Monday, May 31, 2010

Early list of spill impacts

No fix in sight, and Reuters says there has already been serious damage to Louisiana's $2.4 billion seafood industry, which employs 27,000 people. 75% of the gulf fishery is apparently still open for fishing, but that part is more expensive to access and already "hundreds of thousands" of recreational and commercial fishers are affected. Wildlife is also increasingly affected, and tourism is way down. 20% of Florida's economy is tourism, and while things are ok there now, it won't take a lot of oil washing up before the million people employed in the sector start taking a serious hit.

While all of these are very serious concerns, I'm also nervous about the other environmental ramifications of the underwaters plumes of oil. The known impact of that is an expanse of hypoxia, which afflicts the Chesapeake to varying degrees every year (due in part to algae blooms from fertilizer runoff). It's bad enough on a relatively small scale- I'm not looking forward to seeing what that means on a larger one!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Interest heating up in natural gas market

Exxon Mobil bought XTO energy late last year, and now Royal Dutch Shell, another big operator, is investing more in US-based natural gas production by dropping $4.7 billion to pick up East Resources, an extractor of natural gas in the Northeast and in the Rockies. As I've said before, I like the investment in domestic production, and I'll like it more after the EPA has done a more thorough job of setting standards for "fracking," the environmentally damaging process of gas extraction. It seems to be better than the alternatives, but I'm sure that it can be made safer and more efficient with research.

Costs of Gulf oil spill hurting Marylanders already

I'm not sure how many Marylanders realize that a lot of the seafood they buy at crab shacks and restaurants comes from the south, but they're going to be learning something about where their food comes from this weekend and on into the future as prices climb for crabs, shrimp, and oysters. New scarcity makes food expensive, and even the successful growth of the Chesapeake crab industry fostered by the short-term bans isn't going to open things up wide enough to limit our losses. Somehow we tend to remember things that affect our wallets- hopefully some people will take the next step and remember the importance of markets as well as of the environment!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chicken processors fined

A chicken processor in England was fined over $100,000 for excessive pollution. Good thing the chicken industry here is much cleaner!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Maryland oyster sanctuaries to grow

As Rand Paul brings the debate between government and private ownership back to the fore, the Maryland state government is making its own statement by calling for increased sanctuaries to be dedicated to oyster cultivation. Oysters clean the bay as well as serving as dinner, and the hope is that by allowing some private citizens to invest in aquaculture, the whole Bay will reap the benefits. Of course, private harvesters are unhappy that some land, and particularly some high quality existing oyster beds, will be put off limits by the new regulations, but the hope is that short-term pain will produce long-term gain. It worked for stripers and just this past year it seems to have worked for crabs, so here's hoping that oysters too will benefit!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Agricultural subsidies hurting the poor

It's always tough to say how agricultural subsidies will pan out with respect to the poor. After all, the poorest people are usually in rural areas, often subsistence farmers. If they're totally subsistence farmers, they don't care about the price of the goods they produce, but if they're doing any selling they need high prices. Price supports keep prices artificially high in the subsidizing country, but they can lead to gluts which are sometimes dumped on developing countries, killing their prices. Thus, subsidies may or may not help the rural poor.

On the other hand, the urban poor have to buy food. Lower prices unambiguously help them, so price supports hurt.

Weighing all the evidence, this extended blog post argues that price distortions and trade barriers on balance hurt the poor. Their simulations show that without the barriers to trade, poverty would drop by 3%. It's a complicated picture, but it makes sense!

Less offshore drilling means...

...more reliance on the Canadian oil sands, among other things. Today's NYT reports that the tar sands could be over 1/3 of US imports by 2030. Hopefully by 2030 increased reliance on domestic natural gas will cut demand for imported oil so that number won't be as high as it would be today, but we're still talking a considerable amount of fuel. While terrestrial sources don't come with the same type of risks as offshore platforms, the oil sands have plenty of negative environmental consequences as it is. Environmental groups note that mining and processing the tar into usable oil is energy and water-intensive, contributes to some serious deforestation, and produces large amounts of pretty nasty waste. Others point out that Venezuelan and Mexican oil similarly require large amounts of processing, making them not much better environmentally.

As a side note, the article also quotes Daniel Yergin, who appears on one of the homeworks for this class. Hm, how can I work him in again?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Carbon Capture: Craziness!

An editorial in today's NYT opposes carbon capture and sequestration. That's not too surprising: I've heard lots of people say that it's just a sop to the coal industry, and that's probably true. However, coal forms a huge part of our current energy infrastructure, and it'd be pretty expensive to change, so giving ourselves some time to make the shift by implementing carbon capture might be a good idea. The writer gives several interesting reasons why carbon capture isn't a good idea. First, he says that it cuts energy production at plants. Second, he says we'll need 23000 miles of taxpayer-purchased pipelines to carry the waste. Finally, we'll need a really big hole in the ground, something that can take up to "the contents of 41 oil supertankers each day, 365 days of the year." That's a lot of muck!

The pipelines don't seem like such a big deal- add a bit more to the huge amount of annual government spending and who will notice? I'd have to ask a geologist to find out about underground space available, but the first one seems interesting. While this buys time for coal-based energy production, it's going to raise the cost per kilowatt hour produced, which makes coal that much less attractive as a source. Even this stopgap measure looks to be a step down the road to a less coal-y future!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hay to clean the spill?

I'd heard that hair helps pick up oil- this NPR story about haircut trimmings in transvestites' old nylons caught my attention- but apparently hay works just as well. Here's a cool video from the guys.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Food prices dropping

One criticism of corn ethanol is that using our fields to grow fuel will drive up the cost of food. Two years ago when food prices jumped, many were quick to point a finger at the rapidly developing corn ethanol industry. Today, though, the share of the crop dedicated to ethanol continues to climb but US & global production of wheat and corn is also climbing, so the net effect on food prices should be negative. I'm not a fan of corn ethanol but this particular fear seems overblown, at least this year when production is so high.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

GMO benefits fading

Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops let farmers produce more by enhancing the effectiveness of herbicides. Crops were created that could withstand the chemicals so that spraying would efficiently kill the weeds and only the weeds. Well, just as antibiotics are running into more and more resistant bacteria, herbicides too are starting to meet their match, as "superweeds" show up that can tolerate being sprayed. An example given in this article is pigweed, which can grow up to 3 inches a day and is strong enough to damage farm equipment.

It used to be that one reason farmers plowed in the spring was to plow under the weeds that had grown up on land over the winter and in early spring. Plowing cleared the land and made it ready for the new crop to be planted. Recently, no-till planting techniques have come into vogue, which involve not plowing to start the season but just killing all of the weeds with herbicides and then injecting seeds into the soil using special equipment. This cuts erosion and saves the energy required for plowing. (Some also say that it fights climate change by storing carbon, but some of my research shows those benefits are minimal.) If herbicides don't work as well, it's back to the plow. That is more expensive for farmers, and food prices might rise. It also might increase soil erosion. More fuel use, but less herbicide application: guess that's the short-term outlook, at least!

Monday, May 3, 2010

The future of ethanol

A bit of good news to counter the gloom and doom that the expanding oil slick down South is spreading across the land (and water): an article in today's Baltimore Sun reminds us that the the future is an exciting one for biofuels. University of Maryland researchers are working on improving the technique used to create cellulosic ethanol from sources such as poplar trees. This should be much more efficient than corn ethanol, and it shouldn't compete with food crops. In as little as 10 years, researchers hope we'll be getting an appreciable share of our auto fuel from plants. I have to think that the Louisiana shrimp and oysters would approve.

***This article marks the end of the material on the blog quiz.***