Briefly

Stuff that matters


2017 Obsessions

This year, I spent a lot of time thinking about what to do with this biodegradable vibrator.

In 2016, when I was younger and dumber (hard to believe!), I did not know that you could compost a sex toy. Truly, had never given it a thought. And then on a pivotal day in the spring of 2017, I received a Gaia biodegradable vibrator in the Grist mail. Here it is, in December:

Eve Andrews / Grist.org

You’ll notice it’s still in the box. (The box is recyclable.)

I am in favor of both vibrators and composting, so good on you, PR person! But I found myself paralyzed. What am I supposed to do with it? Take it home? Too much! Leave it on my desk, so everyone I work with knows I haven’t taken it home? Aaaahhh! Write about this non-event, inviting my millions of fans and billions of internet strangers into my neuroses? Still a dummy, Andrews!

An inextricable element of this debate: That the words “biodegradable” and “vibrator” together conjure an immediate mental and physical rejection. Bio … degradable … vibrator. A vibrator, degrading. Into biomass. Yowza! Nooooo! I can’t help it!

I don’t mean to discourage anyone from buying a compostable sex toy. 2017 was simply a year in which I learned there are certain mental boundaries I am not ready to cross — the one currently separating my clitoris from the compost bin. This vibrator was the bête noire to my eco-warrior, and it defeated me.

Eve Andrews is an associate editor at Grist.


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 United States.

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 …


mine country

So is coal great again or what?

Early last year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. He told the assembled coal miners that the move promised boom times ahead. “You know what this says?” Trump asked. “You’re going back to work.”

Ten months later, the results are mixed. Behold the facts:

  • Jobs gained, jobs lost: Total U.S. coal employment was up about 1.6 percent last year, with most new coal jobs added in Virginia and West Virginia. But preliminary federal data obtained by Reuters shows that nearly two-thirds of coal-producing states reported coal job losses, including Ohio, Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, and Texas.
  • Closure ahead: About half of the gains in coal jobs will be wiped out if the 4 West Mine in Pennsylvania closes this summer as scheduled, laying off around 400 coal workers.
  • Coal jobs near historic low: Some 50,000 people work in the coal industry, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s roughly one-third of what it was in the late ’80s.
  • More miner deaths: Last year saw 15 workplace-related coal worker deaths, an increase from nine in 2016.
  • Demand still sliding: Thanks to the usual suspects of cheap natural gas and falling costs for solar and wind power, old coal plants are getting less competitive, and U.S. demand for the fuel is decreasing.

One year after Trump was sworn in, his dreams of rolling back environmental policies have come true. But his promise to bring back coal is another story.


risky business

Climate change hits businesses where it hurts: their wallets.

Climate change and extreme weather topped the World Economic Forum’s annual list of risks facing businesses.

Out of 10 major threats to business in 2018, climate-related risks took slots 1 (extreme weather events), 2 (natural disasters), 5 (failure of climate change mitigation), and 7 (human-made environmental disasters) — outranking issues like terrorism, number 8. The forum ordered the risks by asking experts and companies to assess the likelihood of each risk.

In one vast, terrifying web, the report shows that environmental changes are linked to societal risks. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, for example, are linked to the spread of infectious diseases and food crises.

That’s the part of the report the authors seem to be most concerned about: the interconnectedness of all of these issues. “When risk cascades through a complex system, the danger is not of incremental damage but of ‘runaway collapse,'” the report says. Scared yet?