Keystone Pipeline Rejected, For Now
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The Obama administration decides against building the controversial Keystone XL pipeline extension. Environmentalists celebrate while the oil industry plans their appeal. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with environmental activist Bill McKibben, and spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Travis Davies about the decision. (06:30)
The Explosive Growth of Natural Gas Networks
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There are more than a third of a million miles of natural gas transmission pipelines in the U.S., and more to come. But sometimes they rupture, devastating homes and lives. Bruce Gellerman speaks with investigative blogger Frank Gallagher, editor of NaturalGasWatch.org, about the hazards of the vast system. (06:30)
Bare Shoulders: Herbicide Along the Highway/ Ingrid Lobet
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Highway departments across the nation put time, energy and resources into maintaining the side of the road, often preferring to keep it clean and clear of plants. But, as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, in Oregon, some residents don’t want chemicals used to keep the highway shoulders bare. (07:10)
Hybrids: The Cars Of The Future That Nobody's Buying
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This year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit featured many hybrid cars, despite lackluster sales. As public policies shift toward higher standards, these green cars aren’t going anywhere, but they’re not edging out the internal combustion engine, either. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with John O’Dell, editor for Green Cars and Fuel Efficiency at Edmunds.com. (07:10)
Cellulosic Fuel Update
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Five years ago, cellulosic ethanol seemed to hold a lot of promise. The only thing missing was the ramp up to commercial production. But, as Jeremy Martin of the Union of Concerned Scientists explains to host Bruce Gellerman, then the recession happened. (06:35)
Oh Narwhal, Where Art Thou?
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Narwhals are one of the least studied, yet most legendary, whales on earth. Their spiral teeth were once sold around the world as unicorn horns. Now a catch-and-release study may answer some basic questions about their behavior. Jack Rodolico reports. (01:40)
China in the Arctic?
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The Arctic Council consists of eight Arctic countries and six indigenous groups. But since oil and gas riches have been discovered in the far north, non-Arctic countries like China and India now want a seat at the table. Tony Penikett chaired this year’s Council meeting. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that Arctic indigenous groups are the largest landholders in the region and have the most to gain or lose from oil drilling. (06:30)
The Many Meanings of Cold/ Ike Sriskandarajah
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How cold is it? Well, that depends on which meteorologist you ask. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah asks National Weather Service forecasters about their new extreme cold warning and how they temper that alert across the country. (05:15)
Earth Ear - Into India
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The spiritual landscape of India captured in sound. (02:00)
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Bill McKibben, Travis Davies, Frank Gallagher, John O'Dell, Jeremy Martin, Tony Penikett,
REPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Ike Sriskandarajah
NOTE: Jack Rodolico
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.
A network of high-pressure gas pipelines crisscrosses the nation - a third of a million miles, and more are on the way. But as demand for gas grows, so do the dangers.
GALLAGHER: The notion of bringing a 42-inch high-pressure natural gas pipeline into downtown Manhattan boggles the mind. It’s not a question of if something happens, it's a question of when.
GELLERMAN: Also, how cold is it? The National Weather Service comes up with a new warning.
NORTH DAKOTA WEATHER FORECASTER: We’ve got a new advisory for this winter. An Extreme Cold Watch from late tonight through Thursday morning. This is going to replace the wind chill watches and wind chill warnings for North Dakota.
GELLERMAN: Brrrr…baby, it's cold outside! These stories, and a lot more, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!
ANNOUNCER ONE: 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, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.
President Obama has put the kibosh, at least temporarily, on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. That’s the one oil producers in Canada want to build to carry low quality, high sulfur crude from the tar sands of Alberta 17 hundred miles to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Republicans in Congress had tried to force the Obama administration into making a quick decision on the seven billion dollar pipeline by attaching it to a payroll tax cut extension.
But in a written statement denying the construction permit, the President said the deadline “prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact.” For proponents, it’s back to the drawing board. They get to resubmit plans for the pipeline route. For opponents, it’s a major, if temporary, victory. Environmentalist Bill McKibben led the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline:
MCKIBBEN: I wrote the first book on climate change 23 years ago, and there are very few days in those two decades when scientists have been able to smile and the fossil fuel industry had to scowl, and this was one of them. Barack Obama not only did the right thing about the Keystone Pipeline, he also did the brave thing.
GELLERMAN: But President Obama did not rule on the merits of the pipeline. He basically said the Republicans in Congress rushed him, and….
MCKIBBEN: He didn't even have a chance to rule on the merits of the pipeline. They haven’t had, you know, the Republicans didn't give him time to even judge it. And TransCanada or anybody else is, you know, of course, is free to apply to build another one- it will take a long time for that application to go through and there will be lots and lots of us watching at every turn to make sure the process is transparent and that the science is respected.
GELLERMAN: Congress- can they change the rules of the game? Right now, it’s the President’s decision.
MCKIBBEN: Well, Congress can certainly try to do a lot of things, and doubtless they will because, in essence, they are a harem of the fossil fuel industry. They took a vote a couple of weeks ago to expedite this approval processes, it was 234 to 193 in the House and those 234 people had taken 42 million dollars from the fossil fuel industry for their campaigns. They’re bought and paid for. We worked to get the President to do the right thing. Now we’ll work to get Congress to do the right thing. We’re going to try, that’s for sure.
GELLERMAN: Well, the Chamber of Commerce says ‘Well, we’re talking jobs here. We’re talking fuel from a friendly source.’
MCKIBBEN: The only independent study of jobs from this pipeline, done by Cornell, showed that it would kill as many jobs as it would create. That fuel from a friendly source is destined for export to Latin America and Europe and not for use in the U.S. The arguments in favor of this are simply bogus; they’re just a cover for the fact that people want to make some money pumping more oil.
And, of course, they all ignore the biggest argument of all. As Jim Hanson of NASA said, if you tap those tar sands heavily, it’s essentially game over for the climate. And that doesn’t matter to the Chamber of Commerce. They filed a legal brief with the EPA two years ago saying that climate wouldn’t warm, but if it did, humans could, and I quote: ‘humans could alter their physiology’ in order to continue to inhabit this Earth. So for them, no big deal. We’d actually rather have a few of those giant energy companies alter their business plans and let the rest of us keep our anatomy more or less intact!
GELLERMAN: Climate activist Bill McKibben, head of 350.org, has led the fight against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
For a different perspective on the president’s decision to deny a permit for the pipeline, we turn to Travis Davies, spokesman with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, based in Calgary, Alberta.
DAVIES: It's very disappointing. We've been through a three-year process. Now, that said, there’s some positive takeaways, one being that the president has said it was not denied on the merits of the project. The other being that TransCanada pipeline is committed to reapplying. So there is a delay, yes, but there is a lot of merits of this project both for the U.S. and for Canada.
GELLERMAN: How many jobs do you think this would create?
DAVIES: Well, the pipeline, specifically, I can’t really get to. Oil sands, I know a bit more about. In terms of U.S. and Canada, a group called the Canadian Energy Research Institute has done some work on forecasting. If you look out over the next 25 years, oil sands will create almost 900,000 jobs in Canada and an additional 400 to 500,000 jobs in the U.S.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Davies, why not just build the pipeline in Canada and send it out from one of your ports either east or west?
DAVIES: Well, it’s a good question and we’re looking at those options. Of course, there’s several proposals to get to Pacific tidewater. There’s already a pipeline going over there and we do export to places in the U.S. like Washington and California, increasingly Asia. The thrust is that there is a lot of demand in the Gulf. We’ve got a situation where Mexican heavy oil is in steep decline, so you’ve got a situation where one of the largest refining markets in the world have a lot of spare capacity.
GELLERMAN: I know that there was a study done by the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union in Canada. And it showed that Canada would have 18,000 more jobs if the oil was refined first in Canada. Why not do that?
DAVIES: All well and good but, as I said before, over 25 years, we see the resource producing almost 900,000 jobs. As it stands today, we don't have enough labor to do a lot of the work that we’re going to need to do.
GELLERMAN: As I understand it, our refineries here in the United States would take that oil, turn it into diesel which they would then export to South American and Europe, because that’s what they use there.
DAVIES: I go back to the fact that you’re buying Canadian oil at a discount. Why are you going to sell that and buy more expensive oil? Well, maybe there might be a limited supply that does go to Europe but, by far and large, this is going to get used in the USA.
GELLERMAN: Travis Davies is with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
GELLERMAN: Well, Keystone XL is actually the second pipeline oil producers in Canada want built. The first, Keystone One, went into service in 2010. Since then the 21-hundred-mile long pipeline has suffered a dozen leaks. Most of them are small - a few gallons. But last May, a valve failed in North Dakota spilling 21 thousand gallons.
The year before, in Michigan, a different oil pipeline ruptured, sending 800 thousand gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. Crisscrossing the nation is a huge network of pipelines. Most carry natural gas, about a third of a million miles are huge transmission pipes carrying gas under high pressure. Secretary of Transportation Ray La Hood has said, ‘improving the safety (of pipelines) is the first thing that I think of in the morning and the last that keeps me up at night.’
In Sept 2010, the nation got a wake up call. A pipeline exploded in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno. Eight people died, 38 homes were destroyed.
TELEVISION CLIP: MALE RESIDENT: It sounded like a jet almost like just a giant roar, and then the biggest boom I’ve ever heard in my life. WOMAN REPORTER: But it was a high-pressured natural gas line that ruptured, caused the explosion and then fueled the spectacular blaze. The local utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric, says they will be accountable if it’s determined they were at fault.
GELLERMAN: PG&E, owner of the pipeline, has accepted responsibility for the disaster. But investigative blogger Frank Gallagher says it's not an isolated case. Frank, welcome to Living on Earth.
GALLAGHER: Thank you for having me.
GELLERMAN: Let's talk about the San Bruno accident. What happened?
GALLAGHER: Faulty valves, lack of shut off valves, that was the, you know, cause of the explosion. But, at the end of the day, it was discovered that these pipelines had been uninspected for years. And that PG&E, in fact, didn’t have any of the records pertaining to any of the pipelines. They couldn't even tell you where they were exactly or when was the last time they had looked at them.
GELLERMAN: Reading your online blog NaturalGasWatch.org suggests very strongly that this is not an isolated case.
GALLAGHER: Oh, absolutely not. There are major pipeline incidents all over the country with astonishing regularity. I mean, following San Bruno, you had a major explosion in Philadelphia that killed one person. You had Allentown which killed six people, I believe. Just the first week of January, you had a major explosion in Kentucky which was the fourth major explosion in ten years in Kentucky! I mean, these things occur with jaw dropping regularity.
GELLERMAN: We have something like a third of a million miles of natural gas transmission lines throughout this country. It’s a huge network.
GALLAGHER: It is and it’s expanding everyday. I mean, with the discovery of the Marcellus Shale gas play, the goal now of these companies is to get that gas to market as quickly as possible and the way to do that is to expand the transmission system. So, they’re building pipelines at an incredible pace.
GELLERMAN: They want to build a pipeline that’s going to go through Jersey City, Bayonne, New Jersey to Staten Island and then come up in Manhattan.
GALLAGHER: Under the Hudson, right into lower Manhattan. Just blocks away from where the World Trade Center was.
GELLERMAN: The mayor of Jersey City, which is the second largest city in New Jersey, says ‘No way José!’
GALLAGHER: He does, but unfortunately, you know, it’s out of his hands. At the end of the day, the decision rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC. They have final approval.
GELLERMAN: So, what are the concerns?
GALLAGHER: Well, the concerns are very real. The concerns are that this thing could explode. I mean if you look at Spectra Energy, their safety record has got some spots on it.
GELLERMAN: Sepctra is the company that wants to build this?
GALLAGHER: Spectra Energy is the company that wants to build this. And the notion of bringing a 42-inch high-pressure natural gas pipeline into downtown Manhattan boggles the mind. It’s not a question of if something happens, it’s a question of when.
GELLERMAN: What’s the pressure of these pipelines?
GALLAGHER: Anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 psi- pounds per square inch - which is enormous high pressure.
GELLERMAN: Spectra says this is going to be the safest pipeline in the United States. They say we’ve got these robots which can detect and fill leaks, and that we’ve got these emergency valves, and…well, you’re smiling.
GALLAGHER: Yes, of course I am because that is what the pipeline companies say every time they want to build a pipeline. And I would point you to the Millennium Pipeline in New York State, the southern tier, this thing was built a couple, two years ago to pipe shale gas directly off the Marcellus Shale play into New York City. Two years old. This pipeline was just shut down by the feds- the Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration- because of defective welds. And these were welds that were identified as defective before they went into the ground.
One day, you know, an inspector was walking by and saw bubbles coming out of a creek which is indicative of a leak. And the feds came in, went through all of the paperwork, looked at the leaks, and said that this is an accident waiting to happen. Shut this thing down right now and come up with a plan to fix this, or we’ll shut it down for you.
GELLERMAN: The Congress recently passed new federal regulations punishing the companies doubling the fines.
GALLAGHER: Right, for what? One hundred thousand to 200,000 dollars? You know, a 200,000 dollar fine, a million dollar fine, is not going to bankrupt these companies. The fact is that there, as you said, are 350,000 miles of transmission lines throughout this country, expanding at a rapid pace, and the federal agencies that are charged with overseeing this, like every other federal agency, are under-funded, under-staffed, over-worked. There is absolutely no way that the couple of dozen inspectors that are assigned to these pipelines can keep up.
GELLERMAN: This bill that recently passed was considered a jobs bill and it increases the number of inspectors from 124 to 134.
GALLAGHER: Right. It adds, what, ten inspectors? So, the notion that ten inspectors are going to be able to adequately police pipelines is absurd. It’s absolutely absurd!
GELLERMAN: Natural gas - we’ve got an abundance of it, it’s cheap, it burns clean, it’s considered a bridge fuel until we can get to renewable resources…
GALLAGHER: Right. Well, it’s cheap depending on what you consider cheap. If you’re talking strictly dollars and cents, then you can maybe make a case that it’s cheap. If you want to add in all of the other costs – the societal costs that occur and that have to be paid for getting this gas out of the ground and to market – it becomes extraordinarily expensive.
Because shale gas, over and above traditional gas, has a carbon cost of getting it from the well-head to market that puts it, if Cornell research is to be believed, makes it more carbon intensive than coal. We will put more carbon into the air extracting this natural gas than you would if you just went and burned coal because this stuff needs truck after truck after truck to get it out and to market. I mean, you have water that has to be trucked in, injected, then removed, trucked out. For example, there are days in Wyoming where, rural Wyoming this is farm country, cows, ranchers, have worse air quality than Los Angeles.
GALLAGHER: Because of natural gas drilling.
GELLERMAN: Natural gas is methane.
GELLERMAN: Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas.
GALLAGHER: It’s, depending on who you talk to, it’s anywhere from 20 to 30 times more damaging than carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and they’re venting this stuff off freely. You know, if you consider all those costs, then suddenly natural gas becomes not so cheap.
GELLERMAN: Frank Gallagher’s investigative blog is called NaturalGasWatch.org. Frank Gallagher, thank you very much for coming in.
GALLAGHER: My pleasure.
- Natural Gas Watch
- US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
- Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
- National Transportation Safety Board
- Whitehouse Blog
[MUSIC: Steven Bernstein “Stand” from MTO Plays Sly (Royal Potato Family 2011).]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: herbicides used on highways might be harmful to your health. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Johnny Otis: “Barrelhouse Blues” from The Essential Johnny Otis (Purple Pyramid/The Orchard 2001).]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Along the sides of our nation’s highways are strips of space …some covered in grass, trees and flowers; others stripped bare. And, as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, it’s these areas that cause concern for some who travel the roads.
LOBET: Lisa Arkin pilots her Subaru wagon along a highway outside Eugene, Oregon. She gazes at the road shoulder and shakes her head.
ARKIN: We just passed over the Willamette River and you can see acres and acres of dead vegetation, dead from herbicide spray.
LOBET: Arkin is executive director of Beyond Toxics, a non-profit that’s been trying to persuade the state of Oregon to find other ways of maintaining the highways.
ARKIN: When they spray, people with immune deficiencies, someone going through a cancer treatment, someone with allergies or asthma...you might have children in the car, you might be a pregnant woman, and you have no idea that you have driven through miles of a recent spray.
LOBET: Arkin’s disagreement is with the state, not with this county. Unlike the state, Lane County has a no-spray policy. And the contrast between state roads and county roads is plain to see.
ARKIN: And now, we are merging onto a highway that’s managed by the Lane County public works department and we start to see–flowers! And vegetation that is still green.
LOBET: Opposition to herbicides is not uncommon here in Lane County, home to Eugene, a university town. It’s a part of Oregon where organic agriculture is strong. Last spring, when the Oregon Transportation Commission heard testimony about roadside herbicide policy, farmer John Sundquist spoke up.
SUNDQUIST: I have testified before you several times in the past urging you to protect citizens and the environment by stopping the poisoning of state-maintained roads in Lane County. And I asked you to enjoy the green, beautiful, poison-free, salmon and wildlife-enhancing roadsides of Lane County.
LOBET: The State of Oregon and its Department of Transportation is much like other state DOTs. It sprays herbicides, such as glyphosate, that disrupt plant metabolism. That can be once or several times a year. Will Lackey coordinates the teams that work in that space to the right of the white line in Oregon, and he describes how it should look.
LACKEY: We really would not like to have any vegetation growing six to eight feet from the pavement. That is primarily for drainage, for a safe recovery zone for cars so they have a safe place to pull off, visibility, fire hazards–and it’s also–if we can keep it bare, that is our first line of defense against noxious weeds.
LOBET: Two of the main questions that preoccupy highway workers when they contemplate any stretch of shoulder are: is it free of plants, in general? And, specifically, are there any noxious or invasive plants like rush skeletonweed or puncture vine?
LACKEY: We target a lot of just noxious weed control. So, we have people out on four-wheelers or even just backpack spraying, just going after individual plants.
LOBET: Washington State, Oregon’s neighbor to the north, also uses herbicide but has dramatically reduced the amount in recent years. Ray Willard manages roadside maintenance in Washington State. He’s a landscape architect by training. He says when his department first scrutinized its use of herbicide, it found some was unnecessary.
WILLARD: I think what was happening at that time is a lot of the decisions that were being made, were being made by the crews out in the field, and so there really wasn’t as much oversight in terms of: ‘Is this really the right thing to do? Is it necessary or is there a more effective way to do it?’
LOBET: As Willard’s department reevaluated, it found there wasn’t much research to help predict what would happen if they sharply reduced herbicide use. Would they need much more staffing? Would it cost much more? They set clearer guidelines and instituted annual training for highway workers, and Washington cut its herbicide use by 66 percent, from 126 thousand pounds of active ingredient in 2003 to 42 thousand. Last year, they actually used more than the year before. Willard says that’s because they’ve gone back to spraying some stretches.
WILLARD: What we found was that it is actually, in a lot of cases, cheapest to treat that band of earth with herbicides. And so, as a result, some of the areas that we had let go and grow back to grass now, we are maintaining them as vegetation-free again now with herbicides.
LOBET: He points out some plants when they’re cut come back stronger each year.
WILLARD: If we can make very precise, specific applications we can do that very safely in terms of worker exposure and environmental exposure and we are much more efficient and effective in terms of our budget and use of the taxpayers’ money.
LOBET: But those who oppose this method of keeping the roadside clean and bare say taxpayer money also goes to uncalculated health costs. The public health effects of herbicides is an area of research that’s still developing. People are unlikely to be severely poisoned. But the jury is still out on more subtle effects to developing fetuses or people with genetic predisposition to greater sensitivity. The concern over herbicides was enough to persuade Oregon’s former Transportation Commission Chair Gail Achterman to send a message last year that the status quo is not acceptable.
ACHTERMAN: I am very worried about this issue. I don’t think it’s good for our employees nor do I think it is good for society to be using herbicides when other alternatives are available. We are going to start running into real liability exposure on the continued use of these toxics.
LOBET: That message was heard. Oregon Vegetation Management Chief Will Lackey says change is happening.
LACKEY: Over the next five years we are going to reduce our pounds of active ingredient by 25 percent. So our bare shoulders, our brush treating and some of our landscape – we are going to reduce our pounds of active ingredient by 25 percent.
LOBET: There have been similar public rebellions against highway herbicide over the last 30 years in other parts of the West, Northeast and in Minnesota, and the trend is toward reduction in those regions. The issue is, so far, not an issue in much of the Midwest and the South.
LOBET: For Living On Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.
[MUSIC: Billy Cobham “Spanish Moss: A Sound Portrait” from Crosswinds (Atlantic Records 1974).]
GELLERMAN: Motor-heads and gearbox gurus got to kick the tires and look under the hoods of hundreds of cars in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show.
And this year, after a dismal spell when U.S. car companies nearly skidded into oblivion, automakers have something to cheer about: sales are up.
At this year’s show, new hybrids of all sizes and styles took center stage which is interesting because since they first hit the road about a decade ago, only about two million hybrids have been sold in the United States, just two and a half percent of total car sales. And John O'Dell, senior editor of Green Cars and Fuel Efficiency at Edmunds.com says half of the hybrids sold here are Toyota Priuses.
O’DELL: Prius has become synonymous in this country with hybrid. A lot of people look at that and go, ‘wow.’ It is low, the market penetration, but it’s only been the last three to four years that there’s been, that anybody other than Toyota and Honda have come to the market with hybrids.
But the big roadblock is they cost more money than the non-hybrid versions. There’s not a lot of savings when fuel is relatively inexpensive and when you can buy conventional engine vehicles that give you 35, 40 miles per gallon. You know, if you’re having to pay four to six thousand more for some of these hybrids- you could pump a lot of gasoline at $3.80 a gallon, or $3.50 a gallon- for 4,000 dollars.
GELLERMAN: I’m wondering, John, that since these auto companies are producing so many hybrid models, do they know something that the average consumer doesn’t because the sales figures have been so dismal?
O’DELL: I think what they know is that public policy is continuing to require better and better overall or average fleet improvements in fuel economy. And the most reasonable way economically that the auto makers see that they can do this is to continue improving the internal combustion engine and then, even if they don’t sell in huge volume, you provide the hybrid models that have a bigger jump than is required. And when you start averaging, they go a long way towards helping, you know, pull up the averages from the bulk of your fleet, which will continue to be internal combustion engines of some sort or another.
GELLERMAN: But the public doesn’t seem to be receptive to these cars.
O’DELL: Well, it’s hard to be receptive to something. We’re in a society that has used the automobile for about 100 years. We traded up from horses and we found very quickly that the automobile gave us a lot of additional utility, a lot of additional functionality, and the price differential was worth it. Now we’re asking people to trade a vehicle that works, a power plant that works and a fuel that works for new stuff that comes with a lot of baggage. There aren’t very many fueling station for any alternative fuel, the vehicles tend to cost more, and, at best, they don't do anything more for you, utility-wise, than a gasoline vehicle or a diesel vehicle, and at worst they do less for you.
GELLERMAN: But, John…
O’DELL: (Continues talking)
GELLERMAN: But, John, I don’t think you’d make a great cars salesman for green cars!
O’DELL: (Laughs.) Well, I’d love to be a green cars salesman. I have a Nissan Leaf in my garage. I have a natural gas Honda in my garage, and those are personal vehicles, not fleet vehicles. I bought them and paid for them myself. I think there’s a lot of value in having them. I, personally, am saving money driving them and not having to go to the gas stations. There are natural gas stations in a lot of places. If you want to talk about savings, I pump it at home with a home unit and I pay the equivalent of about $1.70 a gallon for fuel.
GELLERMAN: So, John, are you driving the future? Is your natural gas vehicle what we can expect? I noticed you’ve been appointed to the National Research Council’s committee on transitions to alternative vehicles and fuels. Is that natural gas?
O’DELL: Ah, no. Natural gas will be one of the things. There’s a lot of work being done, quietly now- it was noisier a little while ago- on what they call drop-in biofuels – liquid replacements for gasoline – so that you could use the same distribution system, you can use the same kinds of cars, with the same kinds of fuel tanks, and you’re not asking people and society to make a quantum change.
GELLERMAN: But biofuels are still not ready for prime time. They’re not pumping a lot because they’re not making a lot of it.
O’DELL: They’re not making a lot, and the only thing they make is corn-based ethanol in any great volume. And, it’s quite possible to have effectively a zero-tail pipe emission in an internal combustion engine if you have the right fuel for it. And so the engine itself, or that technology, should not be demonized because, right now, we’re burning petroleum and carbon-based fuels, because it is possible to run them on other things and there are a lot of smart people working on other things to run them on.
GELLERMAN: John O'Dell is senior editor of Green Cars and Fuel Efficiency at Edmunds.com.
GELLERMAN: Well, back in 2007, President George W. Bush had the same idea – promising federal funds to find new fuels for our cars.
BUSH: One of these days, the scientists tell me, and I believe, that we will be able to manufacture fuel for your automobiles from switch grass, or biomass, or woodchips. And then, all of a sudden, if you really think about it and are optimistic about America’s capacity to use technology to change our way of life, then all of a sudden you begin to see the rationale for saying we can reduce gasoline usage by 20 percent over the next ten years. I believe it’s coming. I really do.
GELLERMAN: Since 2007, the government has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidies and loan guarantees for companies hoping to make fuels from plants but, so far, progress is stalled. Jeremy Martin is a biofuels expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
MARTIN: The promise was to start producing commercially as early as in 2010 at a level of 100 million gallons, and then going up steadily to this level of 16 billion in 2022. And, what’s happened is that that first production hasn’t happened yet. The facilities which were, didn’t get built and a lot of that has to do with what happened in 2008 and 2009, and I’m sure everybody will remember that those were tough years to get a loan for just about anything and, in particular, for new technology.
GELLERMAN: But back in the Bush administration in 2007, the government awarded 385 million dollars in grants to jumpstart ethanol from woodchips and switch grass, citrus peel…
MARTIN: Yeah, and also agricultural waste – things like corncobs and corn stalks and even garbage. But I would say they announced that level of grants, actually if you went through the records you’d find that the majority of those checks never got cashed or even mailed out. Those grants required the companies to raise a lot of private capital to match government money, which probably seemed reasonable in 2007. But, of course, 2008 and 2009 were very tough years to borrow money under any circumstances.
GELLERMAN: Well, one of the companies that did cash the federal checks was Range Fuels in Georgia. They actually built a plant. What happened to them? They got over 160 million dollars in loan guarantees and in grants and in money from the state.
MARTIN: Yeah, they are the one exception. They moved very quickly and got started. So there are a lot of different ways that people have to convert this cellulosic biomass into fuel. And, you know, they were using an existing technology that just wasn’t cost competitive. Unfortunately, we learned the hard lesson first and the other technologies are still, you know, at the starting gate.
GELLERMAN: So, is this an example of the federal government trying to pick renewable energy technology a winner and having a failure? Because, as I understand it, they haven’t produced a drop of cellulosic ethanol.
MARTIN: I think we’re certainly behind schedule. As far as picking winners, I mean there was an important reason that people wanted an alternative to oil and that was climate change, it was oil dependence, high oil prices. And I think all of those reasons remain just as true today as they were in 2007. So that’s why, I think, it’s worth taking the time and sticking with this one because we do need alternatives to oil.
GELLERMAN: Well, the backer of that plant in Georgia actually has a new company in Michigan. And, I’m looking at an article that he had to, you know, tell potential investors what the risks were. And this is a direct quote: ‘We have a limited operating history, a history of losses, and the expectation of continuing losses, and we have no experience in the markets in which we intend to operate.’ Boy, that sounds pretty risky!
MARTIN: Vinod Khosla, I think, is the investor you’re referring to.
GELLERMAN: Yes, he was the one that did Range Fuels and this one.
MARTIN: Yeah. Generally these start-up companies have a variety of backers. He’s backed a number of these new technologies, and I think his approach is to look for a lot of things and hope some of them pan out. And, you know, the first bet here hasn’t paid off and he lost a good bit of money on that but he’s still bullish that there’s a market here in the future. And I remain convinced that it’s worth focusing on and that it’s worth investing in.
GELLERMAN: Well, cellulosic ethanol promises to be a lot cleaner than gasoline, I guess something like 85 percent in terms of greenhouse gasses?
MARTIN: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And, there aren’t a lot of other alternatives that are that clean. And when you look at the scale of the problem, how much gasoline we use, the technology that allows us to turn environmentally friendly sources of biomass into fuel, it’s a really important technology and one that’s worth investing in.
GELLERMAN: So, is the challenge right now technological? Is that the problem?
MARTIN: Well, there’s certainly technological challenges, and a variety of different approaches, and a number of companies with new technologies. Some of them use heat and gas to convert the biomass into gasses, and through what they call a thermo-chemical process that they use to make fuel, others use enzymes.
GELLERMAN: Those are things, chemicals that speed up processes.
MARTIN: Yeah, or organisms. Microorganisms. So, there’s a variety of different technologies, and the technologies certainly is one of the challenges. But the financing of these facilities has proven to be one of the really significant challenges. And I think that’s one where the circumstances that weren’t foreseen in 2007 really have slowed things down.
GELLERMAN: The technology or the idea of getting energy out of this material is not new. It goes back to 1898!
MARTIN: Yeah, absolutely! And people have done it on occasion. The question is making it cost-effective. I think it’s long been recognized that if you could make biomass into fuel, you could have a great business.
GELLERMAN: But, didn't Chevron Oil and Shell, didn't they have investments in cellulosic companies? What happened to their investments? What happened to those companies?
MARTIN: Well, a lot of those major oil companies are investors in many of the cellulosic companies. I’m looking forward to seeing them produce fuel instead of just press releases. But, you know, they’re the ones who control the fuel market, and, essentially these laws that Congress has passed, amount to encouragement to them, or a requirement, that they clean up their act and start producing cleaner fuels. The technology will march forward with or without government support, but how long it takes to really start to displace oil and to really start to reduce these emissions is what’s at stake here.
GELLERMAN: Well, Jeremy Martin, thanks so much.
MARTIN: My pleasure, thank you.
GELLERMAN: Jeremy Martin is a biofuels expert and senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
[MUSIC: Bim Skala Bim “Silence” from Bim Skala Bim (Bimska Music 1986).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up – arctic warming and a new way to warn about extreme cold. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world's most pressing environmental problems, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Johnny Otis: “Harlem Nocturne” from The Essential Johnny Otis (Purple Pyramid/The Orchard 2001).]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Just ahead: as the frozen Arctic melts, nations discuss how to divvy up a cool trillion dollars worth of resources. But first this Note on Emerging Science from Jack Rodolico.
[SOUNDS OF NARWHALS]
RODOLICO: Narwhals have baffled humanity for hundreds of years. But a new study may answer some basic questions about the arctic whales: where do they go, and what are they doing when they get there?
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
RODOLICO: Narwhals are best known for their corkscrew tooth, or tusk, that grows up to nine feet out of their heads. A thousand years ago, their tusks were sold around the world as unicorn horns. But today scientists believe the tooth is a sensory organ, like an antenna. That may explain why narwhals seem to respond to large ships as far as 30 miles away.
But they don’t encounter ships often. Narwhals live in remote waters throughout the Arctic Ocean, making them a tricky whale to study. Now the World Wildlife Federation and the Canadian Government are working on a catch-and-release program so they can take a closer look at the large mammals.
A team of scientists on Baffin Island cast a big net along the beach and waited for narwhals to swim into it. They strapped satellite transmitters on seven narwhals. Now, the tracking devices beam data constantly, keeping the team informed about the mammals’ whereabouts. The researchers hope the transmitters will answer some basic questions about narwhal behavior, and perhaps even shed some light on the narwhal’s curious antenna. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Jack Rodolico.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
GELLERMAN: The rush is on in the resource rich Arctic. So in an effort to coordinate and manage the region, the eight nations with territory in the far north form the Arctic Council. Representatives from the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland, just met in Toronto to consider the fate of the council, and the Arctic.
Six indigenous communities have permanent participant status on the council, and at issue is whether they should allow China, Brazil and India to join several European nations as observers. Tony Penikett, former Premier of the Yukon, chaired this year's Arctic Council meeting. He says global warming in the region is a game changer.
PENIKETT: Well, suddenly the Arctic has become hot. Not only has climate change significantly reduced the polar ice cap that leads many people to believe that there’s greater access to the oil and gas resources that may be below the sea bed, but also that transportation routes across northern Russia and across northern Canada may be opened up sometime in the near future.
And, of course, countries like China and India that have a huge interest energy questions, and countries like South Korea and Singapore which have huge interests as far as shipping matters, would very much like to be in the room when these kinds of issues are discussed. The problem for some of the people, particularly the indigenous people, is that if very powerful non-Arctic states get into the room and start dominating the conversation, they’re worried that their voices would be drowned out.
GELLERMAN: So, what kind of riches are there in the Arctic, in terms of mineral resources, oil, gas?
PENIKETT: Well, there’s been a lot of, I think, unfortunate hype in many headlines around the world suggesting that there’s some kind of huge gold mine waiting to be plundered, you know, a kind of Wild West kind of way, Klondike Gold Rush kind of way. But even a responsible agency in Canada, the Geological Survey of Canada, estimates that in the high Arctic islands in Canada alone, there’s something like a trillion dollars worth of oil and gas.
GELLERMAN: Whoa. Do you mind…can the resources and the riches in the Arctic be safely extracted?
PENIKETT: Can they be done? I think the general rule is if they cant, if resources can’t be extracted sustainably, and if they can’t be done in a way that produces benefits for northern communities and for northern peoples, I think the general rule is, well, lets leave them in the ground.
GELLERMAN: Do you think that’s even conceivable when you’re talking about a trillion dollars of oil and gas?
PENIKETT: Yes, because that trillion dollars, which, of course, is a theoretical number, it’s very, they’re very hard to access. And, if you think about the Inuit who live in northern Canada, the Inuit are unique among all the peoples of the world because they didn’t just live on the coastline, but they actually lived, hunted, fished, and actually lived on the sea ice. That’s the sea ice which is now melting. These are people who have a huge stake and a huge interest in those resources and how they’re developed and how their environment is protected. And their view is very much that of stewards.
GELLERMAN: If the indigenous peoples say ‘no resource extraction in the Arctic homelands,’ do the world’s nations respect that?
PENIKETT: Well, you need to understand that in Alaska, in Canada and Greenland, as a result of the land claim settlements, indigenous people are themselves large landowners now. The Inuit in the eastern Arctic of Canada, in Nunavut, have a land claims settlement of 350,000 square kilometers. They collectively own that land, but they are in fact, the largest, private landowners in the world. The fact of the matter is that most of the new mines that are being developed in Nunavut are being developed on privately owned Inuit lands. And, so the major beneficiary from the development of those resources are, in fact, the Inuit people themselves.
GELLERMAN: It’s ironic. I mean, here we’re burning fossil fuels, we have global warming, the Arctic melts which makes it accessible, which allows us to extract, make it possible to extract, more carbon fossil fuels and more global warming.
PENIKETT: Well, the irony is certainly not lost on northern indigenous people. I mean Mary Simon, a Canadian Inuit leader who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in the same year that Al Gore won his on the climate change issue, often talks of the right of the Inuit to be cold. By that she means, their traditional environment was cold.
They would say, therefore, that just because they’re on the receiving end, or, if you like, among the first victims of climate change, should not be a reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to get some benefit from those resources in their ground if they are extracted. And in the Greenlanders, the Inuit in Greenland, the Greenlanders would say ‘yes, we’re going to develop responsibly, develop our oil and gas, because so far we’ve never benefited from the resources and we want to benefit from the resources so that we have some money to educate our future generations, to provide healthcare for them, but also to have the resources to protect their own environment.’
They don't want to be divorced from the world economy, but they do want to have more mastery of their own homelands.
GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Penikett, thank you so very much.
PENIKETT: It's a pleasure talking to you.
GELLERMAN: That's Tony Penikett, former Premier of the Yukon, and chairman of this year’s Arctic Council meeting which just concluded.
GELLERMAN: Well, the arctic village of Moriusaq is one of the northern most outposts in the world. It's on the northwest coast of Greenland. Population at last count, two.
And, the temperature there: minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Down right balmy. Here in New England it’s been a warm winter so far but things are getting chilly and I’m about to head out. Hey, Ike, you been outside recently?
SRISKANDARAJAH: Oh, hey, hey Bruce. Yeah, I was just out.
GELLERMAN: Is it cold out?
SRISKANDARAJAH: Yeah, it’s pretty cold out.
GELLERMAN: So, Ike, how cold is it?
SRISKANDARAJAH: Well, Bruce, it’s so cold I just chipped my tooth on soup!
GELLERMAN: (Laughs.) Ooh, that’s cold!
SRISKANDARAJAH: But, honestly, Bruce, in some places the cold is no laughing matter. I called a guy with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks North Dakota, his official title is warning coordination meteorologist. And, believe it or not, Bruce, his name is Greg Gust.
GUST: Some people wonder how that came to be. I didn’t plan it that way. Just something in the air. As you can see, I went into meteorology and not into comedy.
SRISKANDARAJAH: And that’s good. Warning people of dangerous weather is serious work.
GUST: Yes, that is correct.
SRISKANDARAJAH: And you’re in the business, this time of year, of telling people how cold it is?
GUST: Yes, except this winter, we’ve been incredibly mild so far, so I’m kind of halfway out of a job.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Don’t worry though, nature will keep Gust employed.
NORTH DAKOTA WEATHER FORECASTER: By five PM tomorrow, temperatures drop like a rock , below zero, as we get out off work on Wednesday.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Those frigid temperatures mean hunkering down for most North Dakotans. For the state’s forecasters, it means they get to unwrap a brand new advisory.
NORTH DAKOTA WEATHER FORECASTER: We’ve got a new advisory for this winter. An extreme cold watch from late tonight through Thursday morning. This is going to replace the wind chill watches and wind chill warnings for North Dakota.
GUST: To have a wind chill you typically have to have a wind. And quite often we have cold episodes that come in and they may start with a wind, but eventually the deep Arctic air mass settles in and the wind stops and now its extremely cold.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Hence the name:
GUST: It would be called extreme cold.
SRISKANDARAJAH: This year, seven states are trying out the new extreme cold warning that Alaska pioneered years ago. It takes wind chill out of the title but not out of the equation.
GUST: Typically, to get this you’re going to have temperatures somewhere in the 20 below or colder and some type of wind.
SRISKANDARAJAH: And if there’s no wind on a still, frigid night in North Dakota, temperatures between minus 30 to 35 will trigger the warning. But one meteorologist’s extreme cold, could just be another’s cold.
GUST: For instance, over in my colleague’s office over in Duluth, Minnesota they have a minus 40 for the trigger temperature.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Is that because they are five degrees tougher in Duluth?
GUST: (LAUGHS) It could be, it could be. Extreme cold is in the eye of the beholder.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Ask the question: ‘How cold is it?’ to two different National Weather Service offices and you’ll get different answers. Here’s two TV weather reports taken from the same day. In Fairbanks, Alaska:
ALASKA FORECASTER: It looks like the cold is sticking with us through the night. Forty-six below is our overnight high. They don’t even make graphics that can describe how cold it is outside. So, just the word ‘cold’ will do.
SRISKANDARAJAH: A word that doesn’t often appear on a Miami forecast:
MIAMI FORECATER: Good afternoon South Florida. Gorgeous afternoon for us. This is the type of weather that we love. Well, it’s a warm day today. We’ve got the upper 70s in Miami. Fort Lauderdale: 75.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The diagonal line from Fairbanks to Miami is almost 5,000 miles. John Lingaas at the northern-most Weather Service uses one word to describe the view from his office:
LINGAAS: Black! (LAUGHS) It’s still dark here in Fairbanks.
SRISKANDARAJAH: His counterpart, Jeral Estupinan, in Miami chooses another.
ESTUPINAN: During the winter months, it’s a paradise. You have a lot of different types of palm trees, sub tropical trees. There’s a lot of birds that have migrated.
SRISKANDARAJAH: But sometimes a cold front blows through paradise. When it gets in the lower 30s, below freezing, the South Florida Weather Service issues the warmest cold weather warnings in the country.
ESTUPINAN: In Miami Dade county you need a wind chill temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit to open a shelter. Fifty degrees Fahrenheit is probably much higher than any other places.
SRISKANDARAJAH: As for the coldest cold weather advisory, from Alaska, the state that invented extreme cold warning, you need to check three boxes.
LINGAAS: The first criterion is that the air temperature, as recorded near the surface, needs to be minus 50 degree Fahrenheit; the second criterion is colder than minus 35 up to about 10,000 feet; the third criteria is that those conditions have to persist for three or more days.
SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s when bush pilots stop flying because their hydraulics freeze and fuel turns to slush. So from minus 50 in Fairbanks to 50 in Miami, that’s a 100 degree swing for what Americans call cold. For being on the warm end, Miami meteorologists have to weather some insults.
ESUTPINAN: Yes, they do, they laugh at us. They say we’re weenies. They think we cannot put up with the cold. But then we laugh at them because they could not put up with the humidity.
SRISKANDARAJAH: So, how cold is it? Well it’s soooooo… relative. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.
[MUSIC: Ray Charles And Betty Carter “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles (Concord Music 2011).]
[SOUND OF MOVING WATER]
GELLERMAN: We leave you this week in India.
[ECHOING MUSIC, MOVING WATER]
GELLERMAN: The Indian subcontinent is a spiritual soundscape. Hildegard Westerkamp put together this audio collage. She gathered sounds of religious chants, morning prayers and holy places. This cut “Attending to Sacred Matters,” can be found on her CD “Into India.”
[Hildegard Westerkamp “Attending To Sacred Matters” from Into India: A Composers Journey (Earsay productions 2002).]
Hildegard Westerkamp: Into India
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, and Helen Palmer, with help from Sarah Calkins, Honah Liles, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Mary Bates and Sophie Golden. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes.
You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth Facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And you can follow us on Twitter - at livingonearth, that's one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
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