River deltas show electrical potential

salinity gradient energy

River delta power plant (credit: American Chemical Society)

How in the world do you generate electricity from the slow-moving water in a river delta? Think about all the ways we have of generating electricity. You can turn a turbine using steam. You can place the turbine in a waterfall and have the falling water turn the blades, or build tall towers with windmill blades that spin in the wind. You can put a battery into your mobile phone, in between two strips of metal.

These generators look very different, but they all have something in common: they are all situated in places where some kind of energy flows from one place to another, and they all tap into that flow to do some kind of work. Unless you put up some kind of barrier, if you put a lot of excess energy into one place, it will tend to flow to a place that doesn’t have as much energy, so things tend to equalize out.

For example, if you fill a bucket with hot water (high energy) and ice (low energy), eventually, you get a bucket of water all at the same temperature, which is somewhere in between hot water and ice. The trick to power generation is to separate the high-energy and low-energy things, but give them some way to connect, and put your generator in the path, like a toll booth.

The steam turbine works because you’re burning some kind of fuel, which releases heat energy into a boiler full of water. The water heats up to the point where it becomes steam and escapes the boiler through an outlet. The steam transfers energy from the hot, high-pressure (high-energy) environment of the boiler to the cooler, lower-pressure environment of the condenser. The turbine sits in the middle of the flow, using the motion of the flowing steam to turn the blades.

hydroelectric plant

How a hydroelectric plant works. (credit: Environment Canada)

Hydroelectric generators and windmills also use a flowing stream to turn turbine blades. The hydroelectric generator draws energy from water flowing under the force of gravity. It takes energy to resist gravity, and water wants to flow to the lowest spot possible unless there’s something stopping it. When water goes from a high place to a low place, it releases kinetic (motion) energy, and the hydroelectric dam converts that into electrical energy. Windmills do something similar, using a stream of air that is flowing from a high-pressure region to a low-pressure region (otherwise known as wind).

Batteries use chemical energy to trigger a flow of electricity. One side of the battery has a material that would be more stable if it could get rid of a few extra electrons, and the other has a material that would be more stable if it could pick up those extra electrons. The trick is to put a barrier between those two sides, and to provide an alternate route from one side to the other. The alternate route has something that you’ve placed in the path, like a light bulb or a motor, and a switch that acts like a drawbridge. When you flip the switch, the drawbridge closes and the electrons come pouring across it, lighting up the light bulb or running the motor on their way to the other side.

Theoretically, anything that sets up some kind of flow could be a source of electrical energy, which brings us back to the river delta. Osmosis is a kind of flow, and some researchers are working on a way to use that on a big enough scale to run a power plant. Osmosis describes what happens when a concentrated solution and a dilute solution are separated by a barrier, called a membrane, that lets some things pass, but not others.

You can see the effects of osmosis by putting a raisin in water. (Here’s a video.) Raisins already have a little bit of water in them (unless they are so dry that they’re rock-hard). They also have a whole lot of sugar, so they are basically little bags of concentrated sugar-water. The raisin’s skin has pores that are small enough that water can pass through, but not sugar (which is made of much larger molecules). When you put a raisin in water with no sugar in it, the concentrated sugar-water and plain water want to mix and form just one big pool of water with some sugar in it, but the raisin skin won’t let the sugar out. So the plain water comes in, and the raisin swells up.

So there you have your high-energy state (a concentrated sugar-water solution and a no-sugar pool of water), a barrier that keeps things from just plopping down into a low-energy state (one big pool of sugar-water), and a restricted path across that barrier (the pores in the raisin skin). Set up a tiny little turbine, and you have a miniature power plant.

On a bigger scale, the river delta is where fresh river water flows into the salty sea. Ordinarily, there’s nothing to stop the mixing, but if you could divert some fresh water from the river and some salt water from the sea, put them on opposite sides of a membrane, and let osmotic flow do its work, you could use the flow to turn a turbine and make electricity. The trick is to do it on a big enough scale, and at a low enough cost, to make it worthwhile.

In a recent issue of Environmental Science and Technology Letters, a team of Colombian and German researchers report on their calculations to characterize just the sorts of river deltas that make the most promising candidates. They found that when the mixing zone between fresh and salt water is too large, it takes too much energy to transport the water to the power station. They calculated that the best results are for freshwater and saltwater intake ports less than 2000 meters apart (about a mile and a quarter).

The biggest limitation they found was the difference in height between water levels at high and low tides. If this difference was more than about 1.2 meters (just under 4 feet), it wouldn’t be feasible to set up a saline gradient power plant at that location because the tides would produce too much mixing of the salt and fresh water outside of the power plant. Fjords and other deep river mouths could be an exception to this, because the tides would only stir up the top layers of water, leaving the bottom relatively undisturbed.

For a more technical summary of this, see my posting on the American Chemical Society’s Noteworthy Chemistry blog for October 20, 2014.

Tiny Crystal Provides a Big Clue

Lab-grown crystal of blue ringwoodite, about 1.5 times the size of a salt grain (~150 micrometers) Photomicrograph by Jasperox, Wikimedia Commons.

Lab-grown crystal of blue ringwoodite, about 1.5 times the size of a salt grain (~150 micrometers) Photomicrograph by Jasperox, Wikimedia Commons.

Is there an immense ocean, far beneath the surface of the Earth, that replenishes the oceans above? Recent news items describe a deep reservoir containing as much as three-quarters of the Earth’s water supply. Most of these news stories are careful to note that this isn’t some great sloshing underground pool, and you won’t find any fish living there. Rather, the water is “bound up” in mineral deposits and released when these minerals are put under immense pressure. Some news stories compare the minerals to sponges, which is not something you usually associate with rocks. (Here are a couple of examples of the news items: Daily Digest News, The Guardian.)

What’s really going on here? Last March, a research paper in the journal Nature reported the discovery of a tiny crystal of a mineral called ringwoodite, encased in a diamond that was plucked out of shallow river gravel by artisan miners near Juína, Brazil. A research team led by Graham Pearson (University of Alberta, Canada) found the ringwoodite crystal (60 microns, less than the thickness of a sheet of paper) inside a dirty-looking brown diamond that they had bought for about $20 (US), according to an article in Sci-News. (Here’s the article, with a photo of the diamond and ringwoodite crystal.).

This month, a paper in Science used this discovery, along with geological measurements, lab studies, and models, as evidence to support an idea that geologists had been looking at for many years. (Here are a couple of press releases, from the the University of New Mexico and Northwestern University, where the two lead authors are located.)

Scientists suspect that ringwoodite may be common in a “transition zone” that lies 410 to 660 km (250–410 miles) below the Earth’s surface, based on seismic measurements, which track changes in the speed and direction of earthquake vibrations. Ringwoodite has been made in the lab and found in meteorites, but this was the first time that anyone had found a naturally occurring crystal from inside the Earth.

green olivine sand

Green olivine sand on black volcanic rock. Photo by Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons.

Why do we care about this elusive mineral? Because it’s a high-pressure form of another mineral called olivine. As the name suggests, many forms of olivine are dark green (it can range from yellow to black). The dark-green sands on Papakolea Beach, Hawaii are mostly olivine, and this mineral is common all over the world. At very high pressures, like those you would find more than 660 km beneath the Earth’s surface, olivine transforms into another mineral called perovskite. The presence of one form or another affects the way that earthquake vibrations travel through the Earth. These two minerals have been studied intensively, and geologists use seismic signals as clues to help them map mineral forms and geological activity far beneath the surface, where it’s hard to get the information any other way.

Water and hydroxyl radical

Water molecule (H2O, left) and hydroxyl radical (OH, right). Courtesy of NIST.

Ringwoodite is intermediate between olivine and perovskite. Because of the way its crystals form, they can contain as much as 3% by weight of something called hydroxyl radicals (OH•). (The crystal reported in the Nature paper had 1.5%.) This “radical” has nothing to do with political activism or unorthodox beliefs. Used in a chemistry context, the term refers to a water molecule (HOH, more commonly written H2O) that has one hydrogen atom stripped away, leaving behind a spare electron that it can share with something else, in this case, the elements in ringwoodite’s crystal structure.

Olivine doesn’t contain hydroxyl radicals. When olivine is put under pressure, water from the surrounding environment can be converted into OH•, forced inside, and incorporated into the framework of atoms, forming ringwoodite. The more OH• trapped in the framework, the faster the sound waves travel through it, which is why geologists had suspected that there was a water-containing mineral intermediate between olivine and perovskite.


Perovskite collected by A.E. Foote from Magnet Cove, Arkansas. Mineral collection of Bringham Young University Department of Geology, Provo, Utah. Photo by Andrew Silver, USGS.

Put ringwoodite under even more pressure, and it converts into perovskite. The hydroxyl radicals are forced back outside again, where they recombine with hydrogen (which is just about everywhere) to form liquid water. This water causes the perovskite to melt a little, in much the same way that sprinkling salt on ice causes the ice to melt. The scientists who published the paper in Science had actually seen this melting behavior in the lab, when they used a device called a diamond anvil cell to put immense pressure on a ringwoodite crystal and convert it to perovskite.

Geologists had seen seismic waves suddenly slowing down in regions where they had other clues that one rock layer was sinking down below another. A layer of partially melted perovskite that was taking a dive would slow down a seismic wave like this.

Previous examination of ancient minerals called basalts, taken from mid-ocean ridges, suggested that Earth’s upper mantle has a water content of 0.005 to 0.02% water by weight. Lab and modeling studies show that ringwoodite and a related mineral, wadsleyite, can hold between 1 and 3% water by weight. Seismic evidence suggests that the water content below 660 km is much less. Thus, if these studies are right, the transition zone is where most of the water is. If this zone extends all over the world, and its average water content is 1% (a conservative estimate that needs to be verified), this translates into nearly three times as much water as the oceans contain, which is where the news reports got their three-quarters number (three-quarters in the transition zone, one-quarter in the oceans).

Geologists have been working for decades to create a model that “balances the books” on where water comes from and where it goes — a “whole-Earth water cycle”. They had long suspected that there was a subterranean source that acts as a buffer zone to keep the amount of water in the oceans fairly constant. This latest evidence provides more clues to help them fill in the missing pieces.

Touring a Green Building

Kendall Center USG

Kendall Center, Universities at Shady Grove. Photo by Nancy McGuire

This afternoon, I joined the Earth Ethics Committee of the Washington Ethical Society and friends for a tour of the Camille Kendall Academic Center of the Universities at Shady Grove (Rockville, MD). When this building received an LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification, it was the largest building ever to receive this designation. The building is one of three main academic buildings on this suburban campus, which serves as a branch location for nine Maryland universities. Students at USG specialize in one of several career-oriented programs geared toward meeting the needs of regional businesses.

Recycled glass flooring

Terazzo glass flooring made from recycled glass. Photo by Nancy McGuire

One of the first things you notice as you enter is the terazzo glass flooring, made from blue and green recycled glass and concrete.

Banana fiber tabletop

Cafe table features banana fiber composite. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Just off the lobby is a cafe. The catering service was chosen in part because of its strong emphasis on farm-to-fork responsibility. Some of the herbs used in the kitchen are raised on-campus, and the cafe staff collects food waste for composting off-site. The table tops in the cafe are made from a composite material that includes banana fibers.

Library windows

The USG library makes good use of natural light. Photo by Nancy McGuire

USG library interior

The USG library uses sustainable wood sources. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The large, sunny first-floor library makes good use of natural light. All the wood veneers in the library are from FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) certified sources, which have been vetted for sustainable harvesting practices, and the core materials contain no added urea-formaldehyde. (The doors and wood paneling for the classrooms are also FSC-certified wood.) The floors in the library are bamboo, an easily renewable source.

Roof garden

Rooftop garden at USG. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Louvered awnings

Louvered awnings provide shade. Photo by Nancy McGuire

A rooftop garden is easily visible from the windows on the second level of the building. This garden uses a tray-type system, which makes it easy to replace or move small sections of the garden. The garden contains several hardy, low-maintenance varieties of succulent plants. Reservoirs underneath the trays hold rain water, so it is only necessary to irrigate the garden a few times a year.
Fritted glass window

Fritted glass windows are etched with light-filtering dots. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Louvered awnings protect the rooms inside from direct sunlight, and fritted window glass filters the light coming into the main open area.

Marmoleum floors

Low-maintenance Marmoleum floors. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The upper levels of the building have floors made from Marmoleum, a matte-finish linoleum made with recycled paper backing. These floors stand up to a lot of traffic, and they can be cleaned with soap and water, rather than harsh chemicals.
Wheat board walls

Wheat board wall panels. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The ceiling panel tiles are made from recycled aluminum, and the wall panels are wheatboard, a urea-formaldehyde-free material made from wheat stalks. The restrooms feature dual-flush toilets to conserve water, and the faucets use extra aeration to provide the cleaning power and “feel” of conventional faucets while using less water.

water fountains

Filtered-water fountains.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

The building uses a fair amount of behavior modification features to encourage students and faculty to adopt “greener” habits. The water fountains provide filtered water to discourage the use of bottled water and cut down on the accompanying plastic bottle waste. Some of the fountains are designed to make it easy to refill a water bottle, for students on the go. Lots of open, airy stairwells encourage students to take that route rather than the elevators. A recreation area on the second level has showers, for those who bike to campus. A workout room is floored with recycled rubber tiles.
workout room

Workout room has recycled rubber flooring. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The ventilation system minimizes air turnover, which cuts down on heating and cooling bills. CO2 sensors in the classrooms and offices make sure that students, faculty, and staff get enough fresh air to stay awake. Light sensors dim the overhead lights on sunny days and brighten them when it’s dark outside.


Eco-friendly carpeting. Photo by Nancy McGuire

In the office area, carpeting is certified by the Carpet and Rug Institute, and meets standards for recycled content, low VOCs, and acceptable adhesives. Glass-paneled office doors let natural light from the atrium shine in. The classrooms are equipped with computer workstations and tables that have been retrofitted to accommodate cables, keyboards, and monitors. The facilities staff adapted existing classroom furniture on-site to save money, materials, and transportation costs. Computers are energy-efficient, and the printer paper has a minimum of 30% recycled content.

conference table

Aluminum chips brighten a tabletop. Photo by Nancy McGuire

A conference room table, topped with a composite material containing chips of recycled aluminum, subtly reflects light from above. The walls of the conference room are covered in a long-lasting reusable fabric that also reflects light without being “sparkly”.
wall covering

Light-reflecting fabric wall covering. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Energy Bike

Can Rich make the bulbs light up? Photo by Nancy McGuire

LEED certification requires an educational effort, of which the building tours constitute one part. The Kendall Center also has a Green Educational Room for educational displays, news, and information. Nearby is the Energy Bike, a stationary bike with a wheel generator that lights up either an incandescent light bulb or a compact fluorescent bulb when you pedal the bike. Note: you have to pedal a lot harder to get the incandescent bulb to light up. This bike was donated to USG by Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group. He and actress Daryl Hannah had the honor of being the first and second riders of the bike.
Energy Bike poster

Branson and Hannah christen the Energy Bike. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The campus grounds are kept green and lush by a smart irrigation system that uses buried moisture sensors to signal the sprinkler system when it’s time to water the grass. You won’t see sprinklers spraying into a rainstorm here! Rainwater collected from the parking garage roof flows through pipes into an underground cistern for use in watering the yards and gardens on campus.

rainwater collection

Pipes channel rainwater from garage roof to cisterns. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Prominently featured on the campus grounds is a trash receptacle with a solar-powered trash compactor. The solar panels are visible on the lid of the receptacle.
Solar trash can

Solar-powered trash compactor. Photo by Nancy McGuire

LED lights

LED lights in the parking garage. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Solar panel

Solar panel for LED lights. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The six-level parking garage uses LED bulbs that are powered by solar panels on the garage roof. One academic building on campus also uses all LED lights, and the Kendall Center is in the process of switching to LED lights. The garage has a light-colored roof, which reflects heat away from the garage’s interior. (Other buildings on campus have light-colored coatings on their roofs as well.) The parking garage elevator runs on a pulley system that uses counter-weights to assist the electrical motors. The concrete in the parking garage contains fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired electrical generators. Inside the parking garage, the best spaces on the ground level are reserved for cars with stickers certifying them as fuel-efficient vehicles and carpool vehicles. One of the parking lots on campus has a recharging station for an electric vehicle, and there are plans to put in more.
Reserved parking

Carpool-only parking spot. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The green effort at SGU is spearheaded by a committee of students and faculty members. The committee identifies ways to improve the sustainability of various aspects of the campus facilities, working within the College Park procurement process. They conduct tours, collect soil samples for testing, and consult with the landscaping companies who maintain the campus grounds. The campus facilities manager collects data on energy use to document the effects of the measures that have been put in place.

Small measures, when taken separately, but it all adds up. If everyone who visits this campus takes a few of these ideas home with them, just think of the energy and materials savings that could come of it.

Note to Wombats: Don’t Eat the Heliotrope


Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (Wikimedia Commons, photo by Jason Pratt, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

The wombats didn’t start getting sick until after Australian ranchers moved their livestock off the plot of land that the livestock and wombats had shared, after the foul-tasting weeds took over, pushing aside the tasty native grasses. The older wombats knew that something had changed, but the younger generation ate whatever was available, and they paid for it with liver damage, hair loss, and sun-blistered skin.

Lucy Woolford and Wayne Boardman of the University of Adelaide and Mary Fletcher of the University of Queensland reported recently on their study of ten southern hairy-nosed wombats that lived on a plot of land in the Murraylands near Blanchetown, South Australia, about 130 km (80 miles) northeast of Adelaide. Park rangers had shot five of them to end their suffering, two of them died in an animal rehabilitation center, and three were still alive at the rehab center. All ten wombats were female, five adults and five weaned juveniles.

Australia map

Areas where southern hairy-nosed wombats live. Red arrow points to Blanchetown. (Source: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species)

Wombats, large, burrowing marsupials that live in the southern part of Australia, have had a hard time of it. They have had to contend with agriculture, imported livestock, drought, and disease.

The southern hairy-nosed wombats in the Murraylands have had an especially tough time. Drought and sarcoptic mange (also called scabies, a disease caused by mite infestation) have reduced their population by about 70% since 2002, down to about 10,000 to 15,000 individuals.

Heavy summer rainfall and flooding in 2010 and 2011 damaged feeding areas, and large numbers of emaciated wombats, missing patches of hair, have been sighted since then. Wombats usually feed by night, but after the floods, they have been seen grazing during the day and returning to their burrows before dusk.

The research team examined blood, tissue, and feces from their ten wombats, and they did veterinary examinations on the three that were still alive. The juvenile wombats showed the worst symptoms. Their livers had shrunk, and their gall bladders were inflamed. They were jaundiced, emaciated, and were missing patches of hair on their backs, sides, and heads — areas that were most exposed to the sun. Something had made the wombats more sensitive to sunlight, and their switch to daytime grazing only made things worse.

The team team recognized the symptoms as similar to those they had seen in cows, sheep, horses, and red kangaroos that had eaten certain kinds of poisonous plants. They collected samples of plants from the feeding area for identification and comparison with the stomach contents from the sick wombats.


Onionweed, an invasive species. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)

Native grasses were scarce in the area where the ten wombats had lived. The area was overgrown with onionweed. Other plants were present as well, but what caught the researchers’ attention was the heliotrope growing close to the wombats’ warrens. Heliotrope has a pretty flower, but it also contains a class of bitter-tasting chemical compounds called pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which cause liver damage.


Heliotrope, the plant that sickened the wombats. (Photo by Carsten Niehaus, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

There was ample evidence that the wombats had eaten the heliotrope plants, despite the bitter taste. The researchers speculated that juvenile wombats had eaten more of the heliotrope because it was close by their warrens, and they had not eaten enough native grasses to develop a strong preference for them — they just didn’t know any better.

This is one case where letting the land go back to the wild wasn’t good for the wildlife.

Source: Woolford, L., Fletcher, M.T., and Boardman, S.J. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2014, ASAP, dx.doi.org/10.1021/jf405811n.

How did the Fukushima nuclear accident affect wildlife?

radiation hotspot

Radiation hotspot in Kashiwa, Japan, February 2012. (Source: Wikipedia, public domain)

On March 11, 2011, a tsunami, a giant wave set off by an earthquake, struck the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan. The tsunami caused a catastrophic failure of the power station and a release of radioactive material that has been rated second in magnitude only to the Chernobyl disaster. The extent of the radiological impact of this event on surrounding wildlife has been a contentious topic, but the results of a recent study are cautiously optimistic.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation oversaw a study by an international team of scientists, who evaluated the results of a 2011 environmental assessment of the area near the power plant and published their results earlier this year (Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett., 2014, 1, 198–203).The UN committee compiled data for the year following the accident; relevant reports and scientific papers provided additional data. Radiation effects were inferred by comparing compiled dose–response relationships.

Radiation exposures were evaluated for the first 3 months after the accident, during which short-lived isotopes played a significant role, and for a later phase (3–12 months), in which exposure was dominated by longer-lived isotopes. Radionuclide concentrations were measured over time and geographic area. The researchers used kinetic models to calculate how concentrations varied over time in the whole collection of organisms for each area (biota). They determined cumulative doses using calculations.

Adult butterflies collected in September 2011 showed more severe abnormalities than those collected in May 2011, indicating that cumulative radiation exposure had caused deterioration in the overall butterfly population. However, dosimetry uncertainties and other confounding factors complicate the interpretation of these observations. The recorded dose rates were much too low to cause the kinds of abnormalities the researchers observed, and when they tried to replicate the conditions in the laboratory, they needed ten times the radiation exposure to reproduce the same effects that they saw in the field. Other scientific data do not support the appearance of the observed effects at the dose rates recorded.

The research team noted that localized effects might have contributed to the abnormalities they saw in the butterflies. They also observed declines in some bird populations and exposures of macroalgae that exceeded corresponding benchmarks, which supports this possibility.

The team concluded that because the highest exposure levels lasted only a short time, there was likely no damage to the integrity of plant and animal populations overall. However, individual organisms in relatively contaminated areas might have been damaged during the weeks immediately after the accident. Especially at risk were individual members of species that are especially sensitive to radiation, that stay in one place rather than moving around, or that live in areas that received high doses of radiation.

This is a lay-audience summary of my writeup on The American Chemical Society’s website.

A World of Slow Drips

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

Carlsbad, New Mexico

Some farmers near Carlsbad, New Mexico (shown here) find it more profitable to sell their water to fracking operations than to irrigate their drought-stricken land.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the last in a four-part series on this briefing.

Dennis Dimick, executive editor of environment at National Geographic, spoke of a nexus where food, water, and energy issues meet. Much of the petroleum extraction being done today, including water-intensive fracking operations, is being done in arid regions. Many arid regions in the U.S. are under stress because of decreases in the mountain snow pack that replenishes rivers and lakes every year.

Heavy demands from the extraction industries, agriculture, and growing cities have tended to push aside concerns for the indigenous animal and plant life. This neglect could have serious repercussions for human populations because of complex cause-and-effect relationships and the interconnecting roles that drive environmental effects. “It’s not just a water supply for people, you have to look at the whole ecosystem,” Dimick said.

At the same time that arid regions in the western U.S. are dealing with extended drought periods and diminishing snow melt, they are experiencing significant population growth. Cities in these regions, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, are already experiencing water shortages. Their demand for water is outstripping the ability of their aquifers to replenish themselves, and in essence, they are “mining fossil water”, said Dimick. Water stress is not limited to the southwestern deserts, however. Orlando, Atlanta, and the San Francisco Bay area are also feeling the pinch. (See this article in Yahoo Finance on the ten largest U.S. cities dealing with water shortages.)


Slow drips, hard knocks. Shifts in climate patterns produce weather extremes of all kinds.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

These stories are sometimes not covered in the news as well as they could be, noted Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”. In part, this is because the long development times for phenomena including climate change and ecosystem degradation are hard to report on a journalistic time scale. It’s much easier to generate a news item about a particular wildfire in California than to report on a decades-long increase in the number and intensity of wildfires across the Southwest. However, “it’s a world of slow drips that set up hard knocks,” Revkin noted.

Dramatic elements of a news story often overshadow the factors that contributed to the drama, Revkin continued. For example, Tacloban, a city in the Philippines that sustained massive damage during last November’s Super-typhoon Haiyan, saw its population triple over the past 40 years, according to the National Census Office for the Philippines.

Poverty and infrastructure neglect are common in this city, located in a particularly storm-prone area. About one-third of Tacloban’s homes have wooden exterior walls. One in seven homes has a grass roof (down from about a quarter of all homes in 2000), according to the National Census Office report. (Revkin discusses this in detail in his Dot Earth blog.)

More humans means more human loss when a “fairly typical” disaster hits, Revkin said. This is especially true when more humans concentrate in particularly sensitive or disaster-prone areas. He noted that “misguided incentives” encourage people to build in harm’s way, including insurance policies that cover rebuilding in risky areas. “Insurance costs should rise” to cover the risks, he said.

Revkin noted the effects of confounding factors in creating climate models and predicting resource levels in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Changes in the environment and living standards there are driven by more than just greenhouse gas levels. He noted complexities in climatology and widespread mismanagement of water resources as examples.

When considering the effects of population growth and resource consumption on climate change, “consumption is key,” said Revkin in response to a question from an audience member. “Nine billion vegan monks” would have a much smaller impact on global resources than, say, a world of upper-middle-class Americans. However, large family sizes can reduce the quality of life for dense local pockets of urban poor people, and localized family planning efforts can have positive effects on such things as deforestation. The issue doesn’t get discussed much, he added.

Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian, noted that rich nations are the “main perpetrators” of climate change effects because the scale on which they extract and consume fossil fuels so far outstrips that of less prosperous countries. Large international agencies and treaty organizations have made little progress on targeting efforts toward getting rich nations to act, but small side negotiations could produce significant results, she said.

A Matter of National Security
What about the impact of climate change on national security? Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, noted the 20-year effort by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to address climate change issues. She asserted that the State Department is heavily focused on climate effects and their influence on national security. She also noted that the Department of Defense is acutely aware of the issue. “The awareness is there … and it’s growing,” she said.

Goldenberg noted that the U.S. military’s leadership is pushing to reduce or eliminate dependence on petroleum-based fuels. They have put great pressure on unit commanders to “green” their establishments (but they don’t call it “green”), she said. Davenport explained that the military’s push toward alternative fuel sources is driven by security concerns, with the environmental benefits as a fortuitous side effect. Transporting fuel to remote or hostile locations is prohibitively expensive in terms of money and danger to the lives of servicemen, and oil convoys are prime targets for attack, she added.

Food shortages are another national security concern. Several recent riots in other countries have been attributed to food price increases driven by crop failures brought on by drought. The problem is beginning to make itself felt in the U.S. as well, said Dimick. Farmers in the southern high plains of Texas can no longer grow corn, he said. Instead, they have begun to raise dry-land crops such as grain sorghum. (Other sources note that the high plains water shortage is caused both by drought and by depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. Farmers have switched to short-season corn, grain sorghum, and cotton to reduce demand for water.)

Effecting Changes in the Political Climate
Given the polarized and combative atmosphere in Congress, is there any hope that legislators representing deeply conservative constituents in the “red states” could support efforts to address climate change? Is there hope for a carbon tax, or will big business defeat any efforts in this direction?

Davenport stated that when large companies see their profitability threatened by climate effects, they often come around to support climate change mitigation efforts. She noted that Monsanto, an agricultural products company whose customer base is largely in the red states, is concerned about volatility in weather patterns. Droughts, tornadoes, and wildfires threaten the farmers who make up the company’s customer base.

Cloudy future

Conflicting political, public, and industrial priorities create an uncertain future.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Exxon Mobil, the petroleum producer, has acknowledged the role of carbon emissions in climate change. This company, which is a major donor to Republican campaigns, has developed a proposal for a carbon tax. Davenport noted that this change of heart occurred when Exxon Mobil bought natural gas producer XTO Energy in 2009, adding that their embrace of climate science is now good for their bottom line.

Despite support from major corporations (and campaign donors), conservative lawmakers are still fighting regulations that address climate change, Davenport said. Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, noted that support from business could give moderate legislators the political cover they need to support legislation without being branded anti-business. “Business is out ahead of the lawmakers on this,” he said.

Davenport noted that significant legislative changes will come when red-state Republicans have the constituent backing and political will to support these changes. This, in turn, will happen when local effects — depleted or contaminated water supplies, or increases in insurance rates because of floods or wildfires — drive citizens to push for change. In some ways, she said, the push for action from the left impedes change because it hardens the opposition and politicizes the issues. This makes it harder for moderates to speak up without paying a price politically.

This is the last in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous posts: Global Issues, Local Actions, Coal: Politics and Power Supplies, and Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues.

Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

protester arrested

The Keystone Pipeline mobilized public protests in 2013. Shown here: A man is arrested near the White House during a protest rally (not related to Keystone).
Photo by Nancy McGuire

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the third in a four-part series on this briefing.

Opposition to Canada’s Keystone Pipeline, a story that generated significant heat inside the Beltway last year, may be producing some unintended effects. “Canada is committed to developing its oil sands, Keystone or not,” said Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news. If the Keystone construction project is prevented or delayed, the industry could resort to railroads and ships to bring crude oil to market. As of today, though, Canada doesn’t have the shipping routes to be able to do this, countered Suzanne Goldenberg, U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian. “Every day that the oil stays in the ground … is a small victory for the environmental movement,” she said, adding that this delay gives natural gas a chance to further dominate the U.S. market.

Politically, the Keystone protests were effective in mobilizing citizen groups on both sides of the issue and stirring up awareness and interest in issues surrounding petroleum extraction and transport. In an imperfect way, Keystone was used as a proxy in the debate surrounding climate change response versus job creation. However, the Keystone issue has not mobilized people enough to effect real change, said Goldenberg. Real changes have come about in the last three or four years through “little movements” centered around oil, gas, and fracking issues. It’s hard to quantify, she said, but the big groups are starting to listen.

Pearl noted that “people need to be stimulated somehow” to take action on issues such as the Keystone Pipeline. Often, people are focused on issues of more immediate concern, including unemployment and food prices. Oil pipelines in Canada seem remote, and the effects are slow to develop.

Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”, mentioned the divestment movements on many college campuses, where student activists have pushed their administrators to stop investing in businesses that pursue practices that are harmful to the environment. The dollar amounts are small, he said, but the influence on university investment strategies and the awareness-raising effects are significant.

Cheryl Hogue, senior correspondent for Chemical and Engineering News, noted that “moms who blog and tweet” are another group whose influence greatly exceeds its economic clout. Companies are willing to go to great lengths to avoid the kind of damage that a social media campaign gone viral can cause. Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, cited the example of the “no GMOs” advertising campaign that Cheerios launched this year, but she noted that oats don’t contain GMOs anyhow. The threat of fallout from an anti-GMO campaign, however, was enough to motivate General Mills to emphasize this fact. (This writer notes that Cheerios also contain corn starch and corn syrup. Presumably, these ingredients will no longer contain GMO corn, if they ever did.)

Revkin noted that the U.S. must move wisely in developing a policy around Keystone. “Obama needs good relations with Canada,” he said. Davenport concurred: The world is looking to see what Obama does on environmental regulations and the Keystone Pipeline to see whether he is negotiating in good faith, she said. Dennis Dimick, executive editor of environment at National Geographic, added that commitments to infrastructure building projects set the energy path for decades because of the large scale and expense of these projects. A choice in one direction closes off other choices for years, he said.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Clouds over water

Sky-darkening geo-engineering projects would not alleviate ocean acidification.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

What stories about the ocean are likely to dominate the news in 2014? asked one audience member. “One word: plastics,” quipped Hogue.

Acidification is another strong candidate, according to Davenport. It’s a concrete problem with immediate economic effects, she added. This type of story creates more of a spur to action than some of the more abstract issues or those that develop over longer periods of time.

Dimick warned that many of the geo-engineering schemes being proposed would mitigate atmospheric warming by injecting light-scattering or light-shielding particles into the atmosphere, but these efforts would have no effect on the amount of carbon entering the ocean from the atmosphere. This carbon is a major cause of ocean acidification.

Honolulu penguin

Arctic thawing opens migration paths. A penguin in a Honolulu zoo (he didn’t migrate there).
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Pearl and Revkin discussed the effects of new open-ocean corridors opening up as a result of the shrinking Arctic ice cap. Some species of marine animals are currently migrating to new areas, along paths that were previously blocked by ice. Revkin noted that invasive species of all kinds consume a major part of the time and resources for managers of fisheries, wildlife, and national parks.

Dimmick added that the shrinking Arctic ice cap affects migration of the jet stream, and he cited the “polar vortex” cold weather system that has plagued much of the eastern U.S. and Canada this month.

This is the third in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous posts: Global Issues, Local Actions and Coal: Politics and Power Supplies. Upcoming topic: A World of Slow Drips.

Coal: Politics and Power Supplies

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

downtown Lisbon

Coal generates the electricity that runs the world’s cities. A busy street in Lisbon, home to the Electricity Museum.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the second in a four-part series on this briefing.

Coal in U.S. Politics
This year’s U.S. midterm elections will increasingly influence the debate on the use, regulation, and export of coal, said Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian. Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, concurred. The Republican Party accuses the Obama administration of waging a “war on coal”, Davenport said. “I think that’s accurate. He is waging a war on coal, but we don’t know what the public reaction will be. They could be OK with the new stricter regulations.”

Noting that some Republican strategists were planning to use missteps on implementing the Affordable Health Care Act and the supposed job-destroying effects of over-regulating the coal industry as a one-two punch in the upcoming campaign season, she cited past examples that this strategy had failed to produce the anticipated public outrage.

Davenport described a “very different dynamic” in the Obama administration from his first term. There is a good chance that draft rules for new coal regulations will pass in time to meet the June 2014 deadline. The administration is pushing the EPA — “nagging them,” said Davenport — to complete the draft rules quickly. She cited public support for the rules as the reason for the administration’s new-found assertiveness in the face of Republican opposition.

This writer notes that this is a shift in direction from the 2012 election season, when all three leading presidential candidates sang the praises of “clean coal” as a potentially important contributor to the U.S. energy supply. Dennis Dimick, executive editor of environment at National Geographic, plugged an upcoming article, “Will Clean Coal Ever Be Clean?” (an article this writer wishes had been published two years ago). Carbon capture, another sound bite from the 2012 election season, is currently being performed on a very small scale compared to carbon output, stated Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”.

cloudy sky

Cloudy future for coal-fired power plants: The “war on coal” is not an all-out attack.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, noted that the administration’s war on coal was not an all-out attack, since President Obama supports U.S. coal exports.

One audience member asked whether environmental activists were correct to complain about a lack of action by the President on environmental issues. Panel members agreed that pushing the administration for more action was “business as usual” for environmental organizations, but what had changed was the administration’s response.

Goldenberg cited one recent example where John Podesta (senior advisor to President Obama) sharply rebuked a group of U.S. environmental leaders for criticizing the President’s perceived lack of commitment to addressing climate change. Podesta, who until recently headed the Center for American Progress, is known for strongly pushing pro-environmental issues, but even he seemed to have reached his limit. (See this article in The Washington Post.)

Coal Around the World
Coal is both a global commodity and a locally produced and consumed resource, Revkin said. He cited the example of Australia, which does not count the coal it exports to China in its own consumption figures. He also noted that stopping exports to China would have very little impact on the interior of the country, where coal is mined and consumed locally. Although the natural gas boom in the U.S. is driving domestic demand away from coal, the global increase in the demand for coal is outstripping the demand for other energy sources, Dimick said.

One audience member asked whether U.S. port cities could slow coal exports by adopting strict new regulations. Davenport cited the example of a November 2013 county council election in Whatcom County, in northwest Washington State, that was widely viewed as a referendum on a proposed coal export terminal. Pro-environmental groups outspent coal-industry groups in campaign contributions, although spending on both sides was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Bellingham Herald, October 24, 2013) In the end, the progressive candidates won. (Bellingham Herald, November 5, 2013) Almost six months after regulatory agencies made their decision on the scope of environmental study for a proposed Whatcom County coal export terminal at Cherry Point, the study process itself has not yet begun. (Bellingham Herald, January 19, 2014)

Northwest Washington

Northwest Washington State says no to coal export terminal, for now. Sunset on Orcas Island, WA, across the sound from Cherry Point.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Could other nations, including China, start their own fracking programs, driving an international move away from coal and toward natural gas? Revkin stated that China was more interested in importing liquefied natural gas from the U.S. than in producing their own. Pearl said that China was interested in moving away from coal and toward using more natural gas. Factors impeding other nations’ willingness to begin fracking include concerns about potential damage to their water supplies and uncertainties about long-term waste disposal. “Fracking is forever,” said Goldenberg.

China’s 2015 cap on coal production and consumption might not have a significant effect on U.S. exports to that country, said Revkin, in response to a question from the audience. A lot of their coal is produced locally, he said. Dimick noted that although China imports only 5% of its coal, in absolute tonnage amounts, this is more than the rest of the world combined.

China wants to grow, said Douglas Fischer, editor of The Daily Climate and moderator of Friday’s panel. They are looking at the standard of living in the U.S. and wondering why they can’t have the same. Also, much of the coal they are importing is used to fuel the industries that manufacture products for export to the U.S., so indirectly, the U.S. is fueling their demand for coal, he said.

This is the second in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous post: Global Issues, Local actions. Upcoming topics: Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues, and A World of Slow Drips.

Energy and the Environment: Global Issues, Local Actions

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

U.S. Capitol

Regulation and litigation, but little legislation.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

A newly assertive federal executive branch, push-back from the legislature and judicial system, unintended effects of social activism, unanticipated effects of leaking storage tanks and Arctic thaws, who’s using coal, reasons to “go green” that don’t involve tree-hugging — 2014 will have no shortage of news stories on energy and the environment, according to a panel of seven journalistic prognosticators.


On January 24, the panel gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of interested policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end.


Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, gave a fly-over review of some of the governmental issues coming to a head this year. Several EPA rule proposals, final rules, and standards revisions address the interstate transport of air pollutants generated by power plants and other sources, carbon and mercury emissions limits, renewable fuel additive standards, and water infrastructure projects. One proposed rule under the Clean Water Act modifies the definition of “waters of the United States” to give the EPA broader authority to enforce regulations farther from shore. EPA final rulings on coal ash management and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) definitions of “solid waste” are also due this year.


Land use regulations

EPA rules address airborne emissions.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Other agencies have important items on the agenda as well. The Bureau of Land Management is due to issue final rules updates on oil and gas exploration on federal lands, to address the issues posed by fracking operations. President Obama has been active in designating land as wilderness areas and national monuments in the western U.S., said Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, in response to a question from the audience. Obama will probably do more of this during the rest of his term, she added. This has angered the Republican party, because these lands have been placed off-limits for commercial production.


The panel agreed that most of the changes this year will be driven by regulation and litigation, not legislation. Several upcoming court cases will clarify and delineate the boundaries of the EPA’s authority, said Pearl, including the agency’s jurisdiction for regulating fracking. Congress might act on some specific issues, but by and large, change is being driven by public demand, private industry response to this demand, and pressure on and by local and regional legislatures, rather than from Capitol Hill. Pearl noted that the jury is still out on whether Congress will pass tax incentives for energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources.


Court cases

Court cases will clarify the EPA’s authority
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Major decisions on crude oil exports from the U.S. will probably be made through the Commerce Department, said Davenport. Gasoline prices inflame public debates on this issue, but “just the fact that this is even open for debate is new,” she said. Concrete action on this could take years, she said. Tax reform is unlikely to drive energy policy because “we’re so far from true tax reform,” she added.


“Where is the leadership from journalists in raising public awareness?” asked one audience member. The panel members agreed that many editors see environmental issues and legislation as “wonky”. Feature articles on these topics don’t get a lot of response from the readers. “There’s always a fight to get some space on [these stories]”, noted Cheryl Hogue, senior correspondent for Chemical and Engineering News. Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian, explained that big-picture approaches don’t work as well as talking about things that people can do in their homes.


For instance, the Department of Energy is expected to issue new standards on efficiency for appliances and consumer products this year. Douglas Fischer, editor of the Daily Climate and moderator of Friday’s panel, suggested that “smart appliances” might be a good story hook to pique readers’ interest. “More IPCC reports aren’t going to do it,” said Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”, referring to the International Panel on Climate Change.


Get That Chemical Out of My Product!

One environmental issue that hit home in an immediate way was the recent West Virginia incident, in which coal processing chemicals leaked into municipal water supplies (See this January 21 article in The Charleston Gazette). News reports of this incident may add momentum to reforming TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, said Pearl. On the other hand, the incident could divert energy away from TSCA reform and toward rules on storage tanks, said Hogue. TSCA reform efforts are driven by industry’s desire to reconcile conflicting state regulations, and this may help to keep the focus on the reform effort.


Local governments are out ahead of the federal government in many cases. Hogue referred to New York City’s recent ban on polystyrene foam food containers. (See this recent article in USA Today.)


Public sentiment is driving a push to “get that chemical out of my product,” said Hogue. Manufacturers are striving to do this, but the reasons these chemicals are in consumer products in the first place is to provide some benefit — structural stability, extended shelf life, and the like. Manufacturers must find suitable substitutes for the chemicals they remove from their products.


Often, these efforts are led by the companies themselves, and they use “new and improved” claims to market their products. Hogue described an effort by large chain stores, including WalMart and Whole Foods, to drive these efforts forward, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “retail regulation”.


This is the first in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Upcoming topics: Coal: Politics and Power Supplies, Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues, and A World of Slow Drips.