which I mentioned in a previous post.

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Houston comes to Oregon

Ever since the U. S. Supreme Court decided in the 1920s that localities had to right to zone, they've been busy trying to plan development in a way that keeps incompatible uses such as a stamping plant and a residential neighborhood apart. But so-called property rights advocates say that development rules of any kind for environmental or planning reasons diminish their property values by restricting allowable uses.

Oregon property rights advocates now have a tool to fight back. A referendum passed by a 60/40 margin allows them to claim compensation for such restrictions or be relieved of those zoning and environmental rules that went into effect after the owners bought their land or, if the parcel is inherited, after their parents or grandparents bought it.

It seems unlikely that municipalities or the state will be able to pay the avalanche of claims. And so, Oregon, which has been known for its progressive land use laws and policies, could end up looking like Houston which has never had zoning.

Those who think this move represents freedom will soon find that what pops up next to them as a result won't make them feel free.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

How now mad cow

No one should be comforted by the finding that a suspected case of mad cow disease turned out to be a false positive as AP reported today. As I explained in a previous post the current testing regime in the U. S. targets only about seven-tenths of one percent of all cattle slaughtered and is VOLUNTARY!

So far, no one in the beef industry seems to be suffering pangs of conscience over this sham testing regimen. But, it's really only a matter of time before the disease will be shown to be much more widespread.

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Brazil and China to allow GMOs

The Economist reports (with apparent glee) that both Brazil and China are about the allow the planting of GMO crops. China's main project is GMO rice, manipulated to be more pesticide tolerant and disease resistant. Brazil's concern is soybeans. The GMO variety is being smuggled in and planted anyway. The article does point out that scientists on government boards pushing for approval have investments in GMO seed companies. How surprising is that?

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The results are in:
Plastic 10, Zooplankton 1

There are 10 pounds of plastic particles in the Pacific Ocean for every pound of zooplankton, the microscopic creatures that are the basis of the ocean food chain, according the a recent study by a California oceanographer. The oceanographer sampled a region of the Pacific, a giant ocean whirlpool, which draws ocean garbage toward it. The ocean will break up one pound of plastic into a 100,000 small pieces over time, pieces which are ingested by marine life. One known bad effect: Plastic concentrates toxic pollutants at 1 million times the level of ocean water. That implies that the plastic diet of the ocean's fish is making them more toxic than ever.

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What a waste

The Contemporary Archaeology Project at the University of Arizona has been digging through garbage for years in an effort to track what Americans throw away, especially versus what they say they throw away. The most recent findings are based on examining and weighing every last piece of food tossed out by a group of families who agreed to be part of a study on food waste. The result: Americans through away on average 470 pounds of food each year. That's 14 percent of everything they bring into the house to eat. And, that's just what gets into the garbage can. The figure doesn't include what goes down the disposal. It also doesn't include the waste associated with harvest or processing which the project plans to study.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Commodities bull a bear
for the environment

There has been a stealth bull market in commodities for some time. I say stealth because few people have noticed it until perhaps now as gold has gotten some headlines after reaching 16-year highs and oil has touched $55 a barrel recently. First, this post is categorically not meant to be investment advice. The old saying, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread," certainly applies to investing in this area. (So as they say in every investment circular, "Past results are not indicative of future returns. Consult with a competent investment professional before investing.")

Now, let me get to what I want to talk about. It's worth it to understand what's going on in the commodities markets because they give us signals about what's going on in the environment with respect to resources, at least in the eyes of people who buy and sell the stuff. Naturally, higher prices indicate scarcity either due to supply problems or increased demand. Of course, depending on which commodity you cite, higher prices could be due to either problem or both. But, prices also imply two other things: 1) what the definition of a resource is and 2) what people are willing to do to get it. Both have big environmental implications.

The simplest way to illustrate point 1 is with an example from mining. Mining companies classify something as ore if the metal contained in it can be economically extracted at today's prices with today's technology. (I'll discuss those technologies in a minute.) If the price goes up, rock that was previously uneconomical to mine can suddenly become ore since the higher price will offset the higher cost of getting the metal from the rock. Usually, something is classified as rock instead of ore for two reasons: 1) the metal is in a form that is harder to get out or 2) there's less of the metal per unit of rock than is economical to mine.

The simplest way to illustrate point 2 is to fly over the Gulf of Mexico or any offshore oil field. The platforms that you see may cost up to $1 billion. That's a lot of money to drill a hole. But, if the expected finds of oil or gas are big enough or the price is high enough, it's worth it.

With high prices people naturally want to drill for more oil and dig for more ore. On the farm where commodities are grown, farmers want to plant more crops.

Now, with high prices comes public concern. The public wants cheaper goods, and it turns to politicians with their complaints. The politicians are essentially powerless in the face of a long-term bull market in commodities to do much of anything in the short run. (I'll come back to this in a future post.) But, they can look like they are doing something by opening up public lands to mining and oil exploration. And, sure enough, when they do, companies find minerals and oil there.

So, it should be no mystery why, for example, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is high on the list of concerns for this administration. (I won't repeat here all the reasons why such drilling will make little or no difference in prices or supply which has been well-covered by the media). Opening ANWR would give the appearance of doing something and reward an important group of the administration's supporters, but it won't actually solve any problems.

That's public land. On private land there will be no vote. Mineral rights will be purchased if available and practical. Large swaths of land deemed dirt just a few years ago will suddenly become "ore." The machines will move in and start tearing at the earth and the mills will start milling the ore. In the oil fields it will be the same thing. Rigs will begin to appear in the farm fields and the yacht basins everywhere--at least, everywhere drillers think there's oil or gas. At the peak of the last oil boom there were 5,000 drilling rigs active in the United States. That number dwindled to a few hundred in the mid-'90s. Look for a return to the high before it's all over.

Farmers will start planting fencepost to fencepost. Those who haven't ripped out trees and windbreaks already in order to plant more crops will do so. These measures were, of course, designed to conserve soil from wind erosion. But who cares about that when soybeans are $10 a bushel as they were earlier this year before Chinese buying stopped and prices collapsed to around $5.50 today? Naturally, more planting means more use of pesticides and herbicides, more contaminated runoff both from manure and from chemicals. It also can mean more use of water from irrigation. For farmers in poor countries high prices provide incentive to tear down more trees such as those in the Amazon rainforest to make way for crops. In short, higher prices mean more of everything including the bad stuff.

Speaking of chemicals, technology has now made it possible to mine ore with very small concentrations of metals in them. Gold ores that have less than one-fifth of an ounce of gold per ton of ore are worth processing. (I really did mean "ton." It's not a typo!) For copper a much less profitable metal, it could mean less than 2 percent of the rock need be copper. The ore is crushed and then mixed with a liquid containing chemicals (usually cyanide) that combine with the small amounts of metals in the crushed ore. The liquid then flows into a processor that extracts the metal from the solution. It's hard to get across just how many tons of earth have to be mined in this way in order to get the metals we need.

Of course, there's also the problem of keeping the cyanide and other chemicals from leaking out, a problem Montanans recently voted to do without.

The problems with oil and gas drilling include the leakage of brine (saltwater) into freshwater acquifers which have been punctured by the drill, the disposal of toxic chemicals associated with drilling, the disturbance of the land and the effect on wildlife or the surrounding community, and the myriad problems associated with the transport, refining and use of petroleum and its derivatives. There's also the danger of well blowouts which I've seen firsthand and which devastate the surrounding terrain as brine gushes out onto farmland or natural areas and hot flames that can melt metal sear anything nearby.

There are two good effects of a commodities bull market: 1) people tend to become more efficient in their use of resources that cost more and 2) they tend to look for substitutes, either for reasons of cost or because they do not want to be subject to the vagaries of the market. If the substitute is biking instead of driving or wind power instead of coal-fired electricity, that can be a positive. If the substitute is another resource that is merely cheaper like aluminum for tin, then there isn't much of gain as far as the environment is concerned.

Commodity price cycles come in long waves of both the "up" and "down" variety. The last wave peaked in either 1974 or 1980 depending on who you talk to, which commodity you're looking at, and how you measure. But everyone who was alive in the '70s remembers what a highly inflationary time it was. Prices were rising at a 12 percent per year clip at the end, and gold topped $850 an ounce, a level it has not seen since. Oil hit $35 a barrel which when adjusted for inflation comes out to between $70 and $80.

One prominent and, by all accounts, very wealthy commodity investor believes the current commodity bull began in 1998. He expects it to run for another 5 to 10 years, something the environmental community should largely dread unless they can turn it into an opportunity to discuss renewable energy and better stewardship.

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Rusty soybeans

It seems that recent hurricanes have carried a plant disease called soybean rust from South America to the United States. The disease can reduce yields by up to 80, something agriculture officials are now very worried about as the disease has spread to six southern states. The disease can be controlled by anti-fungal agents and so soybean prices have only risen modestly so far.

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World Conservation Congress urges moratorium on GMOs

Members of the world's largest conservation organization, the World Conservation Congress, have voted overwhelmingly to seek a moratorium on the dissemination of genetically modified organisms. The reasoning behind the vote has not been covered in the media, but there will be more on this in the days to come.

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While you weren't looking...

...Congress inserted a bevy of anti-environmental riders to spending bills now before it in a lame-duck session that often gets less media scrutiny than regular sessions, according to the Los Angeles Times. The riders include exemptions from federal environmental regulations for large factory farms, an exemption from the Endangered Species Act rules for pesticide users, an end to environmental reviews for grazing permits, and a host of pork-barrel projects that are not environmentally friendly. Most have been attached during closed-door sessions and have never been debated by committees or either house. Not all are expected to survive. But the process by which they've been introduced seems as troubling as the results promise to be.

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Something's fishy

If you eat fish, you should read this article. AP reports that scientists around the world are concerned about the lack of testing and labeling of fish which are often laden with mercury, dioxins, PCBs and other chemicals. Since very little testing is done, there is little information about contaminates which vary from fish to fish and from area to area. The fishing industry has lobbied hard to keep warning labels off their products, and except in California where a statewide proposition makes a warning label mandatory, they've succeeded.

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Monday, November 22, 2004

Old King Coal

I attended a forum last week on energy sponsored by my local League of Women Voters chapter. While the energy conservation expert showed us nifty light bulbs and talked about how easy it is to save energy, the utility representative said that utilities are likely going to have to burn more coal in the future as natural gas supplies become tight. (Utilities gave up burning oil for electricity in the last energy crisis.)

This is just the kind of talk that gets me concerned about the future. If we're near peak production in natural gas in North America or at least unable to keep up with demand, you can see why coal is a natural fallback. We have plenty of it. Reserves are estimated at 250 years worth at current rates of consumption. But, if you think the global warming problem is bad now, it would get much worse if we go back to coal in a panic.

One positive note and something I've mentioned on this page before, wherever renewable energy sources are subsidized they are growing rapidly according to one panelist. The three biggest producers of solar energy in order are Japan, Germany and California. Germany is not exactly a sunny country. All three places have subsidized solar heavily. Subsidies are the only way we are going to make an energy transition successfully.

As I've tried to show in a previous post, Faith-based economics II: The case of oil's sudden scarcity, the marketplace may not give us much warning about pending permanent shortages of the energy sources we've come to rely on. And, if we wait until they do, it may be too late to make a transition without a lot of pain or maybe even to make one at all.

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Did someone say George Bush will take on global warming?

That was the prediction of one of America's most prominent journalists, Gregg Easterbrook. In his September piece in The Washington Monthly he said that Bush would turn his attention to one of the world's most daunting problems to secure his reputation for posterity. Meanwhile, over at Grist Magazine they're wondering whether Easterbrook was on drugs when he wrote that article. Grist's prognosis for any global warming legislation under Bush: D.O.A.

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Capturing methane, a greenhouse culprit

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, much more so than carbon dioxide. So it's good news indeed that the U. S. and 13 other countries are going to help poorer countries trap it and then use it as an energy source. Methane leaks from landfills and coal mines, and it's often flared in oil operations when there's no ready market for it. The New York Times reports that it's a small start, but it is a start.

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Slade Gorton: Environmentalist

Slade Gorton, former Republican U. S. senator from Washington state, came to town Friday to talk about his role on the 9/11 commission, but he fielded questions of all sorts. Asked about global warming, he said that even as a conservative Republican skeptical of regulation, he believes that the federal fuel efficiency standards were the most effective government regulations he's ever seen. He liked them so much that he introduced bills in the early '90s in the Senate to continue increasing fuel efficiency which had stopped rising under the previous legislation. But, he was opposed by the automotive industry and, most notably, the senators from GM, Ford, and Chrysler, Michigan's two senators at the time, both Democrats. (They were my senators, and one of them still can't bring himself to do the right thing each time the issue comes up.)

Environmentalist lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr. pointed out recently that if we had simply continued to increase fuel efficiency in American cars throughout the '90s, we would have reduced oil consumption by the amount of oil that we currently import from the Middle East.

Sounds like a good deal in retrospect.

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This land is my land

A piece on The New York Times op-ed page reveals that Americans all over the country in red states and blue, Republicans and Democrats, voted overwhelmingly in favor of land conservation measures. Would you have guessed that a county in Montana which gave Bush 56 percent of the vote would have taxed themselves to the tune of $10 million to keep ranchlands free from development? In places where Kerry did well, conservation measures did even better than he did, confirming their popularity in every part of the country among all types of voters.

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Banned in Japan

One of Japan's prefecture's will impose restrictions on GMO crops that will effectively end planting of such crops within its jurisdiction. Hokkaido's rules sound similar to those imposed by a new Italian law which, while ostensibly opening the country to genetically modified crops, put severe restrictions on them and gave localities the option to ban them.

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Friday, November 19, 2004

There really are limits to growth

A Nevada city is bumping up against the limits of its water supply and may require developers to purchase water rights from elsewhere if those developers want to continue to build. Fernley is an example of what a rapidly growing West with too little water has to look forward to. But, the Fernley move will only push the problem elsewhere. Officials from nearby Churchill County intend to fight to keep their water in the county. A local newspaper has the details.

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I'll take "mine" without cyanide

Modern bulk methods for processing metal ore, particularly precious metal ore, often use liquid cyanide compounds to precipitate out small traces of the metal from huge piles of ore. It's cheap, it's relatively easy to set up, and it can be deadly if the cyanide leaks out of what is called the leach pad.

In 1998 Montana voters passed a proposal that banned the use of cyanide in mining. The owners of a huge and highly lucrative gold deposit sued the state for the loss of value of their property. That suit is still pending. But, this year those owners also got a proposal on the Montana ballot that would have overturned the cyanide ban. That proposal was rejected 58 to 42 percent.

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The knee bone's connected
to the thigh bone

So what if the world's glaciers are melting? We're enjoying a balmy November. Global warming has its upside. Except that those glaciers are an integral part of the world's water supply. They store water and gradually release it to the world's rivers, an especially helpful role during the dry months of the year. Just to give you an idea of how serious the impact is, Reuters reports that 75 percent of the world's fresh water is stored as glacial ice.

"It's a huge issue in the long run because once the glaciers go, you're down to whatever happens to fall out of the sky and come downstream," said a scientist who raised the concern at an international conference this week.

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Don't drink the water

AP reports that an extensive study of Minnesota waters has discovered a "complex brew" of chemicals including caffeine, synthetic musk used in personal-care products, a flame retardant, a herbicide, insect repellent and several medications. Water treatment plants aren't designed to remove the chemicals. Some, such as the herbicide, result from agricultural and home lawn runoff. The study is available here.

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Mad cow; insane Dept. of Agriculture

The discovery of a potential case of mad cow disease in the United States should come as no surprise. The surprise is that it has been discovered this soon given the testing regime. Last year when another case was discovered, the USDA promised to double testing from about 20,000 cattle per year to about 40,000. That sounds good until you realize that there are an estimated 36 million slaughtered each year. So, we went from testing 1 in about 1800 cattle slaughtered to 1 in 900 or about one-tenth of 1 percent.

Contrast this with the Japanese system which requires 100 percent testing. The New York Times is reporting that the USDA is promising to test up to 268,000 cattle by the end of next year. It's not clear whether that's the total for this year and next or whether it's an annual figure. Taking it generously as an annual figure, you get all the way up to seven-tenths of one percent of slaughtered cattle being tested. And, to top it off, the testing is voluntary.

Why is the USDA putting on the blinders? Because the American cattle industry wants it to. If the agency went to 100 percent testing, it would surely reveal that mad cow is much more widespread, and that would mean we'd have to take some serious (and costly) steps to do something about it. It would also put a huge dent in the consumption of beef for a while.

Of course, all this will come out in time, and it will be a disaster when it does. But, as usual, USDA will wait until the problem grows much bigger before doing anything about it. Now, ask yourself: Who's more insane, the cows or the USDA?

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Thursday, November 18, 2004

To be or not to be roadless

The Los Angeles Times has a good summary of the Bush plan to give states more power in deciding whether federal forests should be developed. The plan would overturn the Clinton-era rules which protected almost 60 million acres of federal forests from road development.

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Spain wants solar panels on new homes

One of the sunniest places on earth ought to be a natural place for solar power, but a doubling of home prices since 1999 has made builders reluctant to further add to the cost of a new home. Neverthless, Spain's recently installed Socialist Party government wants to forge ahead with plans to increase the use of solar panels 10-fold by the year 2010, Agence France-Presse reports.

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16,000 species on verge of extinction;
could we be one of them?

A major new report says 16,000 species stand on the verge of extinction. Meanwhile, an award-winning New Zealand scientist renown for his climate studies of the Antarctic warned that humans could soon be on that list, according to a New Zealand-based news site.

Professor Peter Barrett said, "After 40 years, I'm part of a huge community of scientists who have become alarmed with our discovery, that we know from our knowledge of the ancient past, that if we continue our present growth path, we are facing extinction, not in millions of years, or even millennia, but by the end of this century."

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European car of the year:
Toyota hybrid

The European Car of the Year is the Toyota Prius gas/electric hybrid. This is a significant achievement since it was a panel of industry journalists who made the choice, a group known for its love of sexy, high-performance automobiles. But, the group found a lot of like in the car as The Guardian reports.

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Things are getting hotter down under

Reuters reports that "Australia could expect more frequent droughts, heatwaves, rainstorms and strong winds because of greenhouse gas-induced climate change, the country's main science research body warned." Australia, like the United States, has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

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Moving ahead on global warming

Japanese firms are setting up a fund that will help reduce greenhouse gasses in developing countries using a mechanism provided by the Kyoto Protocol to which Japan is a signatory. The emissions reductions achieved by projects financed by the fund will count toward Japan's required reductions in emissions under the protocol.

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More ozone, more deaths

The Environmental Protection Agency says increased ozone levels are linked to thousands of deaths each year in the United States. This is the first large-scale study to define the link and its risks. Because of the conservative counting methods used, one ozone specialist said that ozone "may be even deadlier than is suggested by this study."

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Faith-based economics II:
The case of oil's sudden scarcity

In my previous post about "faith-based economics," I discussed the main arguments of the so-called "cornucopian" economists and why they are flawed with respect to oil. There is yet another flaw in their arguments which should concern us, one touched on by Douglas Reynolds in my original story. Let me develop the implications of what Reynolds is saying a bit more here.

Oil exploration--in fact, exploration for any resource--is subject to what Reynolds calls the "Mayflower Effect." The implication for the oil market is that a long period of seeming plenty can come to an abrupt and unforeseen end.

Here's how Reynolds explains it. When the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth Rock, they weren't getting the best farmland America had to offer, and back then farmland was what it was all about. If they had had perfect knowledge, they would have sailed up the Mississippi River to Iowa and settled there. Only a couple of centuries later did settlers find out about Iowa.

In other words, it takes time to discover the biggest and most productive areas for any resource when you have very little knowledge about where to look. As you gain more knowledge, you know where to look, and you make bigger and bigger discoveries. In the case of American farmland, surely the Great Plains were the biggest discovery of arable land. After the big discoveries are made, then the pattern reverts back to small discoveries. Yes, there are other places in the West which are suitable for agriculture, but nothing so magnificent and productive as the Great Plains except perhaps California. But, to prove the point, California's agricultural potential was already being realized as the Great Plains were being settled.

So, the pattern for discovery of natural resources again and again is this: small, big, small. The same is true with oil. It was 70 years after the first discoveries in Pennsylvania that the elephant fields in Texas were discovered. Worldwide discoveries peaked in the 1960s with huge finds in the Middle East. Now, we are finding more oil, but the days of regularly stumbling onto elephant fields seem to be over. The rate of discovery has now dropped far below the rate of depletion, something that can't go on forever without a fall in production. (Additions to reserves in existing fields continue to allow oil companies to replenish their reserves by at least the amount of their production, so far.) Yet, there is a stubborn belief that the big discoveries of the past are inevitably going to be followed by large and possibly even bigger discoveries in the future. For a time this belief is repeatedly reinforced creating the illusion of decreasing scarcity.

Government energy planners and oil industry exploration teams believe that because they have so much more information about where to look and how to exploit oil resources, they must inevitably succeed at finding ever larger amounts of oil. Yet, no amount of information can increase the amount of a finite resource. And, so at some point the increased information fails to produce the expected discoveries. This has proven true in the Gulf of Mexico when it comes to natural gas discoveries. It has proven true in the Caspian Sea area, at first thought to contain perhaps 200 billion barrels, but now believed to have perhaps 70 billion.

According to Reynolds markets tend to price oil and other commodities as if the trajectory of large finds will continue. But over time the failure to make the expected large new discoveries finally puts enough dents in this notion that perceptions in the market can shift, and when they do, they can shift with very little warning. What seemed in ample supply is now suddenly perceived correctly to be scarce. The results can be huge price spikes as the market digests the new expectation that the resource, in this case, oil, is a dwindling commodity. When that day (or more likely that year) comes, the oil market could bid up prices to levels unthinkable today, perhaps $150 to $300 a barrel, Reynolds says. He believes it's probable that a such a scenario will unfold within the next decade.

Not a pretty picture, and not one that will give you much faith in faith-based economics.

P. S. Reynolds recently got some support for his view from a top BP executive.

[There is yet another mechanism which Reynolds discusses that prevents price signals from telling us about the state of oil's supply. But, I'll cover that in a future post.]

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I'm shocked, shocked...

....to find out that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ignored warnings that genetically modified corn might produce allergies in humans. In fact, claims that GMO foods are tested for safety are bunk according to a new paper published in Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews. A summary of the paper and its findings are available here. Perhaps the most revealing finding is that the FDA relies almost entirely on safety data supplied by the companies which make the GMO seeds.

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Democratic judge, you win;
Republican judge, you lose

A study by The Environmental Law Institute found that federal judges appointed by Republicans were much less likely to rule in favor of pro-environmental plaintiffs in cases filed under the sweeping National Environmental Policy Act than those appointed by Democrats. Is anyone surprised? Only the sponsors of the study by just how wide the gap is. Read here to find out.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

McCain is back

Sen. John McCain who stumped for President George Bush during the election is back to his old form, criticizing Bush for his lack of concern over global warming. McCain plans to hold hearings on the subject and attempt to gain passage of a bill he and Sen. Joe Lieberman have been pushing that would require mild reductions in greenhouse gasses. About the pace of global warming, McCain is quoted by The New York Times as saying, "The Inuit language for 10,000 years never had a word for robin, and now there are robins all over their villages."

Well, he's exaggerating about the 10,000 years--it's more like 5,000--but you get the point.

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Amory Lovins:
Here's how to get off the oil

One of the world's leading alternative energy advocates has a plan for ending the use of oil as a fuel. This article based on a recent talk in California summarizes his plan. Lovins heads the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank that works on market-based solutions to environmental and other problems. He contends that it's just good for business to enhance efficiency in ways that will also benefit the environment.

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Four more years II

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued rules that allow industrial boilers to burn toxic wastes with little or no control of emissions. Among the materials allowed are chemically treated wood waste, used oil waste, solvents, old tires, sewage gas, paint sludge, toxic fly ash, wastewater treatment sludge and paper mill sludge. Earthjustice, a public interest legal group, has filed suit to stop the "irresponsibly weak" rules from going into effect and force the EPA to write regulations that are consistent with the Clear Air Act.

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What does New Jersey know
that we don't?

Why would New Jersey adopt the strongest regulations in the nation for controlling and reducing mercury and arsenic, standards much stronger than those proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency?

Won't that put New Jersey at a competitive disadvantage to other states, especially those in the anti-regulatory South and West? I think I know the answer. The smartest, most creative people in the world value a clean environment. (So do other people, but they don't always have the mobility to change their place of residence.) In the knowledge-based industries in which these creative types work, location can be influenced more by where people want to live than by physical resources or regulation. My brother lives in New Mexico and works for a computer software company in Florida that has employees who live there and in other places in the United States. Why is the company in Florida? Because the owner likes it there.

A state with a reputation for being a clean, healthy place to live may prosper by attracting the cutting edge entrepreneurs who need knowledge workers more than other inputs. Now, who's at a competitive disadvantage?

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Monday, November 15, 2004

Italians give GMO crops an
appropriately Pyrrhic victory

The Greek king Pyrrhus hoped to reestablish the empire his second cousin, Alexander the Great, had once created. When that didn't work, he turned westward. During a battle against Rome he routed the Roman army, but sustained such great losses that he is quoted as saying, "One more such victory and we are undone."

So, too, modern-day Romans seem to have handed another would-be conqueror, the makers of genetically modified crops, a Pyrrhic victory in allowing the planting of GMO seeds. The new Italian law will also allow individual regions to ban such crops. Even before the law's passage 13 of 20 regions and 1,500 towns had already done so. And, the law will provide for strict regulations to prevent contamination of the country's non-GMO crops. All of this in a country where 70 percent of the citizens oppose genetically modified crops.

While this may look like an opening for GMO seed producers, to me it looks more like a trap. Those who plant GMO crops are likely to have the weight of the Italian masses come down upon them. The whole process seems destined to stir up additional hatred of GMO products, especially if anything goes wrong. No doubt the rest of Europe will be watching.

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Bush's EPA to children:
Here's some rat poison

When companies manufacturing rat poison wanted regulatory relief from the Bush administration, they got it. In 2001 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relaxed rules aimed at controlling risks to children. As a result, in the last year more than 50,000 children age 6 and under have been sickened by the pellets which look like candy. That's three times the previous rate. Now, the Natural Resources Defense Council has filed suit to reinstate the rules, the Los Angeles Times reports. The EPA won't comment on the suit or why it dropped the original rules.

Terminals, terminals everywhere

The fight over liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals is just beginning. If you want to see the scope of what's coming, look at this Federal Energy Regulatory Commission map of 45 planned terminals. Because natural gas production appears to be peaking in North America, it will be necessary to bring in LNG from other countries to supply the voracious American energy appetite. Special ships carry natural gas cooled to -260 degrees, a temperature which turns it into a liquid that can be brought across the ocean economically. Upon arrival at an LNG terminal the liquid is turned back into a gas for transport via pipeline. The concern is that these ships and the terminals that service them are subject to catastrophic explosions, explosions that are likened to nuclear explosions in their violence and destruction.

The Congressional Research Service outlines the possible dangers of such terminals in this report. The designers of such ports are aware of the safety hurdles, and there have been very few accidents and nothing that could be described as catastrophic in the 60 years or so that LNG tankers and terminals have operated. But the wildcard is terrorist activity. The possibility of an attack is obviously clear to designers, but it is much more difficult to guard against. In addition, the shear number of facilities and ships planned will increase the odds of an accident or attack.

It was because of safety concerns that only four LNG terminals were built in the United States in the late '70s and early '80s. But now with energy needs in the United States continuing to climb and so much of the economy dependent on natural gas, regulators and energy planners believe we have no choice. As things stand, many coastal communities are going to have terminals built near them unless they are somehow able to stop them.

Grist magazine details one such fight over an LNG terminal off Tijuana. It's partly a fight about preserving three islands and the marine and aquatic life they harbor. With ChevronTexaco and the Mexican government on the other side, the preservation forces have an uphill battle. This article in Pacific Environment gives you a survey of environmental concerns including this ironic twist: The authors contend that LNG could end up flooding the California market, drive down energy costs and thereby derail renewable energy initiatives.

The LNG issue is fraught with contradictions. Natural gas burns much cleaner than coal or oil and produces much less carbon dioxide than either. Some environmentalists tout natural gas as the ideal transition fuel between the oil age and an age of renewable energy. But, the only way the United States is going to be able to get enough natural gas to fulfill its needs is to import LNG.

The second quandary is that natural gas has long been promoted as a secure domestic source of energy that would free us from Middle East oil. But, much of the world's LNG comes from the Middle East, and that dependency is likely to increase not decrease.

The third problem is that natural gas may not last long enough to be the transition fuel we need. Pessimists put a peak in world gas production around 2030. (More optimistic projections put it sometime after 2050.) If the pessimists are right, then that would put the world gas production peak only 10 to 20 years after their predicted peak for oil, a truly calamitous scenario. (For a discussion of the peak oil production issue, see my story on this issue.)

The pessimists say we need to start a crash program for renewable energy now and to engage in stringent conservation measures to make our nonrenewable sources last. The optimists say that there is enough natural gas to enable us to make that transition with considerably less disruption.

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Friday, November 12, 2004

Arctic's increasingly balmy weather a bad sign

The Independent has a nicely detailed story that draws out the many bad effects that global warming is already having on the Arctic and the many worse effects to come.

Here's one excerpt:

The rapid and unprecedented shrinkage of the ice, and the extra burden it places on the animals, has resulted in the polar bears here weighing, on average, 55lb less than they did in the 1970s. And the bears have long become more than a nuisance in Churchill, Manitoba, on the shore of Hudson Bay. They are frequently tranquilised and flown back north.

Scientists at the World Wildlife Fund said that, if that continues, many of the polar bears in the Hudson Bay area will be so thin within the next 10 years that they could become infertile. Lara Hansen, chief scientist at the WWF, said: "If the population stops reproducing, that's the end of it."

Here's another:

A comparison of sea-ice measurements made during 1958-76 with 1993-1997 found it had thinned by 42 per cent. An analysis of similar data gathered by British submarines between 1976 and 1996 found a 43 per cent thinning of Arctic sea-ice.

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Faith-based economics: Peak oil and the "Cornucopians"

[This is my third installment of promised commentary on the peak oil story I wrote.]

Of course, there are government agencies and well-reputed oil geologists who say that a peak in world oil production may be three or more decades away, plenty of time to make an energy transition. But, none of them has quite the audacity of the so-called "cornucopian" economists. These economists basically make three arguments when it comes to resources, oil included:
1. Higher prices will bring about more discoveries and greater supply.
2. New technology will make a higher percentage of the resource recoverable for new and old discoveries.
3. Higher prices will bring about conservation and substitutions, some of which will ultimately take the place of a dwindling resource.

First, one must admit that there is a certain element of truth to their arguments in the short run. For example, the huge price increases for oil in the '70s provided great incentive to look for oil, and a lot was found. People began to conserve so much that oil consumption actually dropped for a few years even as economic growth rebounded. So far, so good.

But, here is where their arguments fall into what I call "faith-based economics." First, they posit wildly expanding oil reserves based on nothing other than the magic of the marketplace, while ignoring all the geological data. In other words, they ignore physical reality and rely entirely on their own theories.

Second, oil is the indispensible fuel for our age. What makes it indispensible is its "energy density" and its versatility. Energy density simply means the amount of energy available for a given volume and weight. Oil is very, very energy dense, unlike say, coal which has a lot of energy but is bulky. Coal is also not as versatile as oil and much harder to carry with you. You can power a train with coal, but not an aircraft. In addition, you can refine oil into all sorts of fuels for specific purposes, something that is difficult and costly with coal.

The point is that there is nothing on the horizon that offers us the combination of energy density and versatility that oil does. Wind power is great. In fact, it may turn out to be the very best substitute we have for generating electricity once we figure out how to store the energy it gathers for use at peak times. But, you can't run a car with a windmill. The most difficult substitution we will have to make is in the transportation area.

Aha! you say. We'll drive electric cars! Yes, that's feasible. But, we cannot fly electric planes or fight using electric tanks or build anything with electric bulldozers or pull anything with electric-powered tractor-trailers. Electric engines are just too weak for this.

So, while it's not impossible to chart out how we'd make an energy transition, it's not as easy as you might think. And, so the cornucopians argue simply that the marketplace will come up with some suitable substitute for oil. We just don't know what.

Natural gas will have its own peak in production later than oil so it doesn't seem like a long-term fix. Coal could be turned into liquid fuel. The Germans did it out of desperation in World War II. But, it takes an awful lot of energy to do that, and so you have the problem of getting very little net energy out of the bargain (something I discussed in my previous post Tar baby: Oil sands and peak oil).

Nuclear power has its own problems of waste and danger. And, as you might have guessed, the uranium used to fuel nuclear reactors will have its own peak in production later this century. Beyond this, of course, you can't fly a plane or power a car with a nuclear reactor.

Coal is quite abundant, but the quality of it will degrade further as it already has, and we may be faced with the net energy issue I mentioned before. Part of the problem is that it takes oil to find and mine coal. Also, if we ramp up coal production to substitute for say, natural gas, in the production of electricity we may be in for catastrophic global warming and air pollution. (In fact, my greatest fear is that we will simply go back to coal in a panic.)

To all of this the cornucopians respond, "Well, even if all of that is true, we'll come up with something, some new technology that will save us. Perhaps someone will figure out how to make fusion work. Or maybe there'll be some invention that makes vehicles five times as efficient that is cheap to implement and will allow us to stretch out the time we'll have for an energy transition. There's no telling what will happen when you unleash human ingenuity!"

That's all very exciting, but it's really nothing more than faith, which is why I call their approach "faith-based economics." Do we really just want to sit back and hope that everything will turn out all right? Can we really just have faith in the system with so much at stake?

[So as not to make this post too long, I've reserved another important argument against "faith-based economics" for another time.]

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Do the right thing

BRASILIA, Brazil, November 12, 2004 (ENS) - President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed a decree Tuesday placing two million hectares of the Amazon rainforest under government protection in the form of extractive reserves.

By creating the Verde Para Sempre and Riozinho do Anfrisio extractive reserves in the state of Para, the President has dealt a blow to the illegal loggers and land hungry ranchers and soy growers who clear the forest that environmentalists call the lungs of the Earth.

Extractive reserves are cooperatively managed by local communities for low-impact activities such as rubber tapping, vegetable oil extraction and small-scale logging. They must include fully protected areas, safeguarded by the communities themselves.

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Thursday, November 11, 2004

Even the fox who guarded the henhouse couldn't take it

A Bush appointee who served as the Environmental Protection Agency's chief of enforcement has revealed that he left because he was stopped at every turn from doing his job. When a Republican political appointee says that EPA's enforcement has become lax under Bush, you can only imagine how far the bar has been lowered. Grist has a short article about the comments J. P. Suarez made in the Environmental Law Reporter. You can view the entire ELR article here.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Agency muzzled on GMO corn ('til now)

The agency that provides environmental impact advice on free trade between Canada, the United States and Mexico is recommending special steps to protect Mexico's widely varied natural species of corn from genetic contamination by genetically modified corn, the Chicago Tribune reports. The Commission on Environmental Cooperation was ready to release its findings in June. But, the Bush administration blocked the release until after the presidential election. A key recommendation is to extend the moratorium on GMO corn planting in Mexico until additional safeguards are in place.

The report was released only after its existence became known when it was leaked to Greenpeace three weeks ago.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Four more years

WASHINGTON, DC, November 9, 2004 ENS) - The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has fired the biologist who publicly challenged its reliance on flawed studies about the habitat and population of the endangered Florida panther, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The veteran biologist, Andrew Eller, Jr., intends to mount a legal challenge to his termination. PEER will represent him in that challenge.

The agency's action comes 10 weeks after a federal court found the agency guilty of scientific fraud on the same grounds raised by the terminated employee.

"This case is about whether scientific dissent will be tolerated under the Bush administration," said PEER General Counsel Richard Condit who will be leading Eller's legal challenge of his firing. "A federal court found the agency knowingly used junk science to okay projects, but the official committing the fraud gets a commendation while the one who exposed it is fired."

Explains itself.

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Tibet is melting

The New York Times reports that global warming is accelerating. The evidence from glaciers in Tibet demonstrates the quickening pace of the problem.

"When you see the big picture accumulating from many sites, the evidence of drastic climate change becomes quite compelling," one researcher quoted by the Times said.

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Did you notice rice prices?

Rice shortages due to production shortfalls this year have sent rice prices up 40 percent, something we in the United States have probably not noticed. But, it is a substantial hardship for those in the world, especially in Asia, who rely on rice as staple. As The Economic Times of India points out, the unexpected shortages show that “Asia’s ability to feed itself cannot be taken for granted."

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Wind farm tradeoffs

This piece in the Boston Globe illustrates that even clean, renewable energy will force us to accept tradeoffs. You may recall the hue and cry over a proposal to put a wind farm in Nantucket Sound. This story is about the Army Corps of Engineers environmental impact statement expected to be released shortly. This is a worthwhile piece to read because many of us, especially those in windy areas across the country, are going to be faced with these very issues in the not to distant future.

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More "official" word on peak oil

The public concern about peak oil production is spreading to one of the world's leading oil companies, BP (formerly British Petroleum). A senior executive at BP, Francis Harper, believes that estimates provided by the United States Geological Survey's World Petroleum Assessment are too optimistic. (See my story on peak oil for details on the debate.)

Harper's estimates imply a peak within the next decade. While BP publishes the respected Statistical Review of World Energy each year, the company makes no official forecasts. So, strictly speaking, Harper is speaking for himself. But, it is notable that someone this deeply embedded in a major international oil company is now sounding the alarm on peak oil production.

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Good news, bad news

The good news is that we may not have to worry about global warming. The bad news is the reason we may not have to worry about it: We will run out of the carbon-laden fuels that are causing global warming before we create the catastrophic damage predicted by the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). So says a study produced last year by Uppsala University with the aid of prominent peak oil theorist Colin Campbell.

An early flameout of oil and gas production spells peril for our industrial civilization. But the authors warn that a return to heavy reliance on coal (of which there is plenty) in the wake of oil and gas shortages would lead to even worse damage than the IPCC envisions.

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Monday, November 08, 2004

Bush will stay the course--on global warming

Despite another report which the United States helped sponsor concluding that global warming is a clear threat and that actions to reduce greenhouse gasses must be taken, President Bush will take no steps to address the problem. His spokesmen cite loss of jobs as the concern. But, I can think of another. Can anyone say "o-i-l"?

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Irrigate Me! Australia's farmers hog the water

Australia's 6,500 sugarcane farmers use almost two and a half times as much water to grow a crop on which they are unable to make a profit without tariff protection than Australia's 20 million residents use each year to flush their toilets. That should give you an idea of the disparity between urban water usage and water devoted to irrigated farming, a disparity almost as pronounced in the United States as it is in Australia. As The Guardian points out, "The Murray (the equivalent of the Colorado River in the U. S. ) is dying so that Australia can export rice to China."

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Do wind farms drive down property values?

A survey of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in Great Britain concludes that property values decline during the planning process for wind farms and recover after the farm has been up and running for two years. The organization says that "[t]his suggests that wind farms become more accepted as communities grow used to them."

A separate story in The Guardian reports that a Greenpeace survey shows 69 percent of all Britons support the development of wind farms in their localities.

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Sunday, November 07, 2004

All over the map

A recent commenter trotted out several unattributed findings and statements relating to matters I've covered on this site. He (or she) seems to have swallowed whole the rantings of the anti-environmental lobby without checking anything. While the totality of the comments by their tone and structure will lead skeptical readers to discount them, the individual points might be persuasive to an uninformed reader or listener. I think it's worth responding so that readers of this blog will have some ammunition to work with when they come upon such statements. Here's the comment:
we have more trees now than in anytime in our nations history. why? improved firefighting techniques and more public lands ( thank you teddy roosevelt, a republican). source u.s. dept. of the interior. besides, they grow back!

number one contributor to global warming - the sun is getting hotter, and will until it eventually explodes. the primary proponent of the global warming THEORY recently changed his mind and said only the southern hemishpere is currently warming. the northern hemisphere is cooling, and therefore it is a push. if you bothered to check news stories from the 70's, the original scare was global cooling. they will probably try that one again soon! we have only been keeping weather data since the late 1800's, and those are surface temps at that. let's not jump to any conclusions based 150 years out of 15 billion.

environmentalists won't let new oil refineries get built here in the u.s. where they are highly regulated, they prefer that they are built in venezuela et. al. where there is no regulation. thank you for your help!
Let's take the points as they come.

It's doubtful that today there is more forest cover in the United States than there was in 1776 since most of the current United States had not even been seen by European settlers. But, it would be correct to say that forest cover in the United States has increased markedly since the beginning of the last century. While the commenter attributes this to better firefighting and Theodore Roosevelt's efforts to perserve public lands (for which we are all thankful), the main driver has been the reforestation of the eastern part of the country. This has occurred as our main fuel source has switched from wood to coal and finally to oil. In addition, the movement of agriculture to the Great Plains led to a decline in farming in the East. The result has been the regrowth of hitherto destroyed forests. What the commenter fails to mention is the massive deforestation that continues unabated outside the United States, most notably in the Amazon. Trees are a good place to store the carbon in the air and they're beautiful to boot. I wish we had more of them.

2. The sun is indeed getting slightly hotter though it cannot be attributed to a straightline process that will proceed for the next several billion years as the commenter claims. Richard Willson, the NASA-affiliated scientist who is studying the phenomenon, told Space.com that the finding does NOT mean industrial pollution is not an important factor in global warming. Willson is trying to determine what effect, if any, this increased activity of the sun is having. The rate of change Willson and his team have observed so far is "not enough to cause notable climate change," according to the Goddard Institute for Space Studies website which details Willson's work.

3. There may indeed be a major proponent (perhaps a scientist, perhaps not) of global warming who has changed his or her mind. Since no name is cited, we cannot tell. But, those who argue against the reality of global warming are a small minority in the scientific community. The anti-environmental lobby pretends that any disagreement between scientists about global warming equates to a 50-50 split on the matter and so no one can say there is a consensus on the issue. To put it simply: This is hogwash. The evidence for human contributions to global warming is so overwhelming and the consensus so great among the scientific community that two weeks ago a NASA scientist was willing to risk his career by publicly criticizing President Bush for his inaction on the matter.

4. Climate change is not confined to the southern hemisphere as the commenter claims. Only last week a study conducted by eight countries with Arctic territory including the United States concluded that "climate change is happening in the Arctic and that it will get worse unless emissions of carbon dioxide are cut." The data indicate that at the current rate of warming the Arctic ice cap will disappear during summers altogether by the end of this century.

5. Sudden, rapid cooling in the northern hemisphere is not inconsistent with global warming as this article explains. Fresh water melting off the Greenland ice sheet (the result of global warming) could bring what we call the Gulf Stream to a halt. If it does, much of Europe would go into a deep freeze within a decade. (See my previous post which discusses this.)

6. It's true that modern weather data don't go back much further than 150 years. But, paleoclimatologists, that is, researchers who study the climate of the past, are busy examining ice cores, tree rings, and a variety of geological data and have been able to determine climates going back millions of years. True, the data are not as precise as modern weather measurements. But, what they're telling us is not encouraging. We are living on a planet that is warming much more rapidly than can be accounted for by natural phenomena. For an introduction to this field of study, see the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA) website.

The commenter is correct that oil companies do not want to build refineries in the United States because air pollution regulations make it expensive and because few places in the country would welcome a new refinery. What companies have done instead is to expand existing refineries in the U. S. and increase their efficiency to produce higher output. The commenter makes an excellent argument for uniform environmental regulations across the globe. Why should the people of Venezuela be made to breath toxic air just so we can have more gasoline?

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Saturday, November 06, 2004

Apocalypse Now

The dire predictions of many environmentalists fit neatly with the apocalyptic visions of right-wing evangelical Christians turning them against environmental protection, according to Grist Magazine. Why worry about the future of the ecosphere when Jesus is due back any day? Doing so apparently stands in the way of the Second Coming.

James Watt, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior and a devout evangelical Christian, once told a congressional committee: "God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back." You can't get any clearer than that.

The ascendency of the Christian right to political power has ominous implications for environmental policy. The Grist article has all the particulars. Must be read to be believed.

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Friday, November 05, 2004

Vladimir Putin: Environmentalist

He doesn't seem like the type, but former KGB-man-turned-Russian-president Vladimir Putin put his signature on the Kyoto Protocol today allowing it to take effect for all signatories. Countries producing at least 55 percent of all greenhouse gases had to sign in order for the agreement to come into force. With Russia's participation that number has been reached. The treaty calls for a reduction in greenhouse emissions in an attempt to mitigate global warming. (The United States has refused to sign the protocol. It produces more greenhouse gasses that any other country.)

Now, why would the second largest producer of hydrocarbons in the world sign such a treaty? The answer is quite straightforward. Russia wants integration with Europe, and Europe wants action on global warming. This was the price Russia had to pay.

There are pluses and minuses for Russia. For now, its industrial sector has been so devastated by post-Soviet era closures that it emits far less carbon dioxide than it used to. And, since it pollutes so much less, it will receive carbon emission credits which it can sell to European businesses for cash. (Each country's allowed emissions are based on 1990 figures, a year when Russian industry was far more vigorous and polluting that it is today. Hence, Russia now has credits to sell.)

But, as the Russian economy recovers, it will have to adopt stricter pollution control technologies, something that will result in new costs.

Putin is gambling that the exercise will be a net plus resulting in the moderization of Russian industry and the cementing of ties with Europe.

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Global warming? What global warming?

It should come as no surprise that the Bush administration is once again pretending that if you don't talk about global warming, it will somehow go away. The Washington Post reports that the administration is trying to block any policy recommendations from scientists involved in a major international study detailing the dire effects of global warming on the Arctic. (See my previous post on this report and on a government scientist who dared to speak out about global warming.) Eight nations with Arctic territory including the United States teamed up with six indigenous tribes to produce the four-year study.

According the Post, "One European negotiator said the administration is trying to 'sidetrack the whole process so it is not confronted with the question, 'Do you believe in climate change, or don't you?'"

Ask me no questions, and I'll tell you no lies.

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Sun worshippers

The U. S. Department of Energy is teaming up with the Western Governors' Association to install 1000 megawatts of solar power in several western states. The energy produced would be enough to power 150,000 homes each year. The western governors want to develop more than 30 gigawatts of renewable energy in the West by 2015.

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Hydrogen from sunflowers?

Whenever I hear of a breakthrough that promises to make cheap, clean fuels such as hydrogen out of crops such as sunflowers, I am skeptical. First, there's the problem of taking up arable land for growing the crops and that means less land for growing food. Then there's always the unmentioned issue. Growing crops takes a huge amount of petroleum in the form of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and fuel for farm machinery, transport and processing. It's hard to see how biofuels will solve our energy and pollution problems or how they will save us much oil. But, I'm certainly open to further information that will change my mind.

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A river runs through it

The Anacostia River runs through the nation's capital. But it took an outside group, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to bring the river's sorry state to the attention of the people who make and enforce our environmental laws. In a concise report the foundation describes the toxic industrial pollution, raw sewage overflow, street and lawn runoff and trash dumping that have damaged the river. The foundation does offer a plan to restore the river by 2020.

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Thursday, November 04, 2004

Whales win one, sonar wins one

Recent research has shown that sonar, especially the kind the U. S. Navy uses to detect submarines, may be harming whales, porpoises and dolphins who rely on their own sonar to navigate and communicate. The European Parliament has called for a moratorium on the kind of sonar that is thought to be harmful and for research to find alternatives. Meanwhile, a U. S. federal appeals court turned down a suit called The Cetacean Community v. George W. Bush saying that whales and other cetaceans have no standing to sue for relief from the damaging effects of sonar.

This article explains how the damage is done.

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All wet about mad cow?

In a comment on a post last week entitled Why no mad cow testing of U. S. beef imports to Japan? a reader explained that the presumed cause of mad cow, errant prions in the brain, is problematic and unproven. He suggested a visit to the site of an organic British cattle farmer who has been doing work on the causes of neurodegenerative disease for years.

Mark Purdey believes that a combination of diet difficiencies, toxic exposure to metals (particularly manganese), ultra-violet radiation, ultrasonic exposure and other factors contribute to a wide range of neuro-degenerative diseases such as mad cow. In perusing the site I was unable to find a single article that succinctly summarized the current state of his research, however.

Purdey appears to have traveled all over the world investigating hot spots for neuro-degenerative disease among animals and humans. And, he has gathered quite a bit of anecdotal evidence that seems to support his claims based on analyses of soil (pasture and cropland) and industrial pollution. Much of his findings have been published in several journals, though he is widely ridiculed by establishment scientists.

My reader explained that Purdey's theory explains something that the current prion theory of infection does not. Why do none of the traditional methods of ridding materials of disease such as heat, radiation, and disinfectants eliminate mad cow from the brains of infected cattle? Purdey would say that's because the causative agent is the metals which, in an altered energy state, are associated with the disease. They are unaffected by those treatments and pass into the bodies of humans and animals who consume them.

The upshot is that you have to have a copper deficiency yourself AND eat so-called "infected" matter (which could just as well be grass as animal brains) containing supercharged metal ions (particularly manganese) to be at risk for disease. Check your copper levels, my reader advises.

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Forget the drought, see Glen Canyon

The New York Times has a curious piece today about the reappearance of Glen Canyon which had been filling with water since the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in 1963. The five-year-long drought in the West has shrunk Lake Powell, which formed behind the dam, by 60 percent revealing canyon walls that haven't been seen in decades. The article talks to environmentalists and others who bray about how wonderful this is. And, the reporter points out that the change may be permanent and that more and more of the canyon will continue to reappear even if the worst drought in 500 years doesn't continue.

Let me see. Where do I start? The West is experiencing the worst drought in 500 years and The New York Times is talking about how lovely Glen Canyon is. Of course, it is lovely and it was a shame to cover it. But, it seems to me that the real story is what the country will do about its western half and the people who live there if the drought continues for another five years. Huge lines of water trucks heading west come to mind.

UPDATE: The Times did cover the drought issue with seriousness earlier this year. The article is available here.

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