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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2006
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Lay of the Land
November/December 2006

Inhibit the Wind | WWatch | Big Organic Inc. | Mexican Wolves on the Run |
Bold Strokes | Updates | Heavenly Award | Hot Stocks | Catching a Scold |
Fuel or Food? | Big-Box Talk | Ties That Bind

Inhibit the Wind
What does the Defense Department have against wind power?

Lee Linnell, 61, has been farming his blustery patch of ground in South Dakota all his life. But he lives in an apartment because he lost his home, barn, and outbuildings to a tornado in 2002. Two years ago, he says, a wind-power developer offered to pay him and a dozen neighbors each $20,000 a year for permission to erect turbines on their properties. "That is the greatest news I ever had," says Linnell. "If this came true, it would get me out of debt."

Early this year, however, the project screeched to a halt. Stymied too were at least 15 other wind-farm proposals, including one in Bloomington, Illinois, that would provide power to 120,000 homes in Chicago. Just before passage of the 2006 Department of Defense spending bill in January, Senator John Warner (R-Va.) added an amendment requiring a study of the effect of windmills on military radar. While it was being completed, the Federal Aviation Administration sent "notices of perceived hazard" to applicants for new turbines, shutting down their efforts. In June, the Sierra Club sued the DOD after it missed a deadline to complete its report, which was finally released in late September.

The need for the study was never clear. Many military installations have wind farms next to them, and the U.S. Navy itself erected four turbines on its Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, base, which also boasts a radar array. The British military researched the issue and found that wind power "isn't a problem for the air defence community." The DOD study maintains that turbines can sometimes interfere with radar, but it will allow projects to proceed on a case-by-case basis.

So what was going on? Warner may have been concerned less with wind power's effect on radar than with its effect on views from Cape Cod, where his two daughters own property. Warner has long opposed the Cape Wind project, which would build 130 turbines four miles offshore in Nantucket Sound, and sponsored several previous attempts to scuttle it. His most recent effort upped the ante, stalling wind projects across the country. With crucial tax credits set to expire next year, some turbines--like the one on Linnell's farm--were in danger of being canceled. Says Linnell, "Me and my neighbors were all scared to death that this thing was going to blow away." --Paul Rauber


WWatch

HOW LOW CAN HE GO? According to a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll released in August, 56 percent of Americans think the Bush administration is doing too little to protect the environment. That's President Bush's lowest approval rating on the issue since he took office. (In 2001, a mere 41 percent said Bush wasn't doing enough for the planet.) Growing awareness of global warming and rising energy prices appear to be driving the president's numbers down.

PLUGGING LEAKS Call it oversight in hindsight: In the wake of BP's 200,000-gallon oil spill on Alaska's North Slope last March, the U.S. Department of Transportation said that it would craft tighter rules for petroleum pipelines. It turns out that the damaged pipelines were exempt from certain federal regulations because they operate at low pressure in a rural area and aren't near commercially navigable waters. Though federal regulators blasted BP for 14 years of poor maintenance (employees had warned of potential corrosion-related leaks in 2004), the company may have broken no rules. Repairs, which shut down half of BP's 400,000-barrel-per-day operation, could take until early 2007 to complete.

OH, THAT OLD PLANET? Early this year, NASA quietly dropped the phrase "to understand and protect our home planet" from the mission statement it uses in planning and budget documents. The wording had been added in 2002 to reflect NASA's decades-long involvement in efforts to monitor Earth's environment. Agency spokesperson David Steitz said the mission statement's replacement phrase ("to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research") reflects George W. Bush's interest in flights to the moon and Mars. Steitz denied that the change had anything to do with top NASA climate scientist James Hansen, a vocal critic of Bush administration inaction on global warming who regularly referred to the agency's home-planet directive. --Reed McManus


Big Organic Inc.

Consumers of organic food fondly imagine their carrots and soy milk come from small, local farms. If they buy from a farmers' market, they may. But for the most part, Old Gaia's Farm got bought out by ConAgra a long time ago. Although organics make up only about 2.5 percent of the total food market, they are its fastest-growing sector: Sales in 2005 grew 17 percent, grossing $14.6 billion. Large supermarkets now sell more than half of all organic goods, a share that will increase as Wal-Mart expands its organic offerings.

The chart above is a sample of where the industry stood as of August. (For a fuller version by Phil Howard of Michigan State University, visit msu.edu/~howardp.) Some natural-foods veterans worry that the new megaproducers bring with them the same old problems of conventional agriculture, such as energy-intensive, long-distance food transportation, and that they will exert pressure to weaken organic standards. On the other hand, growth in the sector keeps an enormous amount of synthetic poisons out of circulation and makes healthy, affordable organic food available to those not lucky enough to live near a farmers' market. --P.R.


Mexican Wolves on the Run

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's attempts to reintroduce the endangered Mexican wolf to the Southwest aren't going very well. Maybe it's because federal agents keep killing them.

At the insistence of powerful cattle-grower associations, wolves wandering outside a designated zone in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico have been removed, either by capture or killing. In addition, the policy for wolves that prey on livestock is three strikes you're dead. This led to the killing this spring of 12 wolves, including 6 pups. Small wonder, then, that the Mexican wolf-reintroduction project is having trouble meeting its projection of 102 animals by the end of the year. There were never more than 60 and are probably fewer than 40 adults today.

Attempting to stem the loss, the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to a slew of program changes, including allowing wolves to roam outside the recovery-area boundaries. But it explicitly refuses to make ranchers responsible for disposing of livestock carcasses, which can habituate wolves to feeding--and preying--on cattle. In the Northern Rockies, where reintroduction of the gray wolf has been enormously successful, ranchers are responsible for removing "attractants" from their properties--and ineligible for predator-control services if they do not. --Paul Rauber


Bold Strokes

The Old Switcheroo
Jalopies bound for the scrap heap will no longer release mercury into the air and water, thanks to a new plan for recovering mercury-containing light switches. The toxic metal was eliminated from new U.S. cars in 2003, but 67 million old switches are still on the road. Now the steel and auto industries have agreed to chip in $2 million each to encourage auto dismantlers to recycle at least 4 million switches. The result: 75 fewer tons of mercury in the environment over the next 15 years.

Tying Coal in Nots
Idaho governor Jim Risch (R) believes his state can satisfy its energy needs without coal-fired power plants, so he's opted out of a federal mercury-pollution-trading program that would have paved the way for one to be built. Idaho is one of only three states that don't have any coal-fired power plants. "We have been meeting the increasing demand for electricity," Risch says, "without emitting one ounce of mercury."

Net Gain
Trawlers' wide nets drag the ocean floor, scooping up everything in their paths--and have helped send several Pacific Coast fisheries into a precipitous decline. So environmentalists and commercial anglers in Morro Bay, California, are working together to save fish and the industry. In exchange for supporting the creation of 6,000 square miles of no-trawl zones and agreeing to convert to more-sustainable fishing practices, fishermen can sell their trawlers and permits to the Nature Conservancy.

LEEDing the Way
General Motors has unveiled the first auto-manufacturing plant in the world to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, the U.S. Green Building Council's seal of approval. The Lansing, Michigan, plant trims energy use with a reflective roof, natural lighting, and darkened rooms where robots perform the most grueling tasks. Being green pays off for the 2.4 million-square-foot facility: GM expects to save $1 million a year in energy costs. --Dashka Slater


Updates

TALL VICTORY
In August, a federal judge axed the Bush administration's plan to allow commercial logging in Giant Sequoia National Monument. Last year, the Sierra Club and five other environmental groups sued the U.S. Forest Service, claiming that its management plan emphasized timber production and would result in logging large trees--violations of the presidential proclamation that established the monument in 2000. (See "Sierra Club Bulletin," May/June 2005.) In his ruling, U.S. District Court judge Charles R. Breyer wrote that the administration's plan was "decidedly incomprehensible."

RAKED OVER THE COAL
State attorneys general were handed a victory this summer when a federal appeals court ruled that energy giant Cinergy (now part of Duke Energy) could not claim exemption from pollution rules at ten of its coal-fired power plants. Strict federal regulations should have kicked in when the utility upgraded the plants. But Cinergy claimed that because the facilities' hourly emissions remained unchanged after the repairs, the rules didn't apply. The court disagreed, pointing out that Cinergy's modifications enabled its plants to run longer, increasing their total pollution. (See "Lay of the Land," July/August 2003.)

OH NO, GMO
A Cornell University study of nearly 500 Chinese farmers who were among the first in the world to plant genetically modified cotton to resist bollworms revealed that cost savings reaped in the first few years evaporated once secondary pests such as mirids (a type of leaf bug) began attacking the crops. Within seven years, the farmers needed to use as much pesticide as they would have on conventional plants--and were spending more than other farmers because GM cotton seeds are more expensive. (See "Sowing Technology," July/August 2001.)


Heavenly Award

Pluto may be history, but John Muir has his place in the cosmos. The founding president of the Sierra Club and father of our national parks, whose image graces the California quarter, now has a minor planet named for him. Celestial object 2004PX42 was dubbed "Johnmuir" by its discover, R. E. Jones, who spied the tiny planet in orbit from his backyard observatory in a Los Angeles suburb bordering Angeles National Forest. Other observatories confirmed the 2004 sighting, and the International Astronomical Union announced the naming in June. It seems a fitting tribute to the visionary who gave his mailing address as "John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe." --Pat Joseph


Hot Stocks
Investors seek the silver lining in global warming

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal may still be denying that global warming is real, but Wall Street is busy figuring out how to adapt. Investment research firms such as Innovest Strategic Value Advisors see climate change as a financial reality that savvy CEOs should be preparing for, whether or not they love whales and polar bears. "We think climate change is morphing into a substantial financial risk and investment opportunity," explains Innovest CEO Matthew Kiernan. "A company's ability to manage this issue turns out to be a very good proxy for how well managed they are overall."

Innovest, which researches strategies for large institutional investors like state pension funds, has developed a fund that holds 50 stocks in ten industries ranging from energy to insurance. Fund managers will evaluate how well companies are positioned to compete in a world where carbon emissions are capped and traded and residents of coastal cities are sleeping in their galoshes. (Their purely financial focus has its blind spots: "Carbon neutral" technologies like nuclear power are considered "value neutral" as well.) Fund managers will also analyze how well management is preparing for the realities of global warming, how much exposure companies have to climate impacts, and how much companies are investing in new technologies that might give them a leg up.

Innovest's research into the economics of carbon dioxide emissions was inspired by shareholders' growing concerns with how their investments will fare in a warmer world. As Kiernan explains, "There are only two ways to turn a corporate CEO into an environmentalist: Have his 16-year-old daughter lecture him over breakfast, which is very effective but not very systematic, or send him a message through the financial markets." --Dashka Slater


Catching a Scold
Climate reporters feel the heat

Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) doesn't believe in global warming, and he doesn't think reporters should either. The legislator, who recently compared global-warming activists' concerns with Nazi propaganda, has been using his position as chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to go after journalists he considers insufficiently skeptical about climate change. With the help of Marc Morano, a former reporter and producer for Rush Limbaugh, the senator has lashed out at former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, Associated Press science reporter Seth Borenstein, and New York Times science reporter Andrew Revkin.

Brokaw drew Inhofe's wrath by hosting a two-hour Discovery Channel special called Global Warming: What You Need to Know, which relied on the expertise of NASA's top climate scientist, James Hansen, and Princeton University professors Michael Oppenheimer and Stephen Pacala rather than on the small and generally discredited cabal of climate-change deniers favored by Inhofe. For this offense, the senator called Brokaw "a pawn of the Democratic Party."

Borenstein was chastised for asking 100 climate experts what they thought of the science in Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth. To Inhofe and Morano's dismay, Borenstein only quoted those who had actually seen the film, thus depriving climate-change skeptics of the opportunity to make ad hominem attacks. (The 19 scientists who had seen the film and responded to the Associated Press praised its accuracy.)

Ignorance didn't keep Morano from expressing an opinion. He set about attacking Revkin, who recently published a children's book called The North Pole Was Here (Kingfisher). "The title alone implies climate alarmism," Morano told the online environmental-news service Greenwire, before allowing that the title was the only part of the book he'd read. --Dashka Slater


Fuel or Food?
Shell frets over biofuel's flaws

Corn-based ethanol is a hot commodity these days. Thanks to a liberal sprinkling of federal subsidies, more than 100 ethanol plants have sprouted along the Farm Belt, and another 39 are under construction. But Royal Dutch Shell, the world's largest biofuels marketer, recently announced that it considers food-based fuel to be "morally inappropriate." "People are starving, and because we are more wealthy, we use food and turn it into fuel," says Eric Holthusen, a fuels-technology manager for Shell's Asia-Pacific region.

As an alternative, Shell is working to develop "cellulosic ethanol" that can be made from wood chips, corn stalks, and other nonedible plant material. So is Shell going to withdraw from the biofuels business until cellulosic ethanol is ready for market? Well, no. "Sometimes economics force you to do it," explains Holthusen. --D.S.


Big-Box Talk
Is Wal-Mart Satan or saint?

Not long ago, environmentalists could count on Wal-Mart to be the great Satan of retail. No longer. This fall, Wal-Mart president and CEO Lee Scott announced that his company is going green. Over the next three years, Scott promised to raise the efficiency of the company's fleet of trucks--the second largest in the nation--by 25 percent and to reduce solid-waste production at its U.S. stores by the same amount. Over the next seven years, he pledged to lower greenhouse-gas emissions at U.S. outlets by 20 percent. Wal-Mart now sells organic produce--much of it locally grown--and sustainably caught seafood and is the world's biggest buyer of organic cotton. Its colossal buying power can send ripples up the supply chain. The company has even lobbied in favor of mandatory caps on greenhouse-gas emissions.

So is it time for environmentalists to start doing the Wal-Mart cheer?

Maybe not. Even the greenest big-box store is still hard on the environment, and Wal-Mart has a lot of big-box stores--about 75,000 acres' worth. The stores' low prices force neighborhood shops out of business, which means that more people have to get in their cars every time they run a household errand. The asphalt surrounding a 250,000-square-foot superstore produces 413,000 gallons of contaminated stormwater runoff for every inch of rain. And Wal-Mart has a habit of abandoning older stores to build even bigger ones in the same market. According to Sprawl-Busters, 356 abandoned Wal-Marts were for sale or lease in 2006, enough to cover some 465 football fields.

But Shelley Alpern, director of social research and advocacy for Trillium Asset Management, says we can give the company some credit. "We should applaud the fact that somewhere within the highest reaches of Wal-Mart, a lightbulb has gone on." --Dashka Slater


Ties That Bind
Corporate science under scrutiny

The National Academy of Sciences has long been a source of impartial opinion about controversial topics such as global warming, toxic pollution, and nutrition. But a study by the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that almost one of five scientists appointed to NAS "expert panels" has gotten cozy with companies or industries that stand to benefit from their conclusions.

The CSPI wants the academy to expand its definition of conflict of interest to include any financial ties in the past five years to companies that could be affected by a panel's findings. Scientists who didn't disclose their ties would be banned from NAS panels for three years. Of "conflicted scientists," David Michaels of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services observed, "Regulatory science can do very well without them." --D.S.


illustrations, from top: Debbie Drechsler, Mark Matcho, Lloyd Dangle

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