Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Asian Carp update

Good news from the Great Lakes: looks like maybe the electric barriers are working, since a search for Asian carp in the Lakes has come up empty. With a $7 billion Great Lakes fishing industry on the line, that's pretty good to hear!

Bag tax gets 'er done!

The DC tax on disposable bags once routinely distributed at supermarkets has cut use by "more than half" since it took effect at the start of the year. Bag use is dropping at a higher rate than expected. I wonder how fast they expected demand to drop: did they perceive a huge demand for single use bags?

My favorite critique of the bag tax is that it will disproportionately hurt the poor. It seems to me that the poor are likely to learn very quickly that they need to bring reusable bags or at least the bags they paid for last time. A little tax works wonders!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Fracking and the EPA

Last week the EPA announced they were going to begin investigating the environmental consequences of "fracking," which is hydraulic fracturing of shale to extract natural gas. I think this is great: I hope that they can identify the externalities associated with extraction and encourage responsible harvesting. Natural gas is a great asset and the new methods for harvesting look to increase US reserves considerably, which should cut this country's dependence on petroleum and drop our emissions of greenhouse gases. Hopefully the EPA will be able to identify some steps that will enable the extraction process to go as smoothly and as harmlessly as possible.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fighting over chicken poop

The controversy we've been talking about in class has finally blown up: some students at a law clinic at the U of M have deployed a serious weapon in the form of a lawsuit against a large Eastern Shore farm. The farm, defended as a "family farm" that's been in business for "over 100 years" is home to 80,000 chickens and I'll wager it produces a prodigious amount of poop. The response by Perdue, the voice of the industry that produces about 600 million chickens annually in Maryland alone, is two fold. First, they are defending the farm as a poor, defenseless entity that the law students at the clinic are unjustifiably attacking. Second, they are calling their legislators and asking them to pull the plug on the law clinic, which is vulnerable as part of the USM (University System of Maryland). While the one "poor" farm may not have huge resources, they clearly already have the deep pockets of the industry on their side, though the farmer says, "Perdue is not paying our legal costs." There's no way they will get zero help from the industry, who is already mustering help in the legislature, though I'm sure they will help in such a way that this kind of claim can be made. Idealistic law students tilting at a huge industry to defend the bay: sounds like a Hollywood script!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Biocontrol to be tried against invasive plant

[This should've been posted back before break! Sorry!]

Biocontrol will be tested in EU for the first time ever, in efforts to manage an invasive Japanese knotweed populating the UK. Originally introduced as an ornamental by the Victorians, this vigorous plant grows quickly; growing more than one meter (about 3 feet) in a month’s time. Japanese knotweed has a detrimental tendency to outcompete the UK’s native vegetation. In the past century, this invasive plant has gradually grown into untamed numbers and spread across the UK countries.
With the plant’s overwhelming numbers, it has incurred an estimated £150 million (or $200 million) cost per year to control and clear the invasive plant populations. This does not include the costs from repairing the damages on roads, buildings, and pavement as a result of this resilient plant.

The Aphalara itadori insect was nominated as the most effective, safest biocontrol agent, showing most selectivity for the Japanese knotweed. The A. itadori species feeds of the sap from the Japanese knotweed. In enough numbers, the insect can overwhelm an individual plant, sucking the “life” out of the plant. The UK government has recently approved the proposed plan to test the biocontrol method, releasing the insect at several select and isolated sites. Integration of some closely related, UK native knotweed species will be included at these tested sites to observe the selectivity of the released biocontrol. Should the insect begin to demonstrate indiscriminate feeding between the native and invasive plants, insecticidal/herbicidal applications are on stand-by. This biocontrol method is projected over a span of 5-10 years and hopes to significantly reduce the costs imposed by the invasive plant’s unwarranted growth.
--Malinda Ross

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chevron & Solar tech

The New York Times article, “Chevron Testing Solar Technologies”, by Todd Woody, discusses how the oil company Chevron is recycling the grounds of an old oil refinery in Bakersfield, CA into a testing ground for new solar technologies. The company narrowed a list of 180 solar companies down to 7 finalists and is currently installing a total of 7,700 photovoltaic solar cells from these finalists onto the 18 acres of testing ground. Over a three year time frame these cells will be used to generate electricity to run the nearby oil operations and any generated electricity in excess of the needed 740 kilowatts will be routed into the grid. Chevron has stated that they are not just testing the efficiency of each technology, but also the start to finish costs in terms of time and money to install each technology and the operation and maintenance costs of each. Once the testing is completed at least one of these technologies will be used at Chevron facilities around the world.

This article is of interest because it is an example of one of the larger oil companies making a conscious effort to help lead the nation into a cleaner energy future. They are not cutting the use of oil but they are reusing some of the land that was devoted to the oil industry in a very beneficial manner that will also benefit the economy. Four of the seven technologies that are being tested are from domestic companies and a few of those are start-up companies that are getting their first commercial contract. Even if those domestic companies are not chosen for use by Chevron the results of the testing will likely be released and this test could lead to increased contracts for these domestic solar companies. Therefore through this project Chevron is cleaning up aspects of its oil operation, while also presenting an opportunity for 7 solar technology companies to demonstrate their capabilities, and potentially inflate the U.S. economy should some of these domestic start-up companies receive increased business as a result of the testing.

--Josh Johnson

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Watermen under the gun

Oyster laws are getting stricter, the government is setting up sanctuaries and limiting the kinds of equipment watermen can use. The Natural Resources Police are out at night enforcing them, and caught in the pincers are watermen who are just trying to make a living.

If Omega Protein wasn't sucking up all the menhaden, there would be less hypoxia, and more fish and shellfish might grow. If developers can find cheaper ways to get storm water to soak into the land instead of sending it out into the Bay, the water will be cleaner and conditions better for fish and oysters. If septic tanks on the Eastern Shore can be linked into a sewer system that will get their effluent treated, more fish will thrive. If the chicken waste produced over there can be converted to energy, biochar, or fertilizer instead of turning into eutrophic runoff, conditions will improve. But all that costs money! In the meantime, watermen struggle to pay their bills and we all pay more for our seafood, which isn't even local anymore. Is this the solution we want? Is it efficient? It's sure a complicated situation!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Solar power & the desert tortoise

In California, the production of a new solar power plant by BrightSource Energy has caused concern over its effect on the desert tortoise. The land that the solar power plant will be constructed on will eliminate an area of rare plants that the desert tortoise needs for its habitat and will make the tortoises relocate. In order to deal with the growing concern, BrightSource Energy has agreed to revise the project and create a new design that reduces the size of the solar power plant by 12%. This revision is designed so that the area of rare plants that the power plant originally would have destroyed will be avoided and not as many tortoises will have to be relocated. Even with these intentions of the proposal design, many say that the size reduction will not be enough to protect the tortoises and may do more harm than good because it will decrease the power plant’s electricity generation. Some people have recommended that the power plant be relocated to an area that would not have any effect on the tortoise’s habitat. If BrightSource can resolve these issues and complete the project, it will be a very important step for other solar power plant projects that have been facing obstacles while undergoing licensing.

I feel as though the size reduction of the power plant should be sufficient enough to at least allow people to be more comfortable about the production of the plant. Costs and benefits of this project need to be weighed before deciding how to proceed forward, and I think that the revision to the plan will provide species protection while helping the environment by providing renewable energy. There needs to be a balance between a realistic alteration of the plan and guaranteed safety of every desert tortoise in the area. It is very important to protect the tortoise, but if the project revision was any more dramatic than the 12% increase, it is likely that the project would not be able to be completed because of funding. A solar power plant will provide so much “green” energy and the completion of this project will be a big step for other renewable energy projects.

--Kelsea Croteau

Friday, March 19, 2010

No Break for Bluefins

Yesterday the international trade group CITES (the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) decided not to offer protection to either the polar bear (hunted in Canada) or to the Bluefin Tuna. The Bluefin is hunted all over the world, but 90% of them are consumed in Japan. Long hunted heavily, recently catches of the prized fish have included smaller fish than ever before, and now one common practice is to harvest juveniles, take them to aquaculture pens, and fatten them up there before they are sold. Harvests are down over the past few decades as shown in the following chart from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.
These fish are just tremendous, with adults averaging 6- 8 feet in length and typically weighing well over 700 pounds. And if I may say, these fish are also absolutely delicious.

ICCAT, the regulatory body charged with regulating Atlantic Bluefins admitted last year that stocks are down over 70%. Nonetheless, they continue to allow a level of harvesting that environmentalists find excessive. I hope that ICCAT shows some responsible behavior and regulates for the long-term health of the species. I hope I'm still able to enjoy tuna decades from now!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Overhead power lines are infinitely expensive

...if people don't want them there and fight their construction. That's how to justify locating power cables under water, which this article says is an increasing trend. Apparently the cables can adversely affect fish spawning when they pass through spawning areas, and in polluted areas they can stir up nasty stuff that's accumulated on the bottom of the body of water they pass through. Of course that needs to be weighed against the damages of putting lines on land, which include removal of vegetation and the construction of towers. Overall it's apparently a little more expensive, but a little lighter on the environment. Maybe if all the costs are accounted for it's just the right solution!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tidal power

This article from an NGO opposed to dams highlights the potential returns from wave energy. A few facilities already get energy from the tides- one I know of is in Britain- but I haven't heard much in the US about investing in this technology. An interesting option for future development....

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Economic downturn slows deforestation

Lower gas prices are bad, and economic downturns are good! Ah, the twisted logic of the environmentalist. Sadly, it does make sense, from a certain perspective. The economic downturn dropped incentives for Brazilian farmers to turn forests into fields, and they responded by deforesting less land than they have in any of the last 20 years. Good news for the planet's "lungs"!

Monday, March 15, 2010

$335 billion bill coming due

A few years ago when a bridge broke in Minnesota, there was some media work on investments needed to keep up our infrastructure. In today's New York Times, there's an article on investments needed to keep up our water system. Here's a quote:

An E.P.A. study last year estimated that $335 billion would be needed simply to maintain the nation’s tap water systems in coming decades.

Philadelphia alone is on the hook for $1.6 billion just to deal with rainwater, but as you can imagine there's nowhere that people are excited about increased taxes to pay for something they take for granted. Water systems are expensive, and someone has to foot the bill. Looks like we'll all be getting out our wallets sometime soon!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

More poop in the Chesapeake

Septic tanks on the Eastern Shore aren't working properly, and inadequately filtered waste is ending up in the Chesapeake via the Choptank. The problem was discovered in 1996 and there were promises of a fix, but nothing has happened. Recently the owner of Lake Bonnie, a nearby campground that's suffered collateral damage from the leaks, has sued the town, county, and state for failure to act. From the information in the article, it looks to me like she has a pretty strong case!

So what's likely to happen to the town of Goldsboro, which is producing the waste? They're looking to line up $4.7 million in grants to set up a new septic system to pipe their waste to Greensboro. Who will foot the bill? Not the residents of the town or county, but the Feds and state. How do you feel about your taxes going to remediate the inadequate septic tanks of Goldsboro? We're talking about 84 households that can't afford to properly dispose of their own waste. Should they be forced to move? Do you feel the same way in this situation that you did with the Puritan tiger beetle situation we talked about last month?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Anyone got an extra $4 billion?

Fortune magazine is reporting that corn producers in Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana want to hire builders from Oklahoma and South Dakota to build them an ethanol pipeline to Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. That involves enough states that it just might get the Federal funding it needs to go forward. I think that's a shame: the alleged carbon savings of corn-based ethanol look worse and worse the deeper researchers dig. Ethanol will someday help us decrease our carbon emissions, but corn ethanol production is not the way to do that, at least not with current technology. I don't like this one bit.

Friday, March 12, 2010

5% of global natural gas consumption

...is used to produce fertilizer. That seems like a lot! I wonder if biochar is a possible replacement. Anyway, according to this article in Time magazine fertilizer has the biggest carbon footprint of the whole orange juice production process: more than harvesting, processing, packing, or shipping orange juice. Also, 80% of US fertilizer is imported! It seems crazy that Florida orange growers find it cheaper to import stuff than to use, for example, some good ol' domestic chicken poop. I wonder how the economics of all that work.

Japan leads the race for a hydrogen fuel cell car

This article discusses how Japanese carmakers (like Toyota) are leading the way for an affordable hydrogen fuel cell car. These cars are very environmentally friendly, since they produce zero emissions. In Japan’s effort to reduce their carbon emissions 80% by 2050, they have become the leader in fuel cell technology. Toyota’s goal is to make an affordable hydrogen fuel cell car by 2015.
These cars are ideal for long distance driving. The range of a hydrogen fuel cell car is already more than five hundred miles on one tank, which tops both electric and hybrid car ranges. The problem is "You can't have fuel cell vehicles without the infrastructure, and you can't have infrastructure without fuel cell vehicles.” Japan’s government is helping by subsidizing fuel cell development and infrastructure. Each (hydrogen fueling) station costs 5 to 6 million dollars to build and Japan plans to build 40 to 50 more stations in the next five years. These stations are also being built in California, Germany, and South Korea.
Even though hydrogen fuel cars do not emit carbon pollution, they do produce water as a byproduct. This is a result of hydrogen fuel and oxygen flowing over the fuel cell stack to produce electricity to run the motor. Currently, the cost of a hydrogen fuel cell car is about one million dollars, so Japan still a ways to go before it’s deemed “affordable”, for non-millionaires.
I believe hydrogen cars are the best option for a long term sustainable car. Electric cars don’t the range and hybrids still depend partially on oil, so it better serves as a transitional car. Hydrogen fuel cell cars would stop automobile carbon emissions, so carbon footprints of countries would become smaller leaving future generations better off.
--Melanie Dorsett

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The wrong subsidy

(This is the first article for the final quiz.)

Taxes help governments internalize negative externalities, and a subsidy can help internalize a positive externality. Solar energy creates positive externalities by limiting a country's dependence on outside sources and by minimizing the pollution usually associated with energy production. Thus, subsidies can be an appropriate way to encourage the development of solar energy.

However, just as there is an optimal tax, there is also an optimal subsidy. Not enough subsidy and you won't get as much extra solar energy as you'd like, while with too much subsidy you get more than is best. Sometimes too much of a good thing is great, but in Spain they had a subsidy for solar power that was so high that they even low quality plants were making a profit. Since those plants weren't sustainable, the Spanish government eventually had to decrease the subsidy, which led to many of the plants closing. Full story here.

End of material for quiz

Articles from this point back through the January article that says it's the beginning are all fair game for the quiz. Everything later than this post will be on the next quiz.

New stormwater rules challenge developers

Stormwater is the Chesapeake Bay’s top leading source of pollution. Run-off contributes 17% of total polluting phosphorous, 11% of the nitrogen, and 9% of the sediment pollution reaching the bay. Stormwater is an important concern because the water goes untreated. In this article, Lara Lutz describes how developers in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania are faced with the challenge of complying with the new stormwater rules covering development sites. The Stormwater Management Act of 2007 set Federal pollution limits for runoff, also called Total Maximum Daily Loads. In January the EPA announced plans to write federal stormwater regulations for the Bay’s watershed. Because these ideas and developmental issues are new, no one really has an idea if these new rules will increase budget prices. Many developers and local governments have delayed action because of these price concerns.

A new design that engineers have come up with is called an Environmental Site Design. ESD’s capture stormwater on-site rather than water making its way through gutters and curbs. In Maryland, new development sites with ESD’s should capture and absorb 100% of stormwater. Some studies have been done where ESD’s are present to show how costly the design is to implement. In 1997 Delaware did a study and the results were that ESD’s often save money. In 2007, EPA compared 17 sites nationwide and found that ESD’s raised costs in a few areas but the vast majority cut costs 15-18%. In 2008, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found that ESD costs were comparable to traditional systems.

--Rachel Brauer

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Taxing the wind

This article is about a debate in Wyoming where the current governor, Dave Freudenthal, has proposed an excise tax on wind energy production in the state. Wyoming is known for its strong, gusty winds, making it a popular state for wind energy. In fact, according to the article, it is the eighth windiest state in the country, and it is 12th in the nation for most wind power installations. The excise tax proposed would consist of $1-per-megawatt-hour tax on any wind energy produced in Wyoming. This would yield the state and counties a revenue of around $4 million per year, which would be split 40-60 between them.
The governor and other supporters of this proposition believe that it is time for the people backing wind farms and turbines in Wyoming to pay their share for external costs generated from the wind energy production. Though they may believe it is important for the producers to pay their “fair share,” people who are against the tax have a point when they say the tax will make Wyoming an “unfriendly state for wind energy.” There are many competitors (i.e. surrounding states that offer benefits to wind companies for coming into the state including tax exemptions and breaks) that might steal away all of Wyoming’s wind energy companies if this tax goes into effect too quickly. If the tax does get implemented, and there are definitely benefits for it being passed as law, I think it should be gradually introduced. Wyoming will be able to keep their wind companies and still get the money they feel they deserve to balance the costs of having wind energy as a large industry in the state. They just might have to introduce it at a lower rate than they would like when it first comes into play.
--Bridey Gallagher

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Can recycling be a bad business?

Can recycling be bad business? On February 9th, 2010 Matthai Kuruvila wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle describing how the City of Berkley, California had recently reported a $10 million deficit and that $4 million of it was directly due to a decline in refuse revenues. The decline in these revenues is primarily due to the absence of that crucial market component: “demand."

The City of Berkeley charges only for refuse collection; it does not charge its citizens for the collection of recyclables. Berkley’s residents have increased their recycling and composting efforts and since either of these activities reduces the amount of material that is considered waste and subsequently hauled away for a fee, this double whammy has had a huge impact. The amount of waste that has been diverted from Berkeley’s landfills has increased by 8% and the city’s diversion rate is now second only to that of San Francisco’s stellar 72%. The growing---or shrinking depending on which perspective you choose---garbage problem is also traced back to the struggling economy. An economy in decline simply doesn’t generate the amount of waste that a very active and prosperous one does. Kuruvila points out that, in particular, the collapse of the construction industry has decreased refuse collection revenues by 15 percent. The many other struggling businesses account for an additional 15 percent.

I found this article to be unsettlingly ironic, a conundrum as it were, especially in this day and age of ‘going green’ and “recycling”. Now it seems as though we actually want the garbage for the revenue, need it in fact, but we don’t want the negative environmental impact. I agree with the importance of encouraging recycling and I applaud Berkley’s recent decision to increase the rates charged for waste pickup. As counterproductive as it might seem, Berkley may also have to consider the charging of fees to haul away the recyclables and reducing the frequency of refuse pickup. Hopefully such actions will raise the funds needed to acquire new technologies and help the city recycle more materials “for profit”. It seems that in today’s world, even trash is worth money.
--Jonathan Chopper