By Kerri Devine
As the winter holidays kick into full swing, we find our dining room tables disappearing beneath stockpiles of decadent dishes. Grandma’s honey-glazed ham, Mom’s famous hot crab dip, and Aunt Pat’s prize-winning apple pie have all been trademarks of the holiday spread for years and will most likely stay on the menu for years to come. We find comfort in the food we know and are oftentimes reluctant to make changes. Occasionally, the appetizer menu will accept a new recipe and the task of preparing the main dish will rotate, but we are ultimately creatures of habit. Should one relative refrain from eating animal products, she would be labeled the ‘hippie’ of the family. And if she were to suggest that all meat be removed from the table entirely? Hogwash.
And yet, the choice may not be ours to make perhaps within the next generation if we continue to rely on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to provide our meals. The food we eat is entirely unsustainable, plagued with antibiotic resistant microbes, and fueling global warming. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way America feeds itself, and I do not subscribe to the belief that a cultural revolution will be the impetus for change. Strong political leadership must step into action and help open the eyes of the American people to the dangers of our factory farm dependency.
A factory farm is defined as a large-scale farming enterprise in which hundreds of thousands of animals are bred in extremely close quarters. The phenomenon was born out of the convenient alignment of the Green Revolution with the need to feed a booming population in the mid twentieth century. Coupled with increasingly meat-rich diets, factory farms have blossomed. Their prevalence is misleading however, as the problems associated with these operations are many. Let’s have a look at the facts.
- Factory-farmed beef requires twice as much fossil fuel energy input as pasture-reared beef.
- Livestock farming accounts for around 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than the global transport sector.
- Livestock farming produces 65% of global nitrous oxide emissions (which are 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide emissions).
- Every 1 kg of meat produced on a CAFO requires an input of 90 bathtubs worth of water.
What’s more is that the industry is incredibly wasteful. Despite labeling itself as an efficient and modern means of providing meat to the masses, there are many hidden costs associated with standard operation. One large farm produces more raw waste than an entire U.S. city, with around a third of the nitrogen and phosphorous entering the country’s freshwaters coming from US livestock farming operations. Pig slurry is 75 times more polluting than raw domestic sewage, and is often concentrated in extremely small areas near aquifers and groundwater supplies. Overuse of antibacterials and hormones results in bioaccumulation. According to a February 2011 FDA report, nearly 29 million pounds of antimicrobials were sold in 2009 for both therapeutic and non-therapeutic use for all farm animal species.
Those 29 million pounds of drugs end up in our food, our drinking water, and the land. This heavy reliance and abuse of antibiotics is allowing for resistant strains of bacteria to proliferate through the food chain. In the first nationwide studyof meat on supermarket shelves, it was found that 47% was infected with strains of Staphylococcus aureus, with more than half of those resistant to antibacterial drugs.
The facts are startling, and yet as consumers we tend to find ways to rationalize away anything that disturbs us. For me, it was a simple choice to switch to a vegetarian lifestyle, but then again- I was the kid who fed her chicken and steak to the dog under the table anyway. My family, while supportive of my choice, has no interest in shying away from their chicken wings or prime rib. They simply say, “Good for you, but I like meat too much.” They have no interest in buying grass-fed meat or even organic food, which they label as a pricey scam. Consumers subscribe to the mentality of “what I don’t know won’t kill me” and thus choose to eat their disease-ridden, drug-stuffed protein in ignorant bliss.
As a result, we need to take the choice away from the consumer. Just as consumers can now no longer purchase products with CFCs as a result of protecting the ozone, consumers should no longer be able to buy factory-farmed meat in its current state. There needs to be major reform of the industry if we want to continue eating meat for generations to come. Very few industries enjoy the luxury of complete unregulated supply-and-demand enterprise from which CAFOs benefit. The meat industry capitalizes on its many exemptions to abuse its resources and the animals it rears. Despite that animal cruelty is illegal, most states have complete exemptions for animals meant for human consumption. These exemptions need to go. There needs to be more transparency from the industry, with explicit labels on food describing how the animal was reared, what drugs it received, and how it was killed. Grocery stores that choose to buy from local, non-CAFO suppliers should receive government subsidies and incentives. We need government support to enable sustainable farms to succeed and accelerate the inevitable destruction of CAFOs.
As we take time this holiday season to share in family and food, it is important that we think twice about the food we pick up from the super market. Do we really want to feed our loved ones global-warming causing soups of hormones and drugs? Support the local farms in your area in the spirit of the holidays, and help change the way America eats.
by Thomas Nailen E. Nailen Jr.
My hometown of Asheville, North Carolina is a city known for many things, not the least of which its beer. Asheville was voted Beer City USA in 2012 for its fourth consecutive title because of the exceptional diversity of breweries in Asheville and just how good they are. The title isn’t likely to go anywhere else soon because two of the big dogs in the craft-brewing game are moving in town: Sierra Nevada and New Belgium. What is so impressive about these two breweries is not just that they are consistently ranked highly as top craft breweries in America (nos. 2 and 3 in the Brewers Association top 50), but that they display incredible commitment to environmental sustainability.
Sierra Nevada, located in Chico, CA, is a leader in solar technology implementation with over 10,000 photovoltaic cells in two fields producing 2,635,869 kWh—19% of the massive facility’s energy needs. Two of the facility’s buildings, the daycare and rail facilities, run completely off solar energy produced by their solar fields. Sierra Nevada’s total solar system is one of the largest privately owned solar systems in the country with plans on expansion in the near future. Sierra Nevada produces another 48% of its total energy demand with 4 hydrogen fuel cells—the first system of its kind installed by an American Brewery. Waste heat generated by the cells is recycled into the brewing process make the facility 15% more efficient. From installing large windows to maximize natural light, to using rail for transportation when possible and biodiesel when not, to having an onsite water treatment facility, to capturing and recycling CO2 from the fermentation process, to maintaining an employee garden, Sierra Nevada’s sustainability efforts have proven the company to be as leader in the private sustainability field. Oh, and did I mention they make beer too?
New Belgium is a similar craft brewery located in Fort Collins, CO with an equally impressive sustainability report. New Belgium installed a 264,000 kWh photovoltaic system in 2010—the largest privately owned solar array in Colorado at the time providing 3% of their total energy needs. They recycle methane produced during the water treatment process in their on site facility to a CHP engine that produces up to 15% of their electrical needs. In 1999 New Belgium became the first brewery in America to purchase 100% of its electricity needs from wind when the employee-owners voted to purchase wind electricity from a Wyoming wind farm at 157% the price they were paying for fossil fuel based electricity. Since their investment, the city of Fort Collins erected additional turbines specifically to supply energy to the brewery, becoming the first electric utility to offer wind power in the state.
These sustainability minded breweries are a perfect fit in Asheville. Because of its location in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville has always been sustainability minded, but recent initiatives have shown renewed effort including the 2.5% carbon footprint reduction last year (part of a yearly 2% reduction plan to reduce Asheville’s carbon footprint by 80% by 2050) and mandating that all new municipal buildings will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. Aside from its environmental efforts, Asheville is also called a beertopia, with the highest breweries per capita nationally, 4 beer festivals, countless beer tours, and its 4-year Beer City USA streak.
So what is it about mountain towns across the country, sustainability, and beer? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the creative and passionate people the mountains attract. Maybe hiking through the natural mountain scenery evokes a passion for the as well as the deep thirst for a cold beer. Maybe you can discuss it during one of Asheville’s weekly Asheville Green Drinks where Ashvillians and travelers gather downtown to share a drink while discussing environmental issues, hearing from top environmental speakers, and networking to see their green ideas come to life. All I know is that the efforts from breweries like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have shown the craft-brewing industry has separated itself as a leader in our nation’s green movement. These breweries are doing the little things like turning the lights off and the big things like investing in solar and wind energy at their own expense as well as harboring the environmental community with programs like New Belgium’s Team Wonderbike and Sierra Nevada’s Wild Rivers campaign. These brewers have said yes to sustainability, given to the environmental community, and given environmentally aware consumers reason to sit back and support the craft-brewing industry with a nice tall brew.
What if one day you were told that the world as we know it, would soon come to an end? All those exams, papers, and all nighters were a complete waste because you will not have time to graduate. All the interviews, cover letters and info sessions you had to go to…they were pointless. What if you were told that on December 21, 2012, the world was going to end?
According to the ancient Mayan Long Count Calender, a cycle of more than 5,000 years will come to an end at the start of the winter solstice of 2012. This day, December 21st of 2012, marks the last of the 144,00-day cycles known as bak’tuns. Familiar among practicing Maya and participants in the New Age movement, it is believed that this date will bring an apocalyptic global transformation.
While most of us expect to wake up on December 22, 2012 and find the world the same as it was on December 21, one aspect of this Mayan calender story actually requires serious attention. One of the predictions is the increase in natural disasters, the implictions of which we have seen first-hand over the last 30 years. The increase in natural disasters may signal fundamental shifts in the earth’s climate and could significantly alter life on earth.
According to data from the Red Cross, United Nations and researchers around the world, it is estimated that the number of natural disasters has increased by more than four-times over the past 30 years. In a survey done earlier this year, 700 natural disasters were registered worldwide in the past two years alone. These events affected more than 450 million people and have caused $100 billion in damages per year between 2000 and 2012. These numbers compare to a strikingly lower, $20 billion per year in damages evaluation, in the 1990s.
But what is the cause of this dramatic rise in disasters? Climate change, global warming and natural cycles such as the El Nino or La Nina phenomena are believed to be linked to the increased severe weather conditions. There is significant evidence to show that the global climate is already changing, and will continue to change over coming decades and centuries. Global sea level rose about 17 centimeters in the last century; this rate is nearly double that of last century. Global temperature has risen since the 1970s, with the warmest 20 years having occurred since 1981, and all of the 10 warmest years occurring in the past 12 years. Other compelling evidence is seen in shrinking ice sheets, declining Arctic sea ice, glacier retreat and ocean acidification (If you want more information on climate change facts see http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/).
With these dramatic changes occurring, is there anything we can do at this point to save our fate of the December 21st dooms day? The fact is, we need to focus our effort and attention on global warming and climate change. The United States can no longer delay the adoption of effective policies to limit emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Carbon dioxide and other GHG emmissions are contributing to the overall climate change around the world. We have three options we can consider: mitigation, adaptation and “business as usual”. Mitigation would reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases while adaptation would deal with the consequences of climate change and global warming (including natural disaster occurences). Our final option, “business as usual” would consist of doing nothing, and continuing to live with the increase in GHG emmissions. This would save costs of mitigation today, but would make adaptation costs much higher in the future.
We are already seeing a few changes around the world as people become aware of the increasing impacts of climate change. The increase in natural disasters has created an awareness and a sense of adaptation throughout the globe. Farmers have began to explore drought-risistent plants, families are relocating to safer locations as sea levels rise, and insurance companies are adjusting rates due to predictions of future climate changes. Mitigation is also occurring on the personal, local and global levels. People are attempting to lower individual footprints. Cities are committing to lower GHG emmissions, and countries are researching alternative energy sources to lower pollution.
However with all these efforts at hand, it is important to note that any changes we make now will not yield immediete results. If the world as we know it is going to be sustained, changes do need to be made, and they need to happen now. I do plan on waking up December 22nd and finding my world to be the same as it was on December 21st, however this may not stand true forever. The Mayan’s may have predicted the wrong date; however, with the increasing natural disasters and climate changes, their predictions do not seem as crazy as I once thought.
Say No, Obama
Today, concerned citizens led by environmentalists from 350.org, Sierra Club, Greenpeace US, etc., will rally in Washington D.C. to protest the President to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Just a year ago, President Obama denied TransCanada, a Canadian oil and gas company, permission to build a 1700 mile stretch of underground pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, on the basis that it needed to fully assess both health and environmental impacts of the project. Two months ago, TransCanada resubmitted its proposal providing an alternative route for its pipeline, one that “minimize(s) the disturbance of land and sensitive resources” in Nebraska. By early next year, President Obama will make his final decision regarding this permit, and this time, pundits predict, he won’t have a compelling reason to stop Keystone XL.
The Keystone XL pipeline would traverse seven Mid-western states, crossing sensitive ecosystems. Environmentalists fear toxic spills from the pipeline into waterways and habited land. In 2010, over a million gallons of diluted bitumen, a mix of tar sands bitumen and liquid chemicals, spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River due to a leaking Canadian pipeline. Diluted bitumen, or dilbit, is not only far more difficult to clean up than traditional oil, but it contains chemical additives, increasing its toxicity. In fact, it has been over two years and the cleanup of the Kalamazoo river system is still incomplete. Environmentalists worry about excess amounts of waste water generated during tar sands’ extraction process. They worry about the environmental injustices against Canadian indigenous populations and against Americans residing along the pipeline. But the biggest concern for environmentalists is increasing our dependence on a nonrenewable energy source that releases 3x more CO2 emissions than crude oil. Although President Obama’s Copenhagen pledges for carbon emission reduction were not passed by Congress, his policies for supporting developments in natural gas, high fuel efficiency standards, and other emission reduction technologies did nonetheless put us on track for achieving those targets. But if he approves Keystone XL, we backtrack on the progress made on carbon emission reductions. Based on a report by the Canadian environmental ministry, by 2020, greenhouse gases from the oil and gas sector will have increased by one third of 2005 levels due to the extraction of tar sands, despite other reductions.
Despite the wake-up call from Hurricane Sandy, with no currently effective national climate change policy, President Obama likely will not deny Keystone XL on the basis of carbon emission reductions. Duke Professor and former American Diplomat Stephen R. Kelly argues that Keystone XL pipeline should be approved as it will increase our energy security. But the U.S has significantly decreased its reliance on “unstable” oil in the past decade, from 27% of our oil imports coming from the Persian Gulf in 1993 to just 18% in 2010. In fact, for the first time since 1949, U.S became a net exporter of oil. And with its domestic oil and natural gas production, U.S is on the path to becoming “the world’s top energy producer by 2020”. So regardless of whether Keystone XL is approved or not, we have firmly secured our energy resources. Moreover, misconceptions that Keystone XL pipeline will reduce American oil prices due to increased oil supply available to U.S consumers continue to be circulated. However, allowing Canadian private companies supply access through the U.S does not equate to American rights to that oil. If profitable to export its oil to other foreign markets like China’s, now accessible through the Gulf, Canadian oil companies will rightly do so.
Arguments for and against Keystone XL have been played out in the past, in the 1960s over the Trans-Alaska pipeline and then in the 1990s over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Environmentalists’ rhetoric stresses health and environmental damage while industrialists depict it as critical for the economy and decreasing foreign energy dependency. But this time, rather than debating over these repeatedly unresolved arguments, we need to raise alarm on the implications of Keystone XL. Keystone XL sets a major precedent on how our nation will address climate change moving forward. Despite numerous bills issued in Congress, there remains a perpetual gridlock on the passage of any substantial climate change policy.We’ve only begun to realize that we need to take a whole different approach to reducing our GHG emissions. For example, President Obama’s CAFE standards have been major successful climate change initiatives under the pretense of “reducing our dependence on foreign oil”. Framing climate change measures under energy policy, by improving energy efficiency or investing in renewable sources, might just be our saving grace. But if President Obama signs the Keystone XL permit, he in effect curtails most arguments for investing in costly but necessary renewable projects. If passed, we get on the path that divests resources away from renewable energy, delaying critical carbon-free solutions. To keep moving forward as a nation in regards to reducing our impact on the global climate and our future, we must first to stop Keystone XL.
Over the last decade, quality of life and owning electronics have become inextricably linked. As a result, the production and sale of electronic goods has skyrocketed worldwide. Due to rapid advances in technology, there is a much wider range of products available and new versions of existing goods are being launched constantly. Therefore, the rate at which electronics are being discarded (and sheer volume of waste) has increased drastically as well. This electronic waste, or e-waste, is being exported to developing countries where crude ‘recycling’ techniques expose both the workers and the environment to dangerous chemicals.
So, How Much E-Waste is Actually out There?
In the United States, 3 million tons of e-waste (computers, printers, phones, cameras, televisions, refrigerators, etc.) is produced every year. Globally, e-waste generation is growing by 40 million tons per year (1). This is equivalent to filling around 15,000 football fields six feet deep with waste! As unimaginable huge as this figure already is, it is increasing at an alarming rate.
In 2020, it is estimated that in China (which is currently the largest dumping ground), e-waste from computers will have jumped by 200-400% and mobile phones will increase by 700%. In India, computer waste is predicted to rise by 500% and e-waste from mobile phones will be an astounding 18 times higher than current levels (yes, that is an 1800% jump) (1). While some state-of-the-art electronic recycling facilities do exist, the majority of this e-waste is being shipped (legally and illegally) to developing countries.
E-Waste in Developing Countries
Due to increased safety rules in Western countries, it is 10 times cheaper to export e-waste to developing countries than it is to locally recycle (3). Though some e-waste exportation is legal, a large portion is illegal. Electronics exported under the category of ‘used’ or ‘second-hand’ goods are not subject to any restrictions, and numerous other loopholes, export schemes, and corrupt officials have been discovered (4). In 2005, inspections of 18 European seaports found that approximately 47% of exported waste was illegal and that 23,000 metric tons of e-waste was illegally shipped from the United Kingdom (5).
Common e-waste destinations include China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria, Ghana, and Brazil, just to name a few. China is by far the most popular dumping ground and receives an estimated 70% of the 20-50 million tons to global e-waste produced yearly (3). The e-waste industry employs 150,000 people in Guiyu, China, while the scrap yards in Delhi boast 25,000 workers and 20,000 tons of yearly waste (5). These countries create a ‘perfect storm’ for e-waste dumping: cheap and desperate labor with no added cost for health or safety regulations.
Human Health and Environmental Issues
It is an undeniable fact that e-waste in “backyard” recycling operations poses a major threat to both human health and the environment. Valuable metals such as gold and copper can be extracted from electronics, but this recovery process is often done in the cheapest and most unsafe way.
Plastics, which contain heavy metals and flame retardants, are burned in open piles and release deadly dioxin and furans. Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are broken with hammers to remove copper, a process that also releases toxic phosphor dust. Circuit boards are literally cooked over open flames or in shallow pans, exposing workers to lead fumes. Acid baths are used to extract gold from circuit board chips, spewing even more toxic gases into the air (6). These processes release a wide variety of heavy metals including lead, cadmium, and mercury into the air, soil, and water (5).
Despite the obviously toxic nature of the most common ‘recycling’ techniques, over 90% of e-waste landfills or dumps have no environmental standards (3). Unbelievably, Nigeria does not have a single legally licensed landfill despite having a population of 115 million and being a popular e-waste dumping ground (2). The environmental impacts of unregulated ‘recycling’ sites are evident in polluted groundwater, extremely unsafe levels of lead and mercury in nearby rivers, and toxic emissions that contribute to global warming.
Workers at e-waste sites are usually migrants from extremely poor areas and are often children. They have little to no access to gloves or face masks and are often too desperate for work or uniformed to care about the health risks. Workers at e-waste sites are prone to skin rashes, cancer, weakening of the immune system, and respiratory, nerve, kidney, and brain damage (3). In China’s Guiyu region, workers have extremely high levels of toxic fire retardants in their bodies and over 80% of the children already have lead poisoning.
What Can You do to Prevent E-Waste Dumping?
As with any illegal trade, it would be virtually impossible to stop all e-waste exportation and “backyard” recycling operations. However, you can take measures to ensure that your e-waste is being properly disposed of. Large consumer electronic stores such as Best Buy and Staples have in-store recycling programs. You can also find out specific information on nearby certified e-waste recycling programs on your state government’s website. A list of certified electronics recyclers can also be found through e-Stewards and R2 Solutions.
Running for president of the United States certainly has its advantages. Your job is to travel the country kissing babies and sampling indigenous food and beverage. You get to be on television more than all the Kardashians combined. And last, but not least, you are uniquely positioned to focus substantial national attention on the specific issues that you and your political party believe are critical for the present and future health of your country.
Any candidate’s selection of the key issues on which they will build their campaign is also a function of current events. The crippling global recession that began in 2008 dictated that the 2012 presidential campaign would be focused on the economic health of the US. With twelve million Americans unemployed as of September 2012, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney need polls to tell them that the man with the most credible plan for stimulating economic growth will win the election (although that is exactly what they indicate). However, the wonkish focus of the campaign on creating domestic jobs has led to a substantial public health ramification of the economic downturn being omitted from the political discourse: the increasing risk for obesity.
Both presidential candidates have failed to recognize that an individual’s socioeconomic status is strongly associated with that person’s risk for obesity. Individuals with a low socioeconomic status bear a disproportionate risk of becoming obese. There are many possible explanations for this correlation such as a lack of nutritional education in poor areas or persistent cultural food traditions, but the most compelling explanation is based on a combination of economics and predictable human decision making mechanisms. When faced with severely constrained income, people optimize by purchasing foods based on a strong preference for satiation (the feeling of being full) and palatability (tastes good) over any consideration of a food item’s nutritional content. (See this paper from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition for more information.)
A study has indicated that the number of unemployed Americans is positively correlated with the number of Americans who participate in the federal supplemental nutritional assistance program (SNAP). Commonly known as the food stamps program, SNAP provides financial assistance for purchasing food to low income people living in the US. According to census data, in 2010, 40.3 million Americans received assistance from SNAP, which is considerable increase from 26.3 million who received assistance just three years before. The average SNAP participant only has $133.79 per month available to be spent on food, compared to the $215.26 the average American spent on food per month in 2010.
As mentioned earlier, people with severely limited income, such Americans who rely on SNAP, make food consumption decisions based primarily on satiation. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. This human tendency becomes problem when the cheapest food items are unhealthy, high-fat, calorie-dense processed foods. The reason these foods are so relatively inexpensive is that they are composed of corn products that are artificially cheap due to large government subsidies to corn producers. The corn subsidies, which total approximately $5 billion annually, skew food prices and help to make a bag of Doritos (which is both filling and delicious) less expensive than a bag of spinach (which is clearly healthier). These altered prices distort the economic environment of low income people and lead them to consume diets that exacerbate the risk of obesity.
Thus, the missing ingredient in the 2012 campaign is an open recognition of the nexus between the federal corn subsidies, economic distress and obesity. As of now, the candidates have only been interested in talking about obesity in the context of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and determining who will foot the healthcare bills associated with the disease. This approach ignores that the underlying causes of the obesity epidemic must be treated in addition to the negative health effects. A prescient presidential candidate must acknowledge that, even if they are capable of restoring the economy to its former glory, the long recession will have increased the incidence of obesity as approximately one sixth of the population will have spent some time in poverty. Any ameliorative effort must recognize the perverse effect of corn subsidies on SNAP recipients and should seek to promote public health via reform that results in competitively priced healthy food options.
Three of this election cycle’s biggest catchphrases belong to energy. Candidates on both sides of the aisle speak of the need for a “level playing field,” an “all-of-the-above energy strategy,” and a plan that does not “pick winners and losers.” While they may agree on the rhetoric, they usually don’t agree on what the terms mean in practice. One of the areas where the two candidates have significant policy differences relates to subsidies – the assistance given by the government to energy sectors, either by a direct award/grant or tax breaks/deductions. Should renewable energy get government money to help it along? Fossil fuels? Both? How much?
A simple and alluring answer to the “level playing field” issue (actually, to all 3 catchphrases) is, “let’s get rid of all energy subsidies.” If neither side gets help or advantages from the government right now, it must be fair, right? Unfortunately, this is akin to building a soccer pitch on a slope where one side has been built up over many years. Even if there’s no soil being added to the hill right now, it doesn’t change the fact that one half of the field will start off much higher than the other.
Let’s take a look at the numbers. Averaged over the lifetime of a subsidy, fossil fuels receive $4.86 billion annually; nuclear, $3.50 billion; biofuels, $1.08 billion; and all other renewables, $0.37 billion. Somewhat pathetically, the most renewables have ever received in government assistance is still less than oil and gas did during the Great Depression. The difference in subsidy amount is also compounded by the fact that fossil fuels have been receiving government money for almost a century, but renewables weren’t significantly subsidized until the Energy Policy Act of 1992.
In a balance tipped so far to one side, how do you try to correct it? Well, for starters, you maintain the funds going into renewable energy, which is a great example of the types of dynamic newly developing technologies that subsidies are intended to help spur. The renewable energy industry grew at a rate of about 11% from 2003-2010 – well above the national average of 4.2%. The wind industry alone supports 80,000 jobs spread throughout the US and has an annual growth rate of 35%. Yet it appears that the major subsidy that helps the wind industry – the production tax credit, or PTC – will not be extended by Congress before it expires at the end of this year. The PTC has been allowed to expire three times in the past and wind installations dropped 73-93% in the year following – with large job losses. The solar industry’s major subsidy, the investment tax credit, also expired at the end of 2011.
Meanwhile, subsidies for fossil fuels – which are permanent parts of the tax code and do not have to be renewed – come in each year for an industry that made a collective $137 billion in profits in 2011. The industry can hardly be considered developing, and it’s therefore appropriate to ask if corporations should be taking tax credits for investments in energy they’d be making anyway when federal assistance for renewable energy is being cut.
Congress must take a serious look at the role and purpose of subsidies in the energy industry when tax reform comes up, most likely in the 113th Congress. They should continue to provide support for developing technologies in the renewable energy industry, while revisiting the effectiveness of subsidies for the mature fossil fuel industry and cutting any wasteful handouts. A “level playing field” won’t be created by designing better catchphrases in debates, but by politicians who are willing to break out the shovels, get a bit dirty, and start filling in the lopsided market themselves.
As the 2012 Presidential Election nears, energy and producing more of it have become hotly debated topics by both candidates, and each candidate has expressed desires to make America energy independent. Obama’s and Romney’s energy platforms revolve around increased extraction and use of domestic resources and stabilization of gas prices, and they hope to see a significant reduction if not complete halt on oil and gas imports in the future. With each candidate touting their abilities to achieve or at least move closer towards energy independence with effective energy policies, voters are deceived into thinking that energy independence is attainable and something America should strive for.
What is Energy Independence and why are we striving for it?
To achieve energy independence, America must be able to meet energy demands with resources recovered domestically; however, Americans are currently dependent on foreign sources for oil largely from the Middle East. Energy policies attempt to increase the United State’s energy security by moving the US towards energy independence by increasing drilling for oil and gas and providing economic incentives for the development of renewable energy technology.
The United States is aiming for energy independence because we are pressed into a vulnerable position in which we rely on the Middle East and to a lesser extent Venezuela to supply oil for our growing energy demands, and the US is forced to prioritize interests regarding these countries in trade relations and foreign policy. Reliance on foreign supply leaves the United States susceptible to embargos and other barriers to access caused by political conflicts, and the United States must continue investing in the peace and stability of these nations, which takes funds and effort away from use for problems in our own country. Thus, the administration’s drive for energy independence results from the desire to minimize interest and interference in those foreign countries, but do we have enough oil and other resources reserved to become energy independent?
Current United States Energy Production and Use
Currently, 80% of the energy the United States produces comes from domestic sources with large portions of energy coming from coal and nuclear power to provide electricity, and about 10% of energy comes from renewables. Over 90% of the transportation sector relies on liquid fuels, mostly petroleum, and much of this fuel comes from the Middle East. The US consumes 22% of the world’s available oil and produces only 9% of the world’s output.
The US has some of the greatest coal and natural gas supplies in the world and has numerous nuclear power plants, and achieving energy independence seems like an achievable objective. So achievable that both candidates use the potential to be energy independent to attract voters who believe that by doing so the US will avoid conflict with other countries and reduce gas prices. However, those sources are used primarily to generate electricity, and increasing drilling in the United States will not supply enough oil to power the transportation sector long term.
Is energy independence necessary or even possible?
While there are benefits to developing domestic energy infrastructure and resources—supporting our national economy and creating jobs—it is unlikely and absolutely not necessary to become energy independent within the next president’s term or in the near future. Candidates state that becoming energy independent will lower gas prices; however, global markets set the price of oil, and oil operations in the United States have done and will do little to cause gas prices to decrease. Essentially the government is helpless to lower gas prices. Currently, while foreign supplies are available and affordable it does not make sense economically to become energy independent, and attempts to go energy independent could even result in higher prices to pay for infrastructure development and operation costs.
While it is easy to get caught up in what each candidate promises to do for the country during the presidential debates, campaign speeches, and platforms, what Obama and Romney say must not be taken at face value. Voters have to realize that the programs and reforms they suggest may not be the best solution to current problems. Improving energy security and increasing supplies of energy resources domestically are objectives the United States should aim to achieve because of threats to energy security in the Middle East, declining supply, and ever-increasing demands for energy; however, energy independence is not possible for the United States and should not be a promise made by our country’s leaders.
We have all heard various proclamations associated with global warming: “Save the polar bears!” “The ice is melting as lightening speeds!” Well, last time I checked the polar bears are still alive and thermal wear is required to visit the North Pole.
Well, imagine packing your parka to vacation in the Bahamas or paying for the extra month of air conditioning you need to stave off the humidity in southern California? There have, in fact, been noticeable changes since the start of the global warming campaign. With these changes come both opportunities for natural gas and oil exploration as well as health and environmental risks. Given the pros and cons of different approaches, would it be irresponsible to allow cautious, but still profit-driven, oil drilling in the Arctic? I believe so.
According to a study by NASA, the thickest and oldest parts of the Arctic caps are melting at the fastest rate that they have been since 1980. This part of the ice that survives at least two summers is called “multi-year ice”. This ice has been melting at a rate of -15.1% per decade in recent years. The size of the area of ice coverage hit an all-time low in 2008, rose for a little while, and then hit the second-lowest size in 2012.
Environmental and Life Risks
The Arctic regulates weather patterns around the globe. The wind currents take warm air up to the Arctic and return at a cooled temperature. With a non-uniform melting of the ice, these wind patterns can be disrupted and result in “random” weather patterns. The Natural Resources Defense Council predicts that “climate change will worsen smog and causes plants to produce more pollen pollution, increasing respiratory health threats”. Lastly, the polar bears of course. The Arctic provides a home to a plethora of delicate animal species that depend on the frozen tundra for life.
The melting also presents some unique opportunities for oil and natural gas exploration. Many precautions are taken in the business of oil drilling and they seem to be paying off. Approximately 300-500 oil spills occur per year, but they only account for 12% of the oil that ends up in the ocean. In fact, only 0.001% of the oil that is transported is spilled.
Despite these impressive statistics, oil drilling still involves heat. Ice must be forcibly melted in order to clear a path for the oil rigs. During the extraction process, water containing a harmful toxin known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) gets removed with the oil and thrown overboard back in to the sea. At low concentrations, the toxins cause birth defects, but at high concentrations they can be lethal.
Black Gold Mine
What drives my concern about diving into the Arctic is that it is a black gold mine for oil and natural gas. The people interested in the region are being driven by money. A recent article in the New York Times discussed the race to carve up the Arctic. With the UN Convention’s Law of the Sea of 1982 in place, ownership of many of the waters and continental shelves in the area have been given to bordering countries such as Greenland, Iceland, Canada, and Russia. The article brought attention to China’s obvious efforts to build good relations with these Arctic States by investing in the nation’s economy and other endeavors. This fervor has alarmed Western nations concerned about China’s intentions beyond natural resources considering the region is an effective launching pad to a number of different nations. The area also opens the door to new war strategies that involve traversing the Arctic sea and using the ice to one’s advantage. Between money and war, the environmental prestige of the Arctic would not stand a chance.
Economists are not in definite agreement, but there is evidence shown that increasing the domestic production of oil would only result in a 3¢ increase over a span of 10-20 years at best. By harvesting 3 years worth of oil in the Arctic, we very well may be doing more damage than we can foresee at this time. Rebuilding ice is not as simple as planting a tree. Arctic ice melting is more analogous to the ozone layer depletion: easy to do and hard to fix. We cannot fight Mother Nature. There could be more Hurricane Katrinas or California wildfires that plague our nation as a result of exacerbation in that area. Until more reliable prediction models are put in to place, I would not feel comfortable taking the region for granted in any capacity
7) Rosenthal, E. (2012, September 19). Race Is On as Ice Melt Reveals Arctic Treasures. New York Times, p. A14.
Every day millions of Americans can be seen buying groceries, visiting the pharmacy, or shopping for clothes. They visit a variety of retailers for different purposes, but they all walk out with the same thing: plastic bags. Plastic bags are so widespread that one may even consider them indispensable. That’s why the next time you walk up to the check-out counter, you might be surprised to see that these customary items have disappeared. That is exactly what is happening in more than 50 cities across the state of California. This trend was inspired by a plastic bag ban that started two years ago, when Washington D.C. discovered that plastic bags account for about half of the waste that ends up in local streams. Now cities such as Santa Cruz and San Francisco have taken up the cause. These policies not only ban plastic bags, they also require customer to pay a 5-10 cent charge for every paper or compostable bag they receive with their purchase (Richtel 2012). Local officials hope that these policies will encourage people to be more waste conscious.
You may be asking yourself, why this sudden attack on plastic bags? What makes them so bad? It all comes down to disposal. Out of the approximately 500 billion plastic bags in distribution each year, less than 4% are recycled (Wagner 2012). Those that are disposed as municipal waste are either burned or end up in landfills. Both options have negative effects on the environment. Plastic bags are made from petroleum and toxic chemicals. These toxins are released into the atmosphere each time these bags are burned (“Why Ban” 2012). But landfills aren’t the solution either. Since plastic is not biodegradable, when it’s sent to a landfill, it stays there. Unfortunately, these are not the only two ways that bags are disposed of. Millions of plastic bags end up in the oceans, causing the deaths of marine mammals who mistake them for food (Wagner 2012). If this problem isn’t resolved, it can have a considerable amount of impact on natural life.
Ban Faces Resistance
Since plastic bags seem to cause so many problems, you might expect there to be an overwhelming support for these bans. But that isn’t the case. There are people who are skeptical about how much of an effect this ban will have on the environment. They wonder whether these benefits are enough to overcome the costs. Although a 10 cent charge per bag might not seem like a lot, for a working class family living paycheck to paycheck, it certainly takes a toll. And it isn’t just customers who are upset; some retailers are also speaking out against these policies. “Higher-end” stores have complained that it seems ridiculous to charge someone 10 cents for a bag, after they just spent hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on a product (Richtel 2012). But the ban is not optional. Retailers and customers alike are required to comply.
Reusable is the Way to Go
Clearly the ban on plastic bags has stirred up some controversy, but if we weigh the costs and the benefits it seems that this policy is for the best. The challenge will be to get people to adopt new habits. Plastic bags are mostly for convenience sake and it will take some time for us to get used to not having this commodity. But just like with all change, it will eventually blend into the status quo and we won’t see it as a burden. Nevertheless, the plastic bag ban policies can be further improved. Although paper bags pose less harm than plastic ones, they aren’t free of repercussions. After all, it takes a lot of trees and energy to manufacture them. For now, it seems that the best option is reusable. So on your next trip to the supermarket, save yourself a few cents and remember to bring along a reusable bag.