Coal Plant in Borneo Stirs Up Global Opposition

July 13, 2010

The tropical rainforest of Borneo, a large island in Southeast Asia, represents one of the world’s most impressive strongholds of biodiversity. The Borneo rainforest is home to unique species like the orangutan, the Borneo pygmy elephant, and a dwindling population of the highly endangered Sumatran rhinoceros. The nearby Coral Triangle is similarly rich in aquatic animal species, including 75% of all known species of corals in the world. Yet the area’s tropical ecosystems are now under threat, as the government of Malaysia plans to build a 300 megawatt coal plant in Borneo that would damage the rainforest and coral reefs while displacing local people living traditional lifestyles. Stopping the coal plant has become a major goal of international environmental groups trying to curb global warming.

Located on the coast in the Malaysian state of Sabah (part of the island of Borneo), work on the coal plant is slated to begin this summer with the Malaysian government’s backing. However residents of local villages fear seeing their traditional lifestyles transformed by pollution and environmental degradation from the plant, and are putting up a fight. Sulfur dioxide emissions from the plant threatens to cause acid rain pollution that would damage the surrounding forest and coral reefs, while transmission lines designed to connect the coal plant to areas of major energy demand would cut through vast swaths of rainforest and put endangered species under further pressure.

Carbon emissions from the plant would of course also contribute to global warming, another grave threat to Malaysia’s natural ecosystems. “Stopping this coal plant is about more than protecting one strip of beach,” says Jamie Henn, East Asia Director for the global climate action group 350.org. “It’s a symbol of a global fight to protect our increasingly fragile planet against the onslaught of dirty energy.”

Groups like 350.org have launched a web-based campaign to halt construction of the coal plant, centering around an online petition opposing the plant, which will be delivered to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. Concerned global citizens are also encouraged to leave a note on the prime minister’s Facebook page, urging the Malaysian government to cancel plans for the plant’s construction. “It would be a real shame if you allowed the building of the coal plant in Borneo,” wrote one Facebook user from the Dominican Republic. “It will have a devastating effect on Borneo’s environment and local communities.” Many postings so far on the prime minister’s wall echo similar concerns.

Studies show that Borneo can meet its energy needs without the Sabah coal plant or other fossil fuel energy projects. A variety of Malaysia-based organizations have forged a partnership with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of Californian-Berkley to complete a report laying out the options to provide for Borneo’s needs with clean energy. According to the study, biofuels, geothermal energy, hydro-power, and energy efficiency could all serve as alternatives to fossil fuels in the short term, while in the longer term solar power and wave or tidal energy could also contribute to a clean energy future for Borneo.

These measures would help Malaysia achieve goals for reducing the intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions, which the country pledged to meet at last year’s international climate negotiations in Copenhagen. In Copenhagen, the Malaysian government to reducing carbon emission intensity from its economy 40% by the year 2020. Since coal is a very carbon-intense fuel, the Sabah coal plant project could make that goal very difficult to meet.

Though the Malaysian government has already given its approval for the plant, environmental groups hope that showing the prime minister there is global opposition to coal in Sabah could still persuade him to stop the plant’s construction. Initial opposition to the Sabah coal plant has come mainly from local communities that would directly impacted by pollution, and their concerns have so far been largely dismissed by the Malaysian government. But putting the coal plant in the international spotlight could cause the government to re-think its plans. The natural beauty of Malaysia’s rainforest and coral reefs is the nation’s main tourist attraction. If the coal plant comes to be seen as a threat to Malaysia’s image as a tropical paradise, and to tourism in the region, this might provide the impetus for the project to be shelved.

“It’s not too late,” writes Henn, to stop the coal plant in Sabah. “Malaysia’s Prime Minister can still pull the plug on the plant and emerge as a champion for clean energy and sustainable development.”

Photo credit: Hello there

Ticking Biological Clock = More Casual Sex

AUSTIN, Texas, July 9 (UPI) — Women are more willing to engage in “reproduction expediting” sexual activities as their biological clocks tick louder, U.S. researchers suggest.

Psychology graduate students Judith Easton, Jaime Confer and Cari Goetz, and David Buss, a psychology professor at University of Texas at Austin, says reproduction expediting includes one-night stands and adventurous bedroom behavior.The study involved 827 women divided into three groups: high fertility, ages 18-26; low fertility at ages 27-45; and menopausal, ages 46 and older. The respondents answered an online questionnaire about their sexual attitudes and behavior.

The study, published in the Personality and Individual Differences, found women ages 27-45 have a heightened sex drive in response to their diminishing fertility.

Compared with other women, women with low fertility were more likely to experience:

  • Frequent sexual fantasies.
  • Thoughts about sexual activities.
  • More intense sexual fantasies than younger women.
  • A more active sex life and willingness to have a one-night stand.
  • A willingness to have casual sex.

“Our results suggest there is nothing special about the 30s, but that instead these behaviors manifest in all women with declining fertility,” Easton says in a statement. “It may be more difficult to conceive past the age of 35, but our research suggests women’s psychology will continue to motivate them to try until menopause.”

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI).

Click here to download the full study.

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Global Warming ‘Solution’ Could Backfire

PALO ALTO, Calif., June 29 (UPI) — A cloud-seeding scheme proposed to combat global warming could change global rainfall patterns and result in water shortages, researchers say.

Whitening clouds over the world’s oceans to reflect more sunlight and reduce global warming could in fact increase monsoonal rains over oceans while causing the world’s continents to become drier on average, a Carnegie Institute study released Monday said.

Seeding could make clouds whiter by reducing the size of water droplets making up the clouds, a researcher says.

“Rain clouds, which have big droplets, tend to be gray and absorb sunlight, whereas clouds with smaller droplets tend to be white and fluffy and reflect more sunlight to space,” says study co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology.

In computer simulations, whiter clouds reflected more solar radiation and offset the warming effect of the high carbon dioxide levels, Caldeira said.

But in the simulations, the reflective oceanic clouds preferentially cooled the air over the oceans relative to land, setting up a monsoonal air flow which changed existing rainfall patterns, the study said.

“Our basic result calls into question previous assumptions about the impact of this geoengineering scheme,” Caldeira said. “It merits further investigation.”

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A C-130 hurricane hunter used by the U.S. Air Force to conduct cloud seeding research.


Environmental Groups Rally to Protect Whales

June 22, 2010

 
As member countries of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meet in Morocco this week, environmental groups warn that a proposal backed by the Obama administration could roll back hard-earned protections for endangered whale species.  This proposal, which is currently supported by the United States, would legalize commercial whaling by some countries for the first time in over twenty years.
 
Though commercial whaling was officially banned two decades ago, countries like Japan, Norway, and Iceland have continued hunting for whales on a commercial scale.  Norway and Iceland have not acknowledged the international moratorium on whaling, leaving the IWC powerless to control their whaling activity.  Similarly, while Japan has chosen to recognize the moratorium, it continues whaling on a commercial scale under the name of “scientific whaling.”  Japan also does not recognize the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, which other countries have agreed should represent a permanent “safety zone” for whale populations.  The US-backed proposal at this week’s IWC negotiations would legalize limited whaling by Japan, Iceland, and Norway.  Supporters of the proposal argue legalizing the hunting of whales by these three countries would better enable the IWC to control whale catch quotas, and eventually reduce the number of whales killed each year. 
 
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Environmental groups like Greenpeace counter that Japan, Norway, and Iceland have already flaunted international whaling laws, and that these countries cannot be counted on to obey any limits the IWC places on their whale catch.  According to Greenpeace, the proposal would simply legitimize commercial whaling again, and tempt countries like China and Korea to seek approval for whaling programs of their own.  “The IWC should focus on closing loopholes and actually clamping down on illegal commercial whaling,” states the website for Greenpeace USA.   
 
Greenpeace activists have long been a familiar site at IWC meetings; the environmental organization has worked for decades to protect whales, and helped generate public support for the moratorium on commercial whaling.  However other groups, newer to saving the whales, have also launched campaigns to preserve the whaling moratorium.  One, an international progressive organization known as Avaaz.org is gathering more than a million names on a petition.  The constantly updated petition list is still accumulating names, and Avaaz says the petition will be received in person by Australia’s environment minister.  Enormous public support for the whaling moratorium has caused some countries to think twice about voting to legalize whaling. 
 
Back in the US support for a continued ban on commercial whaling has also been growing, and has sometimes come from unexpected places.  On Monday, June 21, seventeen US senators released a letter to the Obama administration, in which they urged the US to reject legalized whale hunting and push for a continued whaling moratorium.  The lead authors of the letter were Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Carl Levin (D-MI).  The letter warned that the proposal to legitimize some whaling would “set quotas that are not based on sound scientific principals, and reward those countries that have circumvented the moratorium by granting them exclusive quotas to hunt whales commercially.”
 
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As countries work to finalize their positions on the whaling moratorium at this week’s IWC meetings, it’s impossible to say how the final vote will go.  However the move to legalize commercial whaling by Japan, Norway, and Iceland seems to have triggered a public outcry that has once again made whale conservation a matter of international concern.
 

Debate Over Oregon Coal Plant Affects National Climate Strategy

If environmental, health, and consumer groups get their way, Oregon may become the first state in the country to phase out reliance on a large, dirty coal plant in a timescale consistent with what scientists say is required to prevent catastrophic global warming.  Should the plant’s owner, state decision-makers, and other affected parties settle on a timely closure plan, the agreement could pave the way for the retirement of coal plants across the country and the major source of global warming pollution they represent.
 
At issue is Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant, operated and partly owned by the private utility company Portland General Electric (PGE).  The only coal plant within Oregon state lines, Boardman is Oregon’s largest single source of carbon dioxide, mercury emissions, and other harmful pollutants.  Earlier this year, after Boardman was found by state agencies to be polluting out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, PGE proposed to deal with clean air regulations by installing limited pollution controls and closing Boardman by the year 2020.  Environmental groups argue this timeline isn’t quick enough. 
 
“PGE needs to get serious about phasing out Oregon’s only coal plant sooner rather than later,” said Cesia Kearns, an organizer with the Oregon Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.  “PGE’s offer to consider closing the plant by 2020 comes with significant strings attached – namely that Boardman would continue to operate out of compliance with the Clean Air Act for another decade.”  Environmental and consumer groups propose PGE make the transition off Boardman by 2014, allowing it to avoid installing expensive pollution controls required after that date.  The issue will come to a head this summer, when Oregon’s Public Utilities Commission will decide whether keeping Boardman open until 2020 is a good use of ratepayer money.
 
Charged with ensuring utilities look out for the best interests of their customers, the Public Utilities Commission must decide whether Boardman is a good investment.  Factors include the liklihood of federal carbon pricing that could make coal more expensive, the doubtful ability of PGE to bring the plant into Clean Air Act compliance without major costs, and public opinion trends which show Oregonians increasingly don’t want their electricity bills tied to polluting fuels.  Utilities have traditionally viewed coal plants as a good investment because they offer constant, and until now dependably cheap electricity.  Yet in Oregon that equation may be changing.  “It is in the best interest of Oregonians to close Boardman by 2014,” said Tyler Gerlach, a student at Linfield College.  “The Public Utilities Commission is supposed to look out for our best interest, not that of a private corporation.”
 
Oregon students have been at the forefront of the push to close Boardman early.  This year student governments at ten Oregon colleges, universities, and high schools passed resolutions urging a timely transition away from the coal plant, almost all singling out 2014 as their preferred date.  Collectively, these student governments represent a constituency of over one hundred thousand Oregon students.  “Boardman’s going to close eventually anyway,” said Lindsy Gjesvold, a student at McMinnville High School.  “Let’s do it on a timescale that makes sense.” 
 
Should Boardman close by 2014, it would set a precedent for other coal plants all over the US.  Though environmental and health activists are pushing for the retirement of many of these plants, few coal plant battles have progressed as far as the one over Boardman.  The Sierra Club’s national Beyond Coal campaign has set a goal of replacing the whole US coal fleet with cleaner energy by 2030 – and acheiving the first round of closures in the next few years would bode well for that objective.  On the other hand if plants like Boardman continue burning coal for the next decade, it would prove very challenging to wean the US off coal within twenty years. 
 
PGE maintains keeping Boardman open until 2020 is necessary to provide cheap electricity.  But the plant’s opponents argue the utility may not actually  have the best interests of consumers at heart.  “The costs of pollution controls [if Boardman stays open until 2020] ultimately will be passed on to PGE’s customers,” said Kearns.  “This makes and earlier closure date more desireable for our health, environment, and pocketbooks.”

Photo credit: Smokestack at Boardman Coal Plant

Undercover Investigation Exposes Extreme Animal Abuse at Dairy Farm

Warning: The video below has scenes of extreme animal cruelty. You may prefer to read the description rather than watching the actual video.

CLEVELAND, May 26 — During a four-week investigation between April and May, Chicago-based non-profit Mercy For Animals (MFA) captured on hidden camera  shocking scenes of severe animal abuse on a dairy farm. According to MFA, the video was shot by an undercover investigator at the Conklin Dairy Farms in Plain City, Ohio.

During the investigation MFA’s investigator documented farm workers:

  • Violently punching young calves in the face, body slamming them to the ground, and pulling and throwing them by their ears
  • Routinely using pitchforks to stab cows in the face, legs and stomach
  • Kicking “downed” cows (those too injured to stand) in the face and neck – abuse carried out and encouraged by the farm’s owner
  • Maliciously beating restrained cows in the face with crowbars – some attacks involving over 40 blows to the head
  • Twisting cows’ tails until the bones snapped
  • Punching cows’ udders
  • Bragging about stabbing, dragging, shooting, breaking bones, and beating cows and calves to death

MFA has shared the video with the City Prosecutor’s Office of Marysville and is pushing for employees of the facility to be criminally prosecuted for violating Ohio’s animal cruelty laws.

MFA, which is dedicated to “promoting nonviolence towards all sentient beings” stated that “the deplorable conditions uncovered at Conklin Dairy Farms highlight the reality that animal agriculture is incapable of self-regulation and that meaningful federal and state laws must be implemented and strengthened to prevent egregious cruelty to farmed animals.”

County Passes Nation’s First Carbon Tax

 
Last week the County Council of Montgomery County, MD approved the nation’s first example of a “carbon tax,” intended to decrease greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.  In an 8-1 vote on Wednesday, May 19, the County Council passed a five-dollar-per-ton tax on carbon emitted each calendar year, applying only to entities within the county that produce at least one million tons of carbon annually.  Only one such high-carbon emitter exists today in the county: a Mirant Corporation-owned coal plant responsible for three millions tons of carbon emissions every year.  Local environmental groups hope the new tax will help reign in pollution from Mirant and reduce the county’s carbon footprint. 
 
Mirant Corporation strongly criticized the County Council’s decision, claiming the locally-based carbon tax would drive away businesses and raise electricity bills for ratepayers.  At a public hearing before the council vote, Mirant officials were joined by a group of “Tea Party” anti-tax protesters, who likewise condemned the tax measure.  Yet while Tea Party protesters denied the existence of global warming, Mirant officials admitted human activities really are impacting the climate.  Thus the faction opposing the tax was seen by many as self-contradictory, while the Tea Party heckling of those testifying in favor of the bill seems to have simply put the opposition in a bad light.
 
“I’m afraid your testimony and your presence here today have had the opposite effect of what you intended,” Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg said to the Tea Party protesters, hinting that the anti-tax activists would have been more effective had they behaved in an orderly and respectful manner.  Trachtenberg then asked to be put down as a co-sponsor of the carbon tax bill.
 
Meanwhile activists from Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) and other local environmental groups testified in favor of the carbon tax.  Many expressed optimism that Montgomery County’s efforts to tax carbon would set an example for other local governments, and even for state and national policy.  “With this heroic vote in the D.C. suburbs today, the coal lobby might want to prepare for local actions across the country,” said Mike Tidwell, CCAN directorCCAN also expressed satisfaction that half or more of the revenue from the tax will be used to fund energy efficiency projects.
 
The bill’s chief sponsor, Councilmember Roger Berliner, said he hoped Montgomery County taking action at the local level might help to spur a federal response to global warming.  “Local governments often take the lead on these issues,” said Berliner, “and as a result there is a greater push for federal legislation.” 
 
If the hopes of environmentalists prove well-founded, Montgomery County’s efforts could be duplicated by local and regional governments across the US.  Up until now, the preferred method for regulating carbon emissions in this country has been some version of a cap-and-trade program, designed to let major emitters establish a marketplace that creates incentives to cut back on pollution.  Recently however, amid concerns that such a market would provide opportunities for the kind of speculation that led to the financial crisis of 2008, lawmakers have been looking at cap-and-trade with a more skeptical eye.  The carbon tax model, which mandates costs for major polluters across the board, could end up providing an alternative to cap-and-trade policy.
 
Photo credit: DSCN1114

Jack Johnson to Play Free Gig for Beach Cleanup Volunteers

Widely known for his commitment to the environment, singer Jack Johnson has come up with a unique way to encourage his fans to partake in environmental activism. On Monday, May 24, Johnson will be performing a free concert at the Santa Monica Pier and has reserved the bulk of the 3,000 available tickets for volunteers who participate in a two-hour beach cleanup on the Saturday preceding the show. The beach cleanup is being led by the Santa Monica based environmental nonprofit Heal the Bay.

Flyer for Jack Johnson beach cleanup concert.

Johnson is also promoting the release of his upcoming “To the Sea” album and tour. Next week’s collaboration with Heal the Bay is just another in a long line of environmental causes that Johnson has championed with his performances. His 2008 tour was a model of sustainability. That tour used 14,000 gallons of biodiesel to power the buses, trucks, and generators, it diverted 65 tons of waste from landfills through recycling and composting, and over 1,400 metric tons of carbon were offset. This year’s tour will take similar measures, and like 2008, Johnson will donate 100% of the tour’s profits to a charity supporting environmental, art and music education.

For those looking to score a free ticket to next Monday’s pier concert, they will need to pre-register online for the Heal the Bay beach cleanup. According to Heal the Bay, volunteers will receive their tickets once the beach cleanup is complete.

Crowds gather on the beach south of the pier for a past concert.

The good news for fans who cannot attend the beach cleanup is that the City of Santa Monica allows concert-goers to hang out in the sand on the south side of the pier, where the music from the stage can still be heard. However, to make sure the fans on the beach don’t undo the hard work of the volunteers, Heal the Bay and Jack Johnson are urging fans that “whatever they bring, they take home, recycle, or dispose of in the proper containers.”

Home Energy Efficiency Gains Momentum in Congress

With the BP Gulf Oil Spill pushing concern over US oil dependence to new heights, a broadly supported bill moving through Congress this month promises to reduce the need for burning oil and other fossil fuels by making US homes more efficient. The Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010 passed the US House of Representatives last week, and is now on its way to the Senate. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the bill is not that it addresses both the environmental and economic concerns of many Americans simultaneously, but that it has gained support from a wider coalition of environmental and industry groups than almost any other green-minded bill in the nation’s history.

If passed into law, the Home Star Act will launch a two-year initiative that provides US residents with incentives to retrofit their homes with energy-saving products, the majority of which would be manufactured in the United States. The Home Star Act outlines two programs for accomplishing this goal. The bill’s Silver Star track promises to provide homeowners with rebates for installing specific technologies that increase energy efficiency, such as heat-retaining windows, more efficient water heaters, and better home insulation. Meanwhile the Gold Star track would give rebates up to $8,000 to those who do a comprehensive home energy audit and dramatically reduce their home’s consumption of energy.

In the House of Representatives, the Home Star Act was strongly supported by manufacturing and construction industry groups that believe the program can re-vitalize sectors hit hard by the economic downturn. According to the US Chamber of Commerce, “The incentives provided by the Home Star Act will create good, living-wage jobs for American workers,” and provide relief to the waning manufacturing industry. Home Star is predicted to create 170,000 new jobs in the US over the next ten years, and to simultaneously save consumers nearly $10 billion in energy costs.

Meanwhile environmentalists have been quick to point out that more efficient homes will mean reduced demand for oil, coal, and other fossil fuels, and have praised Home Star as an important part of the national transition to a cleaner energy future. The result has been an unlikely alliance. As Home Star moved toward final approval in the House, liberal environmental groups joined some of the most conservative industry associations in the country in making the bill a priority. Home Star passed the House 246-161 last week, with bipartisan support. According the green jobs advocacy group Green for All, the program “is a fast-acting, short-term, job creation program that will drive new private investment into the hard hit construction and manufacturing sectors, while saving consumers money on their energy bills.”

To become law, the Home Star Act still needs to clear the US Senate – where a companion bill to the one passed by the House already exists. The Senate bill has drawn supporters from both Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle, who seem confident in its prospects for passing. After approval by the Senate Home Star would go to the desk of President Barack Obama, who endorsed the House version, for his signature. Energy efficiency advocates hope Home Star will become law by the end of this month.

“Yesterday’s bi-partisan passage of the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010 in the House is a critical milestone on the road to economic recovery,” said the environmental group Climate Progress on Friday. “The alliance behind this rebate program to encourage Americans to invest in more energy-efficient homes is nothing short of historic.”

Photo credit: Modern Northwest Home

Lotus Electric Car to Use ‘Star Wars’ Noises to Warn Pedestrians

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In a move aimed at reducing the silent danger from electric and hybrid cars, the European Commission is considering rules that will require these vehicles to emit an artificial noise to alert pedestrians to their presence. The regulation does not specify what the noise should sound like, only the minimum volume. As a result, some car manufacturers have been having a little fun with the type of sound their vehicles will emit. Matthew Reed from Lotus Engineering indicated that their new Evora 414E Hybrid will use a “futuristic sound a bit like Star Wars”.

The European noise regulation is in response to growing evidence of the risk posed to pedestrians from battery powered cars. A University of California at Riverside study recently found that a internal-combustion car could be heard at 28 feet away, but that a hybrid operating in silent battery mode could not be heard until it was only seven feet away.

Despite this danger, critics contend that the widespread adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles has steadily been removing a major source of noise pollution from the environment and that by artificially requiring these cars to make noise, those gains will be erased. In the hopes of mitigating this concern, the noise making technologies being implemented by the car manufacturers focus the artificial sound only in the direction the car is moving.

In addition to Europe, similar plans are also currently being considered in the United States and Japan.