Environmental Groups Push for 60 MPG Automobiles

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 27, 2010

In spring of 2010, the United States increased federal fuel efficiency standards for automobiles for the first time in twenty years.  The new standards implemented by the Barack Obama administration this year require cars in the US auto fleet be able to travel an average of 35.5 miles on a gallon of gas by the year 2016.  Now environmental groups are working to ensure it doesn’t take another two decades to raise fuel efficiency standards again.  Organizations like the Sierra Club are pushing the Obama administration to support a 60 mile per gallon fuel economy standard by the year 2025.

Later this fall, the Obama administration is scheduled to finalize new standards for automobile efficiency that will go into effect after the current ones expire in 2016.  Environmental groups argue that by making cars gradually more efficient over time, the US can reduce dependence on oil while cutting back on vehicle emissions that cause global warming and other environmental problems.  Setting a goal of 60 miles per gallon by 2020, groups like Environment America and the Sierra Club say, will give automakers time to prepare to make their vehicles more efficient.

A 60 mile per gallon average fuel efficiency standard will likely seem more attainable as the number of hybrid and electric cars increases in the US.  The Sierra Club estimates it would be feasible to reach this goal if by the year 2025, 55% of US vehicles are hybrids and 15% are electric.  Remaining internal combustion engine cars would also need to be as streamlined and lightweight as possible, and inefficient gas guzzlers would have to be phased out. 

Nationwide, cars and other personal vehicles account for about 25% of US greenhouse gas emissions.  Though that’s not as much pollution as comes from power plants, making automobiles more efficient is a relatively easy way to quickly reduce the causes of global warming.  While replacing old coal plants with renewable energy will require some challenging technological feats, the technology exists today to build cars that pollute less by burning less gasoline.

Public opinion polls also show the US public is strongly supportive of raising fuel efficiency standards.  According to a national poll cited by the Sierra Club, 74% of those surveyed are supportive of adopting the 60 miles per gallon standard by 2025.  When asked whether making the shift would be worth it even if it adds $3,000 to the price of a car, 66% of respondents said yes.  It seems that after years of unstable gas prices, more consumers are coming to realize that an efficient car will eventually pay for itself by saving money at the gas pump.   

So will a 60 mile per gallon car fleet really hit the streets of the US within fifteen years?  It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will take the advice of environmental groups as new fuel economy rules are finalized.  But whether the standard is 60 miles per gallon or some other figure, the US may be facing its best chance in decades to dramatically decrease demand for gasoline and all the environmental problems that go with it.

Photo credit: Donald Rogers

US Senate May Pass Renewable Energy Standard

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 26, 2010

A bi-partisan group of US senators hopes that by the end of this year the Senate can pass a renewable energy standard requiring that utilities get 15% of their electricity from renewable sources by the year 2021.  Supporters see the Renewable Electricity Promotion Act of 2010 as a way to encourage development of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power in the United States.  The bill could also prevent clean tech companies from abandoning the US for friendlier markets in Europe and Asia. 

Though less ambitious than the comprehensive climate legislation environmental groups hoped might pass into law this year, the renewable energy bill would help reduce carbon pollution by pushing utilities toward cleaner energy sources.  It would also be the first major piece of national legislation in the US specifically devoted to making the transition to renewable power sources. 

Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the main author of the Renewable Electricity Promotion Act, hopes to bring it up for a vote shortly after the November 2nd elections.  To become law, the bill would then have to pass through the US House of Representatives.  Passage in the Senate depends on it attracting enough Republican votes, in addition to the majority of Democrats who are likely to support the renewable energy standard.  So far the bill has four Republican co-sponsors, and Senator Bingaman has said he believes it will draw more soon.

In addition to being strongly supported by environmental groups, the Renewable Electricity Promotion Act also has the backing of the United Steelworkers and advocate organizations for the renewable energy industry.  These groups see the bill as a chance to assure the creation of new jobs in the US renewable electricity sector, growth of which has slowed recently due to a lack of a national policy to encourage clean energy development.    

Nearly half of all US states already have some type of renewable energy standard of their own, requiring major utilities source some percentage of their electricity from renewables by a given year.  Some state standards are much more ambitious than others: while Arizona only aims to generate 15% of its power from renewable sources by 2025, Oregon and Illinois plan to hit 25% by the same year.  This month California increased its state standard to require utilities produce 33% of their power from renewables by the year 2020.  So far California’s is the most ambitious renewable energy standard of any state in the country.

Under Senator Bingaman’s Renewable Electricity Promotion Act, states with stronger renewable energy standards than 15% by 2021 would be allowed to keep their own goals in place.  Thus the national law would mainly affect utilities in states with weak standards or with no renewable energy goals at all.  It would also assure clean tech companies trying to navigate a patchwork of state requirements that the national government of the United States is determined to provide a market for renewable energy. 

Photo Credit: Wayne National Forest

Similac Recalled After Beetles Found in Baby Formula and Factory

[img_assist|nid=195027|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=225|height=225]Sep 22, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – Abbot Laboratories is recalling five million containers of Similac after two consumers found beetles in the popular baby formula. Beetles were also found in the Michigan plant where the product is manufactured.

According to reports, the recall affects only the powdered infant formulas. Liquid formulas are not included in the recall.

Based on concerns about contamination, the company recently tested their product line and discovered only 0.02% of all containers were contaminated with beetles.

Abbott spokeswoman Melissa Brotz indicated that “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined that while the formula containing these beetles poses no immediate health risk, there is a possibility that infants who consume formula containing the beetles or their larvae could experience symptoms of gastrointestinal discomfort and refusal to eat.”

The voluntary recall will reportedly cost the company $100 million.

Study: Education About Sunbathing and Tanning Bed Risks Effective

[img_assist|nid=194839|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=250|height=183]Sep 21, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – Educating adolescents about the dangers of lying out in the sun and using tanning beds is an effective means of changing their behavior, according to U.S. researchers.

A recently completed study looked at the tanning behavior of 1,500 U.S. boys and girls aged 11 through 18. The study took half the group and educated them about the benefits of using sunless tanning products as an alternative to laying out and using a tanning bed. Two months later, this group reported a 33 percent decrease in sunbathing activities versus 10 percent in the control group.

Educating adolescents about the dangers of sunbathing is a major public policy issue. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., with more than one million cases each year. Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, kills 8,700 people every year.

Fortunately, skin cancer is also one of the most preventable forms of cancer. Simply avoiding tanning beds, limiting exposure to the sun and using sunscreen, are very effective means of decreasing the risk.

FDA Panel To Continue Review of Genetically Modified Salmon

[img_assist|nid=194824|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=145]Sep. 21, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – The FDA panel tasked with reviewing a request to permit genetically modified salmon to be sold in the U.S. decided on Monday to not vote on the matter. ABC News reports that several members of the panel were concerned that there was not enough data presented to allow a determination to be made regarding the safety of genetically modified salmon.

Ron Stotish, the CEO of AquaBounty Technologies, indicated that the panel was confused by the large amount of information presented during the eight hour hearing.

The non-decision is a temporary setback for AquaBounty Technologies, which is hoping to introduce a salmon egg which includes a growth hormone gene that causes salmon to grow twice as quickly.

Opponents have argued that the potential health and environmental effects are too great to permit genetically modified salmon to be produced and consumed.

Genetically Modified ‘FrankenFish’ Headed To Your Table?

[img_assist|nid=194725|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=156]Sep. 20, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – Over the next few days, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will be conducting hearings regarding a proposal to allow genetically modified salmon to be sold to U.S. consumers.

Termed “FrankenFish” by its critics, the genetically modified salmon eggs are produced by a company called AquaBounty Technologies. The eggs include a hormone gene that cause the salmon to grow twice as quickly as regular salmon. AquaBounty is hoping the FDA will approve this product for sale and distribution throughout the country.

However, critics contend that the potential health and environmental risks are too great to justify allowing the genetically modified fish to be produced and sold. Among many theorized risks, one obvious concern is that the engineered fish escape into the wild and breed with regular fish. The effects the resulting offspring could have on native fisheries could be devastating.

The FDA panel will be making four determinations, including: whether genetic engineering is safe for the fish; whether there is reasonable certainty the fish are safe to consume; whether the data really does indicate the fish grow faster; and the potential environmental impacts the production of these fish could pose.

If the genetically modified salmon is approved, it would mark the first time that American’s are fed genetically modified animals. Until now, the only genetically modified foods approved for human consumption in the U.S. have been soybeans and corn. Approval of genetically modified salmon could usher in a new era of genetically engineered super animals on American’s dinner plates.

Rare Plant Collection Threatened by Development

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 19, 2010

As global warming continues to alter the Earth’s climate, the genetic diversity of food plants will become more and more important as a way to ensure survival for many crop species.  As climates change in countries all over the world, plants may react in unforeseen ways, and varieties that once thrived in a particular environment may no longer do well there.  Meanwhile global warming could cause the spread of plant diseases, posing challenges as farmers try to find more disease-resistant strains.  Now-obscure varieties of food plants, developed decades or centuries ago through years of methodical breeding, could help nations survive global warming by providing farmers with resistant genes to experiment with. 

But in the Russian village of Pavlovsk, close to the city of St. Petersburg, one of the world’s premiere strongholds of domestic plant diversity is now threatened with extinction.  The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, where scientists have bread rare and heirloom plant varieties for decades, is in danger of being auctioned off by the Russian government to real estate developers.

In a famous story from World War II, Russian scientists at the Vavilov Institute reportedly allowed themselves to starve to death rather than abandon their post guarding rare plant varieties against invading German forces.  Like scientists today, these researchers saw the Institute’s repository of plants a valuable resource for those seeking to develop new or better crops, and an asset for both Russia and global agriculture.  Yet in an age where agriculture is increasingly dominated by a few crop varieties mass-produced on industrial farms, collections like the Vavilov Institute’s are no longer as highly valued.  Now real estate companies are eyeing the lands around St. Petersburg, and have offered to buy up Institute land and convert it to housing developments.

As the Russian government moved to sell off the land last month, scientists and food diversity activists responded with international outrage.  Leading plant researchers from around the world criticized the idea of putting Vavilov’s plant collection in jeopardy, and Internet activists tweeted their concerns at Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.  The outcry was great enough that the Russian Housing Development Foundation has said it is postponing auctioning off the land, partly to collect more information about the Vavilov Institute’s value.  The auction could still take place as soon as October, unless Russia’s government makes a concrete commitment to preserving the land.

Scientists say ninety percent of the plant varieties at Vavilov are found nowhere else in the world, meaning significant genetic diversity would be lost if the land is destroyed.  Because many of the plants are deep-rooted trees and shrubs that cannot be safely moved, re-locating the collection does not seem to be a viable option.  Groups and individuals concerned about the possible loss of biodiversity are still pressuring the Russian government to protect the Vavilov Institute, and Care2.com has created a petition to President Medvedev, asking that the collection of rare plants be saved.

“As a result of public pressure, thousands of precious plants have been granted a temporary reprieve,” writes Jaelithe Judy of Care2.com.  “But there is still more work to be done.”  With the Russian government deciding how to respond to public criticism of the land auction, the next few weeks may decide the ultimate fate of the Vavilov Institute’s botanical gene bank. 

Photo credit: Luigi Guarino, and Luigi Guarino

Thanks to Global Treaty, Ozone Layer is Recovering

By: Nick Engelfried

September 17, 2010

With activists and policymakers still struggling to reach agreement on an international treaty to curb global warming, a recent report shows how another major environmental treaty has been successful in averting harm to human health and the planet.  According to a new United Nations report, the Montreal Protocol to reduce the use of ozone-depleting substances seems to have successfully halted the shrinking of the ozone layer, and is now allowing the Earth’s protective shield of ozone to recover.

Though it is considered a harmful pollutant at ground level, ozone in the planet’s upper atmosphere provides necessary protection against the sun’s ultraviolet rays.  During the 1970s and ‘80s, scientists became concerned that chemicals then used as an ingredient for aerosols sprays, refrigerants, and even the manufacture of Styrofoam were eating away at the ozone layer—threatening to increase skin cancer, cataracts, and other human health risks.  Continued damage to the ozone layer would also have stunted the growth of vegetation worldwide, and caused mass die-offs of phytoplankton in the oceans.

In response to the threat, most countries that produced ozone depleting chemicals signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987.  This global treaty was designed to gradually phase out use of substances that harm the ozone layer, and has mostly eliminated ozone depleting chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons.  Though the treaty was strongly opposed by industries which used these compounds, predictions that the Montreal Protocol would significantly damage the economy proved unfounded. 

Meanwhile the treaty has come to be seen as a major victory for planetary health.  This week a team of United Nations scientists released a report that shows the Montreal Protocol is clearly working—though the fact that compounds like chlorofluorocarbons remain in the atmosphere a long time means the impact of eliminating them was not felt immediately.  Scientists now believe the ozone layer has stopped shrinking, and will begin to recover over the course of the next few decades.  The ozone shield in most parts of the world is expected to recover to 1980 levels by about the year 2050. 

In areas like Antarctica, where ozone damage has been particularly severe, the recovery process could take decades longer.  Yet as long as countries stay true to commitments not to use ozone-depleting substances, the Montreal Protocol should allow the entire ozone layer to eventually repair itself.

Could this success serve as a model for a treaty to curb global warming?  Global warming differs from ozone depletion in that greenhouse gases are much more widespread than compounds like chlorofluorocarbons, and fossil fuels are somewhat more complicated to replace than ozone-depleting substances.  However the Montreal Protocol does show that when presented with a large enough threat, countries from around the world can come together to avoid environmental catastrophe.  If major economies eventually forge a treaty to prevent further warming of the planet, they may indeed look to the Montreal Protocol as an example.

Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


Environmental Benefits of Working and Shopping From Home Are Questioned

[img_assist|nid=193919|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=200]Sept. 17, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – Working from home and buying goods online is not necessarily more environmentally friendly, according to a study recently released. The study was conducted by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, a British professional body for those working in engineering and technology.

The IET study found that certain actions, previously believed to be beneficial to the environment, might actually have unintended consequences that overshadow those benefits. Specifically, the study found that shoppers must buy at least 25 items in a single online purchase in order to receive any environmental benefits. Otherwise, the energy required to send a delivery truck to that person’s home could outweigh the benefit of that person not driving themselves.

Additionally, the study also notes that buying goods online is more efficient only if it replaces three and a half traditional shopping trips or if the distance traveled to the point of purchase is more than 31 miles.

The study also looked at telecommuters, concluding that working from home can actually lead to a 30% increase in energy consumption. This is because working from home does not spread energy resources across a group, as is done in an office setting, and it also encourages workers to live in the suburbs, which contributes to urban sprawl and increased transportation needs.

Although some of the conclusions of the study are disheartening, the chairman of the panel that produced the report, Professor Phil Blythe, warned “we must not get overwhelmed by the task and use rebound effects as an excuse not to act.”

Utah Approves Controversial Tar Sands Oil Project

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 15, 2010

On Monday, environmental groups in Utah criticized the state’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining (DOGM) for granting approval to a tar sands oil extraction project proposed by Earth Energy Resources, Inc.  Tar sands oil, sometimes known as bitumen, is a particularly difficult type of oil deposit to render usable, because large amounts of water and energy are required to separate it from the sand and gravel in which it is embedded. If it goes forward, Earth Energy Resources’ tar sands project will be the first of its kind in the United States.

Currently the center of tars sands oil production is Canada, where major oil companies have spent the last several years mining tar sands deposits in the province of Alberta.  The Canadian tar sands quickly became one of the largest industrial projects in the world, and Canada’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.  The main market for Canadian tar sands oil is the United States, where the oil is eventually converted to gasoline and used to power cars and other vehicles. 

Because of the extra energy needed to extract tar sands oil, the lifecycle carbon footprint of oil from tar sands deposits is rated at about three times that of conventional gasoline.  Though oil companies assert the tar sands represent a lucrative new source of oil in North America, environmental organizations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Rainforest Action Network warn that development of the tar sands may delay the transition to clean energy by prolonging the dependence of the US and Canada on a particularly dirty form of fossil fuel energy.

Though Earth Energy Resources was granted DOGM approval for its tar sands project in Utah on Monday, the company still must receive permission from Utah’s Grand County before it can begin extracting oil.  It also needs to raise $35 million from investors in order to move forward.  Environmental and social justice groups in Utah have vowed to continue fighting the project, saying tar sands extraction would pollute Utah’s water and destroy natural landscapes while providing little of benefit to the state.  

In Canada, similar projects have already polluted waterways with toxic chemicals like arsenic, cyanide, mercury, and lead.  Every gallon of tar sands oil consumes between two and four gallons of water during the extraction process—an issue of serious concern in Utah’s arid climate.  For these reasons, as well as tar sands oil’s hefty contribution to global warming, Earth Energy Resources is likely to run into fierce opposition as it struggles to obtain the last permits it needs to begin extraction at its Utah site. 

Photo credit: Frank Kovalchek