air pollution

Wellness Wednesday: Houston, we have a problem

NASA Flight path over Valley, Photo from NASA
The problem being air quality in the Central Valley. It’s no surprise that the Valley has some of the worst air pollution in the state of California. One, this is a valley and pollutants happily settle in between mountain ranges. Two, this is the agricultural hub of the country (think dirty industry). Three, population continues to rise which means so does automobile use and other polluting factors. One, two, three equals bad air for you and me. 

Ewww - Jan. 22nd over Fresno, Photo from NASA
If you have seen a large plane circling the Valley, have no fear, NASA is hereNASA’s DISCOVER-AQ (short for ‘Deriving Information on Surface conditions from Column and Vertically Resolved Observations Relevant to Air Quality’) mission is a $30 million effort to measure air pollution. Flights began in January and will continue through February in order to get a sampling of agricultural and vehicle traffic areas from Bakersfield to Fresno. Findings will help our local Air District get a better idea of what is floating in our air, how to better predict pollution, and lay out the next steps for improvement efforts.  

As the SJVCEO likes to say, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Let’s hope this serves as a piece to the puzzle and moves California that much closer to fixing our air quality.
Throwback! Fig and Olive, plus two siblings say 'please clean up the air for all future generations!', Photo from Fig and Olive's mom

You dirty rat: Global warming's fossil fuel friends

The temperature is a little warm.

The forecast for this early August day called for 111 degrees in Fresno/Clovis, Calif. where I live. That's relatively common in this region, where 40 or more days above 100 is common for summer. But it appears more of the United States is in for similar treatment.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center says July was the hottest month in recorded history.

In fact, its State of the Climate report says, January through July was the warmest first seven months of any year on record for the contiguous United States. The national temperature of 56.4 degrees was 4.3 degrees above the long-term average, with only the Pacific Northwest, which was near average, bucking the trend.

And of course Alaska's a bit cooler. My friend Steve likes to post data on his runs in Anchorage's scenic Kincaid Park. The latest was 55 degrees. Sweltering.

Superheating the atmosphere

This temperature stuff is more than just fodder for oblique discussions of the weather. The ramifications are huge, and most scientists predict dire consequences should the trend not be reversed.


Author and climate activist Bill McKibben spells out the scenario in stark terms. In a piece for Rolling Stone, which has some of the best investigative journalism in the country, he highlights three numbers to watch.

The first is 2 degrees Celsius, which refers to the window the world has before it succumbs to significant effects of climate change. The second is 563 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which refers to the amount of climate warming pollutants that can be released before we hit that two degree threshold.

Carbon dioxide, public enemy

The third, and perhaps most significant McKibben number, is 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide. That's the amount of carbon locked up in all the known reserves of oil and coal. Should those reserves be exploited and the fossil fuels burned, we'll be well on the path to universal environmental destruction.

The cost would be astronomical, the devastation unparalleled.

The path to dealing with this appears obvious. Or relatively. Fossil fuels stand as the most costly fuel on the planet. But society would prefer to kick the can to the next generation.

Who's the bad guy?

Pushing fossil fuels

McKibben says it's obvious.The bad guys are coal and oil executives.

"Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it's not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell," he says.

Unfortunately, the oil companies hold the enviable position of having more money than their critics. While BP reported a loss of $2.2 billion for the second quarter of 2012, it's still doing fine. That compares with net profit of $5.7 billion for the same period a year earlier.

The Associated Press reports BP's revenue for the quarter declined 9 percent and the company set aside another $847 million for the Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster and cleanup, "taking the total provision to just over $38 billion."

Money is the game

Not a problem. BP can afford it. In fact, it's created an ad campaign that portrays the company in such beneficent terms, its past fades to distant-memory status. Says Hamilton Nolan of gawker.com: "Remember how BP's relentless pursuit of profits at the expense of safety caused the Gulf of Mexico to be flooded with oil a little while ago? No. I don't remember that. Do you? Hmm. What I do remember is BP's absolutely awesome Olympic spirit!"



Earnings-wise, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil fared better with Shell posting second quarter profit of $5.7 billion, down 13 percent from the same period a year earlier, and Exxon showing $8.4 billion, down 22 percent, according to the New York Times. Reporter Clifford Krauss quotes Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson saying, “Despite global economic uncertainty, we continue to invest throughout the business cycle, taking a long-term view of resource development.”

Talk like that drives McKibben nuts. "There's not a more reckless man on the planet," he says of Tillerson. He adds that Tillerson told Wall Street analysts he plans to spend $37 billion on a year on exploration through 2016.

Averting disaster

The problem is that oil companies hold the future of the planet in their hands, and as long as they keep making scads of money, they won't be backing away from extracting, refining and burning as much of their fossil fuel reserves as possible. McKibben says the only way to deal with this is to tax carbon, making alternative energy more economical.

Of course, alternative energy is currently struggling its way to fossil-fuel parity already. But it could use a boost.

In the meantime, McKibben says the best recourse is moral outrage for those who would like to stop this pell-mell push to global warming. Enemy No. 1 is not Jimmy Cagney, nor is it Snidely Whiplash (both personal favorites). It's a bunch of rich executives ruining the globe for a few dollars more.

Emissions boost the case for clean energy

Two facts make clean energy unbeatable: air pollution and its friend climate change.

Sure there are naysayers. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was quoted as saying, "Scientists are 'coming forward daily' to disavow a 'theory that remains unproven,'" in a tweet by New Hampshire Public Radio.

And James Delingpole on globalclimatescam.com sarcastically says, "It now seems that Mother Gaia may have a deadly new weapon up her sleeve: KILLER MUTANT SHARKS!!!"

Whatever. Delingpole takes issue with a news item that indicates sharks may be adapting to climate change. Good for the sharks.

Acknowledgment dawns

Here's the situation -- continued and accelerated burning of fossil fuels not only taps the supply of easy-to-extract oil but the proof of its effects mounts. And sure, domestic coal is plentiful. But blacken the skies so that even those who live in the countryside can't see more than a mile or two, and supporters -- even those who hail jobs, jobs, jobs -- start to go the way of passenger pigeons.

Corporations are beginning to pay attention, and not just with lip service. Sustainability has taken root in boardrooms across the globe, and investment in practices and technology that prevents destruction of the environment is rocketing upward faster than anybody thought possible.

Cheap oil is great. Canada's oil sands are amazing. And that Bakken oil shale formation under Parshall, N.D. could be a game changer -- if we could somehow export it off-planet and use its rich extracts on recently terra-formed and pristine Earth-like worlds.

But here we've got to deal with an environment that's had more than enough of our rapid technological ascent. If mankind continues to push the devastation thing, not only will the economy collapse, but most of us will get sick and die long before we get old.

Political avoidance

GOP contenders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich sidestep the issue of clean energy on the campaign trail. This, however, contrasts mightily with the mood of many in the private sector, which Newt and Mitt say they support hands-down. Corporations and small businesses are publicly embracing the concept of sustainability, energy efficiency, waste reduction and even green chemistry. It would appear corporate boards and business owners see value in going green.

Romney pokes fun at President Obama's support of green jobs, saying on his website that the president's administration "seems to be operating more on faith than on fact-based economic calculation." Romney says, "'Green' technologies are typically far too expensive to compete in the marketplace, and studies have shown that for every 'green' job created there are actually more jobs destroyed."

Gingrich says he would "finance cleaner energy research and projects with new oil and gas royalties," but then goes on to promote oil shale development and the destruction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hardly clean or green.

So yeah, lop off another mountain to extract coal, fire up the power plant and dust the neighborhood. "Fire in the hole," as Boyd Crowder would say on FX's "Justified."

Green sneaks in

Sentiment toward clean energy and sustainable practices is maturing. True believers come from both ends of the U.S. political spectrum. Economic practicality will do that. Not only is solar at or near parity with fossil fuels but wind's getting closer and innovation is increasingly resulting in more sophisticated smart products that can navigate the new reality of variable power sources, maximize energy and reduce waste in every possible metric.

In fact, technological innovation in clean energy is moving forward so rapidly that by the time industry masters one form of energy capture, another is baked up in the test kitchen and ready for a taste test. For instance, solar's efficiency is pushing 50 percent, while battery technology is getting so versatile that some companies expect batteries to complement home solar systems. And backyard mechanics are figuring out how to extract hydrogen using solar power and operating their cars off the stuff.

End product? Vapor.

Energy independence gains momentum

There's value to clean air. It makes a good slogan, true. But more than that it's an awesome goal. To think that in a relatively short time, the United States could become energy independent with clean skies and wealthier boggles the mind. But it's possible.

Consumers would have to adapt to electric cars, natural gas-powered fleet vehicles and even hydrogen hot rods. The military would lead the world in production of biodiesel, algae fuel and isobutanol. Markets would spend less time worry about crude oil prices and more about increasing international sales in third world countries now able to produce their own clean energy.

Sounds a little crazy, and maybe it is.

Green in strange places

On the other hand, evidence that a cleaner world is not far-fetched is mounting. Corporate Knights, a self-described company for clean capitalism, has unveiled its eighth annual Global 100 list of the most sustainable large corporations in the world. No. 1 is Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, which had sales of $10.5 billion in 2010.

Also on the list are South African mining giant Anglo American, Japan's Hitachi, Intel, United Kingdom's AstraZeneca, Brazil's Petrobras and Norway's Statoil ASA. The ratings were based on ratios of sales to energy production, carbon creation, water use and waste. Also included is leadership diversity and CEO-to-average-worker pay.

Says Toby Heaps, chief executive of Corporate Knights: "In a year in which Wall Street was occupied and capitalism became a bad word, the Global 100 companies serve as ambassadors for a better, cleaner kind of capitalism which, it also turns out, is more profitable."

Something is indeed going on. Anglo American's website's main page features this directive: "We recognise the challenge posed by climate change and we are taking action to address its causes and to protect our employees and assets, as well as our communities, against its potential impacts."

Wall Street embraces sustainability

I must be making this up. I still remember the mining companies in Fairbanks, Alaska dredging anything and everything and the John Birch Society guys in the Golden Days Parade driving their Rocket to Russia truck tossing candy to us kids. My recollection of society is decidedly conservative and resource-driven. So what's going on?

Evidently the mood is greening. More than two-thirds of companies say sustainability has invaded the boardrooms and a third say the practice is contributing to their profits, according to a study by MIT Sloan Management Review and The Boston Consulting Group.

The study, "Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point," found about 67 percent of companies see sustainability as necessary to being competitive, up from 55 percent the previous year. The survey involved more than 2,800 corporate leaders "representing every major industry and region of the world."

"The attention and investment we see indicate the here-to-stay nature of sustainability for organizations everywhere," said David Kiron, executive editor at MIT SMR and a coauthor of the report, in a statement.

Investment up in energy efficiency

A study by the U.S. Department of Energy provides some detail. "The 2010 U.S. Lighting Market Characterization" shows that investment in more efficient technologies, higher efficiency standards and public awareness campaigns "helped shift the market toward more energy-efficient lighting technologies across all sectors."

That means energy savings and more cash in consumers' pockets. Lighting is the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency, and upgrades pay for themselves in a matter of a few years. Changing out lights, however, is like a gateway drug to sustainability.

After making lighting retrofits, the next question always is: "What more can we do?" People like saving money. I would love to put an end to my PG&E power bills with solar panels and a household battery. Of course, I'm nowhere near close to that. But daydreams are an important part of this going-green exercise.

Battlefield Earth

Yet, this shift has surpassed idle thought. It's based on the cold hard reality that our planet faces something akin to an alien assault by the Covenant from the Halo video-game series.

Marc Gunther of greenbiz.com writes that many in industry see climate change as inevitable and are preparing plans to adapt. "Utilities, the oil and gas industry, agricultural companies and insurers are building assumptions about rising temperatures and extreme weather events into their scenario planning. This is what's being called climate adaptation or climate preparedness," Gunther says.

Longer dry spells, wetter rainy season and more powerful storms are forcing the issue. Industries that don't plan for the worst may end up suffering. Businesses that don't plan might not be around to post year-end earnings.

Extreme weather forces change

Christian Parenti, author of "Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence," writes that extreme weather cost agriculture an estimated $5.2 billion in 2011, while Hurricane Irene slapped New York City with $7 billion in estimated damages. He quotes the World Bank's estimate of damages in Thailand from flooding there at $45 billion.

The solution is straightforward. Basically, we've got to clean up the air and stabilize the climate warming trend or prepare for more upheaval. Parenti says government is best equipped to deal with both scenarios, either with the massive task of clean up or through more nuanced approaches related to support of technological advancement through subsidy, research and development.

"Without constant government planning and subsidies, American capitalism simply could not have developed as it did, making ours the world’s largest economy," Parenti writes in a post for tomdispatch.com. So there's precedent.

If we pick clean energy as a proactive response, we're going to need a little bit of help from our friend Uncle Sam, or Big Brother, depending on where you lean. Not bad thing. But it will take a some political willpower, consensus building and a thaw in the red-blue divide.

EPA takes aim at airborne mercury

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued limits on the amount of mercury and other toxics substances pouring from the stacks of mostly coal-fired power plants.

Dubbed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, they're the first national regulations to be put in place and were vigorously opposed by the coal industry. The standards are meant to protect people from mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide, the EPA says.

Officials say the "standards will slash emissions of these dangerous pollutants by relying on widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants."

However, they didn't list specifics. The standards enacted match those proposed.

Big mercury reduction

The nation's 491 coal-fired plants contribute an estimated 48 tons of mercury into the air each year. A report by Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management says the most stringent standards for reducing mercury emissions would remove 96 percent from the stacks of coal-fired power plants while the least would remove only 40 percent. The report's authors say it's a difference of 2 and 28 tons.

EPA estimates that the new safeguards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year. The standards will also prevent 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year, officials say.

"These standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health," says EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. The "health benefits ... far outweigh the costs of compliance."

Compliance costly

Some coal-fired power plants already have been retrofit with toxic emissions controls that would meet the most stringent reductions, but for others it would be a problem. For instance, biggovernment.com says: "In some cases, these companies simply can’t afford to buy the equipment and for others the needed equipment isn’t commercially available. If this rule is implemented, it would force the shut down of many coal-fired power plants."

According to a Government Accountability Office report from October 2009, some 14 plants with sorbent injection systems installed have complied, "enabling them to meet state or other mercury emission requirements -- generally 80 percent to 90 percent reductions."

The GAO also found that the 14 plants spent an average of $3.6 million on the systems -- "a fraction of the cost of other pollution control devices." The pollution-control systems inject sorbents -- powdery substances to which mercury binds -- into the exhaust from boilers to achieve the reductions, the GAO says. And it says annual cost of buying sorbents is about $675,000, still a modest sum compared to the potential cost to human health down the road.

Long time coming

The regulations are 20 in the making. Congress passed the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments and mandated that EPA require control of toxic air pollutants including mercury.

More than half of all coal-fired power plants already use pollution control technologies. EPA officials say that once final, these standards "will level the playing field by ensuring the remaining plants – about 40 percent of all coal fired power plants - take similar steps to decrease dangerous pollutants.

What others are saying

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg: "Today, the President has done the right thing by ignoring the false claims of a narrow special interest and siding with the public health and the public good."

Shannon Baker-Branstetter, Consumers Union: Regulating mercury emissions is just a common sense way to protect consumers."

President and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity Steve Miller: "The EPA is out of touch with the hard reality facing American families and businesses. This latest rule will destroy jobs, raise the cost of energy and could even make electricity less reliable."

Coal may be the most expensive fuel on the planet

Studies show coal to be one of the cheapest electricity-producing fuels.

At 4 to 6 cents per kilowatt hour, who can argue? Solar is dropping from reports of 12 cents (and up) per kWh to an estimated parity with fossil fuels, according to a study by Queen's University. And wind power is getting cheaper. There's also something I just discovered called atmospheric cold megawatts technology, but I digress.

However, coal and its fellow fossil fuel compatriot natural gas and nuclear still have the edge since they're not dependent on weather or the Earth's rotation.

Boiled shoe theory

Coal accounts for more than half U.S. energy production. It's easy to transport, ignite and burns hot. Great stuff if you're a shivering Charlie Chaplin in his classic silent film "The Gold Rush." Key scene is where he eats his boiled shoe.

But coal extraction has become controversial. Mountaintop removal is not pretty. In addition, the nation's 491 coal-fired plants contribute an estimated 48 tons of mercury into the air each year. And dealing with the leftover toxic ash has proved dangerous. Just look at what happened at the Emory River in Tennessee on Dec. 22, 2008 when 1.1 billion gallons of fly-ash slurry burst a containment levy surrounding an 84-acre pond.

Merry Christmas. It was the biggest such spill in the nation's history. And there's potentially more where that came from. Wait for a good 100-year rain.

Cost accounting

Few corporate supporters of fossil fuels ever mention the environmental cost of their preferred energy sources. Most prefer to shuffle that concept to the background. Until recently it's been limited to the fringe -- a rallying cry for only the most hard-core greenies.

Little by little, other groups and individuals are realizing we can't keep burning stuff and get away scott free. The representatives at the Durban Climate Change Conference didn't pass any binding agreements, but most didn't mince words either.

Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations general-secretary, in a speech at the event says governments and the private sector are working together on sustainable energy and extolled it as a way to cut greenhouse gases while reducing poverty and creating economic growth. "Let us prove that we not only know where we are going – and how to get there – but that we are prepared to take collective action that will move us down that road," he says.

Point of no return

Apisai Ielemia takes it even further. As the minister of foreign affairs, trade, tourism, environment and labor for the tiny Pacific island state of Tuvalu, he's well aware of the potential threat behind climate change. "We have no time to wait, and we are only a few inches from the point of no return," he says. Listen to his speech on Democracy Now.

As much as I love Americaspower.org's recent TV advertising campaign, coal does have serious drawbacks. Nothing about untold millions of particles of mercury billowing into the atmosphere each year from coal-fired power plants is cost-effec­tive. The dust settles across the country and U.S. waters and works its way into the food chain. Should user groups begin to sue coal producers and utilities for damage compensation, I imagine the cost of electricit­y via the fossil fuel will rise significan­tly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year has proposed the first-ever national standards for mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants. The move is meant, officials say, to "cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases, while preventing as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year."

Health effects from coal

The proposed standards are meant to prevent 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 11,000 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year, the EPA says. In addition, the rules are expected to prevent more than 12,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions and 850,000 days of work missed due to illness.

The 1990 Clean Air Act was supposed to deal with coal emissions. The delay took more than two decades. President Obama is expected to rule on the issue Monday.

"This is not an issue of jobs versus the environment. It's an issue of the American people's public health versus a narrow special interest," writes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a piece on Huffington Post. Bloomberg does say, however, that more than half coal plants already have installed measures to control their mercury emissions.

Mercury the neurotoxin

An October 2003 report by Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants says mercury is a "potent neurotoxin particularly damaging to the development of the fetus, infant and young child." And while coal-fired plants, according to the EPA, are the largest producer of mercury in the environment, they are not the only airborne mercury source.

EPA's December 1997 "Mercury Study Report to Congress" estimates the amount of mercury sent up into U.S. airspace to be 158 tons. That's from trash burning, boilers and natural emissions but most from "combustion sources." Quite a pile, and the majority heads out over the ocean where it comes back in fish.

The Northern States report says the most stringent standards for reducing mercury emissions would remove 96 percent from the stacks of coal-fired power plants while the least would remove only 40 percent. The report's authors say it's a difference of 2 and 28 tons.

Solutions exist but they cost

Some coal-fired power plants already have been retrofit with toxic emissions controls that would meet the most stringent reductions, but for others it would be a problem. For instance, biggovernment.com says: "In some cases, these companies simply can’t afford to buy the equipment and for others the needed equipment isn’t commercially available. If this rule is implemented, it would force the shut down of many coal-fired power plants."

According to a Government Accountability Office report from October 2009, some 14 plants with sorbent injection systems installed have complied, "enabling them to meet state or other mercury emission requirements -- generally 80 percent to 90 percent reductions."

The GAO also found that the 14 plants spent an average of $3.6 million on the systems -- "a fraction of the cost of other pollution control devices." The pollution-control systems inject sorbents -- powdery substances to which mercury binds -- into the exhaust from boilers to achieve the reductions, the GAO says. And it says annual cost of buying sorbents is about $675,000, still a modest sum compared to the potential cost to human health down the road.

Health costs bigger

Somebody pays for health effects. Unfortunately when it comes to mercury poisoning, U.S. taxpayers likely will have to pick up the tab.

It's only a matter of time before these not-so-hidden costs begin to be felt and publicized. There will be fallout.

And there will be an accounting of fossil fuels.

Questions will be asked. Just how much does accumulated pollution cost? How much does climate change cost? How much does a fouled Gulf of Mexico cost? How much does that inevitable Arctic Ocean spill cost after an idiot Congress opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to massive drilling?

"Climate policy is based on cost-benefit analysis," says Naomi Klein, author of "The Shock Doctrine." "Now it appears we are waiting until the last possible minute to deal with it."

Photo: San Juan Generating Plant, Farmington, N.M. University of California, Berkeley Geo-Images Project.

Energy innovation: Dinosaurs are not the future, clean energy is

When I bought my little rotting-into-the-earth beach house on Camano Island, Wash., I discovered not only did it not have any insulation other than some magazines nailed inside the walls but that it had dreaded and inefficient electric heat.

Two things about Washington: It used to have cheap electricity and when it got cold, those in timber country put another log on the fire. I rebuilt the circa 1903 728-square-foot house when I should have burned it down. But it did show me that that new technology in insulation, weatherizing and building can lower heating bills dramatically.

Actually, I still used wood heat. But it was far less, maybe just a cord and a half a year. In Fairbanks, we used a dozen or more for an 18-by-32-foot cabin.

The nation's builders are learning the same lesson, jumping on the innovative Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, ratings system promoted by the U.S. Green Building Council. Others also are catching on, embracing energy efficiency and learning that clean energy can be competitive and create jobs -- not to mention its ability to promote national security.

Super-insulated solutions 

As a reporter, I stumbled on a bunch of alternative builders who fabricated super-insulated houses that needed almost no heat or cooling. Yet, building officials thought these were so obscure that the home owners were put through multiple delays and reviews.

Something out of the ordinary even in the 1990s proved vexing for those in charge. If it didn't have 2-by-6 dimensional lumber in the walls and factory-made trusses, a house was suspect.

Now, that's changed in many regions as reflected by the advances being made in New York and other progressive cities. Even going off the grid isn't considered counter-culture anymore. It's being done by industrial parks, colleges and residences with solar and fuel cell systems.

Smarter and greener

One of my favorite bloggers, Brian Keane, president of Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit SmartPower, wrote a piece inspired by a recent issue of Scientific American, which ran a story about "Better, greener, smarter cities." He praises the story and the anecdotes about various inner-city efficiencies while also underlining the difficulties of expanding those practices beyond high-density living areas.

"It will take some work, but if we are to fulfill the expectation of a better, greener, smarter city, we all need to get on board," Keane writes.

The nation has made progress, but the challenge is so steep as to boggle the mind. Humanity is pushing hard to fill earth's skies with the legacy of burned fossil fuels at a rate that alarms scientists.

Hothouse earth

"If we continue down this road, there really is no uncertainty. We're headed for the Eocene. And we know what that's like," says Matt Huber, a climate modeler at Purdue University who was interviewed by National Geographic for a piece by Robert Kunzig entitled "Hothouse Earth."

Kunzig's story chronicles what researchers know about the earth 56 million years ago when a massive spike in carbon dioxide pushed global temperatures higher, resulting in massive geologic change, extinction and adaption. Climate change then turned the Arctic and Antarctic into tropical jungles.

Kunzig reports that Huber uses a climate model, developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, "to forecast what might happen if humans choose to burn off all the fossil fuel deposits." Huber's results are inconclusive and "still infernal," but his "reasonable best guess at a bad scenario" doesn't sound pleasant. Much of China, India, southern Europe and the United States, would experience summer average temperatures "well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, night and day, year after year."

We remain far from the Eocene's level of atmospheric carbon, but we're pushing to free it with current energy trends.

Moving the planet

The folks at 350.org and one of its founders, author Bill McKibben, bring this subject up every chance they get. The gist of their argument is even if the world stopped polluting yesterday, the planet would still be burdened with way more climate-changing carbon dioxide that would take nature decades or more to scrub.

The organization's Moving Planet events the last week in September brought many thousands out in support for a reasonable future with a stable climate, clean air and clean energy. The activists pictured in videos and photos are relatively low profile. They're young and riding bikes and running around.

As they displace aging Baby Boomers, especially now that so many of us have been laid off from professions -- like newspapering -- that fell behind the technological curve, these young people will evolve into the decision makers, entrepreneurs and community-minded types who will shift society into a more forward-thinking mode.

At least I hope so. I can totally see the economic benefits to McKibben's No. 1 foe, a trans-Canada/Midwest U.S. pipeline from the oil/tar sands to port in the Gulf of Mexico. I was raised in Fairbanks during construction of the Pipeline. The amount of money and illegal drugs dumped into that state's previously frozen economy was amazing. I can also see the economic prospects of a gas line through Canada. Heck, ask anybody from my era in the state from Anchorage and the Interior and we'd say, "Hell yes."

I'd vote to build both pipelines, then render them immediately obsolete with cheap renewables. That could amount to a form of fraud, but it would be satisfying.

Pebble problems

And I see the sense, economically, in developing the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska. Gold, molybdenum and copper are a valuable commodity and it would put many of the region's residents to work. This proposal, however, makes me sick imagining the potential catastrophe to the Bristol Bay fishing industry and Bering Sea should the mine's tailings ponds burst and contaminate some of the world's richest waterways.

There's a limit to what we can do in the name of the economics. We've already stuck our nose into the Middle East, spending billions for the opportunity to access the region's crude oil.

At some point, the long view must be acknowledged. Our rate of deforestation and general ecological pillage in the name of progress has to be redirected. The consequences have become increasingly evident. Even island nations are starting to sweat their existence.

The answer is not a dinosaur

The first episode of Fox's new series "Terra Nova" chronicles a family's desire to leave the toxic world of 2149 for one overrun with dinosaurs. Present-day life on the planet is dying. Most animals are extinct and the air is poison. The only hope is the past. (I lost interest in the show after the hero, Jim Shannon, played by Jason O'Mara actually gets to the new-old world.)

While that sounds a little like Barry Goldwater's philosophy, I'd prefer one in which oil is used simply to produce polymers and products that don't brown the skies or pollute groundwater. One where the sun is the primary driver of power and the only thing we burn is hydrogen.

I'd also like to see interstellar space travel, but, hey, I'm a dreamer.

Photo: Promotional look at the cast of Fox's "Terra Nova."

Air alert: Clean air, clean air is (not) everywhere

Environment California released a ranking of the nation's smoggiest cities, and Fresno made No. 5.

Not No. 1. And that's important because as they say in sports, "If you ain't No. 1 you ain't nothin'." Or something like that. So I can handle it. Then again, I'm not really into sports. I write this thinking about a song in "Hair," not that there's anything wrong with that.

This week Fresno received an official Air Alert warning from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The air? Unhealthy.

When I got off the plane from Seattle (by way of creepy Gate 44 at LAX, but that's a different story), the air tasted hot and a little like dirt. I felt vindicated when I read Fresno Bee reporter Mark Grossi's story soon after. I had helped drive my son to college at Seattle University on Capital Hill.

"Heat and dirty air Tuesday triggered the first violations of an expensive ozone standard this summer in the Valley – and the problems could continue," Grossi wrote.

Smog around here is as common as heat. We live with it. We revel in days when we can catch a clear glimpse of the magnificent Sierra. And we suffer health-related maladies because of it.

This particular rant is a result of my suffering a sore throat, constant sneezing and eyes that feel like sandpaper. And no, this is not the result of me trying to replicate the fun the guys had on the "Hangover II."

That would be easy to fix. Just stay away from Zach Galifianakis, wolf pack of one.

Solving this problem will take a heck of a lot more work. And I'm not going to say stop driving the car. That's hardly practical. I love driving my car. In fact, I was just listening to the song "Brand New Car" from the Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge album and thinking how awesome it was.

But I digress. I just finished a post on all the amazing things happening in the clean energy realm. I even read through GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman's jobs plan to sleuth out his ideas on clean energy. I like the guy. He's into pegging energy to national security and not a big fan of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But that's OK. He says he wants federal taxes to be "flatter, fairer, simpler and more conducive to growth." Seriously, wouldn't that be nice?

Personally, I like the Clean Air Act. President Nixon was a visionary in that respect. I want clean air. I want a lot of things.

And we can have it all. At least that's what EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

"In contrast to doomsday predictions, history has shown, again and again, that we can clean up pollution, create jobs, and grow our economy all at the same time," she says.

Sounds good to me. Now where's that inhaler?

Photo: Courtesy Sarah Leen, National Geographic

Something's wrong when smog is considered normal

On the Today Show this morning, the view from atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza showed a hazy Manhattan skyline that even obscured the new tower going up at Ground Zero.

Yet, the smog didn't get a comment from Matt Lauer, who was describing the broadcast scene. We're too used to it.

Grimy air is as common as two cars per household, as common as 15 HDPE bags per visit to the grocery store and as common as a reference to the river of garbage on a Cartoon Network show.

Something's wrong here.

Politics as usual

Complacency has become part of the American electorate. Decent jobs are disappearing faster than water from a bucket with a hole. President Obama's got a plan. Congress says it's open to compromise, but does anybody think anything will really be accomplished in the next two years?

Michele Bachmann does appear to have learned to phrase her responses to questions from "mainstream" media in a way that makes her sound like she's at least thinking about moving forward on the economy. And John Boehner and Rick Perry have issued statements, while not very specific, do at least sound good. (I love Perry's catch phrase "Together we can get America working again." Heck yes!)

Issuing the challenge

All in all, I prefer the statement by Craig Lewis, executive director of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Clean Coalition, who had this to say about clean energy in a recent email: "Our success will bring unparalleled economic, environmental, and security benefits that are achievable through a sustained and concerted effort to implement intelligent energy policies."

He's talking about simple stuff, really. But it's important, especially the jobs component, and transcends traditional political divides. I believe Lewis issued a simple challenge. Something like, "Come on people. Let's make it work."

I find it amazing anybody (seriously) would oppose such a concept. After all, we don't have any alternatives. That skyline is our skyline. Those who can afford a New York City penthouse apartment can see murky air better than most.

Some oppose green

Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, says we appear to be on cusp of making it work but he believes the green energy/clean energy movement is under assault.

"Our nation is poised to enter an era where we can take it for granted that protecting public health and providing stable and sustainable jobs are one and the same. The writing's on the wall," he writes on Huffington Post.

But Brune says that's exactly why Big Oil sees a threat to its economic domination and has turned attention and resources to trying to stymie the clean economy.

I don't doubt it. There are significant deposits of "alternative" fossil fuels made more economically viable by sustained high crude oil prices. And they're domestic, or at least on this continent. Unfortunately, these deposits are more difficult to extract and could make the planet look like detritus left by Galactus. (He devours worlds and is an arch foe of the Fantastic Four. This is one of those insider Marvel Comics references. I like him because he created the Silver Surfer.)

Room for everybody

Clean energy offers a big band wagon. Oil (aka energy) companies certainly could diversify. There is likely a significant percentage of investors who prefer not to foul their nests. Why else build wealth if not for those who inherit, right? And progeny need a place to live.

The Brookings Institution's recent report "Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment" says that the clean economy employs 2.7 million workers across a vast group of industries and that various cleantech sectors have shown explosive growth.

We need more such growth.

The question

It all comes down to this: Can clean energy compete? I believe the answer is yes, even without calculating in all the ruination of pollution and degradation to the environment.

However, our best and brightest must take on the challenge. And win.

We don't have much time.

Photo: Lower Manhattan skyline courtesy easy2surf.com.

Breathe deep, our polluted air could use a filter

Air quality in the San Joaquin Valley regularly registers in the unhealthy range.

I'm quite familiar with this because I run every day. When at about 2 or 3 miles it feels like somebody's punched me in the throat and chest (and I feel decent otherwise), I know it's a bad air day.

Air quality is just an indicator, a very noticeable one, that's saying, "Hey, chill on the pollution." We're topping off on bad ozone, the colorless gas that forms near the ground when the emissions of cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries and chemical plants react chemically in sunlight. There's also an increasing load of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particle pollution.

Runner's cough

At first, I thought I was just getting old. I'm 50. But then I started asking around. No, runners say, you feel bad probably because of the air. This is Fresno, they say, where the nearby majestic Sierra are often masked by haze of murky gray/white/brown.


News reports here never fail to record the ups and downs of the color-coded Air Quality Index. Moderate means it will be a good day. But we take the next level, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, in stride and only occasionally rebel when we're told it reaches the next level of just plain Unhealthy.

Giving doctors more business

We're tough. Sure. Our air gives our kids asthma and fills doctors' offices with a raft of health maladies. Both my strapping sons have asthma. My 18-year-old, Calvin, finally was tested and was determined to have horrible allergies to just about everything carried in the air and a nasty case of asthma.

He hadn't been able to run more than maybe 2 miles without collapsing. I thought, "What a wuss." I was wrong. Not the first time. With medication he's now powering through easy sub 7-minute miles at 95 degrees with ease. I should have known. This kid has no body fat, was a gymnast, then a diver when he got too big for the constant flips.

But drugs aren't really a solution. I developed asthma too since my move here, and taking prescription drugs just makes me feel like I'm deteriorating.

Asthma on the rise

In an interview with EarthSky.org, Paul Epstein, a doctor at Harvard Medical School and author of "Changing Planet, Changing Health," said that asthma and allergies are on the rise. The reason: increasing CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Epstein said cases of asthma in the United States have more than doubled since 1980.

And the increased harshness of the seasons -- hotter in the summer, colder in the winter -- are driving other problems like more weeds and bugs. Wonderful stuff.

All in all, it's not altogether encouraging. But I'm an optimistic guy; sometimes my wife calls it unrealistic.

Solutions are available

There is a solution to all this. The mantra reduce, reuse, recycle is just a start. We've got more in the tool box. Energy efficiency measures are now pretty readily available to just about anyone. I'm now replacing all my halogen lighting fixtures when they blow out with the miserly LED bulbs. They're more expensive but they use way less electricity.

Solar technology is making significant advances in affordability and efficiency and soon may be reasonable enough for slow adopters like me to say, "OK, what the heck?" I'm personally intrigued by the possibility of super efficient solar panels on the roof of an electric vehicle rendering it permanently mobile until the sun goes down. Then battery power would offer 100-mile range.

Yet, I'm old school. I still believe we have an inescapable future dependent upon burning stuff. That alliance will continue I'm told, whether I like it or not. I still get a charge out of starting a blazing fire in a wood stove or camp site, good smokey flames get rid of bugs. And petroleum has its benefits. For instance, I love my cars.

However, I'd love to break the death grip the Middle East has on our economy, our transportation network and our elected officials. Efficiencies could lessen that and alternatives like biofuels and even natural gas give us options.

Ringing the bell

While the debate over our fuel/alternative fuel mix is important, the fact is we as a society still need to reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. That little thing called climate change keeps ringing the bell. My hacking cough reminds me that clean air would be a good thing.

Funny how I never thought how good I had it as a kid. Either beachcombing on Kodiak Island or clamboring over ancient gold mining equipment in Ester, Alaska, the clean air never registered.

I took it for granted. Now I can't.

What does a gallon of gas really cost?


This is worth a look.

The Center for Investigative Reporting produced this video to show what the true cost of a gallon of gas is when "external" costs such as pollution and health effects are factored in.

The amount is surprising and nearly four times the current average of about $4 per gallon.

I found this on KQED's Climate Watch blog site.

Air so thick you can slice it

The Associated Press ran a photo recently of Tehran that showed a skyline clogged with brown, air so thick you expect Porky Pig to saw a hole in it and say, "Tha-tha-that's all folks."

I pulled it up on Huffington Post.

The scene is reminiscent of Beijing and many other heavily populated cities across the world on days without rain or wind to push the bad air out. It offers an indication of what awaits should we continue current energy practices. In fact, here in the San Joaquin Valley we have our own bad air days. Some worse than others.

Last month, Fresno Bee reporter Mark Grossi posted an item saying Fresno ranked No. 2 in the country for ozone violations. Not bad but certainly not good.

Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley don't get a lot wind. The Valley's a basin bordered by mountains. Bad air travels from the Bay Area and even China and vacations here.

Tehran's got similar physical issues: towering mountains that trap stagnant air, more than 12 million people and "seemingly round-the-clock traffic jams of more than 3 million cars and buses," according to the AP story accompanying the photo.

Iran's leaders don't like the problem and are reportedly trying to do something about it. Good luck.

Mexico City used to have the same problems but has done a decent job of clearing the haze, chalking up some of the cleanest air in the past 20 years. The birds no longer fall dead from the sky. I got that last bit from a story by McClatchy Newspapers' Tim Johnson.

The point here is that there is an alternative. Legislative changes work to a degree, but the average consumer has a huge potential role. Energy efficiency is a movement that's been around since my hero Art Rosenfeld, California Energy Commission commissioner, started moving the state in that direction decades ago. Efforts to use better lighting and upgrade electricity gobbling devices to more efficient versions can easily carve a third off energy bills.

Less spent used means less power generated. More efficient gasoline engines also save big. Who knows, electric cars may just catch on. Then again, Congress may start paying attention to the concept of buying local and encourage development of policies that encourage domestic natural gas production via fracking and we'll start converting gas burners to compressed natural gas.

There's also algae fuel and a long list of other interesting possibilities. But a little leadership goes a long way. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Change Champion Award for his work creating the state's Global Warming Solutions Act.

By itself, the Act, which also goes by the name AB 32, won't clear the air. But it's a start and is encouraging renewable energy projects. And groups like 350.org are encouraging projects and awareness, helping lift the veil on a problem we can all see but would rather not face.

The other day driving east toward my home in Clovis, I saw the Sierra Mountains covered in snow. Clear as a good day in Anchorage looking up at the Chugach Range. No haze.

It'd be nice to have more of those. I'll be residents of Tehran, Beijing and Los Angeles would enjoy the same.

Photo: AP