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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2006
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Lay of the Land

Inherit the Windfall | We're No. 28! | WWatch | Big and Bad | Coming to a Beach Near You? | Bold Strokes | Updates | Breaking Up Is Hard to Do | Golden State Opportunity | Raw Deal | Scum of the Air

Inherit the Windfall
After clearing southwest skies, activists turn their attention to jobs

For 35 years, the coal-powered Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada, operated without modern pollution controls. So when the Sierra Club and other environmental groups succeeded in shuttering the plant last year, they had reason to celebrate. Its haze and soot have been the largest sources of visible air pollution in the western Grand Canyon. And the 1.3 billion gallons of water drawn annually from under northern Arizona's Black Mesa, to send coal 273 miles through a slurry pipeline to the plant, have dried up springs and streams critical to the Navajo and Hopi.

But the victory just shifted the activists' task from environmental protection to economic development. The Mohave plant's closure put nearly 200 people (most of them tribe members) out of work at Peabody Western Coal Company's Black Mesa mine and related operations. So in January, environmental and Native groups operating as the Just Transition Coalition asked California regulators to consider an innovative plan. They want Southern California Edison, the plant's operator and majority owner, to take any money it gets for selling the facility's pollution credits and reinvest it in local renewable-energy projects. The tribes stand to lose approximately $20 million in coal royalties from the Mohave closure; the coalition's plan would divert at least that much from Edison's pollution-credit coffers to the tribes.

Coalition members maintain that Edison, which avoided upgrades and failed to pay fines during Mohave's long history of polluting southwestern skies, should not reap a windfall now. And while the 1999 legal settlement that set the plant's closure in motion gave Edison the option of modernizing the facility to keep it operating, the utility chose the cheaper route and simply shut it down. The coalition's message: Edison shouldn't be allowed to cash in its environmental mess for an economic gain. --Reed McManus

ON THE WEB Go to sierraclub.org/environmental_justice/projects_az.asp and www.blackmesawatercoalition.org.


We're No. 28!
Behind Slovakia and Colombia but ahead of Slovenia

With our vaunted national park system and legislative protections like the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts, it's tempting to assume that the United States must be a world leader when it comes to the environment. But we're not even close.

A recent study comparing the environmental health of 133 nations ranks the United States 28th in the world, trailing Chile, Colombia, Japan, Malaysia, Slovakia, and Taiwan, as well as most of Western Europe. The winner for best environmental performance by a sovereign nation is--drum roll, please--New Zealand, followed by Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and Austria.

Compiled by researchers at Columbia and Yale Universities, the Environmental Performance Index measures how well nations are doing in areas such as air, water, energy, biodiversity, and habitat. The study's authors also compare each nation with its geographic and economic peers. When clustered with 29 financially similar countries, the United States landed close to the bottom, at number 23.

We may be one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries on earth, but success takes more than that. "Good governance emerges as a critical factor in environmental performance," explains Daniel C. Esty, lead author of the report and director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

The United States gets good grades for water quality and the pace of its timber harvests but poor marks in areas such as ozone emissions (scoring 0.1 out of a possible 100) and renewable-energy production (with a score of 4). "The lagging performance of the U.S. on environmental issues, particularly on energy and climate change, signals trouble not only for the American people but for the whole world," says James "Gus" Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. --Dashka Slater


WWatch: Keeping Tabs on Washington

DUST STORM In a move that air-pollution-control officials around the nation describe as "outrageous" and "unprecedented," the EPA has proposed exempting rural areas from federal clean-air regulations, maintaining that breathing dust from agricultural and mining operations is perfectly healthy. This contention is disputed by both the EPA's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which wants the agency to continue monitoring particulate levels in rural regions, and studies showing that inhaling such dust can cause asthma, heart disease, and other illnesses.

FRANKENFIELDS A two-year audit by the Department of Agriculture's investigative office lambasted the agency for failing to adequately monitor test plots of genetically engineered crops. The report found that investigators charged with keeping tabs on biotech experiments didn't inspect planting sites or ensure that the crops were destroyed when the tests were over. In some cases, investigators didn't know the location of the plots they were supposed to be monitoring. The report warned that lax oversight could result in experimental crops spreading "before they are deemed safe to grow without regulation." --D.S.


Big and Bad

Sure, the United Sates is a conspicuous contributor of greenhouse-gas emissions, but that comes with the territory when you're one of the richest countries on the planet, right? Not necessarily. Citizens of many other nations live quite comfortably, thank you, and do so without mortgaging the health of future generations. Below, we chart the per-capita gross domestic product of the world's ten wealthiest countries and their per-capita carbon dioxide emissions.


Coming to a Beach Near You?

Having failed thus far to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to development, oil and gas boosters are now making a run at the nation's coasts. Congress is voting this year on a variety of bills that would allow offshore drilling, including a crucial vote on the moratorium that protects beaches and coastal waters. That measure has been renewed annually for the past 25 years with strong bipartisan support, but this year opponents have launched a frontal attack on the drilling ban.

The oil industry is counting on the high prices consumers are paying at the pump to overcome fears of blackened shores and oil-coated birds and seals. Prove the oil lobby wrong by contacting your representative and senators and urging them to support the moratorium and permanently safeguard our beaches and coasts. For more information, visit sierraclub.org/coasts.


Bold Strokes

Taming E-gregious Waste
In January, Maine passed the first law in the nation requiring electronics manufacturers to pay for recycling their discarded products. Before, consumers had to drop $15 to $20 to dispose of old computer monitors and TVs. But now such e-waste can be given to state-approved consolidators for $2 an item, after which manufacturers will pick up the tab for sorting and recycling. The hope is that once they get the bill, they'll get the hint and provide the public with safer, easier-to-recycle choices. www.maine.gov/dep/rwm/ewaste

California Beamin'
Sunny California will soon institute the largest solar-energy program in the country, providing $2.9 billion of incentives for homeowners and businesses to install solar-electric systems. The California Solar Initiative could reduce the cost of solar arrays by up to $7,000 per home, and 10 percent of its money will be earmarked for low-income and affordable housing. The program could also add 3,000 megawatts of power to the state's grid in the next 11 years. www.cpuc.ca.gov

Wellgreens
The nation's largest drugstore chain has a prescription for clean energy. Partnering with a Denver-based solar firm, Walgreens will install solar-electric systems in 112 stores and two distribution centers in California and New Jersey over the next two years. Roof tiles will generate nearly 14 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year (up to half the facilities' needs) and save more than 22 million gallons of gas, eliminating hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Less Pulp for Big Gulp
This year, 7-Eleven Japan will save about 220 million sheets of paper by switching to paperless accounting. Using electronic data for most invoices, packing slips, and accounting records is expected to save the company nearly $12 million. If you would like to see this happen at U.S. 7-Eleven stores, contact the company at 7-eleven.com/contact or call (800) 255-0711.

Best Foot Forward
"What kind of footprint will you leave?" asks footwear and apparel maker Timberland on its new label, which discloses an item's country of origin, how much energy was needed to produce it, and the amount of renewable energy used. All the company's footwear packaging will sport the label, printed with soy-based ink on 100 percent recycled boxes. Also included is information about Timberland's community impacts. timberland.com --Erin Pursell


Updates

Cooked Geese
In January, the Department of the Interior approved expanded oil and gas drilling in some 400,000 acres of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The reserve, which was off-limits under the Reagan, H. W. Bush, and Clinton administrations, includes areas around Teshekpuk Lake that provide critical habitat for caribou and geese. (See "Lay of the Land," May/June 2005, page 12.) Staff at the Bureau of Land Management told the Los Angeles Times that the decision to drill was made in response to requests by Vice President Dick Cheney's secretive energy task force.

It's Better to Build Bridges
Civil unrest undid a sweetheart deal. In January, global engineering and construction giant Bechtel dropped its $25 million lawsuit against the government of Bolivia, which had broken a 40-year contract that gave the company control over the water supply in the city of Cochabamba. Less than a year after the privatization contract was signed in 1999, a revolt over skyrocketing water rates forced Bechtel out of the country. (See "Lay of the Land," September/October 2001, page 16.) International protest succeeded in convincing the corporation to drop its claim for compensation against the poorest country in South America.

The Less You Know
Simply by requiring companies to disclose which chemicals they emit, the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) has become one of the most powerful environmental tools available to local communities. (See "What You Don't Know Can Hurt You," January/February 1997.) But last fall the EPA proposed limiting information the public can receive and curbing incentives for businesses to lower their emissions. The agency says it wants to decrease paperwork for affected companies; supporters of current TRI rules point out that toxic releases have declined by 59 percent since the program's inception in 1988.


Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush proclaimed that the United States is "addicted to oil." After five years of rosy energy scenarios from the Bush administration, it was as if the president's body had suddenly been inhabited by the spirit of Al Gore.

But addiction demands intervention, and the president still isn't ready to send the country to rehab. Rather than taking immediate steps to curb U.S. oil consumption, Bush trumpeted proposed modest investments in research and new technologies. He also announced a goal of reducing Middle East oil imports by 75 percent by 2025--which would tame our petrol habit by a mere 8.25 percent. Still, the president has finally acknowledged the nation's energy dilemma, and in terms that resonate with many Americans. The next steps will be harder, but there will be plenty of people to help him from backsliding--if he's willing. --Reed McManus


Golden State Opportunity
Climate-change efforts could boost California's economy

Republican governor in a liberal state with a bold plan to tackle global warming is learning to find support wherever he can. Last year, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a goal of lowering California's greenhouse-gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010, to 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent of that by 2050. Recently, the governor gained the backing of University of California at Berkeley economists, who concluded that such reductions would benefit the state economy.

Meeting the 2020 goal will create tens of thousands of jobs, increase the gross state product by $60 billion, and give California a competitive advantage in a global marketplace that will soon be clamoring for greenhouse-gas-fighting technology, the researchers say. They envision a new technological boom, not unlike the one that started in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. And as consumers save money on fuel and other energy costs, they will have more to spend on goods and services, thus creating even more jobs in California. (The Center for Clean Air Policy, a Washington, D.C., think tank that focuses on market solutions to environmental problems, adds the icing on the cake: Its researchers say the state can meet its 2010 emissions-reduction goal at no cost to consumers--and will end up saving money if the 2020 goal is met.)

Besides providing a healthy kick to the world's 5th-largest economy, California's climate-change efforts would address issues that threaten to cripple the world's 13th-largest producer of greenhouse gases. The 8- to 10-degree temperature spike that is expected to occur in the next century translates into real perils for the state: raging forest fires, surging utility costs, coastal flooding, death and illness from heat and smog, and the virtual disappearance of the snowpack that provides a third of the state's drinking water. Concludes W. Michael Hanemann, a UC Berkeley professor of agricultural and resource economics: "Our research indicates that not only does climate action pay, but early climate action pays more." --Dashka Slater


Raw Deal
The pounds fall off, but the mercury soars

Poor Jack Abramoff. Not only are the disgraced lobbyist's friends in Washington, D.C., unable to remember ever having met him, but his attempts to shed a few pounds might have caused him some memory problems of his own. In January, a gossip column in the Washington Post reported that Abramoff tried an all-sushi diet a few years back and found himself slimming in no time. The only problem, apparently, was that all that seafood spiked his mercury levels.

An Abramoff spokesperson wouldn't confirm the Post's morsel, but eating maguro, saba, and hirame three times a day, seven days a week, would give anyone a mercury dose more than 2,000 times greater than what the EPA considers safe. Find out how to avoid that fate at sierraclub.org/mercury. --Dashka Slater


Scum of the Air
One man's quest to cool the planet--with blue-green algae

Atop the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's 20-megawatt campus power plant stands a structure resembling a pipe organ. Instead of shiny metal, the 30 clear plastic pipes are pond-scum green, full of one-celled algae fighting global warming.

The algae are eating carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides from the plant's emissions--40 percent of the former and 86 percent of the latter--and turning them into harmless oxygen and nitrogen. Each day, an algae crop is harvested that could be dried and converted to solid fuel or processed into biodiesel or ethanol, transforming a pollution problem into a moneymaker.

Chemical engineer Isaac Berzin came across the algae idea in a 1996 government report while working on a project for the International Space Station and was immediately impressed with the possibilities. "You could take something no one knew what to do with and turn it into fuel," he says. With the MIT test a success, Berzin has attracted $2.4 million in capital, founded GreenFuel Technologies Corporation, and begun field trials at an unnamed power plant in the Southwest.

The idea "has a lot of promise," says Barry Worthington, executive director of the U.S. Energy Association, which represents the electric power, oil, and gas industries. "If the GreenFuel technology works on a large scale, then all of a sudden you are looking at being able to sequester carbon dioxide not just as a cost of doing business, but you actually get some revenue."

It would be a dream solution for the industry, given that 40 percent of carbon dioxide and 25 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions in the country come from electric power plants. Other ideas for getting rid of CO2 include burying it underground or discharging it into the deep ocean, both expensive ideas with unknown consequences. But who can complain about a lot of algae? --Frances Cerra Whittelsey


Illustration: Greg Mably

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