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Clean Air


The environment is trying to ruin the Olympics again

The carbon footprint of the Olympic torch is unknown. (Photo by Nicholas Heasman-Walsh.)

Before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, there was broad concern about the impact that air pollution would have on the athletes. The city's well-documented problems with ozone and fine particles were not the sort of thing conducive to fast sprint times and/or not having a stroke. So authorities cracked down, greatly reducing vehicle traffic, closing factories, and inducing rain. It worked. They curbed ground-level pollutants and improved cardio-vascular health for residents and athletes alike (and brought down CO2 emissions along the way). A team at the University of Rochester noted a "direct correlation" between reduced pollution and an immediate health impact.

Unfortunately for England, the environment has taken up a new strategy for ruining the Olympics: rain.

"My biggest worry is actually the weather," said [London 2012 Chief Executive] Paul Deighton, adding that much of the construction was carried out in torrential rain in recent months.

"We've got a lot of events that are outside. I think the impact the weather has on people's mood, how they enjoy the games, is very big.

"So for me, if I have a prayer I could make, it's every extra day of sunshine just makes for a better experience for everybody here in town."

Deighton has cause for concern. An unusually static southward shift in the jet stream combined with increased atmospheric moisture has meant one of the rainiest summers in recent memory.


Hazing gone amok: How the EPA is trying to clear up our national parks

The Environmental Protection Agency can't do anything about humidity. It hasn't been able to do much about heat, though it's trying. Then there's that other scourge of "hazy, hot, and humid" summer days. Haze, the EPA can do something about.

In June, the agency proposed new rules limiting soot pollution, one of which would create a new standard that cuts particulate matter pollution to improve visibility primarily in urban areas.

Which is all well and good while you're in the city. Haze in rural areas is a whole other issue.

A side-by-side comparison of the view at Shenandoah National Park on clear and hazy days. (Photo by the National Park Service.)

In 2004, USA Today ran an article lamenting the sorry state of visibility in our national parks. Eight years later, things haven't greatly improved. The New York Times looked at how the EPA's efforts to curb haze are faring.

Read more: Clean Air


Europe goes crazy for coal — and we can blame ourselves

London, during the coal-caused "Great Smog" of 1952. (Photo courtesy of Geograph.)

Germany just set a new record in solar energy production, creating 14.7 terawatt-hours of electricity over the first six months of 2012. Solar energy covered between 10 and 50 percent of the country's peak hour demand on average every day. Nice work, Germany!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe (and also in Germany):

Demand for coal, the dirtiest fuel for making electricity, grew 3.3 percent last year in Europe while sales of less-polluting natural gas fell 2.1 percent, the steepest drop since 2009, according to a BP Plc report.

Oh man, Europe, what happened? We thought you were cool.

But even with some European Union member nations implementing efforts to increase the cost of carbon pollution, coal is still less expensive than the alternatives. And Europe has its enablers:

Cheaper coal was made possible partly by a 49 percent jump in first-quarter imports from the U.S., Energy Information Administration data show.

The fracking boom in the U.S. has led to a big drop in coal use, meaning that we're now free to export that coal to Europe.

Ha ha. Um, sorry, guys.


EPA proposes sensible update to soot pollution limits. Expect outrage

In another dimension -- a wonderful, magical dimension -- an announcement about curtailing soot pollution would be hailed as a triumph, an obviously useful decision that's worth celebrating.

That dimension seems like it would be a nice place to live.

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a stricter guideline for particle pollution, small pieces of dust and soot and other combusted matter that are released into the air and then inhaled. Particulate matter is one of six pollutants covered by the EPA's National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which serve as a sort of clean air check list. Every five years the standards are reviewed for efficacy in protecting public health; each is supposed to be updated as needed to protect health.

There are two types of particulate matter regulated by the EPA, and two levels at which they're monitored. Today's proposal [PDF] would drop the annual amount of allowable fine particle (PM 2.5) pollution from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 12 or 13 -- in the former (better) case, a reduction of 20 percent. The EPA also proposed a new standard that would improve visibility in urban areas, mandating either 28 or 30 deciviews. States would have until 2020 to meet the standards.

So that's the science. More important are the impacts. Those most susceptible to negative effects of particulate pollution are those with heart and lung disease, older people, children, and those in low-income households. Long-term fine particulate matter exposure results in premature death from heart disease and increased heart attacks and strokes; short-term exposure can trigger similar deadly responses along with impaired breathing. The EPA estimates that a reduction to 12 micrograms/cubic meter would save between $2.3 billion and $5.9 billion in health costs. Annually.

Win-win, right? Well ...


Why the power industry is running away from coal

Beautiful -- but deadly.

Last September, we reported that "peak coal" had come to Appalachia. There's a reason that the industry is relying on destructive practices like mountaintop-removal mining: Coal is harder to come by. Mines have increasingly small seams of coal to extract.

Now it seems that the marketplace is catching up. The AP reports:

The share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal is forecast to fall below 40 percent for the year -- the lowest level since the government began collecting this data in 1949. Four years ago, it was 50 percent. By the end of this decade, it is likely to be near 30 percent.

"The peak has passed," says Jone-Lin Wang, head of Global Power for the energy research firm IHS CERA.


Diesel exhaust causes cancer, WHO says

Photo by twicepix on Flickr.

In a report released yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared exhaust from diesel engines to be a carcinogen [PDF] -- the same status as secondhand smoke. In 1989, the fumes were deemed a "probable carcinogen." The suspected culprit? Particulate matter expelled during diesel fuel combustion. Gasoline exhaust, with a different chemical makeup, remains a possible carcinogen.

As reported by CBS News, the WHO study looked at a population of 12,000 miners over the course of the past 60 years. Those regularly exposed to diesel exhaust had three times the rate of lung cancer deaths as their peers.


China’s smog city: What Wuhan looks like with 20 times the U.S. dust limit

This is what residents of the Chinese province of Wuhan woke up to yesterday.

At about 2 a.m. local time Monday morning, a dense smog began to cover the province. By early afternoon, it reached its peak density in the land-locked city of Wuhan itself.

People posted numerous photos of the haze on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter. One blogger described her friends in the city darkly joking about being turned into Incredible Hulks.

Read more: Cities, Clean Air


Obama wants to give white children asthma, says blogger

You might think that air quality controls are about mitigating the health effects of breathing in pollution. If you're a staunch Republican, you might think they're about destroying capitalism. But blogger (and birther) Daren Jonescu knows what air quality controls are really about: Giving white children lung diseases. (And destroying capitalism.)

Jonescu wrote a piece in the ironically named American Thinker laying out the problems with big government trying to legislate our children's lungs, and he did it by picking apart the language of an Obama administration report about childhood asthma.

Read more: Clean Air


The dirt on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s environmental record

Scott Walker "Obey" SignPhoto by ky_olsen.

Wisconsin is a proud state, with a unique political legacy. Its track record of progressive independence and long-standing commitment to political comity make today's recall election an aberration, a rare example of a Wisconsin turned against itself -- and a rare national example of political turmoil.

The last recall election of a governor in the United States was California's in 2003, a campaign I worked on. A friend from those days, Clark Williams, is today in his home state of Wisconsin working to turn out voters to recall Walker. I asked him how the two elections compared. "Night and day," he responded, noting the "venom" that has polluted any rational conversation about the election. It's a common refrain: A recent poll found that one in three Wisconsinites had stopped talking about politics with someone because of their disagreement. There are reports of physical altercations between supporters of either side. This is not exactly the ebullient, cheese-loving Wisconsin we picture.

Neither are the decisions being made by the governor the ones many state residents expected. The fuse for the recall was lit with Gov. Walker's move to cut collective bargaining rights for the state's public sector unions, but that's not the only gripe state residents have with the governor.

The environmental community has its own (good) reasons for complaint. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is very engaged in the recall, with lawn signs opposing Walker throughout the state and a robust collection of "Failure Files" online outlining Walker's anti-environment policies. And I mean robust. They're worth a perusal.

For those pressed for time, or on the way to the polling booth, here's an overview we assembled: Scott Walker's Murky, Polluted Environmental Record.


Energy companies, seeing a greener future, are losing their faith in coal

The stuff fortunes were made of.

Tallying the predictions of energy industry executives is an interesting exercise. Like any dominant business sector, the energy industry's predictive powers are limited by one key damper: a blindness to change that might undermine their dominance.

But we have an opportunity to look through their tinted shades. Each year, the consulting firm Black & Veatch asks utility executives for their predictions on how the field will evolve. Highlights from the survey: