July 24, 2010

More on energy subsidies and natural gas

What does the future hold for us?

New clean air and water regulations may kick in next year to make coal-burning plants less attractive. T. Boone Pickens may get more 18-wheelers to switch from diesel to natural gas, and we may even see a new interest in nuclear energy. But the fact remains that renewable energy growth is moving at a snail’s pace, as larger subsidies to fossil fuels continue.

Bill Johnson, CEO of Progress Energy that supplies electricity in Florida and the Carolinas, says, “There’s a series of regulations to coal coming under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. If you look at the economic impact of those in the next five years, it’s staggering. It’s hundreds of billions of dollars. We’ve decided in advance we’re going to shut down a lot of old coal plants to avoid those regulations. And we are not going to invest in new coal until we have economically viable carbon sequestration technology. At the moment, for new generation, we would favor natural gas in the short term and nuclear in the long term.” I hope that carbon sequestration technology can get off the drawing board and become economically viable for ODEC if the coal-burning plant in Surry County, Virginia, moves forward.

India recently announced that it was removing price controls on gasoline and diesel. What is the U.S. doing? One version of President Obama’s 2011 budget, proposed before the gulf spill, would eliminate annual tax breaks totaling $4 billion for oil and gas companies. As you might expect, those companies spent $340 million on lobbying in the last two years to block these changes. Some argue that cutting these subsidies would result in less production and job losses. Yet we now know (from the BP disaster) that oil companies continue to rack up huge profits.

Taxpayer subsidies to coal, oil, and gas companies should be a political no-brainer during this era of budget deficits. I still cringe a bit about T. Boone Pickens’ initiative to get the eight million 18-wheelers on our highways off diesel and using natural gas. The Pickens Plan, with an admirable goal of getting us off the 21 million barrels of OPEC oil we import daily, focuses on tax breaks for natural-gas-powered vehicles and fueling stations.

Yes, natural gas is cheaper and cleaner—and we have a lot of it under us in the Marcellus Shale (perhaps 500 trillion cubic feet)—but it now has the reputation of fouling a lot of our water during the “fracking” process that gets it out of the earth. We can’t keep fracturing the shale and other rocks by injecting toxic chemicals at high pressure into the ground to access the gas trapped under it. The fracking companies promise these toxic chemicals are so diluted (about fourteen one-hundredths of one percent) that they will not harm our water, but BP’s promises are still fresh in our suspecting minds. On July 23, 2010, an explosion occurred in Indiana Twp., Allegheny County, PA, at a shallow, non-Marcellus Shale oil well, claiming the lives of two workers.

A recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicts Marcellus could yield as much as 8 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day by 2030. A May 2010 report from the Pennsylvania State University projects that number could exceed 13.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day by 2020 and create nearly 200,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania. Nothing to sneeze at.

One of my favorite church hymns, “Though the mountains may fall, and the hills turn to dust” now makes me envision the photos of mountaintop removal coal mining. There has to be a better way for the human race to light, cool, and heat their world. The Obama administration is now looking at curtailing a major mountaintop mining project in West Virginia that could signal a shift in policy. Mountains cannot heal themselves, and they can turn to dust.

Coal, oil, and natural gas frequently abide in the same location. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently announced that he will open 1.8 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve in northern Alaska (set aside by President Warren Harding in 1923 as a source of oil for the Navy in times of crisis) to oil and gas leasing. Will his promise to protect the habitats of caribou and migratory birds through “environmentally responsible development” be kept? When the new lease sale goes through in August, more than 20 percent of the reserve will be open for development. I’d sleep better if he’d promise to proceed slowly in this reserve since there’s a lot of coal up there too. As we’ve seen, one oil drilling mistake can be a huge one.

Turn the clean energy switch to “OFF”

Clean energy legislation again eludes us.

It now looks like substantive clean energy bill may not emerge from Congress this year. Too bad, because our utilities will not have to derive a significant percentage of their power from renewable sources, nor cap emissions from power plants. Next-generation technologies may indeed come from our grandchildren.

A “light switch tax” was the catchy phrase that Senator Lisa Murkowski (R: Alaska) used to oppose the proposed clean energy legislation that would focus on power companies. She was afraid that electric utilities would retaliate by jacking up our prices—at a time when a lot of Americans are struggling financially. There was bipartisan opposition too. Jay Rockefeller (D: W VA) said, “I don’t want EPA turning out the lights on America. . . You can’t run this country without coal. I am for all alternative fuels … but you add them all up, nobody can make the point you can do any of this without coal.”

Unfortunately, coal will be a part of the necessary energy mix in America’s future, and I can understand these concerns. But there’s too little focus on the role of subsidies for fossil fuels. They enjoy a vast array of $550 billion worth of tax breaks and subsidies worldwide. That’s “price control” but in the wrong direction—when we are, at the same time, asked to conserve. Even the true cost of a gallon of gasoline is nowhere near the price at the pump, but from $6 to $15 more when you add subsidies.

The coal industry has never loudly proclaimed to the public that they have received, and continue to receive, hefty subsidies and tax credits to produce and burn coal—subsidies that reduce our true electricity costs. They do nothing to encourage us to slow down our electric meters that are spinning out of control in this super hot weather along the East Coast. What incentive do most folks have to set that AC thermostat at 78 degrees and turn on the ceiling fans when electricity costs are kept artificially low?

The only subsidies most Americans heard about recently are the stimulus funds targeted to wind and solar energy. So these folks falsely argue that renewable industries are growing (however slowly) based on costs to taxpayers. In reality, the over-investment in oil and gas drilling has been at the expense of other parts of the economy—especially renewable energy industries and clean-energy jobs. We have been padding the bank accounts of oil, gas, and coal company CEOs, while encouraging the continued use of fossil fuels.

In the current political climate of partisan bickering, we’re not getting much help for our environment. 2010 brought us the 29 deaths from the Massey coal mine disaster in West Virginia and 2 more in Kentucky; 7 deaths at an oil refinery explosion in Washington state; a Chinese coal freighter crashing into the Great Barrier Reef and another oil spill in China; and BP’s continuing saga in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a sobering website from the U.S. Mine Rescue Association at http://www.usmra.com/accidents.htm  that lists miners’ deaths from mine fires, explosions, cave-ins, asphyxiation, etc. Now that’s a different sort of “light bulb tax”—on lives.

The real bottom line is that we can’t keep blowing up mountain tops, fracturing our planet, opening up too many unspoiled ecosystems, or burning “dirty coal” to keep our lights on or run our cars. When the emerging wind and solar energy industries receive the long-lasting subsidies that the fossil fuel industry have received, we’ll finally enjoy renewable energy.

July 19, 2010

Jellyfish are better than a crystal ball

Chrysaora quinquecirrha?

Sure, that's easy for you to say! I just say "sea nettles" and "OUCH"!

There's now a super cool website from NOAA to warn you about the probability of jellyfish before you jump into Chesapeake waterways. The nasty little critter named above (just how many syllables is that?) is whitish in color (sometimes with maroon spots) and is the most abundant jellyfish found in the Bay and tidal tributaries. They thrive in the Chesapeake Bay like no other place on earth because the salinity varies from 10 to 20 parts per thousand. How did we get to be so lucky?

I visited the National Aquarium in Baltimore last year, but I remember only a few things from their humongous jellyfish exhibit, Jellies Invasion: Oceans Out of Balance: 1) that jellyfish, like insects, will "inherit the earth" because they continue to thrive no matter what we do to their habitat, and 2) jellyfish populations are actually increasing and "swarming" into fishermen's nets, especially in the Black Sea.

Near the Northern Neck of Virginia where we sail frequently, on the Rappahannock River and on the southern Potomac River, I have about a 70 percent chance of meeting one of these guys if I jump in to cool off. Guess we'll need to venture farther north to fresh water where the critters don't visit. I've always loved the Sassafras and Bohemia Rivers anyway.

For more info on sea nettles, click here.

July 15, 2010

Addicted to air-conditioning?

Does AC really use up to one fifth of our country's energy?

I haven't yet read Losing Our Cool by Stan Cox, but that's the claim he makes. Wow! If true, it's really shocking. I'll admit that I'm now dependent on AC--especially at night--and can't imagine how I tolerated those sweaty humid nights as a child, with big fans pulling in the hot humid air.

My past postings about the proposed coal burning power plant across the James River show where I stand on that. The emissions into both our air and our water are my biggest concern. The Chesapeake watershed just cannot handle any more threats. "Clean coal" just does NOT exist--yet.

But coal-burning power plants elsewhere in our electric grid keep my AC humming. If only more wind and solar energy was contributing to our overall demand for energy, I'd feel less guilty with the AC pumping out that cool air into our home. I'm not suggesting that we do without AC, but be reasonable.

We keep our thermostat at 78 degrees during the day, but like it at 76 degrees at night--with ceiling fans going almost all day and night. There is absolutely no excuse to chill your home--or stores--cooler than 75 degrees--once you've lowered the humidity. I know this may conjure up memories of Jimmy Carter telling Americans to put on a sweater and turn down the heat in winter, but I'll stick to that advice.

Cox says, “Air conditioning… generates more than 300 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. This is the same amount of CO2 that would be produced if every household in the country bought an additional vehicle and drove it an average 7,000 miles a year." During these last few weeks of horrendous heat in Virginia, that's still alarming.

July 13, 2010

Skin deep?????

Which lipsticks and nail polishes are the safest?

Heard about the study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics a few years ago that  found that 20 of the top 33 top brand name lipsticks had detectable levels of lead—even though you won’t see “lead” on their labels? Read their "Poison Kiss" report for some information that just might make you swear off lipstick. Some lipsticks are now labeled “lead-free,” but you can look for others at Environmental Working Group’s http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ .

There are also petroleum-based waxes and synthetic colors in a lot of them. The FDA website says that lead in lipstick is not a safety concern because “Lipstick, as a product intended for topical use, is only ingested incidentally and in very small quantities.” Hmmm. Mine almost disappears during a meal, but I don’t think it’s evaporating.

This alarming figure in Glamour magazine should get your attention too: “Women inadvertently (but harmlessly) eat about 4 lbs of lipstick in a lifetime.” Yuck, definitely not on my diet. Plus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “no safe blood lead level has been identified,” and the agency recommends keeping your children away from lipstick—easier said than done. Pregnant women are also particularly vulnerable to lead exposure because lead easily crosses the placenta and enters the fetal brain where it can interfere with normal development.

If that's not enough, the FDA offers a a nifty “Color Additive Status List” to show you what the FDA has discovered about a bunch of artificial colors.

What about nail polish?  Some nail polish manufacturers such as OPI, Orly, and Sally Hansen have reformulated their products, leaving out the so-called toxic trio of formaldehyde, toluene and, dibutyl phthalate (DBP). Unfortunately, many polishes still contain these hazardous chemicals.

What about shampoo? I've used Herbal Essences for years. Then I heard last March that P&G would reformulate it to reduce levels of the carcinogenic contaminant 1,4-dioxane. I still have a few bottles stockpiled, but I'm switching to a safer brand soon. I tried Burt's Bees shampoo because it contained no sulfates, parabens, phthalates, or petrochemicals. Then checked it out on the EWG's website. Oh no, it contains some suspect chemicals too?? Did you know that Clorox Company bought Burt's Bees a few years ago? Hmmm.

July 7, 2010

Sunscreens can be "green"

Since the sun was REALLY strong today and temps in the 100 degree range, I read the labels on the googads of sunscreens around our home. Then I checked them all at the Environmental Working Group's website. They are the poohbahs of chemical information that all of us should check out BEFORE we go shopping--for sunscreen, makeup, shampoo, moisturizer, etc.

Then I saw The Daily Green's "best natural sunscreens" website. Way to go!

Now I need to buy some of the good stuff that has no PABA or oxybenzone. Better late than never.