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Biofuel program could invite giant grass invasion

Here's another environmental incentive to ditch the car: That gas you buy at the pump could soon be helping towering invasive grasses wreak havoc on America's ecosystems.

The EPA recently approved the use of giant reed and napier grass as biofuel ingredients under its Renewable Fuel Standard program. The program requires oil companies to blend a minimum amount of biofuel into the gasoline that they sell. To receive EPA approval under the program, fuel created from grass must produce 60 percent less greenhouse gas than does normal gasoline.

But in approving the use of the two grasses as feedstocks for biofuel, the federal government has begun promoting plantations that environmentalists warn threaten the American landscape and its native species.

Giant reed
douneika
Giant reed is a giant pest, but the EPA figures it could also be a giant tool in the fight against climate change.

Enviros are especially concerned about potential new plantations of giant reed, aka Arundo donaxThis monstrous grass can grow two-inch wide stems and reach 20 feet in height. And once it begins wreaking havoc in the wild, the invasive grass can be an expensive (and energy-intensive) nightmare to remove. From a letter to the EPA [PDF] signed by dozen of environmental groups last year:

Arundo donax displaces native vegetation and negatively impacts certain threatened and endangered species such as the Least Bell’s Vireo. In the United States, Arundo donax is listed as a noxious weed in Texas California, Colorado, and Nevada. Additionally, it has been noted as either invasive or a serious risk in New Mexico, Alabama, and South Carolina. Once Arundo donax has invaded an area, control is difficult and costly. In California, costs range between $5,000 and $17,000 per acre to eradicate the weed. Other estimates put that cost as high as $25,000 per acre.

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Pepsi: Cancer for a new generation?

Beyonce Pepsi ad
Beyonce's not worried about additives.

Please don't take this as an endorsement. But when it comes to avoiding cancer while you gulp down a sugar-blasting brand-name cola, Coke is it.

Pepsi has been lagging behind its main competitor in removing carcinogenic meth from its flagship cola product. Well, 4-methylimidazole, to be precise.

The chemical can form in trace amounts when caramel coloring used in cola is cooked. It has been found to cause cancer in rats.

Everybody who drinks corporate soda has been drinking the stuff for years. That was supposed to come to an end after California began requiring cancer warnings on products containing elevated levels of 4-methylimidazole. The new regulations prompted Coke and Pepsi to announce early last year that they would take steps to remove the chemical from their products nationwide.

But the Center for Environmental Health tested colas and found that while Californians are drinking safer sodas than they were before, some of the colas sold outside of California still contain high levels of the substance. From the nonprofit's website:

If you live in California, Coke and Pepsi products are made without 4-MEI, a chemical known to cause cancer. But in testing of cola products from ten states, CEH found high levels of 4-MEI in ALL Pepsi cola products, while 9 out of ten Coke products were found without 4-MEI problems.

Read more: Food

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Climate change could be leading to more El Ninos

Peruvian fishermen christened El Niño, Spanish for "Christ child," because it normally arrived around Christmas.
Shutterstock
Peruvian fishermen came up with the name El Niño, Spanish for "Christ child," because it normally arrived around Christmas.

El Niño is one of Earth's most influential climatic phenomena. Its occasional arrival, heralded by warming in parts of the eastern Pacific Ocean, can be a harbinger of floods in Peru, droughts in Australia, harsh winters in Europe, and hurricanes in the Caribbean. Yet we know precious little about it.

But this week, two separate scientific studies chipped away at the mystery.

One study reveals that the El Niño phenomenon has been occurring more frequently as the globe has warmed. The other paper promises to dramatically improve our ability to foretell the weather pattern's arrival.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Volcanic rock may be used as giant wind-energy battery

Volcanic eruption
Shutterstock
A volcanic idea.

The Pacific Northwest's powerful rivers and sweeping winds can generate a lot of electricity, but not continuously. Where better to store some of that energy when there's a surplus than in the rocky residue of a volcanic eruption?

Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Bonneville Power Administration think underground porous rocks produced by volcanic eruptions could be used as a large battery system. They say excess power produced by wind farms in the region could be stored for months as pressurized air before being converted into electricity. From National Geographic:

This is much more than an academic exercise in a region that's home to one of the largest networks of hydroelectric dams in the United States, a recent boom in wind installations, and state mandates for renewables on the grid. ...

Focusing on subterranean basalt reservoirs in eastern Washington State, the authors of this new study have examined the feasibility of deploying a system known as compressed air energy storage, or CAES. They analyzed geological data from petroleum exploration to identify a pair of sites where these volcanic rocks could store enough energy to power a total of about 85,000 homes per month.

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Nothing to sneeze at: Climate change is making your allergies worse

Get used to it.
Shutterstock
Get used to it.

As if the increased threat of catastrophic weather events weren’t enough, climate change also has to mess with us in ways less apocalyptic but arguably more frustrating on a daily basis. Like by making our allergies way worse.

More CO2 in the atmosphere stimulates plant growth and pollen production, and as a result, allergy doctors across the country are reporting increases in patient visits -- new ones who have never before experienced symptoms as well as longtime sufferers getting more miserable each year.

Quest Diagnostics, which tests for allergies, reported a 15 percent increase in ragweed allergies from 2005 to 2009, according to USA Today. Scientists are straightforward about the climate connection:

"The link between rising carbon dioxide and pollen is pretty clear," says Lewis Ziska, a weed ecologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a top researcher in the field.

His lab tests show that pollen production rises along with carbon dioxide. It doubled from 5 grams to 10 grams per plant when CO2 in the atmosphere rose from 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1900 to 370 ppm in 2000. He expects it could double again, to 20 grams, by 2075 if carbon emissions continue to climb. The world's CO2 concentration is about 400 ppm.

Not only is pollen more prevalent, but longer growing seasons mean allergens stay around for more of the year. And some scientists see pollen counts doubling much sooner than 2075.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Climate change threatens Maine’s lobsters

Maine lobster
Shutterstock
Threatened by climate change.

Rising flood waters. Exotic disease outbreaks. Melting glaciers.

Pfft, trifling details. Mere distractions from more tangible impacts of climate change.

Because why? Because LOBSTERS!

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental group, launched a campaign Tuesday that could grab the attention of some who might otherwise not see any reason to care about global warming. From the AP:

In a press conference on the Portland waterfront, lobster industry advocates said carbon pollution from power plants, cars and elsewhere is warming up and acidifying waters in the Gulf of Maine.

Warmer waters drive lobsters to migrate to colder waters and make them more susceptible to disease, while acidified waters hurt lobsters' ability to form adequate shells, they said.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Oil spill stretches 10 miles down a river in Mississippi

Chickasawhay River oil spill
The Wayne County News on Youtube
See those dark globs? They're oil floating down the Chickasawhay River.

A 10-mile stretch of Mississippi's Chickasawhay River was fouled by more than 200 barrels of oil after equipment at a drilling well malfunctioned.

The Wayne County News reported in an online video that cleanup efforts were complicated by the oil spill's remote location. The U.S. EPA, Coast Guard, and state and local authorities have responded to the spill, the newspaper reported.

The spill was reported by Logan Oil on Thursday, and the emergency clean-up operations are expected to continue at least until the end of this week. From WHLT:

Joseph Dunlap of the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency says oil flowed roughly four miles down the Chickasawhay River, which is located about one mile from the oil field.

Read more: Uncategorized

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How suburban sprawl makes wildfires more deadly

The aftermath of the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire outside Boulder, Colo.
Jeff Ruane
Mailboxes destroyed in the 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire outside Boulder, Colo.

Last year’s wildfire season was one of the worst on record, and whether or not this year's tops it (a likely outcome), it’s already off to a horrifically tragic start: 19 elite firefighters perished in a blaze outside Prescott, Ariz., on Sunday -- the most to die fighting a single wildfire in 80 years. Even before the deadly Yarnell Hill blaze began, the usual suspects were asking: What does climate change have to do with wildfires? James West of Climate Desk addressed this maddening question a couple of weeks ago and The New York Times addresses it today (and David Roberts addressed it last year).

But there’s another human-caused problem making wildfires worse: the exurbs. Or, to use the technical term, the “wildland-urban interface” or WUI, where development meets and mingles with fire-prone wildlands. The New York Times describes such areas, which include Yarnell, Ariz.:

Those expanding communities, with rural views but more urban economies, have been the focus of concern among federal and state officials for a decade or more. While such regions are more plentiful in the East, it is in the areas west of the 100th longitude, reaching from West Texas and the Dakotas to the Pacific Ocean, where the natural aridity, increasingly exacerbated by climate change, makes fires a common threat.

In the West in the 1990s, more than 2.2 million housing units were added in these fire-prone areas, according to testimony by Roger B. Hammer [PDF], a demographer at Oregon State University and a leading authority on the issue. Speaking to a House subcommittee in 2008, he called this a “wicked problem,” and predicted an additional 12.3 million homes would be built in such areas in Western states — more than double the current numbers.

According to a U.S. Forest Service Study [PDF], one-third of all U.S. housing units now sit in the WUI, and the total area classified as WUI increased by 18 percent between 1990 and 2000. These neighborhoods, bucolic in theory with their combination of suburban amenities and easy access to wilderness, have become ubiquitous in the West, the study reports:

In the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest, virtually every urban area has a large ring of WUI, as a result of persistent population growth in the region that has generated medium and low-density housing in low-elevation forested areas.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Energy companies say releasing CO2 data would jeopardize trade secrets

It's a secret.
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"Shhhh ... don't tell anybody how much we're wrecking the climate ... that's a trade secret."

Energy and chemical companies are urging the Obama administration to dump a proposal on greenhouse gas emissions reporting. They say new reporting requirements could put their trade secrets at risk. From The Hill:

The White House is currently reviewing a proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that could require companies to publicly release the information they use to calculate the emissions, like the volume of production or raw materials that are used.

Companies and market regulators worry that that data can be "reverse-engineered and reverse-calculated to basically give away trade secrets," according to Lorraine Gershman, director of the environmental, regulatory and technical affairs office of the American Chemistry Council.

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How the Koch brothers screwed over the climate even more than you know

Koch brothers
The Koch brothers.

Billionaire oil moguls Charles and David Koch have had a pernicious effect on climate and energy policy, a host of other progressive issues, and American democracy itself, as we've reported many times before. But a new report by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University reveals even more about how the Koch brothers have undermined climate action.

Since 2008, the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity has been urging candidates and politicians to sign its “No Climate Tax Pledge." In 2010, we noted that many Republican House and Senate candidates had signed it, and in 2011, that at least one GOP presidential candidate had.

But it turns out the pledge has been far more widespread and influential than most people realized. From the Investigative Reporting Workshop:

A quarter of senators and more than one-third of representatives have signed a little-known pledge — backed by the Kochs — not to spend any money to fight climate change without an equivalent amount of tax cuts.