David Roberts

David Roberts

Energy, politics, and more

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can subscribe to his RSS feed or follow him on Twitter or email him at droberts at grist dot org, if you're into that sort of thing.

From Schwing to Schadenfreude

“Hot blogger” no longer oxymoron If actress/model/mega-fox Amber Valletta tells us to raise the alarm about mercury in seafood, we’ll raise the alarm. Of course, if Amber Valletta told us to hop on one foot and bark like a poodle, we’d do that too. That’s the kind of dignity we have here at Grist List. Photo: Oceana. Take a powder Speaking of beauty: don’t let it kill you. And we’re not just talking Botox. A database run by the Environmental Working Group contains disturbing information on the toxic juju found in a whole wide range of your favorite cosmetics. Ew. …

Germany’s environment minister on eschewing nukes

Five years ago, Germany officially decided to shut down all its nuclear plants by 2020. This past May, the second of 19 plants went offline. Outgoing German environment minister (and member of the Green Party) Jurgen Trittin has a succinct piece on BBC explaining the government's rationale and arguing for seeing the policy through. Far from being a necessary element in Germany's quest to meet Kyoto targets, he says, "technically speaking, this base-load relic of the past is standing in the way of flexible and intelligent electricity production." Word.

Encyclopedia Brown and the case of the missing map

Not really sure what to make of this. Apparently the government's map of the Arctic Refuge is gone -- poof, vanished. Why on earth, you're wondering, does the government only have one detailed map of the Refuge? I don't know. Why was it sitting behind some file cabinet? You got me. Was it thrown out deliberately or by accident? Nobody knows. Does it matter? Felicity Barringer thinks maybe so:

Wal-Mart

Makower thinks the retail giant might just be turning over a new leaf

We debated whether to write up this story of Wal-Mart's alleged "going green" in Daily Grist, but at a quick glance it seemed trivial and a bit self-serving. But Joel Makower, who knows as much about these matters as anyone, thinks there may be something to it. I, for one, am skeptical that the great, great Wal-Mart turnaround is nigh. But I'm also not ready to write off Lee Scott or his company as sustainability poseurs. I believe we'll see a steady stream of new initiatives coming out of the company's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters in coming months. He even quotes an anonymous colleague tantalizingly saying, "This has the potential to be the fastest turnaround ever on sustainability and the most comprehensive." If that were true it could have potentially epochal consequences. As Joel notes, Wal-Mart may account for as much as 1% of China's entire GDP. That's a lotta skrill. Of course some folks will say that "green Wal-Mart" is an oxymoron. Activists of virtually every stripe have legitimate beefs with the company. But the thing here is to be dispassionate. The 'Mart has more power than many governments. It is, for good or ill, here, and enormously influential. If even a fraction of its power can be turned to stimulating green markets and establishing green practices, it could be a game changer.

Personal energy conservation in Houston

Why it seems like just yesterday I was harping on the notion that, as long as our public policies yield built environments in which eco-friendly choices are difficult, eco-friendly choices will not be the norm. Today I find a superb illustration of my pet notion in the Wall Street Journal, in the form of an excellent piece by Jeffrey Ball. I beg of you: go read it. (Of course, you can't unless you subscribe to WSJ, which you don't, so ...) It's about people trying their best to conserve energy (you might recall that the president wants us to be "better conservers") in Houston, Texas. Long story short: it ain't easy. Admittedly, one part of the problem is the typical American craving for luxury and comfort:

Brownie

We all know that then-FEMA director Michael Brown's response to Katrina was grossly incompetent. But now a regional director of FEMA has started talking to the press, and as Josh Marshal says, it's worse than you thought. Savor this: Later, on Aug. 31, Bahamonde frantically e-mailed Brown to tell him that thousands of evacuees were gathering in the streets with no food or water and that "estimates are many will die within hours." "Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical," Bahamonde wrote. Less than three hours later, however, Brown's press secretary wrote colleagues to complain that the FEMA director needed more time to eat dinner at a Baton Rouge restaurant that evening. "He needs much more that (sic) 20 or 30 minutes," wrote Brown aide Sharon Worthy. "We now have traffic to encounter to go to and from a location of his choise (sic), followed by wait service from the restaurant staff, eating, etc. Thank you."

Personal choices and the built environment

Environmentalism will never succeed by relying on personal virtue

A post on "unnecessary driving" from Clark and a post on poverty and obesity patterns over on NEW's blog both point to the same fact: The structure of our built environment largely determines our day-to-day habits. It's hard to eliminate "unnecessary driving" if the store, school, and work are miles away through pedestrian-unfriendly highways. It's hard to eat healthy when you're surrounded by fast-food restaurants, the nearest supermarket is a long bus ride away, and local/organic food is nowhere to be found. Most people, particularly poor people, live in environments that make unhealthy and eco-unfriendly choices the path of least resistance. There are very few built environments in the U.S. that make eco-friendly choices easy. You need to be relatively well-to-do and live near the core of one of a small number of transit-friendly, progressive cities. So, it's fine and dandy to ask people to push against the grain, to sacrifice and go out of their way, to make eco-friendly choices. There's nothing wrong with pushing people to display personal virtue. But it sometimes seems to me that environmentalists are devoted almost entirely to this quixotic undertaking -- indeed that "environmentalism" is sometimes taken as synonymous with personal virtue. That's bad. It gives an easy out to those at the local, state, and federal level who make public policy decisions. It reduces political matters to "personal responsibility." Environmentalists ought to be devoted to reshaping public policy, in order to reshape our built environments, in order to make eco-friendly choices easy, so the health of the earth does not require most people on it to be virtuous, cause that's never going to happen. And yes, I make this point over and over and over again. Sue me. I like to harp.

Oil and meth

Turns out oil rig workers are using meth, getting fired, and driving up oil prices

Well, of all the things I might have thought would affect oil prices, here's one that never occurred to me: apparently a growing number of oil-rig crews are meth users. Ben Dell, analyst at Sanford Bernstein, said the issue was serious enough to have an impact on international oil prices. He said: "With a third of all rig crews in the Rocky Mountains having methamphetamine problems, it's difficult to get a crew that's not high." Seems that sodium hydroxide, one of the main ingredients of meth, is used to reduce the acidity of drilling mud, and thus easily available on rigs. Random drug tests are now the order of the day, people are getting fired right and left, and it's increasingly hard to find workers. This comes at an awful time for an industry whose workforce is aging: "Most industry groups put the average age of employees at 49, with 50 percent expected to retire in the next five to 10 years." Tweaking, it turns out, is not really what you want in an oil-rigger: "Meth is particularly dangerous for oil and gas workers because meth users go through a wide range of emotions including the Superman stage during which they believe themselves to be invincible," Mr Walsmith added. "Believing oneself to be invincible when working with hundreds of tons of steel and thousands of pounds of explosive pressure can maim or kill in an instant." Crazy. How about instead of drilling in the Arctic Refuge, we offer drug counseling on oil rigs? Probably have roughly the same effect on oil price. (via The Watt)

Arctic Refuge drilling: Down the rabbit hole

Liberal opposition to drilling is reason enough to support it for some folks

The Senate Energy Committee voted today to include Arctic Refuge drilling in a massive budget reconciliation proposal, which will make it filibuster-proof. The fate of the budget reconciliation is not totally clear, but the odds are looking pretty grim. Our own Amanda Griscom Little will be writing more about this later in the week. If you want to do something to try to stop it, the Wilderness Society has your standard online petition going. Sigh. As a political issue, I find the Refuge rather mystifying.