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John Upton's Posts


James Hansen says natural gas is worse than nuclear


If forced to decide between living in a world powered by natural gas or a world powered by nuclear energy, which would you choose?

Seems a little like trying to decide whether to chop off an arm or a leg.

Evacuees of Fukushima or residents of San Luis Obispo (a coastal Californian county where a nuclear power plant sits near poorly understood earthquake faults) may opt for natural gas. Then again, residents of nearby Contra Costa County, Calif. (where the air is poisoned by natural-gas-burning power plants), or of Pavilion, Wyo. (where the water was poisoned by natural gas fracking), may prefer nuclear.

Leave it to NASA scientist-turned-climate activist James Hansen to bring a little clarity. He crunched the numbers to determine which of the two options is less deadly to humanity. The result isn't even close: Despite the horrific threats posed by nuclear fission, Hansen and NASA colleague Pushker Kharecha found nuclear power to be far safer than natural gas.

From their paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology:


ExxonMobil spills chemicals in Louisiana while cleaning spilled oil in Arkansas

The Chalmette refinery
The Chalmette refinery.

Even as ExxonMobil was mopping up after its disgusting tar-sands oil spill in Arkansas on Wednesday, it spilled an unknown amount of unknown chemicals -- possibly hydrogen sulfide and cancer-causing benzene -- during an accident at a riverfront refinery in Louisiana.

The Chalmette refinery chemical spill might have gone unnoticed, except that it stank out the city of New Orleans and several nearby parishes, leading to state and federal investigations (we told you about that mysterious odor yesterday). Frankly, ExxonMobil's track record here sucks: The same refinery spilled 360 barrels of crude oil in January.

Read more: Climate & Energy


New culprit in sea-level rise: Pretty Arctic clouds

Clouds over Greenland accelerated last summer's melt.
Clouds over Greenland accelerated last summer's melt.

Newly published research suggests that Greenland's ice melted super fast last summer, and the world's ice could soon melt faster than anybody had anticipated -- all because of pretty white clouds hanging low above frigid seas.

Last year's Greenland ice sheet melt was considered a 1-in-150 year phenomenon -- the most dramatic melting season since 1979. It was cause for alarm because, when ice melts, it turns into water that raises the sea levels. If Greenland's ice sheet totally disappeared, the seas could swell by an estimated 24 feet, drowning many of the world's coastal cities.

"Of course, there is more than one cause for such widespread change," said University of Wisconsin atmospheric and oceanic sciences professor Ralf Bennartz, one of the authors of a study published today in Nature that concludes that the clouds that drifted over Greenland last summer bore properties that could be likened to a perfect ice-melting storm. "We focused our study on certain kinds of low-level clouds."

Read more: Climate & Energy


Something smells bad in New Orleans (more than usual)


What the hell is that smell?

That's the question that residents of coastal southeastern Louisiana have been asking since about 1 a.m. Wednesday.

New Orleans and surrounding cities sit at ground zero for a growing hive of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas drilling and processing facilities. Since early Wednesday, residents report being overwhelmed by yet another mysterious and powerful chemical odor (this one smells either like burning tires or a gas station, depending on who you talk to).

Nobody seems to know where the acrid smell is coming from. But given that it smells like toxic petrochemicals, it's a pretty safe bet that the toxic petrochemicals industry has something to do with it. On Thursday, the Coast Guard said it was investigating whether the odor was coming from a wastewater spill at an ExxonMobil refinery.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Nevada utility to stop burning coal, which will probably just be burned somewhere else


More good news on America's shift away from coal: Nevada's largest utility plans to very gradually shutter its dirty coal generators over the next 12 years.

Some of the coal-fired energy sold by utility company NV Energy will be replaced with renewable sources. But 60 percent of their coal-fired energy will be replaced by that cool-kid fossil fuel that contaminates groundwater supplies: fracked natural gas.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Texas cities roping in more wind energy

The electricity that powers Dallas is about to get a whole lot windier.
Shutterstock / Brandon Seidel
The electricity that powers Dallas is about to get a whole lot windier.

Something refreshing is about to blow into Dallas, Houston, and other oil-soaked Texan cities: wind energy. Lots of wind energy.

A wind-farm boom has been brewing in the blustery Texas panhandle, where wind turbines now provide 9.2 percent of the state's electricity. That figure is growing quickly, with more than $3 billion expected to be spent on new wind generation during the next two years alone. Meanwhile, Sustainable Business reports that the world's most powerful battery system is helping to store wind energy produced during off-peak times so that it can be sold when demand for electricity is highest.

But the state's biggest cities are in the east, far away from the graceful wind turbines and snazzy batteries of the west, making it difficult to deliver the renewable energy into most of the state's homes and offices.

That bottleneck will ease by the end of the year, when the state completes a scheduled $6.8 billion effort to double the capacity of power lines from western wind farms to its eastern municipalities. That will provide an even bigger market and new incentives for potential wind power developers eying opportunities in the Panhandle.


Last coal-fired car ferry to keep dumping waste in Lake Michigan

The S.S. Badger, still crossing Lake Michigan by burning coal.
The S.S. Badger, still crossing Lake Michigan on coal power.

It's bad enough that the S.S. Badger is still powered by coal -- the only car ferry left in the country that runs on the dirtiest of fossil fuels. But what's really going to blow your mind is how the ferry disposes of its coal ash after burning: It is mixed with water into a slurry and dumped overboard. More than 500 tons of it every year. Straight into Lake Michigan. Just like its operators have been doing since the 1950s.

In 2008, the U.S. EPA told Lake Michigan Carferry, the company that operates the Badger, to cut that crap out. The company must switch to another fuel or start dumping the waste somewhere on land, the EPA said. The ferry company responded by asking for more time to study how it would switch over to natural gas, and the EPA was all, OK, but just four more years, and that's it.

That four-year grace period expired over the winter, and guess what Lake Michigan Carferry plans to do once the ferrying season begins next month? That's right, it plans to continue dumping its coal ash into Lake Michigan. And the federal government is pretty much OK with that.


Americans want more renewable energy and more climate-change prep

Seeing the light.
Shutterstock / Gencho Petkov
Seeing the light.

This is how the typical American thinks in 2013, according to a couple of new polls: “More solar power, please. No more nuclear, thanks though. And let’s get ready for this crazy climate-change thing.”

A Gallup poll of 1,022 people revealed that a whopping 76 percent of Americans think the U.S. should put more emphasis on developing solar power. Even Republicans are into it, with 68 percent of them calling for more solar. Wind is also popular. So too is natural gas, supported by about two-thirds of Americans. Support for oil and coal is split along party lines, with most Republicans favoring efforts to dig up and burn more of the dirty fuels and most Democrats opposing them. Nuclear, meanwhile, is not particularly popular with either party.


James Hansen to quit NASA, become full-time climate activist

James Hansen
James Hansen.

It might be hard to imagine how James Hansen could do more to help the climate cause than he's already done. A well-respected climate scientist, he's been more outspoken than virtually all of his peers on the need for climate action. He first warned Congress about the threat of global warming way back in 1988, and he's been sounding the alarm with increasing urgency ever since. During the George W. Bush administration, his outspokenness irritated his superiors, so they tried to muzzle him -- an effort that backfired when Hansen went to The New York Times with the story. In 2009, he started getting arrested at climate protests, including protests against the Keystone XL pipeline.

But Hansen wants to do even more. And to do it, he's quitting his high-profile, influential day job. He will step down tomorrow as the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies after 46 years spent working there.

From The New York Times:

[R]etirement will allow Dr. Hansen to press his cause in court. He plans to take a more active role in lawsuits challenging the federal and state governments over their failure to limit emissions, for instance, as well as in fighting the development in Canada of a particularly dirty form of oil extracted from tar sands.


Canadian officials in uproar over pipeline video game, not over actual pipelines

game screenshot
Pipe Trouble
This computer game lets players connect with their inner pipeline-loving capitalists.

You can now tap into your inner evil capitalist and lay virtual oil pipelines through meadows and fields while trying to avoid conflicts with virtual farmers and virtual environmentalists. Sounds like fun, right?

Well, not according to a number of government officials in Canada, where the game has been kicking up controversy since its release last month. Their big complaint is that the game includes pipeline bombings. From CBC News:

[W]hen the game play gets too heated, a level is sometimes ended with the bombing of the imaginary pipeline, which brings to mind several unsolved bombings that took place in B.C. in 2008 and 2009.

Oh, and they're also not happy that the game was developed with taxpayer funds. From CTV News:

The game, called “Pipe Trouble,” was released by TV Ontario, the province’s public broadcaster. ...