Tag Archives: Environment

The effects of windmills and other clean energy on birds

I’ve been collecting information on this topic for a while, and yesterday, I sat down to write a post that would clarify the question of the impacts of windmills on bird populations. It turns out, however, that I was totally unsatisfied with the available data on everything from windmills to building strikes to cats, so instead I wrote a post making that very point: We really have no idea. This is an interesting and important problem, though, so it is worth having a conversation about.

The post is here: “How many birds are killed by windmills and other green energy projects?

Climate Smart and Energy Wise

Climate Smart & Energy Wise: Advancing Science Literacy, Knowledge, and Know-How by Mark McCaffrey is a book written primarily for teachers, to give them the information and tools they need to bring the topic of climate change effectively to their classrooms. It addresses the Climate Literacy and Energy Literacy frameworks, designed to guide teaching this important topic.

The book provides basics on climate and energy, approaches to teaching about climate and energy, and of special interest for teachers, syncing the topics with existing standards. The main point of the book is to get teachers up to speed, but this is not restricted to teachers at a certain level, or for that matter, a certain topic, in that climate change and energy can be incorporated in a very wide range of electives and mainstream classes. The goal of teaching climate literacy is developed by focusing on the “seven essential principles”:

  1. The sun is the primary source of energy for Earth’s climate system.
  2. Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.
  3. Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate.
  4. Climate varies over space and time through both natural and human processes.
  5. Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observation, theoretical studies, and modeling.
  6. Human activities are impacting the climate system.
  7. Climate change will have consequences for the Earth system and human lives.

And, similarly, there are seven organizing concepts for teaching energy:

  1. Energy is a physical quantity that follows precise natural laws.
  2. Physical processes on Earth are the result of energy flow through the Earth system.
  3. Biological processes depend on energy flow through the Earth system.
  4. Various sources of energy can be used to power human activities, and often this energy must be transferred from source to destination.
  5. Energy decisions are influenced by economic, political, environmental, and social factors.
  6. The amount of energy used by human society depends on many factors.
  7. The quality of life of individuals and societies is affected by energy choices.

There is a chapter on countering denialism, and a chapter on mainstream activism.

Mark McCaffrey is the Programs and Policy Director for these topics at the National Center for Science Education, and this book is an NCSE project. McCaffrey has blogged about the contents of the book on the NCSE blog; his first entry is here. In his own words:

…if well presented and handled with creativity and care, climate and energy issues are ideal interdisciplinary and integrating themes, potentially linking the sciences with mathematics, language arts, geography, history, arts, social studies and civics, and at the college level, bringing in psychology, sociology, writing and rhetoric, philosophy, business…. You get the picture.

Most importantly, climate and energy are topics that are imperative to teach if we are going to effectively respond to these challenges, and make informed climate and energy decisions.

Climate Smart & Energy Wise: Advancing Science Literacy, Knowledge, and Know-How is well written, well laid out, a good read but also an excellent on-the-shelf reference book for educators designing or updating courses. It is coming out later this month and costs only $25.00. A great gift for your favorite teacher!

The figure at the top of the post is from the book.

California's Drought and California's Response

Last month, listening to NPR, I learned that Sacramento, California is struggling with the installation of water meters on homes. There were two things I learned, both ungood: 1) Sacramento was installing water meters on homes, meaning, that they hadn’t been there all along. I found that astounding because water meters are the first line of defense in controlling water use. Charge people for the water and they’ll pay attention to the drippy faucet, they’ll be more likely to remember to turn off the sprinkler, maybe they’ll think about investing in more efficient water-using appliances. Or maybe they’ll just throw a brick in the back of the toilet. 2) The way they were installing the water meters seemed to guarantee that it would take the longest possible time to complete the job. I wondered if this was a deal, tacit or otherwise, between the contractors and the city, because the way they are doing it involved a lot more work for the contractors. Seemed to me that getting the water meters in place would be urgent, and dealing with other aspects of the infrastructure could be handled later.

In January, Governor Jerry Brown asked Californians to use less water. They didn’t. That is surprising because I thought everybody in California was a tree-hugging ex-hippie liberal, the sort of person who would come up to the plate to save the earth any day of the week, not just on Earth Day. Turns out, that’s only the people I know in California. Now, California is imposing mandatory water restrictions, which include fines. Now the Libertarians will have to pay if they want to be all Libertarian about using water.

In the meantime I’ve had a few conversations, on Twitter and Facebook mainly, but also here, about this. My friends and I found ourselves grumbling about California. Hey, I live a few miles from the Mississippi River on a glacial lake covered with a sand sheet. Couldn’t get much better aquifer than that; the rain falls, goes straight underground with minimal evaporation or runoff, and sits there ready to pump into the ubiquitous water towers that define most upper Midwestern and Plains cities. But we have mandatory water restrictions, usually for several weeks starting in mid summer, every year. Also, I’ve lived in several sates and there were always water meters. Always. How is it that California, suffering a severe to extreme drought statewide, has entire cities (at least a couple) without water meters, and only now has considered serious water restrictions? What gives, we grumbled? Why should we feel sorry for California when they seem to have brought at least part of this water shortage problem on themselves?

The whole thing made so little sense that I guessed that there was more to it. There must be context I’m unaware of, nuance I’m missing. And, a colleague of mine, it turns out, is one of the world’s leading experts on water in California. So, I sent him, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, a note asking him if he could ‘spain all this. (Peter also blogs here at Scienceblogs.) He wrote back that I had just ruined his weekend by adding the last straw to the camels’ back; this is an issue he’d been thinking about writing a blog post on, and now he was going to have to do it.

So he did: Why Has the Response to the California Drought Been so Weak?

I couldn't find the image I remember from the museum, which showed a broad landscape with many wells like this one, in what was to later be developed as Las Vegas.
I couldn’t find the image I remember from the museum, which showed a broad landscape with many wells like this one, in what was to later be developed as Las Vegas.
Peter’s post contextualizes and adds nuance to most of my questions. I still think we have an open question that applies generally, not just to California: Why is it that we humans are so bad at doing what we already know is the right thing? Or, in some cases, don’t know but would if we only looked around a bit. As a New Yorker (who also lived in Boston for quite a while) this question has troubled me since the day I moved to Minnesota. I see so many problems here that are developing (or in some cases well developed) with the undirected evolution of our infrastructure, cityscape, sub- and ex-urb layout, and other things that, I think, could be avoided if only those in charge of planning, and local political and economic leaders, would spend a year or so living in the East Coast Metropolis. Apparently, California isn’t as coastal as often claimed. It is a former frontier, a frontier not so long ago, settled by people who forgot their roots the moment they pulled them up.

Years ago I visited the Las Vegas History Museum at the University of Nevada. Among the many displays there was a post card that blew my mind. The post card sported a photograph of dozens, possibly hundreds of artesian wells that had been tapped and let blow. It was a large, very gently sloped plain (the part of the city that today slopes down towards Lake Mead, east of the main core of the city) and each of the wells was sending up what looked like a geyser but was really just water spewing out of the ground. The point of the photograph, said to have been widely distributed back east, was to show that there is unlimited water here in the middle of the desert. Don’t let thoughts of aridity dry up your plans to come here and build! The water spews out of the ground!

The think is, not long (weeks?) after the artesian wells were tapped, tapped entirely for one purpose, to make this photograph of unlimited water, the wells ran dry. The marketing effort caused the demise of the local aquifer, right then and there. And Las Vegas, with its fountains, golf courses, extensive unchecked development, is as stupid today as it was then. This poignantly exemplifies the true frontier spirit that facilitated the settling of the west. That and a lot of guns.

Go read Peter’s post before you get mad at California for the reasons cited above, for only now metering and only now restricting water. Don’t worry, you can still be mad at California, but with the additional context supplied by Peter, your annoyance will be appropriately nuanced and informed. They are still doing it wrong. They are just doing it wrong in ways more complex and, in some cases, depressing, than you may have been thinking.

Forum: Science, Democracy, and a Healthy Food Policy

I recently wrote a post called “Did you ever wonder how you are going to die?” which was my response to a forum at the Humphrey Center, University of Minnesota, organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Science, Democracy, and a Healthy Food Policy: How Citizens, Scientists, and Public Health Advocates Can Partner to Forge a Better Future“.

It was a great forum, with sessions moderated by my friend Don Shelby, and including an absolutely excellent group of speakers and discussants. Every single one of the talks was excellent, and the panel discussions were amazing.

It is a little long, 2 hours and 47 minutes, but it is worth watching every bit of it. The Surgeon General couldn’t be there but he beamed himself in via satellite, and gave a great big-picture talk on the effect of food systems and the public’s health. Richard Salvador, director of the UCS Food and Environment program (30:20) gave a great talk in which he made a very important point about the recent evolution of our food supply system, and touched on points I often make when teaching about the evolution of human diet. I plan to use his talk in class in the future. RT Rybak, (53:30) Mayor of Minneapolis until the last election (he did not run for re-election) is one of the best mayors anyone ever had anywhere, and while he was in office spent considerable effort supporting and developing local food growing programs. Following his talk, during the session and later on during post-forum conversations at the reception and dinner, it was often re-stated that “the first thing you need to do as a city concerned with healthy food supplies is to get a mayor like RT Rybak.”

The forum discussion started around 1:10, and there is too much there for me to summarize. Paula Daniels said some stuff that compelled me to hunter her down and ask more questions after the event. Pakau Hang was the audience’s favorite, with her discussion of dealing with the food supply from the point of view of a community that provides much of our locally grown food in the Twin Cities. Edward Ehlinger, the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Health blew me and everyone else away with his high level of discussion and clear and present inspirational competence. Shawn Otto, who was not part of the forum but with whom I was sitting, noted later in conversation that Governor Mark Dayton had done an excellent job putting truly outstanding people in important positions in the Minnesota government, Ehlinger being an example of that. But it was all good, just watch it. Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy (UCS) gave a great summary at the end.

I also enjoyed meeting my internet friend Michael Halpern, and having a long and engaging conversation with UCS senior analyst Pallavi Phartiyal.

Background information on the forum is HERE. A video of the entire thing is at that site as well as below, watch it!

Then, GO HERE and join or donate to the Union of Concerned Scientists!

What is killing the bees? It's the neonicotinoids, for sure.


I want to start out by welcoming all you bee experts who think it is not the neonicotinoids, or that it is not so simple, to make your case in the comments. There is a great deal of controversy over what is causing bees to die off. That controversy even impinges on how we describe the thing we are talking about. Notice that I’ve not used the term “colony collapse disorder” because that is a term that may have been misused, or at least, that people who know stuff have noted has been used incorrectly thus mucking up the discussion.

Here’s the thing. There is a bee crisis. Specifically, bees are an important part of modern horticulture and industrialized farming in that they pollinate many crops. Every year professional bee keepers supply bees for this purpose. These are generally not native bees just doing their jobs, but rather, just as much part of the modern technology of growing food as are combines and crop dusters. Every year, the bee keepers put their bees away (more or less) for the winter, and in the spring, the wintered-over bee colonies are ready to go to work. Every year, a certain number of bee colonies do not survive that process, but they are replaced by other new colonies that fork off from the colonies that do survive. In recent decades, the number of bee colonies in this commercial setting that don’t survive the cycle has gone up, and this is associated with other worrying variables such as reduced population size in individual colonies, etc.

There has been a big fight over what causes the collapse. One of the primary suspects is neonicotinoids, a chemical that is spewed across the fields in order to kill insects. It was suggested some time ago that the decline of a particular insect, bees, might be caused by the wide spread use of a chemical designed to kill insects, neonicotinoids.

Who would have thought?

The idea was, of course, preposterous, because why would insect killing juice kill insects? Also, Big Ag owns a lot of the researchers, right? A lot of people are going to lose their jobs (as Vice Presidents In Charge of Killing Insects, or whatever) if it turns out that their insecticides kill insects. And, a very large amount of the research done these days in Ag is done by people with professorships, labs, fellowship, grants, etc with names like “Cargill” and “Monsanto” … which of course means NOTHING … why would paying for people’s careers ever influence what they do with those careers.

Anyway, I’m told that the jury is in and neonicotinoids are convicted. I am personally not going to support this argument one way or another for one simple reason: I don’t know what I’m talking about. I do not know enough about the details of how neonicotinoids kill insects, so I certainly can’t easily understand the process whereby neonicotinoids DON’T affect bees in particular, so I’m certainly not going to understand the process of how neonicotinoids kill insects but not bees but end up killing the bees anyway.

But you can read about it here: Environment: Smoking gun in honey bee die-off?

Big Ag. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

(In case anyone didn’t get the subtext here I’ll repeat one item in clearer language: The bees are part of Big Ag. They are not part of the natural environment being messed up by Big Ag. So this is kind of like one kind of tractor being run over and crushed by another kind of factor.)

OK, start fighting:

Energy Connections: Shocking climate change vs. shocking solar power

One of the most important realizations of climate change research is exemplified in this graphic from Weather Uderground:

Caption from original: "Rate of temperature change today (red) and in the PETM (blue). Temperature rose steadily in the PETM due to the slow release of greenhouse gas (around 2 billion tons per year). Today, fossil fuel burning is leading to 30 billion tons of carbon released into the atmosphere every year, driving temperature up at an incredible rate.:
Caption from original: “Rate of temperature change today (red) and in the PETM (blue). Temperature rose steadily in the PETM due to the slow release of greenhouse gas (around 2 billion tons per year). Today, fossil fuel burning is leading to 30 billion tons of carbon released into the atmosphere every year, driving temperature up at an incredible rate.:

The point is this. The PETM (Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, millions of years ago) was a period of high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere which caused significant warming. It is an example of both relatively rapid and intense climate change caused by CO2 acting as a greenhouse gas. The red line is, of course, our current estimated rate of change given current rates of release of fossil carbon into the atmosphere. This gives scientists pause because the rate of change in a system is often a more significant factor than the state of a system after the change. A simple example is motion. Assume you are standing on a commuter train moving at 50 km/h. If the train suddenly sped up to 100 km/h it might knock you down and even cause injury. But if the train increased its speed by 1 or 2 km/h every minute or so, you would not even notice and eventually you would be cruising along happily at double the speed.

It isn’t just the high rate of change in climate that concerns us. It is also the fact that this rate of change has never been observed in nature; we have no record of such a rapid and large change happening in the paleo record. For many aspects of the Earth’s climate system, we simply don’t know what would happen under such rapid change because there is no point of reference, no precedent, for such a thing.

But there is another graph that also shows a very high rate of change, in a different system, that may allow us to feel a bit better. One way to avoid such an increase in release of fossil Carbon is to rapidly transition to non-Carbon sources of energy such as solar. One way for that to happen is if solar energy become economically more viable very quickly. Ideally, the rate of change in the economic viability of solar energy would be very fast, enough to knock you off your metaphorical feet. And, apparently, that is the case. From a study described here:

From the source: "Solar is now – in the right conditions – cheaper than oil and Asian LNG on an MMBTU basis. Yes, we are using utility- scale solar costs in developing markets with lots of sun. But that describes the growth markets for global energy today. For these markets solar is just cheap, clean, convenient, reliable energy. And since it is a technology, it will get even cheaper over time. Fossil fuel extraction costs will keep rising. "
From the source: “Solar is now – in the right conditions – cheaper than oil and Asian LNG on an MMBTU basis. Yes, we are using utility- scale solar costs in developing markets with lots of sun. But that describes the growth markets for global energy today. For these markets solar is just cheap, clean, convenient, reliable energy. And since it is a technology, it will get even cheaper over time. Fossil fuel extraction costs will keep rising. “

There are caveats, as noted. But solar power is, seemingly going to have its day in the sun sooner than later.

Peak Oil vs. Peak Chocolate Chip Cookies

Peak Oil is a controversial concept. Some people actually think that the production of oil in nature is continuous (which is a tiny bit, but hardly at all, true) so we can keep pumping oil out of the ground and it will just keep being produced by tiny microbes. But aside from that particular, and annoying, made-up controversy, “real” Peak Oil (or should I say Peak Real Oil) is still controversial. Peak Oil is defined as the moment when the maximum rate of petroleum extraction occurs, and thereafter production declines steadily, like on a bell curve. But that is, in my view, the wrong way to look at it. I would like to propose a different way, and to understand this approach we first must understand chocolate chip cookies. Which is not difficult.

If you make a batch of chocolate chip cookies, then everyone in the house starts to eat them, when does “Peak Chocolate Chip Cookies” occur? Obviously, this occurs the moment the chocolate chip cookies are pulled out of the oven. That is when the maximum number of cookies are available. Subsequent “extraction” rates are not a function of cookie availability, but rather, the social politics of the household, the number of hungry people, and other factors. The cookies will be “extracted” at any one of a number of rate functions. Often, the initial number of cookies extracted from the cooling rack, cookie plate, or cookie jar starts out very slow because they are too hot and have not achieved structural stability so they are hard to eat, especially for dunkers. But then the rate may go way up and then, because the cookies are being consumed rapidly, and/or people become sated, it may go down. Or, the baker of the cookies may bake them in secret and hide them in the cookie jar until after dinner, then reveal the existence of the cookies at which time peak extraction commences. Or there may be house rules as to how many cookies everyone can eat which will affect the rate of extraction. And so on. But no matter what, Peak Cookie happened the moment the cookies were pulled, baked, from the oven. (We will leave the consumption of cookie dough prior to baking for discussion at another time.) The point is, it is easy to see that “Peak Cookie” happens at the moment baking ends, and the variation in extraction rate thereafter is a function of many factors that will vary from household to household and from time to time. And all those factors are important events or processes. Peak Cookie, as a concept, is uninformative of the social dynamics, demographics, and collective individual proclivities of the household, which really are the things that matter.

This analogy reveals the fact that the “peak” (measured as production) is only part of a function of how much substance (cookies, oil) there is, and is, until the amount of substance is just about to run out, more a function of other things. For oil, this includes knowledge (of oil deposits), technology (to extract harder to get at oil), geopolitics (some oil is in countries that are currently in a snit, or that we don’t talk to), and of course, economics.

And, really, what I want to know about, and what you want to know about, is our own personal peak oil, or more manageably, our encompassing society’s peak oil. For instance, if a large deposit of oil is unavailable because we say so (for conservation reasons unrelated to petroleum) or political reasons (because it is buried beneath an enemy’s territory) then we can’t count that oil in our calculations of availability, and thus, extraction. Oil that is in our own country and not under a national park, on the other hand, is different.

In this way, perhaps a better way to think about Peak Oil is to look at the historical complexity of the process of bringing this fossil (oil is a fossil) to a place and refine it to a form that we can burn in our homes, cars or factories. Looked at it this way, from the perspective of the United States, we have had several “Peak Oil” moments.

Not counting whale oil, we experienced our first Peak Oil moment when the vast oil fields in Texas and Oklahoma and a few other places started to dry up. When that happened we started to buy more oil from countries that we really had very little respect or love for. Today, we get a fair amount of oil from a region of the world where we occasionally have to go to war to keep that oil supply open. And, we have to look the other way when the governments of those countries continue with highly objectionable policies. Imagine having a two grocery stores near your house. One of them is run by a really nice family, pillars of the community, your kids go to school with their kids, everything is fine. The other is run by a paroled sex offender who is also suspected of being a mass murderer. Plus he is a jerk. At first you always get your groceries at the store run by the nice family. But then they retire and move to Florida and you are now forced to do business with the child molesting, mass murdering jerk, because you really have no other option. That is a moment when the cost of grocery shopping, no matter what the cost of the actual groceries, becomes very high. That is a kind of peak groceries. It has little to do with the economics of the groceries. And yes, “Peak Oil” as traditionally defined is usually embedded in an economic model. This is why my suggestion of what “Peak Oil” means is different: When you (metaphorically) sell your soul to continue to obtain a resource, you’ve reached a moment in time that is very important.

The initiation of serious off shore drilling is another moment in the extraction of oil. Off shore drilling is expensive and dangerous at many levels. In the United States we shifted towards off shore drilling as our on-land deposits were worn out, and because it is somewhat cheaper (sometimes) to take nearby offshore oil than foreign near-the-surface on-land oil, and for geopolitical reasons. Those costs may not always be expressed in the “spot” prices of oil in dollars per barrel. But they are real costs.

Fracking is something that has been done for years. It is a nice trick to extract more from a deposit that has started to become tenacious. The technique is used for water, liquid petroleum, and gas. It is messy and expensive and usually results in a flow of product that soon diminishes, so whatever investment was made in the process initially does not have long term benefit. When you start fracking, that means you’ve reached one of those peaks. You are doing something you really didn’t want to do because availability or cost of the same product through other means is diminished.

The Canadian Oil Sands and other tar sands type oil has been known of for years, but it has been very little exploited. It is dirty, dangerous, expensive, and often inconveniently located. But we have been using more and more of this undesirable resource, and we are talking about using a LOT more of it in the near future. The costs of using this type of resource, aside from the continued pouring of fossil carbon (as carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere, are huge. But we are doing it. Another peak.

The alternative way of thinking about Peak Oil proposed here has the benefit of being more realistic and useful because it identifies not one peak but rather multiple peaks. Also, and this is important, one aspect of this definition of Peak Oil that is new is not to measure price or some overall measure of availability which might exclude significant costs (known as “external costs”), but rather, to identify the things we really do to continue to extract the resource. Over time we are doing more and more difficult and costly things, with many of these costs going well beyond price of the product. Such extra costs include deadly warfare and allowing governments and media to be taken over by the petroleum industry with all sorts of negative side effects that go well beyond the extraction, refining, and shipping of petroleum products.

Every major shift in strategy of access to ancient petroleum can be interrogated as a possible “Peak Oil” moment.

Yes, yes, I fully understand that I’ve strayed very far away from the usual definition of Peak Oil. But in so doing, I think I’ve pointed out a more important reality inherent in the business of extracting a non-renewable resource from the earth. A simple Peak Oil curve is the subject of a great deal of argument and speculation. The problem is, this argument and speculation tends to miss the point. We are like an addict with easy access to some drug that is highly addictive, gets you really high, is not too expensive, and can be easily obtained. Then the drug source runs dry so we seek out shadier sources and start to get in trouble. Then those sources start to dry up so we turn to different drugs with more severe health effects. But that starts to become less available, and paying for it gets more difficult so, eventually, we start rooting around under the sink for anything that looks consumable and might serve to get us high or at least, knock us unconscious. Eventually, we hit the drain cleaner. That kills us. There was not a smooth curve of availability of opium that went smoothly up and down. Rather, there was a series of shifts from a not so bad thing to a worse thing to an even worse thing to the horrid end and they find our body under the back porch where we were rooting through the recycling looking for spent cans of shaving cream.

Peak Oil is a gloss. The real story is a tragedy with several acts.

Peak Oil graph from Wikipedia

Nonferrous Mineral Mining in Minnesota: An Issue of Science Policy

This is mainly about copper mining in a part of Minnesota that has previously seen extensive iron mining. Most mineral rights across Minnesota are owned by the state, which then may lease rights to miners. Recently, 31 nonferrous mineral leases were approved by the Minnesota Executive Council, which consists of Governor Dayton, Secretary of State Ritchie, State Auditor Otto, Attorney General Swanson, and Lt. Governor Prettner-Solon. It was a four to one vote with Otto voting no.

The reason that Rebecca Otto voted no is that she felt the science based policy justifying these leases was not fully developed, and that there are potential significant long-term effect that had not bee fully accounted for. Matt Ehling wrote a piece for the Star Tribute, reposted on Otto’s state web site, which stated in part:

… During the comment period before to the vote, industry representatives framed the approval of the leases as just one part of a longer process. Lieutenant Governor Prettner-Solon offered similar sentiments, and stated that rigorous environmental oversight – along with public comment – would follow in the event that major exploration or mining project proposals were submitted.

Upon inquiry from Governor Dayton, Department of Natural Resource (DNR) Commissioner Tom Landwehr stated that such project proposals would constitute public information, but would generally not be made available to the public short of a Data Practices Act request. Governor Dayton then directed Commissioner Landwehr to affirmatively make any lease-related proposals available to the public.

The council’s lone “no” vote, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, stated that she had had “a revelation” early the morning of the meeting that informed her vote. “We have not done copper sulfide mining in this state yet,” said Otto. She expressed concerns about potential fiscal burdens associated with copper sulfide mining that might be placed on future generations. Secretary of State Ritchie expressed concerns about the process generally.

And in a Minnesota Public Radio interview with Cathy Wurzer, Otto explained:

My concern really boils down to the financial assurance that we’re going to require. Really what that is is it’s a damage deposit we’re going to require from the mining companies so that if something goes wrong, that they are on the hook for the cleanup costs.

They’re estimating 500 years of water treatment after operation at the PolyMet’s mine. My concern, then, is how do we calculate the cost for that to make sure we get an adequate damage deposit. Five hundred years.

That’s an awfully long time, so do we really know how to calculate these numbers right so that taxpayers aren’t left with the cleanup costs after these mines close? And do we know what form of financial assurances to get? These companies quite often have gone bankrupt, and are taxpayers going to be protected if there’s a bankruptcy? Severe weather events.

We’ve had more of those recently. Are we going to factor in the cost potentially of a severe weather event and what that could do?

So it’s really about being proactive and preventative and making sure these companies have real skin in the game in their financial assurances that they must provide so that they’re incented to get this right and don’t damage our water quality and leave cleanup costs to the taxpayers.

Mining equals jobs and is good for the economy. But mining is one of the most environmentally destructive activities we undertake as a species, especially in terms of local effects. Also, mining is one of those industries that in the past has often been carried out, it seems, without proper attention to “external” costs, meaning the costs not paid by the mining companies and thus not on the hypothetical spreadsheet of inputs and outputs. In that interview, Otto was asked, “Those who support copper-nickel mining say we have more to gain financially than to lose with more jobs, tax revenue. As someone who has argued for protecting taxpayers, does that argument hold water for you?: Her reply:

It could. There could be gains. There could be loss. I’ve looked at U.S. Government Accountability reports kind of looking at the track record of this type of mining around the country, and quite often the taxpayers are left on the hook.

The devil is in the details on this. Minnesota does not have experience with this type of mining, we have not calculated these numbers before. I don’t know that even with the mining we’ve got now we’ve gotten the financial assurances right, nor the right forms.

As a state there are things we don’t know all the time and we’ve made mistakes. In this day in age with some of the pressures we have with the economy and people retiring, we must get this right and spend the time. Otherwise what we could end up doing is privatizing the gain and socializing the pain.

What Otto is looking for is not a way to stop mining, but rather, a way to address the ultimate, true costs of the operation especially as they would be incurred by taxpayers statewide (that is what the State Auditor does!). Meanwhile, industry is naturally looking for ways to externalize costs and thus maximize profits. The problem is that we don’t know enough about the external costs, and it may be the case that the development of this economic activity is proceeding as though we do. This is an excellent example of well researched and developed science-based policy being very much needed, and at least one science-oriented elected official trying to see to it that this happens.

For Minnesotans, expect nonferrous mining to be an issue in several upcoming races. I hope that this does not become a slug-match between an unadulterated “pro-mining” stance and an unadulterated “anti-mining” stance because, surely, the science policy will be lost in such a fray. Let’s try to do this right, which means doing it intelligently.

The 4-methylcyclohexane methanol spill in West Virginia (Coal cleaning chemical)

4-methylcyclohexane methanol is a chemical used to clean coal before it is burned. As you know a region of southern West Virginia where upwards of 100,000 people live has been affected by a spill of this chemical; the water supply in this area has been made unavailable for human use. A 48,000 gallon storage tank for 4-methylcyclohexane methanol has been leaking the chemical into the Elk River, which is part of the municipal water supply in the area.

Apparently there isn’t a lot known about this particular chemical. It’s chemical name is scary looking, and resembles the names of other better known chemicals that are really toxic. But it is also a form of alcohol. How bad can that be?

I wonder if the various chemistry experts out there could comment on this chemical.

Given the nature of the molecule, is it likely to be toxic? To bio-accumulate? To evaporate over time, or not? Even though there is apparently no way to clean the water of this chemical in place would that be something that could be easily implemented?

Is this region of West Virginia now uninhabitable for the next few decades or is this chemical going to degrade and/or disperse to a harmless level in a few weeks?

Any ideas?

Sources of information:



Debora Blum


Salon: Little is known

America’s Dangerous Pipelines

I think there is a belief that pipelines are safer than trucks,trains, or boats for shipping liquid hydrocarbon fuels. That may actually be true. I don’t know what would happen if we stopped all the pipelines and switched to vehicles. But the idea that pipelines are safe is absurd and it is time people started to realize this.

The Center for Biological Diversity has posted an interesting analysis by Richard Stover, which we can see in the form of a video.

This time-lapse video shows pipeline incidents from 1986 to 2013, relying on publicly available data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Only incidents classified as “significant” by the agency are shown in the video. “Significant” incidents include those in which someone was hospitalized or killed, damages amounted to more than $50,000, more than 5 barrels of highly volatile substances or 50 barrels of other liquid were released, or where the liquid exploded or burned.

Most of what is spilled is oil, but there is also liquified natural gas, gasoline, diesel, propane, LP, jet fuel and other substances. The original post has a lot of other information, you should check it out.

Hat Tip: Paul Douglas.

The Problem With The Global Food Supply: New Research

Emily S Cassidy, Paul C West, James S Gerber and Jonathan A Foley, from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, have produced a very important study for IOP Science Environmental Research Letters. (This is OpenAccess so you can access it openly!) You know Emily as one of the participants in our CONvergence panel on food last July. The research Emily and her colleagues do is some of the most important work being done right now, because it is about the food supply.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe bottom line is this: When we look at our food supply, we find that a large amount of what is grown in agricultural fields does not make it into the stomachs of people. There is a lot of waste, there are problems with delivery and distribution, and so on. But what this study looks at is the percentage of potential calories that go to non-food final products, or do get into our diets but do so in a way that significantly reduces the efficiency of the system. There has been a huge increase (percentage wise) in how much field crop is used for biofuels instead of food, but the total amount now is still only 4%. Also, one could argue that this is good use of field crops if the production of biofuels reduces carbon emissions (which is only partly the case). More importantly, a huge amount of the corn and other crops (but mainly corn) that is grown is used as animal feed, and only about 12% of that, in terms of calories, ends up in the human diet. The reduction is because as we move up trophic levels, energy is taken out of the flow.

This graphic from Cassidy et al shows the distribution of calories across food and non-food destinations:

Figure 2. Calorie delivery and losses from major crops. Calories delivered are shown in green (this includes plant and animal calories) and calories that are lost to meat and dairy conversion as well as biofuels and other uses are shown in red.
Figure 2. Calorie delivery and losses from major crops. Calories delivered are shown in green (this includes plant and animal calories) and calories that are lost to meat and dairy conversion as well as biofuels and other uses are shown in red.

The graphic at the top of the post is also from the paper, and has this caption: “Figure 1. Calorie delivery fraction per hectare. The proportions of produced calories that are delivered as food are shown.” The thing to note here is the unevenness across the globe in efficiency of calorie production-to-plate. There seems to be a latitude effect, and I wonder if that has anything to do with the environment and seasonality. But the largest contributor to this variation in efficiency is probably simply the amount of meat in regional diets. As Emily points out in the video that accompanies the paper, even small changes in dietary practices can result in large changes in ultimate agricultural productivity.

We, as a species, need to eat less meat. In particular, certain groups of people, like Americans, need to eat less meat. So let’s do that: Eat less meat!

As an aside, Emily is a friend and colleague and I’ve been really impressed with her work and have been very excited to see these important results coming out. Go Emily! (And co-authors, of course.)

Cassidy, Emily, West, Paul, Gerber, James, & Foley, Jonathan (2013). Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare IOP Science, 8 (2) DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015

If Earth was your mother, she’d hold you under water in one rocky hand until you no longer bubbled

A collection of videos … that you will enjoy.

BBC Wonders of Life Trailer:

Climate 2013: Perspectives of 8 Scientists:

Chasing Ice movie reveals largest iceberg break-up ever filmed:

Kathleen Dean Moore at Nobel Conference 48 on the greatest violation of human rights ever seen:

With all due respect to the introducers, the talk actually starts at 8 minutes. Also, the best line delivered in any talk this year starts just after 42 minutes and 50 seconds (but really, start at 40:40 for best effect). It would be interesting to hear comments about the religious vs. secular approaches both suggested by Moore.

Do Neonicotinoid Pesticides Contributed to the Complex Thing We Call Bee Colony Collapse?

ResearchBlogging.orgA commonly used insecticide, and possibly an increasingly widely used form of that pesticide, could be a causal factor in bee colony collapse. It is not 100% certain that this pesticide’s effects can be counted as one of the causes this problem, but there is a very good chance that neonicotinoids can cause a drop in hive population, and thus, should be examined to see if there is a relationship in some cases. From the paper’s abstract:

Nonlethal exposure of honey bees to thiamethoxam (neonicotinoid systemic pesticide) causes high mortality due to homing failure at levels that could put a colony at risk of collapse. Simulated exposure events on free-ranging foragers labeled with an RFID tag suggest that homing is impaired by thiamethoxam intoxication. These experiments offer new insights into the consequences of common neonicotinoid pesticides used worldwide.

Continue reading Do Neonicotinoid Pesticides Contributed to the Complex Thing We Call Bee Colony Collapse?