And other words from readers
If you truly would like to see a hydrogen-based economy in your lifetime, then you should embrace President Bush’s plan like your favorite teddy bear. Do not deride the plan because it focuses on using fossil fuels to produce the hydrogen, thereby creating pollution and greenhouse gases and negating the emission-free aspect of hydrogen; be a little open-minded and far-sighted.
Reality check: The use of fossil fuels for energy will continue for at least the next 100 years. Like it or not (which I do not), this is the case — so let us work within that reality. Renewables just cannot economically produce the necessary energy to meet world demand, at least not yet. And that demand is projected to double by 2050, as more developing nations industrialize.
Insisting that only renewables can legitimately produce hydrogen will delay the development of an infrastructure for production, transportation, storage, and use of hydrogen. Solar panel manufacturers and the government do not have the money to develop these things; fossil-fuel businesses and other large companies do.
So let them.
Let them develop the technology and infrastructure. Let them work with auto manufacturers to put affordable hydrogen automobiles on the road within 20 years. Hopefully, along the way there will be another technological breakthrough for renewables, or even the holy grail of fusion, to finally knock the crown off King Coal and release Washington and the rest of the world from the death grip of the fossil fuel industry.
What I see in the Bush administration’s energy policy is the embryo of a Republican version of sustainable development, a version that truly embraces the goals of real, legitimate, United Nations-style sustainable development. This version of sustainable development is based in the realities of today’s world, but with a hopeful eye to a different future. But don’t expect sweeping change overnight. This has been and will be a multi-generational shift.
For all of Bush’s other anti-environmental credentials, the moral and financial case for sustainable-energy development is beginning to resonate in this administration. If Republicans are going to be in political power half the time, and sustainable development is going to continue to grow towards being the dominant organizing principle of human society, then there needs to be a Republican version. They will eventually get it, or they will not be elected. Let them grow. Make them get it.
Special Advisor for Sustainable Development
U.S. Department of Energy
Actually, even fuel cells powered by fossil fuels are clean — far cleaner than gasoline or diesel internal combustion engines. It is crazy for any enviro to claim otherwise. Since fuel cells use a chemical reaction rather than combustion, they create almost none of the smog-forming NOx emissions that usually result from combustion. The impact on air quality of switching to fuel-cell vehicles would be immense. It’s true that generating hydrogen by reforming fossil fuels does yield carbon dioxide emissions — but fewer than you’d get from a gas engine, because fuel cells are more efficient. (Less fuel used = fewer greenhouse gas emissions.)
The end goal for fuel cells should be to get the hydrogen from renewable sources. But in order to get there, fuel cells themselves have to become more commercially viable, widely available, cheaper, and free of any remaining technical bugs. That is a tall enough order without the added burden of renewable-powered hydrogen generation. Fossil fuels will have to be used in the near-term in order to help fuel-cell cars become a reality. To assert that fuel cells should not be used until the hydrogen comes only from renewable sources is to make the timeframe for fuel cells even longer than it already is.
I hate to say it, but it seems that enviros and Democratic presidential candidates’ panning of fuel cells seems to be mainly politically-driven — opposing them because President Bush appears to be in favor of them. I recommend concentrating instead on the end goal: good air quality and a healthy environment.
Although the plastics industry would rather that you didn’t, there are a couple of key points that Grist should address regarding Expanded Polystyrene Foam (EPS).
First, repeated exposure to EPS food-service products and packaging may be slowly poisoning us, according to scientific studies (such as the human adipose tissue survey) that have documented elevated levels of styrene monomer in our body fat. This substance is bio-accumulative, so we can’t excrete it easily, and it can cause a variety of health problems at concentrations well within our current normal range of exposure. Children and pregnant women appear to be especially vulnerable to these effects. Will drinking coffee out of an EPS cup kill you? Probably not, but every cup you use adds incrementally to your accumulated body load and increases your chance of developing cancer and other life-threatening disorders. Also, contrary to the statement in your column, pentane (the “blowing agent” that puts the E in EPS) does add to atmospheric pollution. It is a precursor to photochemical smog and contributes to the greenhouse effect.
Second, as someone who works directly with schools and businesses to implement waste-prevention and recycling measures, I’m happy to report that an increasing number of haulers are now offering collection programs for mixed organic materials (food, soiled paper, yard debris, and wood) at no charge or for a reduced fee. These materials are ground up and composted into a useful soil amendment that is purchased by gardeners, landscapers, and farmers. (Most composting facilities report that there is a ready market for everything they can produce.) It is a simple, economical system with minimal environmental impacts and great benefits. Paper and cardboard food-service products and packaging are compatible with these programs, while EPS definitely is not. There is currently no viable system for recovering and recycling EPS and other food-soiled plastic packaging, and no market at all for the re-processed material. In debating “paper versus plastic,” it is worth noting that, although EPS can only be made from petroleum products such as benzene and natural gas, paper can be made from a variety of renewable fibers such as hemp, kenaf, and cereal straw.
I’m responding to Umbra’s column about Styrofoam. She is certainly correct that we should be calling those trays and cups EPS. She’s also right that they are relatively inert once they have been produced. Where she missed the boat is the emissions from the process of making expanded polystyrene. The toxic-releases index shows that hundreds of thousands of pounds of styrene are released into our atmosphere every day — some of it from the production of EPS. Styrene is showing up as an endocrine disruptor. I don’t buy EPS because in a cradle-to-grave assessment, it’s bad for the environment and bad for human health.
While doing oceanographic surveys on Canadian research vessels in the North Atlantic back in the late 1970s, I did daily sampling for floating garbage. Even back then, EPS particles were common, probably because EPS cups and plates are often used on ships, as they don’t break when the sea gets rough.
Filter feeders that base their food intake on particle size — e.g., many species of zooplankton — can ingest EPS particles along with their actual food source. EPS is not digestible, so it eventually fills the guts of these filter feeders and makes it impossible for them to get the nutrition they need. Zooplankton are part of the food chain between the primary producers (phytoplankton) and higher-level animals such as fish, aquatic mammals, and birds, so it’s obvious why this could be a problem.
It’s never made sense to me to use a non-renewable resource — oil — to make non-biodegradable, disposable objects. We should eat off paper if need be and save the oil for pharmaceuticals, plastics, and other essential uses.
Thanks for the info about Styrofoam vs. EPS. In your explanation of the pros and cons, you forgot the “critter factor.” A lot of EPS ends up along shorelines and floating in oceans, lakes, and streams. Many animals seem to enjoy munching on it and it is not only not biodegradable, it’s indigestible and can block their throats or digestive systems. Sea turtles get into trouble by munching on plastic shopping bags (which look like jellyfish), cigarette butts (which look like shiner fish), and EPS. These things block their systems and they die.
Florida Keys, Fla.
Re: School’s Out
Recently, mining, timber, and construction lobbyists urged Montana legislators to remove funding for the University of Montana’s environmental studies program, claiming that its students and faculty hurt our economy. Their claims are unjust and insulting to some of the state’s most concerned and hardworking citizens.
All economies depend on a healthy environment — but especially Montana’s, where beautiful landscapes and friendly communities are the reason people want to live, retire, and vacation here. Protecting and restoring our land and water creates more jobs now and in the long run than irresponsible resource extraction, and it builds healthier communities as well.
The students and faculty of the University of Montana Environmental Studies program work as hard or harder than those industry lobbyists to strengthen and restore both our economy and our environment. We give thousands of hours of community service every year. We grow thousands of pounds of organic food for the food bank; help organize the annual hazardous-waste collection days to protect Missoula’s drinking water; replant miles of eroding stream banks; rescue prairie plants in the path of construction and replant them at prairie restoration sites; hand-weed public open spaces to reduce chemical use near trails; take hundreds of school children on fieldtrips to the outdoors; take troubled teenagers on camping trips; help kids with science projects; and lots more.
Often we hear that young people are apathetic and don’t vote. Our students not only vote, they register others to vote, work in campaigns, go door-to-door, collect signatures, testify at hearings, and put on forums. They work their tails off doing what all citizens are supposed to do — making our democracy work by using legal means to achieve the goals they believe in. Many of our students come from Montana, but whether they were born here or just arrived, they have as much right to say what they think is best for Montana as some multinational corporation.
So I demand an apology to our students from those lobbyists. And I appeal to the legislature to remember that these young people are our best hope for Montana’s future. Next time you meet one of our students, I hope you’ll say: Thank you.
Professor of Environmental Studies
I enjoyed Deborah Knight’s article and agree that to build a fence along those bluffs, mesas, and canyons should be illegal. What a waste of money! I take many groups on tours there, in my role as a Sierra Club volunteer and border researcher. Loss of that area would be devastating for two countries.
Unfortunately, the fence is not the only insane project located in that region. Nine years ago, I began studying the construction of a controversial wastewater-treatment plant in the same river valley, on the U.S. side of the border. Today, the plant is operating in complete violation of the law — treating toxic sewage from Mexico to less-than-legal standards, then discharging it out to sea a few miles offshore, right around the dolphins mentioned in the article. The result (documented by myself and other researchers): smelly, discolored water full of industrial toxics, human waste, and related bacteria.
For more on my research and actions to stop these insane projects that pollute our ocean and destroy endangered habitats, please see my website.
San Diego, Calif.
Bravo! Thank you for telling it like it is. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has a personal vendetta against environmentalists and any others who don’t agree with him. He is on an ego-driven mission to forward his obscene ideas. Ask almost anyone in the area whether they want the triple fence and they will roll their eyes and say “No.”
Los Angeles, Calif.
After reading the article about the triple border fence in Southern California, it occurred to me that the fence and its environmental impact are secondary to the real problem. To my way of thinking, and as was pointed out in the article, the real problem is the abject poverty in which Mexicans find themselves — poverty that makes even a low-paid fruit-picking job in the U.S. seem better than staying in Mexico.
It is ironic that, with the NAFTA free trade agreement up and running, there is so much money being spent on keeping Mexicans out of the U.S. NAFTA was supposed to improve the lives and prospects of all involved, but only seems to be entrenching existing inequalities.
It seems that once again the interests of business are put firmly above the interests of people and the environment, eventually to the cost of all.
Re: Ask Umbra
I enjoyed the questions and answers tremendously, and I learned a lot. Thanks so much. I find I’m becoming addicted to Grist. I really appreciate the quality of the writing and — even more — the quality of the information I’m getting.
Winter Haven, Fla.
I just read your mention of how the White House recently had 167 solar panels installed on a nearby maintenance building. Your opinion was that the installation didn’t save the taxpayers very much. You continued to pine about how there was only a 0.1 percent increase in the budget for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. I think its commendable that the White House had solar panels installed and it should be applauded!
And while several other programs in the budget got no increases at all, or even a decrease, the administration still continues to increase the alternative-energy resources. This, too, is laudable. I suggest you take a more positive approach with your newsletter.
I read with interest Rick Johnson’s article on the White Clouds of Idaho. They sound lovely. I was amazed and excited to hear that a conservative Republican, Mike Simpson (Idaho), is planning on introducing legislation to protect the pristine areas discussed in the article — until I went to his website and read about some of his pending legislation to “protect” other Idaho forests. I strongly recommend that Johnson read the text of HR 2119, which purports to restore and sustain historic native forests, but appears instead to be giving license for logging, grazing, and other activities. Like all Republicans, Simpson appears to legislate with a forked tongue.