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Weekly Mulch: House Republicans Push for Renewed Offshore Drilling

6:49 pm in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

Ed. note: This is the final edition of the Mulch. To keep up with the best environmental coverage the progressive media has to offer, follow The Media Consortium on Twitter or connect with us on Facebook.

House Republicans passed a bill yesterday afternoon that would require the Obama administration to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. As oil prices shoot up, Republicans have pushing for more domestic drilling, even as oil companies report record profits.

As Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard reports, oil companies have used those profits in record buybacks of company stock. “This spending spree comes not only as the gas price debate has resurged in Congress, but also as companies lobby to keep the $40 billion in tax breaks and loopholes that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats want slashed from the 2012 budget,” Sheppard writes.

The long war

The most recent debates over off-shore drilling, oil profits, and oil subsidies are just one front in the long war to preserve the environment and push back against climate change. There are strategies available here that have yet to be deployed. At Grist, David Roberts offers four that could help fight climate change: put a price on carbon; deploy existing clean energy technology on a much more massive scale; invest large amounts of money in research and development; and invest in infrastructure.

As far as these four policy proposals go, he says, right now, “The U.S. is doing all of them poorly,” and he does not believe that it is possible any more to reverse climate change. As he writes, “Climate change won’t be solved, it will be managed, by us, by our kids, by our grandkids.”

Those kids, however, are not ready to accept their fate without a fight. Yesterday, a group of teenagers filed suit against the federal government for failing to guard a public trust—the atmosphere. As Alec Loorz, who is sixteen years old and a plaintiff in one suit, writes at Earth Island Journal, “The government has a legal responsibility to protect the future for our children. So we are demanding that they recognize the atmosphere as a commons that needs to be preserved, and commit to a plan to reduce emissions to a safe level.”

Loorz explains why he’s fighting the government on climate policy:

Our addiction to fossil fuels is messing up the perfect balance of nature and threatening the survival of my generation. If we continue to hide in denial and avoid taking action, my and I generation will be forced to grow up in a world where hurricanes as big as Katrina are normal, people die every year because of heat waves, droughts, and floods, and entire species of animals we’ve come to know disappear right before our eyes.

The future vs. now

That’s not a world that I’d want to live in. But the current state of affairs isn’t so pleasant, either. No matter what we do, it seems, we wreak havoc on the world around us. At Care2, for instance, Miranda Perry reports that sonar technology, which was known to harm sea mammals like whales and dolphins, also can damage invertebrate animals, like squid found dead on the shore:

Biologists speculated that the giant squid were affected by the sonar, which can range from 157 and 175 decibels and frequencies between 50 to 400 Hertz in marine activities such as oil and natural gas prospecting.

“[W]e hypothesized that the giant squid died in one of two ways: either by direct impact from the sound waves or by having their statocysts practically destroyed and [the squid] becoming disoriented,” marine biologist Angel Guerra told National Geographic. Now, that hypothesis is backed by proof.

And it’s not only animals that are damaged by human activities: it’s us, too. The toxins constantly filtering into the air, for instance, contribute to health problems like asthma. As Susan Lyon and Jorge Madrid write at Campus Progress:

Asthma rates are higher in places with bad air quality, and though asthma has no known cure it can be controlled by limiting exposure to asthma triggers such as smog and particulate air pollutants. Poor air quality caused by exhaust from cars, factory emissions, smoke, and dust can aggravate the lungs and can worsen chronic lung diseases, according to the EPA. Coal-fired power plants are also a big part of the problem.

Rolling back protections

It is clear that our way of living in the world is damaging it. But when governments all over the country should be pushing harder than ever to protect the environment, in many cases, they’re trying to roll back protections already in place.

Public News Service’s Glen Gardner reports that in Florida, a program called Florida Forever, which helped conserve water resources and wildlife habitat, may be sacrificed to the state budget crunch. And The Florida Independent’s Travis Pillow reports that, at the same time, “The Florida House of Representatives just gutted the power of ordinary citizens to challenge decisions made by environmental regulators….[C]hallengers would have less of a say in permitting decisions that affect water quality. The person or company seeking the permit would be able to rebut any of their arguments, with new evidence, without giving the challenger a chance to respond.”

On both the state and federal level, policy makers have failed to safeguard the environment and are leaving a mess for younger generations to clean up.

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

Weekly Mulch: The EPA Can Regulate Carbon, For Now

8:30 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

This week, the House voted to shut down the carbon regulation program at the Environmental Protection Agency, but the Senate rejected four different measures that would have stopped or delayed EPA action. The EPA, as mandated by the Supreme Court, has been moving forward with regulations that would require carbon polluters to apply for EPA permits and to use the best available method to start limiting carbon emissions.

The Office of Management and Budget has promised that if Congress does vote to end the regulation program, “senior advisors would recommend that [the president] veto the bill,” as I report at The American Prospect. But as David Roberts points out at Grist, that does not mean President Obama would follow that course. Roberts writes:

I don’t see a promise there. I see wiggle room where his advisers can “recommend” a veto and he can ignore their recommendations. And of course this leaves aside whether Obama would veto a spending or appropriations bill with an EPA-blocking rider.

Making a better choice

The legislators who are supporting the anti-EPA bill often argue that the power to deal with this issue should rest with them, not the executive branch. But they also argue against the EPA’s regulations on the grounds that they’ll cost American companies money, leading to higher costs for consumers and fewer jobs.

It’s true: Dealing with carbon is expensive. Right now, Americans simply aren’t paying for the damage being done to the atmosphere, and many of us don’t seem to care.

In Orion Magazine, Kathryn Miles writes about this problem in a review of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, a new collection of essays on the problem of climate change:

As editors Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson argue in their introduction, neither scientific data nor externally imposed regulation will change hearts and minds — let alone our behavior. “What is missing,” they contend, “is the moral imperative, the conviction that assuring our own comfort at terrible cost to the future is not worthy of us as moral beings.” And so, rather than focus on atmospheric theory and tipping-point statistics, Moral Ground seeks to inspire action through a recognition of our species’ commitment to ethical behavior.

Choices

In some cases, making ethical environmental choices does mean paying more, at least temporarily, for clean energy, for products that create carbon pollution, for gas and oil. But there are also ways to fight climate change while saving money.

Composting, for example, costs nothing and produces something of value. In New York, the Lower East Side Ecology Center collects food scraps, composts them, and sells the finished product at the Union Square Farmer’s Market. As Kara Cusolito writes at Campus Progress, “Composted food scraps—whether from food prep or leftovers — turn back into the rich, fluffy soil that farmers and gardeners need to grow more food.” Farmers, for instance, can stop buying fertilizer if they start composting. Cusolito quotes one farmer who puts the choice in perspective: “Saying plants can’t grow well if they’re not conventionally fertilized is like saying people can’t be as happy if they’re not on drugs.”

The price of solar energy

Clean energy isn’t free of negative consequences, though, and clean energy advocates increasingly are butting heads with environmentalists who want to minimize the impact of new energy sources.

As dependence on natural gas, which counts as clean when compared with coal, grows in this country, worries about the threat of gas drilling to water sources is rising. At Earth Island Journal, Richard Ward of the UN Foundation, which supports natural gas as a clean energy source, and Jennifer Krill, executive director of Earthworks, lay out the cases for and against natural gas. Krill argues:

If the natural gas industry wants to be “clean,” it should embrace policies that mean no pollution of groundwater, drinking water, or surface waters; stringent controls on air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions; protection for no-go zones, like drinking watersheds and sacred and wild lands; and respect for landowner rights, including the right to say no to drilling on their property.

But Krill notes the gas industry hasn’t show much interest in pursuing those compromises. And out west, some conservationists are objecting to the influx of solar panels on fragile desert lands. One group, Solar Done Right, for instance, “doesn’t disagree that much more solar energy is needed in order to decrease fossil fuel consumption and reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, but they do disagree with developing solar facilities the way utilities build massive coal- or gas-fired power plants,” reports David O. Williams for The Colorado Independent. Instead, the group argues that solar energy can thrive in the “built environment,” on rooftops and on sites that are not environmentally vulnerable.

No matter what we do, there will be some costs to getting off of carbon, both for the economy and for the environment. But if the world does not decrease its carbon emissions, the costs will be much higher.

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

Weekly Mulch: Saying No to the Nuclear Option

8:33 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Faced with the nuclear crisis in Japan, governments around the world are confronting the vulnerabilities of their nuclear energy programs. And while some European countries, such as Germany and France, are already considering more stringent safety measures–or backing off of nuclear development altogether–in the United States, the Obama administration is pushing forward with plans for increased nuclear energy production.

Ultimately, these questions are the same that the country faced after last summer’s Gulf Coast oil spill. As we search for more and more clever ways to fill our energy needs, can we write off the risk of disaster? Or are these large-scale catastrophes so inevitable that the only option is to stop pursuing the policies that lead to them?

The risks of nuclear

As Inter Press Service’s Andrea Lund reports, anti-nuclear groups are using the Japanese disaster as just one example of the disadvantages of nuclear power. Linda Gunter, of the group Beyond Nuclear, told Lund:

Even if you get away from the safety issue, which is obviously front and centre right now because of what’s happening in Japan, and you look at solutions to climate change, then nuclear energy takes way too long to build, reactors take years to come online, they’re wildly expensive. Most of the burden of the cost will fall on the U.S. taxpayer in this country, so why go there?…The possibility of it going radically wrong, the outcome is so awful that morally you can’t justify it. The reliability of nuclear power is practically zero in an emergency when you have this confluence of natural disasters.

And, as Maureen Nandini Mitra writes at Earth Island Journal, there are plenty of nuclear plants that are at risk. “More than 100 of the world’s reactors are already sited in areas of high seismic activity,” she reports. “And what’s happening in Japan makes one thing clear – we have absolutely no idea if any of these plants are actually capable of withstanding unprecedented natural disasters.”

Build up

The irony of nuclear energy is that the world started relying on it in part to mitigate the perceived threat of nuclear weapons. Jonathan Schell writes in The Nation about nuclear power’s transition from warheads to reactors:

A key turning point was President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace proposal in 1953, which required nuclear-armed nations to sell nuclear power technology to other nations in exchange for following certain nonproliferation rules. This bargain is now enshrined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which promotes nuclear power even as it discourages nuclear weapons….

Eisenhower needed some proposal to temper his growing reputation as a reckless nuclear hawk. Atoms for Peace met this need. The solution to nuclear danger, he said, was “to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers” and put it “into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace”—chiefly, those who would use it to build nuclear power plants.

While the threat of nuclear war still looms, since World War II, the nuclear materials that have caused the most damage have been those in the energy industry. And, as Schell reminds us, soldiers still have nuclear weapons in hand, as well.

The nuclear era

The Obama administration has always been gung-ho about nuclear energy: The president is from Illinois, after all, where Exelon Corp., one of the countries’ biggest nuclear providers, is based. Even in the face of Japan’s disaster, the administration is not backing off of its push for nuclear, as Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones:

Nuclear power is part of the “clean energy standard” that Obama outlined in his State of the Union speech in January. And in the 2011 budget, the administration called for a three-fold increase in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, from the $18.5 billion that Congress has already approved to $54.5 billion. “We are aggressively pursuing nuclear energy,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in February 2010 as he unveiled the budget….In Monday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Jay Carney said that nuclear energy “remains a part of the president’s overall energy plan.”

The state of safety in the U.S. nuclear industry isn’t particularly reassuring, though. As Arnie Gunderson told Democracy Now!‘s Amy Goodman, almost a quarter of American nuclear plants rely on the same design as the one currently faltering in Japan. Even worse, experts have known for decades that the design of this reactor is not safe. Gunderson explained:

This reactor design, this containment design, has been questioned since 1972. The NRC in 1972 said we never should have licensed this containment. And in 1985, the NRC said they thought it was about a 90 percent chance that in a severe accident this containment would fail. So, that we’re seeing it at Fukushima is an indication that this is a weak link. It’s this Mark I, General Electric Mark I, containment. And we have—essentially one-quarter of all of the nuclear reactors in the United States, 23 out of 104, are of this identical design.

It’d be reassuring if the U.S. government could promise that our superior safety standards would overcome these dangers. But, as Mother Jones‘ Sheppard writes, the day before the earthquake in Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended the life a Vermont plant using this very design, over the objections of the state’s legislature.

Stumbling with stellar fire

Whatever the attractions of nuclear energy, it’s a dangerous business. The Nation‘s Schell puts it best when he argues that the fallibility of humankind is the biggest risk factor. He writes:

The problem is not that another backup generator is needed, or that the safety rules aren’t tight enough, or that the pit for the nuclear waste is in the wrong geological location, or that controls on proliferation are lax. It is that a stumbling, imperfect, probably imperfectable creature like ourselves is unfit to wield the stellar fire released by the split or fused atom.

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

Weekly Mulch: Conservatives and Liberals Remain In Denial About Climate Change

7:17 pm in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

The negative impacts of climate change are coming on more quickly than anyone expected. According to a new NASA study, ocean waters are creeping steadily upwards, at rates faster than predicted, Maureen Nandini Mitra reports at Earth Island Journal:

“That ice sheets will dominate future sea level rise is not surprising – they hold a lot more ice mass than mountain glaciers,” Eirc Rignot, the report’s lead author said in a statement emailed by NASA yesterday. “What is surprising is this increased contribution by the ice sheets is already happening.”

This is just the latest warning sign that climate change is happening and that its negative effects will occur more quickly than anyone has prepared for. This will happen despite Republicans’ insistence that there is no hard scientific proof of climate change, and that “just because you might be in the minority doesn’t always mean you’re wrong,” as Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) put it this week at a House subcommittee hearing on climate science.

Dealing with it

This problem is not going to go away. The economist and blogger Tyler Cowen wrote this week that left-wing economists have a “reluctance to admit how hard the climate change problem will be to solve, for fear of wrecking any emerging political consensus on taking action.” In response, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum comments, “Actually, liberals spend a ton of time talking about how hard climate change is. Still, there’s something to this. As hard as we say it is, it’s probably even harder than that.”

How hard? On Democracy Now!, Naomi Klein argued this week that progressive environmental groups have been pussy-footing around the scope of the issue entirely. She said:

What I see is that the green groups, a lot of the big green groups, are also in a kind of denial, because they want to pretend that this isn’t about politics and economics, and say, “Well, you can just change your light bulb. And no, it won’t really disrupt. You can have green capitalism.” And they’re not really wrestling with the fact that this is about economic growth. This is about an economic model that needs constant and infinite growth on a finite planet. So we really are talking about some deep transformations of our economy if we’re going to deal with climate change. And we need to talk about it.

That’s a tall order for green groups, however, when they’re having a hard time convincing conservatives that climate change even exists. As Klein says, refusing to believe in climate change has become one way that conservatives define themselves, politically, and the pull of ideological identification outweighs any rational attitude toward the science in question.

The example of agriculture

In many cases, solutions to the problems of climate change are clear. Only habit and political intransigence keep them from being put into action.

Agriculture is a great example of this tangle. Industrial farming pollutes earth, water, and air, while sustainable methods of farming promote global health. What’s more, they create as much, if not more, product than industrial farming techniques. This week the United Nations confirmed these benefits in a report on “eco-farming,” what Americans generally call sustainable agriculture. Inter Press Service reports:

“An urgent transformation to ‘eco-farming’ is the only way to end hunger and face the challenges of climate change and rural poverty,” said Olivier De Schutter, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food. … Yields went up 214 percent in 44 projects in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa using agro-ecological farming techniques over a period of 3 to 10 years… far more than any GM [genetically modified] crop has ever done.

Despite this sort of success, the argument that agribusiness is necessary to feed the world is still running rampant. At Grist, Tom Philpott has been picking apart a series of articles from The Economist that explains, as Philpott puts it “how industrial agriculture is the true and only way to feed the 9 billion people who will inhabit the world by 2050.”

But as Philpott notes, sustainable farming can feed the global population and is better for the planet as well. The United Nations, he writes, has:

found that ‘ecological agriculture’ could ‘assist farmers in adapting to climate change’ by making farm fields more resilient to stress. So why isn’t eco-agriculture catching on? The report cites a bevy of obstacles, none of them technological:

“[L]ack of policy support at local, national, regional and international levels, resource and capacity constraints, and a lack of awareness and inadequate information, training and research on ecological agriculture at all levels.”

Obvious solutions

Indeed, it can be incredible how simple solutions to seemingly intractable problems can be. For instance, IPS reports, yet another UN report has found one solution to mitigating global hunger: Push back against gender inequality. IPS’s Alan Bojanic and Gustavo Anriquez write:

The UN agency’s report estimates that if women had the same access to agricultural assets, inputs, and services as men they could increase yields on their farms, and this increase could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by roughly 2.5 to 4 percent.

Moreover, such a growth in agricultural production could in turn bring 100 to 150 million people out of hunger – that is about 12 to 17 percent of the 925 million undernourished people that exist in the world according to FAO’s latest estimates.

Dealing with the problems of climate change might be harder than liberals often admit. But some of the simplest solutions haven’t even been tried yet.

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

Weekly Mulch: Activist Tim DeChristopher Convicted of Two Felonies

1:41 pm in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher was convicted yesterday of two felony counts. DeChristopher was on trial for bidding on more than 22,000 acres of public land that he could not pay for: his two crimes are making false representations to the government and interfering with the land auction.

DeChristopher made the $1.79 million bid in order to “do something to try to resist the climate crisis,” he told Tina Gerhardt, in an interview published by AlterNet. But, as Kate Sheppard explains at Mother Jones, the judge threw out “the defense that his actions were necessary to prevent environmental damage on this land and, more broadly, the exacerbataion of climate change.”

“They’re hoping to make an example out of me.”

DeChristoper now faces the possibility of  a $75,000 fine and 10 years in prison. In an interview with YES! Magazine’s Brooke Jarvis, before the trial started, DeChristopher said he had faced the possibility that he would be found guilty.

“There is still the possibility of acquittal, but I think the most likely scenario is probably that I will be convicted,” he told Jarvis. “The prosecution has been very clear that they’re hoping to make an example out of me, to convince other people not to fight the status quo.”

Wild lands

What is the status quo? Bureau of Land Management land, like the parcel DeChristopher bid on, is owned by the government, which often leases out the rights to develop the natural resources, like gas and oil, to private companies.

Up until 2003, the Department of the Interior had the option of setting aside some of its lands for preservation, pending final Congressional approval. But during the Bush administration, the DOI gave up that option and only considered uses like recreation or development for its holdings.

Back in December, the current Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, reversed that policy, again putting on the table the option of using public lands for conservation purposes. But as I write at TAPPED, Republicans are throwing a hissy fit about the change.

Truth or consequence?

The Republicans’ argument goes something like: Using public lands for conservation will deprive Americans of jobs and hurt the bottom lines of states with large tracts of public lands. What they don’t discuss is the potential damage that drilling for, say, natural gas could cause. The Mulch has been writing about the dangers of hydrofracking for awhile now, but over the past week The New York Times began weighing in on the issue with a long series on the dangers of hydrofracking.

The Times‘ series brings even more evidence of hydrofracking’s dangers to light—in particular, about the radioactive waste materials being dumped into rivers where water quality is rarely monitored. As Christopher Mims reports at Grist, the series has already prompted calls for new testing from people like John Hanger, the former head of Pennsylvania’s environmental protection department, which has not been among the staunchest opponents of new drilling protects. According to Mims, Hanger has written that:

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection should order today all public water systems in Pennsylvania to test immediately for radium or radioactive pollutants and report as soon as good testing allows the results to the public. Only testing of the drinking water for these pollutants can resolve the issue raised by the NYT.

Or, as Mims puts it, “No one has any idea if the radioactive material in the wastewater from fracking is appearing downstream, in drinking water supplies, in quantities in excess of EPA recommendations.”

Tar and feather ‘em

Fracking is not the only environmentally destructive practice that the energy industry is increasingly relying on. Earth Island Journal has two pieces looking into the tar sands industry in Canada. Jason Mark’s piece is a great introduction to the history of the tar sands and takes a sharp look into the impact development has had on the community and the environment.

And Ron Johnson details the U.S.’s connection to the destruction: The federal government is considering approving a pipeline that would allow the oil from the tar sands to travel to Texas refineries. Johnson writes:

Green groups warn that the pipelines will keep North America and emerging economies hooked on oil from the Alberta tar sands for years to come. By greasing the crude’s path to market, the projects will encourage further reckless expansion of the tar sands. That would delay the transition to a renewable energy economy, while further degrading Canada’s boreal forests and spewing even more CO2 into the atmosphere.

A new regime

The decision to approve the pipeline lies with the executive branch. But all of Washington isn’t a particularly friendly place to green groups and their causes these days.

For example, as Care2’s Beth Buczynski reports, the newly empowered House Republicans have done away with one of the smallest green programs the Democrats put into place, an initiative to compost waste from House cafeterias. They’ve justified the cut by saying it was “too expensive,” but as Buczynski writes, “Spending must be dramatically reduced, yes, but also strategically. It’s interesting (and disheartening) to see which programs the new GOP House has targeted first.”

It’s a small thing, but it shows how committed Republicans are to the status quo: They’re not even willing to mulch their leftover salad.

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

Weekly Mulch: Why Natural Gas Companies Fear Josh Fox, Gasland, and the Oscars

6:48 pm in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

The natural gas industry is afraid that Josh Fox, director of the muckraking film Gasland, might win an Oscar on Sunday. Earlier this month, an organization called Energy in Depth, backed by the oil and gas industry, sent the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a letter in which it argued that Gasland, Fox’s exposé on the natural gas industry, should be removed from consideration for best documentary feature because it contained inaccurate information.

After dealing with the industry for the past couple of years, Fox is not surprised by this tactic. “What this points to is the culture of that industry, which is bullying, which is aggressive, which is outlandish in their tactics, which will stop at nothing,” he told AlterNet.

The film is still up for consideration, and the industry should be worried about the impact its nomination, let alone a victory, could have. Even if the film doesn’t win on Sunday, millions of viewers will see a clip of the film that documents the real threat of environmental devastation that comes along with natural gas drilling and, in particular, with hydrofracking.

Nothing natural about it

The Media Consortium’s Weekly Mulch has been tracking the fight over natural gas drilling. As noted back in September, Sandra Steingraber, in Orion Magazine, has called the rise of hydrofracking “the environmental issue of our time.” In a more recent dispatch for the magazine, Steingraber reports from an Environmental Protection Agency hearing on fracking, a technique for extracting otherwise hard-to-reach gas from the ground.

In upstate New York, where the hearing was held and where natural gas companies have been buying up drilling rights and properties for the past couple of years, residents are hugely concerned about this issue: four hundred people signed up to speak, for 120 seconds each, as Steingraber reports, over two days. One speaker in particular stuck out to her, though:

An older man rose to speak….And then he let ten seconds of silence fill the theater….After hours of ceaseless, rapid-fire speech, the sudden hush flowed through the overheated room like cool water. Someone giggled nervously. And then, finally, he spoke. That silence, he announced, represented the sounds of migratory birds. And tourists. And professors. And organic farmers. And thus with no words at all he reminded the audience of all the good members of our beloved community who would — if our land filled up with drill rigs, waste ponds, compressor stations, and diesel trucks — disappear, exit the cycle. As in, forever.

At Change.org, Austin Billings has another account of what natural gas drilling is putting at risk—the Bridger-Teton National Forest, miles of “spectacular hills and tall pine forests” that, Billings writes, “just kept going” as he drove through them. A company called Plains Exploration and Production Company is working to sink more than 130 natural gas wells in this area, Billings reports, a project that will strew the area with “pipelines, compressor stations, industrial water wells, truck staging areas, and other industrial features.”

Push Back

If Josh Fox wins an Oscar, however, natural gas projects like this one will face even more opposition. And that opposition matters. Just ask Costco, which caved in this week to a Greenpeace-led campaign against its sales of unsustainable seafood. For months, Greenpeace and its allies have been pushing the chain of wholesale grocery stores to sell only fish that can be captured or farmed in a sustainable way. The chain agreed to remove 12 “red list” species, at the highest risk for extinction, and to take other actions to promote sustainability and ocean conservation.

“It was a long and arduous process,” said Casson Trenor, Greenpeace’s seafood campaigner, said, according to Change.org’s Sarah Parsons. “I’m really happy with where we’ve gotten to, and I think it says a lot about our methods and how effective we can be.”

Guilty pleasures

Of course, fish is not the only food that’s damaging to the environment. So much of what’s available to eat is damaging to the environment. Grist reported last week that Girl Scout cookies are made with palm oil, the production of which is driving deforestation in Indonesia. Earth Island Journal’s Maureen Nandini Mitra follows up by pointing out that Thin Mints aren’t the only sweet that sucks up palm oil: her list includes M&Ms, Snickers, and Twix, as well as Clif energy bars.

Another point against those treats: They usually don’t come in recyclable packaging. On the other hand, it’s a little bit of a mystery what happens to the recyclable containers tossed into the recycling, especially those with a little food gunk left on them. For those worried about their fate, Mother Jones’ Kiera Butler has done a substantial public service by ferreting the best approaching to cleaning out recyclables. The takeaway: They can be a little bit dirty. ”It’s not a giant deal if containers have little food residue on them,” Butler reports, but “the cleaner your containers, the more they’re worth on the recyclables market.”

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

Weekly Mulch: The Sticky Truth about Oil Spills and Tar Sands

10:41 pm in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

The National Oil Spill Commission released its report on last year’s BP oil spill this week. The report laid out the blame for the spill, tagging each of the three companies working on the Deepwater Horizon at the time, Halliburton, Transocean and BP, and also offered prescriptions for avoiding similar disasters in the future.

As Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard notes, it’s unlikely the recommendations will impact policy going forward.

“I think the recommendations are pretty tepid given the severity of the crisis,” Jackie Savitz, director of pollution campaigns at the advocacy group Oceana, told Sheppard. “Even the small things they’re suggesting, I think it’s going to be hard to convince Congress to make those changes.”

No transparency for you!

Last summer, after the spill, the Obama administration tried hard to look like it was pushing back against the oil industry, even though just weeks before the spill, the president had promised to open new areas of the East Coast to offshore drilling.

This week brought new evidence that, despite some posturing to the contrary, the administration is not exactly unfriendly to the energy industry. One of the key decisions the administration faces about the country’s energy future is whether to support the Keystone XL, a pipeline that would pump oil from tar sands in Canada down to Texas refineries.  And one of the key lobbyists for TransCanada, the company intending to build the pipeline, is a former staffer for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, filed a Freedom of Information requesting correspondence between the lobbyist, Paul Elliott, and his former boss, but the State Department denied the request.

“We do not believe that the State Department has legitimate legal grounds to deny our FOIA request, and assert that the agency is ignoring its own written guidance regarding FOIA requests and the release of public information,” said Marcie Keever, the group’s legal director, The Michigan Messenger’s Ed Brayton reports. “This is the type of delay tactic we would have expected from the Bush administration, not the Obama administration, which has touted its efforts to usher in a new era of transparency in government, including elevated standards in dealing with lobbyists.”

Tar sands’ black mark

What are the consequences if the government approves the pipeline? As Care2’s Beth Buczynski writes, “Communities along the Keystone XL pipeline’s proposed path would face increased risk of spills, and, at the pipeline’s end, the health of those living near Texas refineries would suffer, as tar sands oil spews higher levels of dangerous pollutants into the air when processed.”

What’s more, the tar sands extraction process has already brought environmental devastation to the areas like Alberta, Canada, where tar sands mining occurs. Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark recently visited the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, which he calls “impressively forthright” in its discussion of the environmental issues brought on by oil sands. (The museum is run by Alberta’s provincial government.) Mark reports:

The section on habitat fragmentation was especially good. As one panel put it, “Increasingly, Alberta’s remaining forested areas resemble islands of trees in a larger network of cut lines, well sites, mine, pipeline corridors, plant sites, and human settlements. … Forest disturbances can also encourage increased predation and put some plants and animals at risk.”

Not renewable, just new

The museum that Mark visited also made clear that extracting and refining oil from tar sands is a labor-intensive practice. He writes:

Mining, we learn, is just the start. Then the tar has to be “upgraded” into synthetic petroleum via a process that involves “conditioning,” “separation” into a bitumen froth, then “deaeration” to take out gases, and finally injection into a dual-system centrifuge that removes the last of the solids. Next comes distillation, thermal conversion, catalytic conversion, and hydrotreating. At that point the recombined petroleum is ready to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. It all felt like a flashback to high school chemistry.

Why bother with this at all? In short, because with easily accessible sources of oil largely tapped out, techniques like tar sands mining and deepwater drilling are the only fonts of oil available. This problem is going to get worse, as The Nation is explaining over the next few weeks in its video series on peak oil.

Energy and the economy

Traditional ideas about energy dictate that even as the world uses up limited resources like oil, technology will create access to new sources, find ways to use limited resources more efficiently, or find ways to consume new sources of energy. These advances will head off any problems with consumption rates. The peak oil theory, on the contrary, argues that it is possible to use up a resource like oil, that there’s a peak in supply.

Once the peak has been passed, the consequences, particularly the economic consequences, become dire, as Richard Heinberg, senior fellow with the Post Carbon Institute explains. “If the amount of energy we can use is declining, we may be seeing the end of economic growth as we define it right now,” he told The Nation. Watch more below:

Light green

Part of the problem is that the energy resources that could replace fossil fuels like oil—wind and solar energy, for instance—likely won’t be in place before the oil wells run dry. And as Monica Potts reports at The American Prospect, our new green economy is getting off to a slow start.

Although the administration has talked incessantly about supporting green jobs, Potts writes that the federal government hasn’t even finalized what count as a “green job” yet. The working definition, which is currently under review, asserts that green jobs are in industries that “benefit the environment or conserve national resources” or entails work to green a company’s “production process.” But what does that actually mean?

“That definition was rightly criticized as overly broad,” Potts writes. She continues:

While nearly everyone would include installing solar panels as a green job, what about an architect who designs a green house? (Under the proposed definition, both would count.) … Another problem comes in weighing green purposes against green execution: We could count, for example, public-transit train operators as green workers. But how do we break down transportation as an industry more broadly? Most would probably agree that truckers who drive tractor-trailers running on diesel fuel wouldn’t count as green workers even if they’re transporting wind-turbine parts. And many of the jobs we would count as green already exist.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the country is moving swiftly toward a bright green future.

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

Weekly Mulch: Coal Ash in Our Stockings

9:51 pm in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

Editor’s Note: Due to the holidays, the Weekly Mulch will appear on Thursday afternoon both this week and next week. We’ll resume regular Friday morning posts in 2011.

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

It’s the naughty children who get coal in their stockings, and it seems like Americans must have been naughty this year. Because across the country, we’re awash with coal, carcinogens, and other toxins. And our government is not doing to much to change that.

Waste not

After the massive coal ash spill in Tennessee two years ago, the EPA began working on more stringent regulation of the waste, a byproduct of coal mining. But, as Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones, the industry has been pressuring the administration to adopts weaker regulations than it could.

“Two years after the largest toxic spill in the nation’s history, there is still no regulation of deadly coal ash dumps—nor is there clear direction from EPA on the timing or content of a final rule,” Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, told Sheppard.  “For the communities enduring damage from aging ponds and leaking landfills, time has run out. There is no reason on earth that their health should be compromised by such an easily avoidable harm.”

What’s in the water?

Coal ash is one of those pollutants that clearly poses a problem. It looks dangerous. But not all pollutants are so obviously dangerous. This week, for instance, the Environmental Working Group, an environmental health non-profit group, released a report showing that much of the country’s tap water is contaminated with the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, with levels high enough to pose a risk to human health.

“Exposure in tap water has been linked to cancers of the stomach and gastrointestinal tract in both animals and people,” Rebecca Sutton, a scientist for the Environmental Working Group, wrote at AlterNet. Thirty-one of the 35 cities that the group examined had dangerously high levels of the contaminants in the tap water.

How did this happen? As Sarah Parsons explains at Change.org, “The reason so much chromium-6 winds up in tap water is that industries spew it into waterways, utilities fail to test for the substance, and the EPA doesn’t regulate it in drinking water.”

What the EPA does do, Parsons reports, is limit the total chromium in drinking water, “the combined amount of hexavalent chromium and trivalent chromium.” She explains, “The problem is that trivalent chromium is actually good for you—in fact, it’s necessary for metabolism. Hexavalent chromium, on the other hand, is a noxious carcinogen.”

Moving forward

These prevalent toxins are just two reminders that, for all their successes in recent decades, environmentalists still have much work ahead of them. How should they approach that work? Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark, considering lessons from the 1980s-era environmental leaders, who focused on moving toward the center and working within the confines of D.C. politics, offers this thought: “The new leaders of 2010 say what we need is less focused group messaging and inside-the-Beltway maneuverings, and more heartfelt spirit and energy directed encouraged at the grassroots. I hope their instincts are right. Because at this point I don’t think we can wait another 25 years to figure this stuff out.”

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

Weekly Mulch: Was Cancun Climate Conference a Success?

8:58 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

The United Nations-led Climate Conference at Cancun was not a diplomatic disaster, but for climate activists and grassroots groups, it wasn’t a success either. Representatives sent from around the globe to hammer out an agreement on climate change were unresponsive to grassroots concerns about how to lower carbon emissions quickly, and how to ensure fairness in the process.

“Some grassroots groups are losing their faith in the U.N.’s capacity to produce meaningful results,” Madeline Ostrader reported for Yes! Magazine. “After the United Nations expelled Native American leader Tom Goldtooth from the meeting last week, the Indigenous Environmental Network called the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change ‘the WTO of the sky.’”

While gloomy reports before the conference worried that international negotiations could veer entirely off course, the representatives at the conference did come up with an agreement that fleshed out last year’s Copenhagen Accord. It became clearer, though, that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process will not ultimately guard the interests of less powerful players.

Climbing over a low bar

Although diplomats congratulated themselves for their accomplishments, not everyone was so pleased,  Stephen Leahy reported at Inter Press Service.

“It’s pathetic the world community struggles so much just to climb over such a low bar,” commented [Kumi] Naidoo, [executive director of Greenpeace.] “Our only real hope is to mobilise a broad-based climate movement involving all sectors of the public and civil society before Durban.”

Indeed, this year’s conference saw a greater mobilization of outside forces than Copenhagen did. But by the end of the conference, activists were frustrated with the UN-led process, Democracy Now! reported, and began protesting in the area near the conference, under the close watch of UN guards:

When the demonstrators continued their vigil past the time allotted to them, U.N. guards moved in and dragged them towards a waiting bus. The protesters linked arms, and the scene quickly became chaotic. As they wrestled activists onto buses, U.N. guards also seized press credentials from the necks of journalists, and detained a photographer while seizing his camera.

Running REDD

There was one issue in particular, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation or REDD, a financial tool that allows countries to offset their emissions, that caused concern among climate activists. As Michelle Chen explained at ColorLines, “From a climate justice standpoint, the deal lost credibility once it was tainted with REDD, a supposed anti-deforestation initiative that indigenous communities have long decried as an assault on native people’s sovereignty and way of life.”

The program would seek to set aside forests, through financial incentives that would make it more profitable to preserve forests than to harvest them. The problem, in essence, is that the program would take away resources in developing countries, particularly in indigenous communities, in order to mitigate negative actions in developed countries.

At IPS, Stephen Leahy reported, “REDD remains very controversial. It is widely touted as a way to mobilise $10 to $30 billion annually to protect forests by selling carbon credits to industries in lieu of reductions in emissions. … Many indigenous and civil society groups reject REDD outright if it allows developed countries to avoid real emission reductions by offsetting their emissions. “

Developed vs. Developing

Balancing the interests of developing and developed countries has always been the thorny tangle at the center of climate negotiations, and the Cancun Agreement, critics say, favors developed countries.

As Tom Athanasiou writes at Earth Island Journal, “There’s an even deeper concern, that, in the words of the South Centre’s Martin Khor, ‘Cancun may be remembered in future as the place where the UNFCCC’s climate regime was changed significantly, with developed countries being treated more and more leniently, reaching a level like that of developing countries, while the developing countries are asked to increase their obligations to be more and more like developed countries.’”

REDD is an example of that sort of bargain: Developing countries have to sacrifice, too. But developed countries have, in this conference and at its predecessors, refused to make any real sacrifices. This round, it became clear that, in addition to the United States, other key countries, like Japan, would not be willing to commit to binding legal targets for carbon emissions.

Who benefits?

What’s worse, developed countries benefit, indirectly, from the financial mechanism proposed to regulate carbon, Madeline Ostrader writes.

“Many of the proposals for financing and regulating climate are designed to earn profits for the same banks that brought the global economy to its knees,” she explains. “Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase have been vying for a stake in the global carbon offset trade—a proposed economic model for cutting emissions around the world.”

The movement of non-governmental groups and activists fighting to hold rich countries accountable has gained momentum in the past year. If international leaders are ever to move away from these imbalanced agreements, that movement will have to grow and convince a vocal majority of people around the world to support its calls to action. Only then will leaders feel pressure to write stronger, fairer agreements.

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

Weekly Mulch: If Cancun Climate Talks Falter, Blame the U.S.

8:45 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

The most recent round of United Nations-led climate change negotiations began this week in Cancun, and although international expectations are muted this year, the stakes are still high. As Mother JonesKate Sheppard explains,”The 2010 meeting could make or break the future of global negotiations.”

This is the sixteenth Conference of the Parties, convened by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). After the tepid results of last year’s conference in Copenhagen, when a last-minute, backroom deal produced a non-binding accord, participants and observers of the negotiations are beginning to question whether it is the best forum for these sorts of conversations. Central to the progress, or lack thereof, on international climate change policy is the United States’ intransigence. As one of the world most proliferate carbon spewers, it’s essential for the United States to commit to dramatic reductions in its carbon emissions.

But if American negotiators have always been reluctant to make those promises, even if they did this year, their promises would ring empty. The results of the 2010 midterms mean there’s little chance Congress would ratify a treaty. Republicans just eliminated a special House committee on global warming. They certainly aren’t interested in making the sorts of concessions that international negotiators want and need to convince their own governments to move forward.

Signing off

It’s unclear, at this point, if the UNFCCC framework will ever produce a worthwhile results. Inter Press Service’s Kanya D’Almeida reports that “the meeting in Cancún is foreshadowed by a deep pessimism.” D’Almedia offers, for instance, this take from Nigel Purvis, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States:

“Global climate talks have begun to resemble a bad soap opera,” Purvis wrote in an essay entitled ‘Cancún and the End of Climate Diplomacy. “They seem to never end, yet seldom change and at times bear little resemblance to reality. This is why climate diplomacy as we know it has lost its relevance.”

The last landmark climate treaty—the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States never signed onto—will expire in 2012. The Copenhagen Accord, the agreement that came out of last year’s negotiations, does not bind countries to their commitments, as Kyoto did.

The next major step in tackling climate change could be for countries across the world to re-up their commitments to reducing carbon emissions through a Kyoto-like (i.e. legally enforceable) pact. The alternative is to base global action on an agreement along the lines of the one produced at Copenhagen, with less stringent standards for accountability.

Kyoto v. Copenhagen

Tina Gephardt writes at The Nation that “Serious tensions threaten to derail the UNFCCC process entirely. At the heart of these skirmishes are two camps: those nations who want to extend the Kyoto Protocol and those nations, including the United States, who want to ram through the Copenhagen Accord.”

The Accord’s mechanism for oversight and enforcement relies on countries monitoring each others’ progress on carbon reductions, but as Mother Jones’ Sheppard reports, an early point of disagreement in this year’s session centers on how important it is to agree how that monitoring will happen.

Stubborn Americans

What does seem certain is that if, at the end of this session, international climate negotiations have become so messy and tangled the world abandons them, and starts over, much of the blame will lie with the United States. Tom Athanasiou lays out the case in Earth Island Journal:

It’s the US, after all, that reduced the Kyoto Protocol to a non-starter, and the US that led the Copenhagen charge to abandon top-down emissions targets in favor of bottom-up “pledge and review.” It’s the US that, in the words of chief negotiator Todd Stern, is looking for a “new paradigm for climate diplomacy” that asserts a world in which the developed countries are no longer presumed to bear the overarching, if inconvenient, obligations of the rich and the responsible.

It’s not that American leaders aren’t aware of the problems the world could face (although some on the right continue to deny they exist). As Nancy Roberts points out at Care2, “Up to one billion people could be displaced by rising sea levels this century.” To a certain extent, the United States is insulated from the impact of climate change. As this map, which ColorLines highlighted a few weeks ago, illustrates, America is not particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But it’d be foolish for American leaders to ignore the security and economic implications wrought by the migration of one-sixth of the world’s population.

Reaction

But Washington has shown time after time that it is willing to look past problems until they become unavoidable. The consequences of that attitude have been devastating in recent years. The BP oil spill is only the most recent example. This week the Obama administration announced it would not open up new coastline areas in the southeastern U.S. for offshore oil drilling—a decision that came only after it became clear just how much havoc a drilling disaster could cause (and would likely cause again).

With climate change, however, the tons of carbon already in the atmosphere can’t be mopped up or “dispersed,” or forgotten, within months. The consequences will linger on, and by the time they become clear, it will be too late to act, and international negotiators won’t be talking about emission levels, but food, water, and refugee crises.

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