BP’s Big Problems
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BP calls itself "Beyond Petroleum" and won support from some environmentalists for its progressive stance on global warming and a commitment to alternative energy. But that was before an oil spill, leaky pipelines and serious safety issues arose. Living on Earth's Bruce Gellerman talks with BP official Ronnie Chappell about the apparent divide between the company's image and actions. (05:30)
Problems Underground/ Julie Grant
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Although we don’t pay them much attention, when sewer systems fail the consequences are far worse than the smell might indicate. Julie Grant of WKSU in Kent, Ohio, goes underground to find out what’s wrong with our nation’s sewage systems. (06:30)
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You may have heard that California recently passed the nation's first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other businesses. But you may not have heard of companion legislation that would force all western producers who want to sell electricity to California to limit their carbon dioxide as well. (05:30)
High Court and Climate Change/ Jeff Young
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The nation’s capital has been pretty quiet on climate change. But that will change soon as the Supreme Court hears a case that could force the regulation of greenhouse gasses. Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young reports that the case is making for some strange bedfellows with some electric companies arguing in favor of regulation. (05:30)
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Seth Zuckerman recently wanted to shed some pounds. But instead of trying to cut carbs, he cut his carbon dioxide output. Seth Zuckerman wrote an article about it for Sierra magazine and tells host Bruce Gellerman about the trials and tribulations of regulating his carbon footprint. (06:00)
Emerging Science Note/Plasma Incinerator/ Jennifer Percy
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What good can come out of 3,000 tons of trash? With new technology, about 160 megawatts of electricity. Jen Percy reports. (01:30)
Sunny Prospects for Solar/ Ingrid Lobet
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The demand for solar power in the U.S. and worldwide is rising. Factories that make solar silicon are working hard to keep up. That’s keeping the price high for homeowners, but installers say their phones keep ringing with new requests. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports on the sunny outlook for the solar industry. (07:45)
What, Me Worry?
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Worried about the state of the environment and our planet’s future? This "eco-anxiety" can turn a conscientious citizen into a nervous wreck. Plenty magazine contributor Liz Galst discusses her bout of eco-angst with host Bruce Gellerman and "eco-therapist" Linda Buzzell-Saltzman. (08:00)
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUEST: Linda Buzzell-Saltzman , Ralph Cavanagh, Liz Galst, Seth Zuckerman
REPORTER: Ingrid Lobet, Jeff Young
SCIENCE NOTE: Jen Percy
GELLERMAN: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.
GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. After spending millions on shining its corporate image as an eco do-gooder, energy company BP is now paying the price for harming the environment. Congress holds hearings and lawmakers shake their fingers.
BARTON: Shame, shame, shame.
GELLERMAN: Oil spills, corroded pipelines, allegations of price-fixing. BP admits its got problems but says don’t be so quick to judge.
CHAPPELL: We’re going to focus on getting our operations right and let our actions speak on our behalf.
GELLERMAN: Also, eco-anxiety: is worrying about the environment keeping you awake at night?
GRAY: Bovine growth hormones in milk, lead in my water! What’s next?
Fertilizer in my beer?
TORGRIMSON: I don’t even know what toilet paper to buy anymore!
GELLERMAN: The doctor is in. An eco-therapist says, “Get off the couch and spring into action.” That and more, this week on Living on Earth – stick around.
[MUSIC: Boards of Canada “Zoetrope” from ‘In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ (Warp Records – 2000)]
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
BP, the world’s second largest oil company, used to be called British Petroleum. But six years ago, it re-branded itself with a new image and a new name: BP, casting itself as an environmentally friendly company. Maybe you’ve seen their TV ads. They present BP as confronting environmental issues head-on.
GELLERMAN: BP has invested heavily in solar and renewable fuels. And the company’s CEO was the first oil exec to acknowledge global warming. But recent events including a fatal refinery fire, allegations of price-fixing of propane, and a corroded pipeline in Alaska have raised questions about BP’s image and commitment to the environment. Here’s Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas taking the company to task.
BARTON: BP’s policies are as rusty as its pipelines. I am very concerned about the specific incident but I am even more concerned about BP’s corporate culture of seeming indifferent to safety and environmental issues. This comes from a company that prides itself – in their ads – on protecting the environment. Shame, shame, shame.
GELLERMAN: In a raft of hearings, Congress has posed tough questions to BP executives. We have our own questions which BP spokesperson Ronnie Chappell has agreed to answer. Mr. Chappell, thank you very much.
CHAPPELL: Thanks for having me on.
GELLERMAN: You know, I’m reminded of what P. T. Barnum once said about publicity, “It’s all good as long as you spell my name right.” Um you’ve got some awful publicity lately. They’ve spelled your name right, though.
CHAPPELL: Well, we have had a very difficult 18 months beginning back in March of 2005 with what was the worst tragedy in BP’s history. Fifteen people died, hundreds more injured in a refinery fire. In March of this year we experienced a significant spill on the North Slope in Alaska. And in August we shut down the Prudhoe Bay oil field because we were not confident of the condition of a small section of pipeline. So we understand that people have questions and concern about how we’re operating, and we’re in action to address them.
CHAPPELL: Well, actually it had been inspected many times over the years, but we had not used maintenance pigs to clean the line on a routine basis and we hadn’t used smart pigs. But to say that we…
GELLERMAN: These smart pigs, these are kind of devices that travel through, they’re like robots that travel through the pipeline and inspect it.
CHAPPELL: Right. But there are lots of other ways to inspect a pipe and we were doing ultrasonic inspecting of the line on a frequent basis. Checking various points along the line where we would have expected corrosion to occur. We were using huge amounts of corrosion inhibitor injected at the well heads and we were monitoring corrosion coupons. But, you know, in retrospect there was a gap in our program and we’re going to fix it.
WOOLLAM: Mr. Chairman, based upon the advice of council, I respectfully will not answer questions based upon my right under the fifth amendment to the United States Constitution.
GELLERMAN: So, Mr. Chappell, why would BP’s corrosion expert take the fifth instead of just answering the question?
CHAPPELL: I’m not going to speak for Mr. Woollam. I would point out that Steve Marshall, president of our business in Alaska, was there and answered every question. Our chairman and president for BP in America was also there. We’re cooperating with the committee. We’re cooperating with the DOT and we’re answering questions. Mr. Woollam has a right to invoke his constitutional right and he did and I think it’s up to him to explain that decision. We encouraged him to cooperate.
GELLERMAN: Here you’ve got your company, BP, being presented to the public as so environmentally concerned, and yet you’ve had all these problems. Doesn’t it ring a little hollow now?
CHAPPELL: I think we should be judged on our actions and not on our words. And if you look at what we did in Alaska. We shut down a pipeline in order to prevent a significant spill. We put the environment before production. If you look at what we’re doing in the area of alternative energy, we’ll spend 8 billion dollars over the next 10 years. We operate one of the largest solar operations in the world. We’re making heavy investments in wind. We have a plan for building a power plant in Southern California that will generate electricity from hydrogen fuel.
GELLERMAN: What about repairing your image in terms of publicity?
CHAPPELL: We’re going to focus on getting our operations right, and let our actions speak on our behalf.
GELLERMAN: Ronnie Chappell is spokesperson for BP. Mr. Chappell, thank you very much.
CHAPPELL: Thank you.
- U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on BP pipeline problems
- U.S. Senate Energy committee hearing on BP pipelines
- BP on Alaska pipeline corrosion
- BP on Texas City "incident"
[MUSIC: Final Fantasy “Many Lives” from ‘He Poos Clouds’ (Tomlab – 2006)]
GELLERMAN: Out of sight, out of mind might work for many things, but not the nation’s aging sewer systems. They weren’t built to handle the amount of sewage and storm water that’s going in them. Too often raw waste winds up in lakes and rivers, and sometimes in the water we drink. The federal government has a loan program to help local municipalities clean up their act, but now the Bush administration wants to trim the funds. From member station WKSU in Ohio, Julie Grant reports.
GRANT: When you walk over a manhole cover on street, you might never imagine the world that exists beneath.
GRANT: We are in a metal man cage - being dropped by crane down into a brand new sewer on the southwest side of Cleveland. The cage is being slowly lowered down a huge vertical shaft. We’re carrying heavy emergency air packs and wearing harnesses, in case they need to pull us out. Daylight fades to darkness, the air cools, and we feel the pungent sewer gas in our eyes, noses, and through our pores. Smooth concrete walls surround us.
GREENLAND: The walls of this pipe and these dropshafts are a good 12-inch thick of concrete, reinforced.
GRANT: Frank Greenland is capital projects director for the Northeast Ohio regional sewer district. Some of the district’s sewers are more than 100 years-old, and made of hand laid brick that’s cracking. He calls the thick new concrete walls of shaft 11”beautiful.”
We touch down about 240 feet underground and stand in a concrete chamber. This is where two tunnels, each 20 feet wide, join together. We’re wearing rubber boots. There’s a few inches of flowing sewage at our feet. It’s headed two and a half miles downstream to a wastewater treatment plant. Greenland says the new sewers are so big because they do more than just transport: they also provide a million gallons of storage.
GREENLAND: We need capacity to store flow. Now we have it. We just finished this project, and we’re getting ready to finish another one upstream of this area in two more years, so now we have storage capacity we didn’t have that the existing old combined sewer system didn’t have in the past.
GRANT: More than 700 cities, most in the Midwest and Northeast, have combined sewer systems like this one. They mix waste from our toilets with runoff from rooftops and streets all in the same tunnel before sending it on to treatment plants. Newer systems usually separate the two. Greenland says newer cities only send the sewage to a plant for treatment.
GREENLAND: But that other, that wet weather component, would head off to the river or to the lake untreated. So combined sewers do a lot to provide treatment to the rain that falls in a typical year.
GRANT: But combined sewers run into problems when there is heavy rain. Before the new Mill Creek tunnel was bored a couple of years ago, water would overflow the sewers during heavy rains, pouring out smelly brown sewage into neighborhood streams.
GRANT: Now Greenland stands on a wooden boardwalk that overlooks Mill Creek and a waterfall in a new park. It would have been hard to even get close to the river a couple of years ago. Greenland points across the way to a bricked-up hole. It used to be sewer outlet.
GREENLAND: That’s the old head wall where there used to be a flap gate. It would pop up and overflows would come streaming out of there, down into this water hole.
GRANT: The US Environmental Protection Agency started mandating that sewer districts reduce combined sewage overflows a dozen years ago. It’s been expensive. The Mill Creek sewer project has so far cost 180 million dollars. And while it’s made a big difference in some areas, dozens of other neighborhoods in just this part of Ohio still see raw sewage overflows – some more than 80 times a year. The Regional Sewer district says it will cost 1.6 billion dollars to upgrade the rest of the system. In the early years after the Clean Water Act was passed, the EPA just gave out money for sewer upgrades. In the late 1980s, Congress changed that to a revolving loan program.
KEMERY: In my opinion, this is one of the most successful public sector financial assistance programs in history.
GRANT: Dale Kemery is a spokesperson for the U.S. EPA. He says the loan program has worked well because sewer districts can borrow money at low interest levels. As they pay the money back, they’re funding subsequent projects. But the Bush administration wants to cut the loan fund by a third in the coming year. Clean water advocates say it’s a trend toward phasing out the program. Ben Grumbles is EPA assistant administrator for water. He says the federal agency wants towns and counties to raise sewer bills to cover the costs.
GRUMBLES: We think the key to long-term sustainability is that utilities and systems are recovering the true value, the cost for the true value of the services they’re providing.
GRANT: In Northeast Ohio, the sewer district says that means they’ll need double-digit rate hikes every year for the next thirty years to pay for these required sewer upgrades. Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio says the US EPA should continue to chip in for local sewer projects.
VOINOVICH: This is federalism. There’s a certain level of responsibility on the federal government’s part, since they’ve put the mandates on the cities to do all these things, that they come up with some of the money to make it possible.
GRANT: Clean Water advocates say Congress created the Clean Water Act in 1972 because local governments weren’t preventing pollution in the rivers and lakes. One major impetus was the burning of this very river, the Cuyahoga. If Congress agrees to phase out the loan program, local ratepayers will fund some sewer upgrades. But local officials in many parts of the country fear the momentum for these water cleanup projects will be lost, because they’re so expensive, and they’re underground, where people can't see them. For Living on Earth, I’m Julie Grant in Kent, Ohio.
[MUSIC: Pram “Distant Islands” from ‘Dark Island’ (Merge – 2003)]
GELLERMAN: Coming up: Make way, weight watchers. Here come the carbo counters. Shedding those few extra pounds of carbon dioxide. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Prefuse 73 “Five Minutes Away” from ‘Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives’
(Warp Records – 2001)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is set to sign a landmark piece of legislation.
It would make the state the first in the nation to limit the amount of carbon dioxide that refineries, power plants, cement factories and other businesses can emit into the atmosphere. But there's another, less publicized piece of legislation also awaiting Mr. Schwarzenegger's signature. This bill would effectively extend the reach of California’s CO2 policy to neighboring states. With me to discuss this bill is Ralph Cavanagh. He’s co-director of energy policy at the environmental organization, The Natural Resources Defense Council. He's been closely watching this legislation.
CAVANAGH: Glad to be here.
GELLERMAN: So, exactly what does this bill do?
CAVANAGH: This bill establishes a policy for power plants that want long-term contracts with California utilities. It says basically that if you want Californians to pay for your power over the long haul you have to minimize your global warming pollution or at least you have to limit it to a level no greater than that of a typical efficient, modern, gas-fired power plant.
GELLERMAN: Well, I know, Ralph, if California were a country it would be what, the 12th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. How much of those gases are coming from power plants outside the state?
CAVANAGH: So, for about half of the global warming pollution associated with power generation meeting California’s electricity needs is coming from out of the state, half of the pollution.
GELLERMAN: So, I’m wondering what the effect of this might be. There are, what, dozens of coal fired power plants in the works on drawing boards. The United States is on the verge of a coal plant boom. If the Governor of California signs this could the state effectively influence how clean the next generation of coal fired plants are?
CAVANAGH: Certainly this could effect what the electricity generation sector looks like over the long term because remember what we are talking about is influencing investments in power generation that last for decades. Coal plants often live 60, 70 years or more.
And California’s ability to send a signal that it wants to place its long term bets on cleaner generation, and on energy efficiency, certainly could be influential not just in the West, but nationally, as other utilities move in the same direction. But California, here, is acting in its own enlightened self-interest. It’s not trying to impose a policy on others, it’s not trying to engage in some kind of altruistic gesture. It’s protecting its own customers from future costs of environmental regulation.
GELLERMAN: How would this bill help protect California from future costs?
CAVANAGH: What you see, if you see a giant new coal plant, one of the things you’re looking at is enormous exposure to future costs when federal regulations of global warming pollution lock-down. We don’t know exactly when that will happen, but it’s obvious that it’s going to come. It is only prudent for states to begin planning now to minimize cost of exposure to future regulatory action like that. And to make sure that if there are long-term investments that their customers are being called upon to make, that those investments are in a diversified and cleaner portfolio of electricity resources that minimizes costs associated with future regulation of global warming pollution. That’s what California’s doing, that’s what all states should be doing now.
GELLERMAN: I don’t think there’s any question that California can regulate its own greenhouse gas emissions, but I would assume that someone is going to look up and say you’re crossing state lines here, and that has nothing to do with what California wants.
CAVANAGH: But, again California is not crossing state lines in terms of the investments at issue here. California is simply saying that if you want us to pay for the power plant, here’s what we need to see in the power plant. That seems only reasonable. It is after all our money. If other states don’t want to follow those guidelines, they can obviously look for financing elsewhere. What we’re making sure is that our investments are prudently made in technologies that minimize reliability and financial risks to our California customers.
GELLERMAN: How difficult was it to pass this bill?
CAVANAGH: Well, this bill in fact has the support of California’s major utilities. We really aren’t breaking new ground with this bill. What the legislature is doing is embracing and establishing on a statewide basis a policy that was already well developed by our energy agencies.
And I’ll tell you, I think there is widespread interest in this in other Western states in particular because people understand there are real financial risks associated with global warming pollution going forward. Utilities across the West are starting to factor those risks directly into their own resource planning, utilities like PacificCorp in Utah and Oregon, the Idaho Power Company, Northwestern Energy in Montana. This is an idea that has broad support, and increasingly wide interest across the region. I don’t view this as a hugely controversial measure. I do view it as a very strong common sense effort to minimize financial costs and liability risks for California electricity users.
GELLERMAN: Ralph, how sure are you that Governor Schwarzenegger is going to sign this bill?
CAVANAGH: I’m very hopeful, but it’s the Governor’s call and he hasn’t said what he will do.
GELLERMAN: Ralph Cavanagh is co-director of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Ralph, thank you very much.
CAVANAGH: Sure, thank you.
GELLERMAN: While California has taken bold steps on climate change, Washington has been pretty quiet on the subject. Neither the Bush administration nor Congress have shown much interest in regulating the emissions linked to global warming. But now the issue is on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, the nation’s capital is heating up for a global warming showdown.
YOUNG: The case Supreme Court Justices will hear, Massachusetts versus the US Environmental Protection Agency asks a simple question: Does the EPA have authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions? Turns out, that little question is a very big deal.
BOOKBINDER: This is the most important environmental case the Supreme Court has ever had, period.
YOUNG: That’s Sierra Club lawyer David Bookbinder. Sierra, other environmental groups, and attorneys general for 12 states say the answer to that question is yes; EPA can use the Clean Air Act to treat global warming gases as pollutants. If the high court agrees, Bookbinder says, EPA must then address another question, one the agency has so far avoided.
BOOKBINDER: Do greenhouse gases threaten our climate? We think we know the answer to that.
YOUNG: Bookbinder says the overwhelming scientific data would compel EPA to do what Congress and the White House have resisted: regulate greenhouse gases from cars, power plants and other major sources. If Bookbinder sounds confident it’s partly because he has the support of four former EPA administrators. But not the current one. The Bush administration’s EPA says it lacks authority to act. When a lower court heard the case last year, EPA’s then-Chief for air issues, Jeff Holmstead, said controlling greenhouse gases would be such a big job that the agency would need explicit direction from Congress.
HOLMSTEAD: It’s a very big deal. Most of our transportation depends on fossil fuel. Most of our power generation depends on fossil fuel. If congress intended us to sort of change our society, they would have said that, and there’s nothing to indicate that anybody in congress ever thought the clean air act was designed to do that.
YOUNG: EPA won, despite a divided opinion in the lower court. With the case now headed for the Supreme Court, EPA declined an interview request and instead issued a short written statement, touting the Bush administration’s voluntary approach to global warming. That gets support from the heavy hitters in heavy industry--auto makers, manufacturers and most power plants—most, but not all. Two of the country’s top ten power companies—Entergy and Calpine—filed briefs with the high court in favor of regulating greenhouse gases. That’s a striking departure from the industry’s party line. Brent Dorsey directs Corporate Environmental Programs for Entergy, which is based in Louisiana.
DORSEY: Experts tell us they expect that the potential for global climate will produce more frequent and ferocious hurricanes which is not necessarily a good thing for us.
YOUNG: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita battered Entergy’s lines and customers last year. Dorsey says climate models showing rising seas and stronger storms look pretty grim for a Gulf coast business with its headquarters near sea level. And companies looking to invest in new power plants need to know what regulations will look like from year to year, and state to state. California will be the first, and northeastern states may be next, to control carbon dioxide emissions. Environmental attorney Richard Ayres, who represents California power company Calpine, says that could bring a patchwork quilt of state rules.
AYRES: And I think some companies are thinking this makes their life a lot more complicated than if they had one single regulatory system to deal with
YOUNG: Ayres adds up the power companies voicing some support for federal regulation and finds they have roughly a fifth of the U.S. generating capacity. He says it’s a major fault line emerging in the power industry position.
AYRES: I think that’s the beginning of the crumbling of the monolithic opposition that we’ve seen over the past 10 or 15 years to global warming legislation.
YOUNG: But industry attorney Scott Segal doesn’t see any rush of power companies joining the global warming bandwagon. He sees a few companies positioning for profit.
SEGAL: I don’t think it has to do with any form of sort of global belief structure, and I certainly hope it doesn’t emerge from a holier than thou attitude. I think it has to do with economics.
YOUNG: Segal is with the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power companies that mostly burn carbon-heavy coal. And Segal argues that the source of a company’s power likely determines its stance on regulation. Entergy and Calpine use mostly nuclear, hydro and natural gas—relatively low-carbon sources for electricity. Those companies could gain a competitive advantage if climate policy makes power from coal pricier. That’s something Segal warns against.
SEGAL: Carbon is a bet the economy proposition. I mean if we don’t get the regulation of carbon correct, that could cause severe, severe impacts for the U.S. economy.
YOUNG: All of which means the industry has high stakes riding on the high court’s climate decision.
For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young, in Washington.
- The Docket at the U.S. Supreme Court
- Brief from the California power company Calpine
- Link to pages supported by National Environmental Trust (NET)
- Appendix to the Petitioner’s brief
- Climatologist James Hansen’s brief
[MUSIC: GNAC “Tony Draco” from ‘A Rocket Girl Compilation’ (Rocket Girl - 2006)]
GELLERMAN: Massachusetts V. the U.S. EPA will likely be argued in December. You can read the briefs filed in the case by visiting Living on Earth online, at l-o-e dot org.
GELLERMAN: Seth Zuckerman, of Seattle Washington, recently went on a crash diet. He wanted to cut the carbs. Not carbohydrates, but carbon dioxide, those greenhouse gases partly responsible for global warming. So Seth got a personal trainer – sort of a carbon coach – to help him count his CO2 output, and find ways to cut back. Seth Zuckerman wrote about his experience in the current issue of Sierra magazine and he joins me from Seattle. Seth, welcome to Living on Earth.
ZUCKERMAN: Thanks for having me, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: So, Seth, you actually went on not one diet but three carbon dioxide diets.
ZUCKERMAN: That’s right. The first week I was trying to get my carbon dioxide emissions to about 122 pounds per day, which is the US average. And in the second week to the world average of 24 pounds per day of carbon dioxide, which is what the average person in the world emits. And finally, I was trying to get them down to 9 pounds per day of carbon dioxide, which is my share of what the earth’s systems of soil, forest, and ocean can absorb on our behalf.
GELLERMAN: How much carbon dioxide were you producing before you went on the first diet?
ZUCKERMAN: It was probably on the order of about 40 pounds per day of carbon dioxide. It was a time when I wasn’t counting every pound as I did once I started to go on the diet. And so, it actually took some effort to get my consumption up to the range of the average American.
GELLERMAN: Really, what’d you have to do?
ZUCKERMAN: Well, one of the first things I realized was that if I didn’t use more gasoline there’d be no way I’d be on par with the average American. So, I rented an SUV, and for the errands that I had to do around town or in the Seattle metro area I just drove everywhere. And it made a huge difference compared to what I was driving at the time.
GELLERMAN: How much extra carbon dioxide were you producing with that SUV?
ZUCKERMAN: That brought my carbon dioxide emissions up by at least 10 pounds a day, no question. And it depended how much driving I actually had to do. There was another time when we just used our own car, which is a relatively fuel-efficient VW Golf, and we just traveled further. So, it was a matter of getting out of town. Loading up the car with the kayak, taking the ferry, which burns diesel like there’s no tomorrow. So, either driving farther or driving less efficiently seemed to be one of the key factors.
GELLERMAN: Did you ever figure out how much one gallon of gasoline was producing in terms of carbon dioxide?
ZUCKERMAN: It’s between 19 and 20 pounds of carbon dioxide for each gallon.
GELLERMAN: Seth, admit it. Wasn’t if fun driving the SUV?
ZUCKERMAN: It was a different experience. I had a much better view crossing Lake Washington with that extra foot or so under my bum. And it wasn’t so much that the SUV itself was fun, but not having to feel any limits was the most fun of all. Realizing that my objective wasn’t to conserve, which is so often my mindset, my objective was to consume.
GELLERMAN: But you really had to slim down that second week. You went from 122 pounds a day of carbon dioxide to what, 24, the world average?
ZUCKERMAN: That was the objective, right. So it meant pretty much the diametric opposite. Instead of trading my VW Gulf for an SUV, I had to trade it for a bicycle. I had to take that and the bus when I was going places. We had to save up. We were going to take one car trip that week and we rented a Prius to do it. And we managed to keep our consumption down to 9 pounds of carbon dioxide each, by using that Prius. And you know as it happened, pulling out all of the stops, by the end of the week I found that I’d actually beaten that world average and gotten my consumption down 20 percent below. That was the equivalent of about a Mongolian’s fossil fuel use. And let me tell you, it was rough. I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t cold but I had to think about my fossil fuel use every moment of the day.
GELLERMAN: And then you really had to slim down to 9 pounds of carbon dioxide a day. How did you do that?
ZUCKERMAN: Well, what we realized, my carbon coach and I, was that there was no way I was going to make it down to 9 pounds a day, short of turning off all of the lights and the heat in the apartment building and fasting in a closet for a week. So instead my carbon coach suggested, why don’t we think about the structural changes it would take to get down, for me or anybody else, to get down to that level in this country. And those turned out to be structural changes in the efficiency standards in our cars. They turned out to be changes in the kind of electricity we produce.
GELLERMAN: But Seth, given the fact that you enjoyed that high-carb diet so much and it was so difficult to get low, um. I guess what I’m getting at here is that this lifestyle that Americans have enjoyed and do enjoy is not without its rewards. It’s a little bit like, you know, eating candy.
ZUCKERMAN: You know, and you can’t stop with just one. When I was doing this project, after finishing the first high-carbon week, I didn’t really want it to end. I just said, well, I just kept putting off the low carbon diet. I’ll start the diet next Tuesday. Oh, well that’s not really convenient. We have to go see this friend who lives across town. Let’s wait just another couple of days. And it was hard to give up, this idea of wanting to use more. It brought home to me that unless there is some really compelling reason to do it, it is going to be really hard for me or any of the rest of us to make the changes it’ll take to keep ourselves from warping the climate any farther.
GELLERMAN: Seth Zuckerman is a freelance writer based in Seattle and author of “My Low Carbon Diet: From Gas Gluttony to Fuel Fitness in 3 Weeks.” Seth, I enjoyed talking with you. Thank you very much.
ZUCKERMAN: Thanks for having me.
[MUSIC: Loopdrop “Lavamatica” from ‘A Rocket Girl Compilation’ (Rocket Girl – 2006)]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: what me worry? What to do about eco-anxiety. First this emerging science note from Jennifer Percy.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
PERCY: Banana peels, old diapers, used napkins, they’re useless right? Ever thought that Snicker’s wrapper you just threw away might be used to power your home? Or to build roads?
Plans are underway to build a facility in Florida that will convert 3,000 tons of trash a day into energy and construction materials. Geoplasma, the company in charge of the project, says trash at the facility will be loaded onto a conveyor belt and dumped into an incinerator where it will burn at temperatures of 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s as hot as the outer layer of the sun.
The incinerator uses plasma-arc technology to maintain such high temperatures. In the incinerator, two electrodes create an arc where air, under high pressure, is added to produce plasma or ionized gas. The incinerator will operate twenty-four hours a day and require no additional electric energy after startup—just a steady supply of junk. Emissions will come from the synthetic gas turbine but scientists expect it will release less carbon dioxide than a natural gas turbine.
The facility is expected to produce eight times more energy than it will consume.
Any combustible gas released will run turbines and create 160 megawatts of electricity a day—that’s enough to power more than 12,000 homes. As an added bonus, the inorganic garbage will solidify into material that can be used to build roads. Facilities in Japan and Ohio are using similar technologies on a smaller scale.
Critics, however, remain skeptical. Many doubt that current technology can reduce large amounts of trash. And because an incinerator relies on a steady supply of garbage, some worry communities will be more wasteful. But Geoplasma says their environmentally friendly incinerator will not only help solve our energy needs but will also make landfills the dumping grounds of the past.
And that's this week's Note on Emerging Science, I'm Jennifer Percy.
GELLERMAN: Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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[MUSIC: Add N to (X) “You Must Create” from ‘Add Insult to Injury’ (Mute – 2000)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Solar promises an infinite supply of clean energy. So despite the fact that the cost of solar cells has been increasing lately, more American households than ever are running their refrigerators, computers, and lights off photovoltaic panels mounted on their roofs. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet has our story.
PORT: You see the solar? That's the trellis product - that's big enough to run a house on the West side of LA.
PORT: Recently we've seen a much higher increase in residential demand. Without advertising, we are probably getting like 10 calls a week.
LOBET: And Port says people don't seem as concerned about how long it will take to pay back the cost of solar panels through reduced electricity bills.
PORT: You know before people kept playing these payback games. They'd say it's a 12 year payback and they'd say 12 years? I want three! We’d say three? We'd say how many years are you going to be paying for electricity? For the rest of your life!
LOBET: Permacity puts solar systems mostly on top of businesses and existing homes. Developers have rarely been persuaded to add 15 thousand dollars to the cost of their new homes. But recently there was an exception, a builder who had been considering integrating solar into his developments.
PORT: And he called me up very excited having seen the Al Gore movie. He says, "Jonathan, I've seen the light, everything I do is going to be photovoltaic now." And immediately orders three systems just like that.
LOBET: Across the country in Vermont, Jeff Wolfe runs Global Resource Options, a solar company that installs systems in the Northeast. He estimates his call volume has doubled over the last year, also without advertising.
WOLFE: We’re beginning to talk about the perfect storm, high-energy prices, natural gas oil and now electricity in many areas.
LOBET: Compared to when his company started 8 years ago Wolfe says, people who approach him now seem to know more about the technology, and have fewer doubts.
WOLFE: The questions really are now not, "Why should I do this?" but "How does it work for my house here?" It's a huge leap forward in cultural awareness.
LOBET: More and more states are making it less expensive for homeowners to install solar systems with installation rebates or tax credits. In Washington DC, Rhone Resch at the Solar Energy Industries Association watches the popularity of solar electricity spread, state by state.
RESCH: As soon as these programs get put in place, we see an almost immediate rise in inquiries at the installer level. Just to give you an example, in California since the beginning of this year we have seen about an 80% increase in the amount of applications for new solar systems to be installed on both homes and businesses.
LOBET: And states are making it more financially attractive just as people are getting higher bills.
RESCH: In many parts of the east coast we've seen electricity this year alone rise by 70% and consumers are trying to figure out, "what can I do to actually lower my energy bill?"
LOBET: But the cost of solar electrical systems, often 15 or 20 thousand dollars, even in states with incentives, means it's still beyond the reach of many households. For years, prices had been going down. But demand was so high in Germany, in Japan, in Spain and the United States, that it sucked up all the available supply of one crucial solar element: silicon.
RESCH: Solar historically has been a very small consumer of polysilicon, basically purchasing the scraps and the leftover materials of the integrated circuit industry where today we have grown to the point in 2006 where we will consume over 50% of all the polysilicon produced in the world. We are now the polysilicon industry's largest customer.
LOBET: Resch says no one expected that.
RESCH: Our growth rate has been so rapid over the last 6 years that it caught a lot of companies short-footed, and we are now seeing them respond. The good news is the market’s working, and new polysilicon plants are coming online in 2006, 2007, 2008, such that there will be a full tripling of the polysilicon feed-stock by 2010 throughout the world.
LOBET: But meanwhile, when the material is scarce? The price goes up. And according to installers, some of that increase has been passed on to homeowners. Again, Jeff Wolfe.
WOLFE: Consumers are paying between 5 and 10% more for systems than they did a couple of years ago.
LOBET: While this doesn't seem to be hurting sales in some places, there are still others, like Houston, Texas, where even solar installers say they can't recommend solar-powered electricity to the average homeowner. Kevin Conlin at Solarcraft in Houston does a strong business selling solar panels to the oil and gas industry. Sun-power runs many of the computers on drilling platforms and out at remote Western wellheads. But when Conlin gets calls from homeowners fed up with their air-conditioning bills, he discourages them on solar.
CONLIN: When people call with those types of inquiries, as a businessman, I'd love to sell them a solar system, but as a professional I have to ask them if they've done all the other things to their home that have a better payback and are more cost-effective.
LOBET: So Conlin counsels Houston callers to put in compact fluorescent bulbs, shade their windows and lay in attic insulation. Even in cities and states with no solar helping hand, there is one sun-powered technology that does make financial sense for most people - solar hot water. Not the shiny sparkly blue panels of solar electricity, but the flat black of water coils directly absorbing the sun's heat. These solar thermal systems cost around $4,000. That's after the federal government's $2,000 rebate available to anyone. These systems are as common as weeds in some countries, but still rare in the United States.
RESCH: Israel has actually a requirement on all new home construction to include a solar thermal system. Spain has the same requirement and Germany in fact has a strong demand for solar thermal systems. So just to give you some perspective, in the United States we are installing about 6,000 systems a year. In Germany they’re installing 80-thousand systems per year, and in China they’re installing 250-thousand solar water heating systems per year. So we are way behind the curve.
LOBET: Installers say customers just aren't as interested in solar hot water. Jeff Wolfe in Vermont says it's a question of pizzazz.
WOLFE: It's not as glamorous, quite frankly. With solar photovoltaics you can make power and actually have your electrical meter spin backwards, and having a customer see their electric meter spin backwards the first time is just a truly memorable experience for them and for us. The smiles from ear to ear and the giddiness at sending power back into the grid is great to watch. There is no comparable experience for solar hot water.
LOBET: Wolfe says people are working to increase the visuals, the wow factor for solar hot water. Even with solar hot water and electricity less popular in the United States than some other countries, and even with the shortage of silicon, growth in this industry is very strong. The amount of solar real estate, total solar megawatts installed in the United States, has increased 250% in the last three years.
For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.
[MUSIC: The Album Leaf “Broken Arrow” from ‘Into The Blue Again’ (Sub Pop – 2006)]
GELLERMAN: Worried about the world’s environment? You’re not alone.
MAN: Bovine growth hormones in milk! Lead in my water. What’s next? Fertilizer in my beer?
WOMAN: I don’t even know what toilet paper to by anymore.
MAN: There’s mold in the air ducts at work (cough) I can’t breath anymore.
WOMAN: I just saw Al Gore’s movie. I’m so overwhelmed. Is it because of the environment, or is it Al Gore’s hair?
MAN: I blame the chemical companies!
GELLERMAN: And you thought you felt bad? But seriously, worrying about the world’s environmental problems can be stressful. It certainly affected journalist Liz Galst. She wrote an article about eco-anxiety in the current issue of Plenty magazine.
She joins me from New York. Hi, Liz.
GALST: Hello, how are you?
GELLERMAN: I’m fine thank you. You know you don’t sound so fine in your article though. You have a bad case of eco-anxiety syndrome.
GALST: Yeah, I was really suffering, I think. I was really anxious and preoccupied and very concerned about global warming and other ecological crisis but I was taking it to an extreme.
GELLERMAN: Well, what specifically was causing these symptoms?
GALST: Well, as a journalist I have done a lot of reporting on global warming. And so I think part of what was causing it was just being really inundated with a lot of very distressing scientific information about what’s happening to the planet. And by extension to us, or what may well happen to us. And I think also being a new parent and I think having a different relationship to the future than I did in the past. So predictions that climatologists were making about what would happen 50 years from now had a different meaning to me all of the sudden.
GELLERMAN: You mention that you are a new parent. I look at my two kids and I think, boy what kind of world are we giving them?
GALST: Yeah, I mean it’s quite frightening and I think adding to my anxiety was this sense of isolation with the information. Not too many people around me seemed to be the least bit bothered by any of this. And so, I think the isolation of that feeling really contributed to my anxiety as well.
GELLERMAN: Liz, how did this anxiety affect your daily life?
GALST: I was often really preoccupied. I was sort of distracted by what felt like a very present threat. And I had trouble sleeping. Among other things, I would walk around the apartment turning off the lights. You know, I had all of these fantasies about how I could take all of these humongous steps that would really make a difference. Like I could win the lottery, and I could underwrite some renewable energy technology that needed some start-up funding. I just wasn’t able to really be in the present in the way that I am now.
GELLERMAN: Liz Galst, in your article, Global Worrying, in Plenty Magazine, you cite an ecotherapist, Linda Buzzel-Saltzman, she’s based in Santa Barbara, California, and I thought that we’d call her up and see if she can help us overcome some of these global worries.
GELLERMAN: Linda Buzzel-Saltzman?
BUZZEL-SALTZMAN: Yes, this is she.
GELLERMAN: Hi, this is Bruce Gellerman from Living on Earth
BUZZEL-SALTZMAN: Hi Bruce.
GELLERMAN: I’ve got Liz Galst on the line as well.
BUZZEL-SALTZMAN: Hello to Liz.
GALST: Hello, it’s nice to talk to you again.
BUZZEL-SALTZMAN: It is.
GELLERMAN: Precisely what is an eco-therapist?
BUZZEL-SALTZMAN: An eco-therapist is a psychotherapist who treats not only human-human relationships but also the human-nature relationship, and views that as an important part of all of our lives.
GELLERMAN: So, somebody comes to you and they: say nuclear waste, ocean dead zones, disappearing forests. Help me! What do you do?
BUZZEL-SALTZMAN: Well, usually people don’t come in with that particular complaint. Usually people come in with all the normal stuff that everyone complains about. The anxiety, feeling depressed, feeling worried about things in their life. And eco-therapists in addition to doing all of the things that regular psychotherapists do, also ask some questions about the person’s relationship with nature. And whether they spend all day indoors, and if their lifestyle is particularly stressful and are they living a natural life.
GELLERMAN: Liz Galst, do you have a question for Linda Buzzell-Saltzman? Perhaps she can offer us some therapy.
GALST: Sure. Say like me, somebody is wandering around feeling extremely anxious on a regular basis about the state of our environment -- be it global warming or some other environmental crisis like the problem with fresh drinking water -- do you have any suggestions?
BUZZEL-SALTZMAN: Well, I think it’s totally normal to get angry at some of what’s going on in the world. And there’s something that I call the waking up syndrome, which has to do with coming out of denial. And when we do, when we come out of denial, there’s a lot of emotion that comes with that. It can be anger, it can be anxiety, it can be depression, it can be feeling overwhelmed. And I try and work with my clients to help them move through that first phase of all this emotion and then move into some of the solutions to the problem. Getting people into action. Lowering their anxiety. Getting them involved in creating and building an alternative world. The whole issue of feeling so isolated with this really makes the anxiety worse.
So starting to talk to someone else and get active in a group situation. Doing something about the environment really is the beginning of healing.
GELLERMAN: So, the idea is actually try to do something.
BUZZEL-SALTZMAN: That’s right. Because otherwise people feel really helpless and then the worst thing that can happen is they begin to despair and feel hopeless.
GALST: I think I feel better about the future because of some steps that I took in my own life. One of them is getting involved in a group that takes environmental action. And we got our synagogue to switch to green power, here in New York City. And we also encouraged members, themselves, to switch to green power, and now more than 10 percent of our households have switched to green power. I think that was what was most helpful about getting involved with a group in my synagogue is it gave me a place to be concerned with other people who were concerned. And that sort of brought me out of my isolation a lot. And I feel better about the future because it seems that the rest of the American public is catching up to my own concerns.
GELLERMAN: Well, Linda Buzzel-Saltzman, how does Liz Galst sound to you? Sound like she’s making progress?
BUZZEL-SALTZMAN: Liz is doing wonderfully. I’d like to chime in and say how much I appreciate that she is taking action and she is creating a world, a better world for her children.
GELLERMAN: You know, when I was growing up there was a bumper sticker that said, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the pollution.”
GALST: Maybe we should also, I’ve always wanted to get those bumper stickers to stick on SUV’s that say, “I’m changing the climate. Ask me how.”
GALST: Wow. [laughs]
GELLERMAN: Well, Liz Galst and Linda Buzzell-Saltzman, thank you very much.
GALST: It’s been a pleasure.
BUZZEL-SALTZMAN: Thank you.
GELLERMAN: Liz Galst is a writer in New York. Her article “Global Worrying” is in a recent issue of Plenty Magazine. Linda Buzzel-Saltzman is an eco-therapist based in Santa Barbara, California.
[MUSIC: The Eternals “High Anxiety” from ‘Rawar Style’ (Aesthetics – 2004)]
GELLERMAN: Next week on Living on Earth: Stonewashed jeans are giving environmentalists the blues. The chemicals used to fade the jeans are coloring and polluting waters in Mexico. One city tightened its environmental standards, but the problem just moved outside of town.
ATELA: Now every year more laundries are established because there are no regulations, local regulations.
GELLERMAN: Blue jeans, blue water, big problem, next week on Living on Earth.
We leave you this week – with the sounds of a Lyre.
[LYRE SOUND: “Australian Lyrebird” recorded by Barrie Britton (from ‘The Life of Birds with David Attenborough’)]
GELLERMAN: You've heard of the boy who cried wolf, well, now, witness the bird who cried wolf - among many other imitations! Australian male lyrebirds become masters of mimicry during mating season, and will imitate just about any sound from their current environment. In this recording by Barrie Britton, listen to the calls from one male lyrebird. They include a kookaburra, a car alarm, camera shutter clicks and chainsaws.
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Emily Torgrimson and Jeff Young - with help from Bobby Bascomb, and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Ian Gray, Tobin Hack and Jennifer Percy. Dennis Foley is our technical director. Our executive producer is Steve Curwood. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us at L-O-E dot org. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for Listening.
[SOUND OF CAMERA SHUTTER]
GELLERMAN: Whoop! Hope you got my good side!
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