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OK, GMOs matter — but the noisy fight over them is a distraction

Farm
Espen Faugstad

I’m grateful for the responses from Tom Philpott and Ramez Naam to my final post -- they round out this series considerably.

I’ll confess to some sensationalism in claiming in the title of my last piece on the GMO controversy that “none of it matters.” Of course it does matter to some degree, and it matters very much to those who have dedicated their lives to the issue. It would have been more punctilious (and less fun) to instead title the piece: “The ferocity of the GMO debate makes it seem much more important than it really is.”

It’s not that we should all resign ourselves to apathy. I’m simply suggesting that -- whether your primary concern is the environment, or health, or poverty, or feeding the world -- heavy expenditure of political capital on GMOs isn’t going to move you all that far toward your goal.

Both Ramez Naam and Tom Philpott take me to task for underplaying the importance of GMOs, and I actually agree with almost all of what they’ve written here. I agree with Naam that we should be pursuing moonshot technologies like C4 and self-fertilization. But we shouldn’t be counting on those big breakthroughs to solve our problems: They may not ever come. I agree with Philpott that GMO crops have been overhyped and that discussion should stick to the facts on the ground.

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Fixing old water and gas pipelines would create far more jobs than building Keystone XL

fixing an old pipeline
Shutterstock

In the coming months, President Obama will decide whether to approve the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude tar-sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. We know that the pipeline would greatly aggravate climate change, allowing massive amounts of the world’s dirtiest oil to be extracted and later burned.

The payoff, say supporters such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is a job boom in construction industries, which are currently suffering from high unemployment. Earlier this month, Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue called on the president “to put American jobs before special interest politics.”

If you believe headline-grabbing challenges such as Donohue’s, the president is painted into a corner on the KXL pipeline -- trapped by a stagnant economy and an ailing environment.

The president knows KXL’s jobs promises are way overblown. In July, he explained it this way to The New York Times: “Republicans have said this would be a big jobs generator. There is no evidence that is true.” The most realistic estimates, said the president, show that KXL “might create maybe 2,000 jobs during the construction of the pipeline, which might take a year or two.” And after that, “we’re talking about somewhere between 50 and 100 jobs in an economy of 150 million working people.”

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Key enviro law suspended in California under drought emergency

drought
Christopher "cricket" Hynes

When California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared a drought emergency last week, his administration slipped a bit of legalese into the declaration that has some environmentalists worried.

It states that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) will not apply to efforts by state agencies to "make water immediately available."

CEQA, a landmark 1970s environmental statute, requires environmental analyses for major projects, which leads to delays as the studies are conducted and fought over, and as proposals for reducing environmental harm are debated. Brown, who hates the law, once remarked, "I've never seen a CEQA exemption that I don't like."

The drought declaration says the limited suspension of CEQA will help "streamline water transfers and exchanges between water users" and help the state change limits on how much water can be diverted from reservoirs and from the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.

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Can clean energy replace a shuttered nuke plant in California?

solar panels going up on a roof
spirit of america / Shutterstock

Last year's decision to close the San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern California has created a challenge for utilities and utility regulators: How best to replace the facility's 2,200 megawatts of generating capacity?

The region's utility is pushing for more fossil fuel power. Environmentalists want a cleaner solution -- and the state's thriving cleantech sector says it could provide just that.

The California Public Utilities Commission is due next month to consider allowing construction of a natural gas–fired plant near the Mexican border. The commission had rejected the plant a year ago, but it's being reconsidered as part of a mixture of renewable and fossil fuel projects that could help meet the state's electricity needs in the wake of the San Onofre closure.

Environmentalists and neighbors of proposed new gas plants have been pleading with commissioners for months to reject such proposals. They want more solar, wind, and efficiency to help fill the gap left by lost nuclear power. A clear majority of Southern Californians agree, according to a poll conducted last year.

"There's all sorts of capacity for clean energy that will be able to take up the slack," Solana Beach Deputy Mayor Lesa Heebner told La Jolla Patch. "It's not in [San Diego Gas & Electric's] financial plan to have solar rooftops in their portfolio as a generator, because they can't control it."

And now the state's cleantech leaders are joining the fight, saying, "We got this." Here are highlights from a letter that a coalition of renewable energy investors, companies, and industry groups sent to Gov. Jerry Brown (D) this week:

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California’s drought is kind of staggering when seen from space

cali_drought

That right there is what California looks like right now, in a satellite image from the NASA Earth Observatory. And here is what it looked like at this time last year:

cali_normal

Read more: Uncategorized

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Europe wimps out on climate and clean energy

EU flag
Shutterstock

The European Union has long been a leader in the battle against climate change, but it's now shying away from the fight.

New goals proposed by the European Commission, the E.U.'s lawmaking body, fall far short of what's needed, say many activists, scientists, and leaders of poor countries. The proposal calls for E.U. nations to pump out 40 percent less greenhouse gas pollution in 2030 than they did in 1990, up from the current goal of 32 percent. That might sound pretty good, but it's not great. Bangladesh’s lead climate negotiator said the bloc of least developed countries had been hoping European nations would commit to a 65 percent reduction.

The E.U., mired in recession and jealous of the fracking boom in the U.S., is backing away not just from aggressive emissions goals but also from an ambitious renewable energy strategy. From The New York Times:

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Nervous about MRSA? Us too — but here’s what we can do

hogcafo.JPG

We’ve been feeding sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to farm animals for a long time now. So what? Eventually germs will gain a resistance, but those are animal germs -- not people germs, right?

If only. There’s more and more evidence coming in each year that links drug-resistant human pathogens to agriculture. Now a study has found that people are nearly three times more likely to have MRSA (drug-resistant staph bacteria) living in their nostrils if they lived within a mile of a large pig confinement farm. Terrifying and gross.

Read more: Food

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Watch this soulful Johnny Cash tribute band take on coal

The Real Fake Johnny Cash is here to serenade you with a rousing version of “Folsom Prison Blues,” except it’s been renamed “Coal Train Blues,” and it’s about pollution from coal transportation. Now you don’t have to imagine what it’d be like if the Man in Black had been worried about air quality:

It’s not just clever phrasing -- Counterfeit Cash drops some dark lumps o’ knowledge in there too:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Crude awakening: As Keystone opens in Texas, neighbors fight to protect their water

Pipeline contruction
Shutterstock

Wednesday at 10:45 a.m., Keystone XL South was supposed to begin piping tar sands crude from  Cushing, Okla. to refineries in Texas. That's what the pipeline's builder, Transcanada, had announced.

The pumps that keep crude moving through the pipeline were running last Thursday, as TransCanada performed last-minute tests of the system. But on Friday they went silent, according to observers in the area, and so far it looks like they haven’t started up since.

“Last week we heard info from two different sources that they had a major leak," says Kathy DaSilva, of Nacogdoches, Texas, who has been involved in the fight around KXL South for the last three years. “But we have not been able to verify or find where the leak was.”

Leaks are a big concern for DaSilva. While the national campaign against Keystone XL was framed as a climate change issue, regionally, it was about water. When TransCanada split Keystone into two pipelines -- North (which crossed the Canadian border, and which Obama has yet to approve) and South (which crossed several states, but no borders, and therefore needed no presidential approval, but then somehow mysteriously got it anyway) -- attention shifted to the Obama/Romney race, and KXL arguably became a regional issue again.

But: It’s a big region. The Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer, which the pipeline passes through, supplies drinking water to 60 counties in Texas. This summer, people living along the path of the pipeline noticed that segments that had been completed and buried six months ago were being dug up and replaced.  The replacements were impelled by “an abundance of caution” at Transcanada, a spokesperson said.  TransCanada’s CEO Russ Girling called it “the safest oil pipeline built in America to date.” DaSilva has her doubts.

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Cyclists, here’s a comprehensive list of the cars you should avoid

new-hampshire-license-plate-flickr
Dr. Nik

Like it or not, your car says something about you. A car with an “I share the road” bumper sticker? Hopefully someone who checks the bike lane before a right turn. A Hummer? Would anyone normal drive a Hummer?!

In that vein, Josh Zisson of the site Bike Safe Boston put together a funny, gif-ified Guide to Vehicular Profiling. “If you know what to look for, you can stay streets ahead of these bozos,” Zisson writes. Here are a few of the telltale cars:

Read more: Living