Briefly

Stuff that matters


Lead By Example

Citizen scientists are taking it upon themselves to confront America’s lead problem.

After blood tests in Flint, Mich., revealed elevated lead levels in the city’s water, Republicans blamed the Environmental Protection Agency, Democrats pointed toward Gov. Rick Snyder, and residents threw up their hands in frustration — government had failed them at every turn.

But when the issue finally made it to national media, it let loose a torrent of civic collaboration: Huge companies donated filters and tests, plumbers offered supplies, and Big Sean even stepped in to raise money on CrowdRise.

Now, an app called CitizenSpring — currently soliciting funds on KickStarter — hopes to empower citizens with the ability to digitally collect and organize crowd-sourced lead data. Residents scan at-home lead test results and log information like the date and time the test was taken. CitizenSpring’s creator, neuroscientist Sean Montgomery, wants to create a map of water-quality results from “every faucet in the country.”

That mission is a crucial one for Flint residents upset with the government for keeping water quality results private during a seemingly endless cycle of testing, re-testing, and peer-reviewing. With Congress fumbling over how to support the city, citizen-led efforts may be the best way to continue to spotlight the country’s lead crisis.

If funded, CitizenSpring could be available as early as October — exactly a year after Flint officials first cautioned residents about using their water.


Sneaky Peak

Peak oil is back and better than ever.

Back when oil prices were high, people were talking a lot about peak oil supply — the possibility that we’d run out of new sources of crude oil eventually. But now people are talking about peak oil demand — the possibility that we’ll just stop using the stuff as we come up with better options.

Most recently, analysts from Bank of America and Merrill Lynch have predicted that oil consumption will peak by 2030, as electric vehicles become dominant. The (simplified) argument: Right now, batteries make electric vehicles relatively expensive. As battery prices fall, EVs will turn into a bargain and people will start buying them en masse. If 40 percent of new car sales are EVs by 2030, that would be enough to send our oil habit into decline.

Most oil companies are planning on demand peaking later — like 2040, 2050, or not at all (see ExxonMobil and Chevron). But Royal Dutch Shell is preparing for peak oil in as little as 10 years.


Public vs. Private

Puerto Rico will privatize its power utility.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced Monday that he will begin the process of selling the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, pending the approval of a federal judge and the island’s legislature.

Before Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the U.S. territory last September, PREPA was already saddled with $9 billion of debt and aging infrastructure. After the hurricane, the utility came under fire for a series of blunders — from hiring and then firing Whitefish Energy to allegedly hoarding necessary supplies. Today, 30 percent of the island is still without power.

“What we know today is the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority does not work and cannot continue to operate like this,” Governor Rosselló said in a statement.

But not everyone agrees that privatizing PREPA is the best solution. “[It’s] a recipe for Puerto Rico being raked over the coals by private interests,” Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told Reuters.

“I’m in Puerto Rico now and it’s not really a surprise, they have been laying the groundwork for this for years,” tweeted journalist Naomi Klein, referring to how “disaster capitalism” lets corporations profit off a society still reeling from a disaster. “The chaos post-storm was the perfect opening,” she said.


sun blocked

The United States will start taxing solar panel imports.

We’d previously mentioned that President Donald Trump hinted at a tariff to “tank the solar industry.” Today, the administration announced it’s actually doing it. Bloomberg called Trump’s move “the biggest blow he’s dealt to the renewable energy industry yet.”

The starting tax rate on imported solar cells will be 30 percent, but that will decline to 15 percent over the following three years. The United States imports 80 percent of its solar panels, mostly from Malaysia, South Korea, and a few other East Asian countries (where producers moved fleeing President Barack Obama’s levies targeting China). The new tax will likely drive up the price of solar installations in the U.S.

However, U.S. solar cell producers had lobbied for the tariff to help them compete. Some have argued that the tax could help domestic solar companies develop superior technology.

Ironically, this is exactly the sort of thing that might have saved Solyndra, the failed solar company that in 2011 became a whipping boy for Republicans critical of Obama’s efforts on renewables. Solyndra was working on a more efficient form of solar cell, but it was swamped by a flood of cheap imported silicon cells.

Now, we have a Republican president interfering with free trade to shelter today’s Solyndras. We’re through the looking glass.


retro-leum

The United States could become the world’s biggest oil producer. It’s been a while.

Spurred by the higher profit margins that come with fracking technology, U.S. oil production is poised to set a record in 2018, potentially passing top oil producers Saudi Arabia and Russia.

For context, the last time we were pulling this much oil out of the ground — in 1970 — the Beatles broke up, the Apollo 13 mission narrowly avoided disaster, the United States invaded Cambodia, and the dot-matrix printer made its debut.

Now we’ve moved on to 3D printers, but we’re still stuck with petroleum technology.

If you count natural gas, the United States has been the biggest oil and gas producer since 2014. While China is now the world’s largest fossil fuels burner and biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States is a (much) larger producer, digging up and selling far more than our share of the problem.


Pipe Up

Opponents mount protests after major natural gas pipeline moves forward.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the PennEast Pipeline its certificate of public convenience and necessity on Friday, which also allows the company to acquire land through eminent domain.

The proposed $1 billion pipeline would run nearly 120 miles from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and transport up to 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day. Its opponents say it would threaten the health and safety of nearby communities and endanger natural and historic resources. Proponents maintain that the pipeline is an economic boon that will lower energy costs for residents.

After getting the OK from FERC, the company moved up its estimated in-service date to 2019, with construction to begin this year. But it won’t necessarily be an easy road ahead. The pipeline still needs permits from the State of New Jersey, Army Corps of Engineers, and the Delaware River Basin Commission. And while Chris Christie was a big fan of the pipeline, newly elected Governor Phil Murphy ran a campaign promising a green agenda and has already voiced opposition.

Pipeline opponents are demonstrating this afternoon and taking the developers to court. “It’s just the beginning. New Jersey doesn’t need or want this damaging pipeline, and has the power to stop it when it faces a more stringent state review,” Tom Gilbert, campaign director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said in a statement.


workin' hard or hardly workin'

What’s Ryan Zinke been up to lately?

The Secretary of the Interior is always busy, relentlessly shaping the future of our public lands! Let’s check in:

  • Less than a week after the Trump administration announced a controversial offshore drilling draft plan, Zinke announced he was letting Florida opt out (in a tweet, no less.) Ironically enough, the White House isn’t too pleased with Zinke’s missive, and a top official at the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management says Florida is still being considered for offshore drilling. Sorry, Rick!
  • The Huffington Post reports that Zinke owns shares in PROOF Research Inc., a company from his hometown of Whitefish, Montana that makes and sells weapons. Cabinet nominees have to submit assets worth $1,000 or more to the Office of Government Ethics, and the Interior Secretary didn’t disclose these holdings. That said, it’s unclear whether the value of Zinke’s shares exceed the government cap. The major question is whether the connection will benefit PROOF Research, which already had a meeting with Zinke last April.
  • Last but not least, Zinke approved a road through a federal wildlife refuge in Alaska on Monday, connecting a remote community to an all-weather airport. Conservationists say the road jeopardizes fragile wildlife habitats.

That’s all, folks! For now …