Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Resource Wars Reprised

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

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

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

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

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

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You can't beat the guy who makes the rules

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

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Bill Moyers asks if his optimism is justified

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

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

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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Little things mean a lot

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

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How high is high enough?

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

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Solar mecca?

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

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

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Burp! You're dead!

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

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

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

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

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Cooling clarity

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

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

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Monday, December 20, 2004

This is your food; this is your food on drugs

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

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

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

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More talk, less action

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

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

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How much more evidence do they need? II

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

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

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

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Global warming: The lawsuit

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

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Friday, December 17, 2004

Better safe than sorry

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

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

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

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Welcome to RealClimate

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

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

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

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Thursday, December 16, 2004

The best laid plans...

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

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

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

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

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How much more evidence do they need?

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

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

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Waterworld

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

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

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

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

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You're fired!

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

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

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

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Is this the best they can do?

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

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Monday, December 13, 2004

I couldn't have said it better

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

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

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That's just a load of manure

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

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Michael Crichton: Climate scientist II

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

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Sunday, December 12, 2004

Better living through sewage

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

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

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Environmentalist = Terrorist

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

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Saturday, December 11, 2004

Of cereal and the sea

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

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A conservative makes a plea for homeland food security

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

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Friday, December 10, 2004

Michael Crichton: Climate scientist

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

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You could cut it with a knife

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

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Up is down

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

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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

You gotta see this

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

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Shame on your sweet tooth

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

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Burn, baby, burn

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

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'Tis the season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Asian drama

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

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Your water belongs to us

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

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

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Blue Gold

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

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Monday, December 06, 2004

Nuclear power, anyone?

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

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Farmers' legal guide to GMOs;
class-action suit

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

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

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

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Poke a hole in the ozone

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

Here's a previous post with more information.

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We take it for granted

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

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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Sue me

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

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

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

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Not good if you're salmon

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

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Put the Endangered Species Act on the Endangered Species List

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

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

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

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The single most effective way to fight terrorism

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

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

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

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

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Friday, December 03, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Contrary to type

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

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Ocean for sale

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

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

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We're for states' rights except...

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

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

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

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GMO Cocaine?

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

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Thursday, December 02, 2004

Blow your nose on Canada's virgin forests

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

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In this case it was rocket science

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

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

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Oxygen isn't the only thing we lose to deforestation

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

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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Nanosolar

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

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The 'benefits' of global warming

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

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Global warming 'a hoax'

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

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Lakoff says, 'Watch your language'

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

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Oil under the ice;
global warming in the past

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

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

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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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