Gridlock in the West Thousands of miles of new power lines are slated for wildlands near you
Fare thee well, big skies and open vistas. To feed the energy demands of the West's inland megalopolises and crowded coasts, public lands in 11 Western states may soon be crisscrossed by a web of power lines and pipelines. These "energy easements," up to three-quarters of a mile wide, are slated for every sort of public property: national forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings, state parks, even national parks. Since they'll be "preapproved," the easements will be ready to go at the energy companies' convenience.
The power-line juggernaut got rolling last year when Congress passed the Energy Policy Act. Hearkening to complaints by big energy corporations about the expense and complexity of building new transmission lines, Congress ordered half a dozen federal agencies to jointly agree on a plan by next August. Already, a draft map shows a maze of "potential energy corridors" snaking through the inland West. For the most part, they transect areas controlled by the BLM, the poor stepsister of land agencies. But one corridor cuts across Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas, another runs through or near Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and others pass just north and south of California's Mojave National Preserve. One traverses critical spotted-owl habitat in Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon; another is adjacent to the McNary National Wildlife Refuge in Washington.
In Southern California, the Sunrise Powerlink, a $1.4 billion, 130-mile electric transmission line, would run right through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. In April, local Sierra Club activist Kelly Fuller hiked 78 miles of the proposed route, 15 of them adjacent to designated wilderness areas. "I learned how lucky we are to have this unspoiled desert land," she says. "There are other places with existing lines that would be a whole lot more appropriate for this energy superhighway." --Paul Rauber
The Bush administration dislikes changing its course publicly, but
in June the National Park Service announced a complete turnaround. "The fundamental purpose of the national park system," it stated, "begins with a mandate to conserve park resources and values." And in case of conflict between conservation and recreation, "conservation is to be predominant."
That may not sound very revolutionary, but it is a vast improvement over last year's draft parks-management policy, written by Interior Department official Paul Hoffman. In it, the former congressional aide to Dick Cheney proposed to remedy what he termed the Park Service's "anti-enjoyment" agenda by balancing conservation and dirt bikes, Jet Skis, helicopter tours, and rock concerts. (See "Lay of the Land," November/December 2005.) Hoffman also wanted to downgrade the importance the parks gave to clean air, a move that might have allowed new power plants, for example, to set up right outside their gates. Rather than preserve natural resources for future generations, park managers would only have to ensure that parkland didn't suffer "irreversible damage."
After an outcry from the public, environmental groups, and Park Service employees--not to mention prominent congressional Republicans--the agency quickly disavowed Hoffman's proposal. A slightly less objectionable draft last October received more than 50,000 overwhelmingly negative public comments, and the Park Service finally got the message. While its new policy looks good on paper, a true test will come this fall, when the agency is supposed to release a draft plan regulating snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. The motorized-recreation industry and its political supporters want continued snowmobile use in the park, but more than 90 percent of 33,000 public comments last winter called for a permanent ban. Will conservation really remain predominant? --P.R.
WWatch: Keeping Tabs on Washington
How About Some on the Mainland? In June, George W. Bush created the world's largest protected marine area by designating the 1,200-mile-long Northwestern Hawaiian Islands chain and surrounding waters as a national monument. During Bush's first term, his administration supported a House bill that would have restricted a president's ability to designate monuments. Contributing to the turnabout: No major industries, such as natural gas or oil, have a stake in the Hawaiian preserve.
Greenie and the Greenback Henry "Hank" Paulson, President Bush's new secretary of the Treasury, has been called "Wall Street's greenest titan." He's an advocate of mandatory curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions.
As CEO of Goldman Sachs, he allocated $1 billion for investment in renewable energy and energy-saving projects. He's chair of the Nature Conservancy and loves birdwatching. So does this herald a shift in national environmental policies? Don't hold your breath: Neither of Paulson's predecessors were hired to shape policy. When Paul O'Neill, Bush's first Treasury secretary, tried to get the administration to honor its climate-change commitments, his efforts disappeared into the ozone. --Reed McManus
111,000,000 Americans should ask, "How safe is my drinking water?"
When the federal EPA relaxes water rules, you may taste it at your tap. Especially if you live in California, New York, Pennsylvania, or seven other states with the most residents affected by a recent Supreme Court decision that will end protection for headwaters and seasonal streams under the Clean Water Act. According to the recent Sierra Club report "From the Source to the Tap: Why America's Drinking-Water Sources Are at Risk," the tap-water supplies of more than 111 million Americans could be threatened by pollutants because these sources rely, at least in part, on streams that no longer have federal protection. Here's a look at the ten most vulnerable states:
The Presumpscot: It's "discharge," and that's good.
It might be unpoetic to call the water cascading from a dam a "discharge," but that's precisely what it is. This semantic dilemma was at the heart of a case pondered by the U.S. Supreme Court in May that will affect 2,500 dams in 45 states. The plaintiff, S. D. Warren Company, operates five hydropower facilities on the Presumpscot River in Maine. Because of the dams, long stretches of the stream have practically dried up, stranding fish and eels that travel to and from Casco Bay.
The federal Clean Water Act requires state approval of anything that discharges into the nation's "navigable waters," and lower courts had ruled that Maine's environmental agency had the right to require a minimum level of flow in the river. But Warren maintained that the water that comes out of its dams doesn't qualify as discharge--and therefore doesn't require state oversight--because, after all, it's only water.
In response, the Supreme Court simply reached for Webster's New International Dictionary, which defines discharge as "flowing or issuing out." The justices affirmed the rights of states to protect their rivers, and of words to mean what they say. The decision has been applauded by environmentalists, state attorneys general, and even the Bush administration, which sided with the river advocates. --Dashka Slater
Banking on Hybrids
In a move it describes as "enlightened self-interest," Bank of America has begun handing out $3,000 checks to employees in Boston, Los Angeles, and Charlotte, North Carolina, who buy a hybrid car. The bank has recently taken other steps to go green, including reducing its paper and energy use. It joins hybrid-happy companies such as Timberland ($3,000 per hybrid-driving employee) and Google (which gives workers $5,000 when they buy any vehicle that gets 45 miles or more per gallon).
Rewrite, Reread, Recycle
The largest publishing company in the United States has announced that by 2010, 30 percent of the paper in its books will be recycled, a move that it says will save 550,000 trees a year. Random House, which controls 13 percent of the adult-trade book market, hopes to persuade other large publishers to follow suit. At most publishing houses, only 5 percent of the paper in books is recycled, although the recycling of plots and characters remains widespread.
Good News for Great Lakes
Tired of waiting for the Bush administration to set stricter limits on mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, states are taking matters into their own hands. Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm (D) has ordered new rules that will cut mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2015, and Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania plan to take similar action. Once the Wolverine State's rules take effect, parents could reconsider letting their kids eat fish from the Great Lakes without having to worry about brain damage.
The 24,000 residents of Hercules, California, are proud of their city's pedestrian-friendly design. So when mega-retailer Wal-Mart acquired a 17-acre parcel near the city's waterfront, residents protested that a "big box" store surrounded by pavement was at odds with their hometown's efforts. In May, the city voted to claim the parcel by eminent domain, thus ensuring that mighty Hercules will remain Wal-Mart free. --D.S.
As the World Warms
Global warming isn't all extreme weather and heat waves: It may also be responsible for beautiful electric blue clouds that have been spreading around the world in recent years. These noctilucent ("night-shining") clouds form in the mesosphere, some 50 miles up, and thus reflect the sun long after it has set. They were first observed after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1885 and may initially have been composed of ice crystals forming around volcanic ash. Most prominent at the poles, these glowing clouds are now seen at latitudes as low as 40 degrees; in the United States, that's as far south as Colorado and Utah. "They're also getting brighter, and each year there are more of them," James Russell of Hampton University, in Virginia, told New Scientist.
While greenhouse gases trap heat in the lower atmosphere, they actually make the upper atmosphere colder, which could explain the increase in noctilucent clouds. An alternate theory is that increased pollution produces the fine particles around which the ice crystals form. A NASA satellite scheduled for later this year may resolve the issue.
How much proof do you need? The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) says, "with a high degree of confidence," that the last decades of the 20th century were warmer than any comparable period in the past 400 years. A panel convened by the United States' leading scientific body further declares that those decades were probably also the hottest in the past millennium. The report was commissioned to settle the controversy over an influential 1999 study by Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University and others that estimated premodern temperatures based on tree-ring surveys, ice cores, and other methods. Global-warming skeptics in Congress, notably Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Representative Joe Barton (R-Tex.), disputed Mann's report, claiming that he had cherry-picked the data to make a case for greater warming. Although the NAS panel had some quibbles about Mann's statistical methods and most sweeping claims, it substantially vindicated his conclusions--and put another nail in the coffin of climate-change deniers.
Some global-warming pooh-poohers argue that even if the world is heating up, the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will boost some crop yields. Unfortunately, it has also been shown to reduce crops' nitrogen levels, and thus nutritional value. One wild plant poised to prosper is poison ivy, say researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. When exposed to the same concentrations of CO2 likely to exist later this century, they found, poison ivy vines grew more than twice as much per year as they do now. On top of that, they produced greater amounts of the most toxic form of urushiol, the oil that causes those painful skin rashes.
Talk about skin pain: Eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking says he is "very worried about global warming." Earth, he says, "might end up like Venus, at 250 degrees centigrade and raining sulfuric acid." --Paul Rauber
In one TV ad, a cute little girl breathes out carbon dioxide, so how bad can it be?
We Call It Lies Climate skeptics get desperate
When even Sunday supplement Parade magazine has a cover story called "How Climate Change Affects You Right Now," you know that global warming has firmly entered the mainstream. For years, the fossil-fuel lobby has been able to delay the day by hoodwinking the public and press into believing that the subject was in dispute--when in fact there is solid scientific consensus that human-caused global warming is real.
Head hoodwinker has been the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where generous industry funding has paid for a stable of global-warming deniers. But CEI is badly off its game. Just before the premiere of Al Gore's popular documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, the institute released TV ads built around the slogan "Carbon dioxide--they call it pollution, we call it life." CEI wanted to derail any attempt at regulating CO2--"It's what we breathe out and plants breathe in"--but the only debate its ads generated was whether they sounded more like Saturday Night Live or the Onion. Shortly after their brief run, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge brought by 12 states and the Sierra Club to compel the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a harmful pollutant. --P.R.
Pol Perk Guess who pays for legislators' gas-guzzlers?
While many Americans are thinking twice before climbing behind the wheel of a fuel-wasting vehicle, many U.S. legislators have few qualms. According to a Knight Ridder report in March, big SUVs are the transport of choice for House members who lease cars at taxpayer expense. Of the 136 representatives who did so last year, 56 chose large SUVs. The most popular were the GMC Yukon and the Chevrolet Tahoe, both of which get a paltry 15 miles per gallon in city driving.
Congress is fond of the manufacturers of those Yukons and Ford Expeditions too. SUVs are exempt from the federal gas-guzzler tax, which applies only to cars that get less than 22.5 miles per gallon. If the law applied to SUVs, automakers would pay an additional $10 billion a year in taxes--enough to buy a zippy little hybrid for every solon on Capitol Hill. --Dashka Slater
Hybrid Humvee? The Pentagon battles its oil dependence
Like the rest of the country, the U.S. military is dependent on foreign oil. And like the rest of the country, it's finding that the price of that reliance is rising faster than a cruise missile. The armed services pay less than civilians for their fuel, but the sheer quantity they consume is stunning: The U.S. Air Force used 3.2 billion gallons of fuel last year--more than the rest of the federal government combined--at a price of $4.7 billion. Because fuel must be transported to remote bases, often under helicopter protection, the U.S. Army estimates that a gallon of military diesel ends up costing as much as $400 by the time it reaches its destination. Given that the Abrams tank sometimes gets less than a mile to the gallon, it doesn't take long for that to add up to real money.
Concern about both the cost and national security implications of this petrochemical addiction has spurred the armed forces to research a host of alternatives with varying levels of greenness. The Air Force is testing a jet fuel made from natural gas, but it eventually hopes to convert to a fuel derived from coal, which bodes ill for the nation's coal-rich wildlands.
The Army, in contrast, is investing its research dollars in hybrid and hydrogen-fuel-cell technology. Its National Automotive Center is busy testing hybrid Humvees and cargo trucks, as well as a fuel-cell-powered stealth vehicle known as the Aggressor, which, it says, is virtually silent. Not to be left behind, the U.S. Marine Corps is working on a hybrid combat vehicle known as the Shadow Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Targeting Vehicle.
So are congressional Republicans eagerly supporting the military's new fuel initiatives? Not so far. Last spring, House Democrats proposed funding the installation of alternative-fuel infrastructure at U.S. military bases. The measure was killed in committee.
Green Sheen Beware of snakes in the grassroots
Three years ago, when the Bush administration was trying to sell its misleadingly named "Healthy Forests" initiative, a group called Project Protect stepped forward to explain that some environmentalists supported more logging in old-growth forests in the name of fire protection. In an op-ed piece published in the Reno Gazette-Journal, Liz Arnold, the organization's "grassroots coordinator," explained that "massive, catastrophic fire kills everything in its path--even the soil."
When not fighting fires, Arnold does community outreach for the PR firm Pac/West Communications, whose executive vice president, Tim Wigley, has worked for Georgia-Pacific Corporation and the Oregon Forest Industries Council. Wigley was the brains behind Project Protect and is an advocate of the insidious tactic of creating fake grassroots organizations that use the rhetoric of environmentalism to fight environmental regulations.
"We didn't change our goals--just the way we communicated," Wigley explained in a February 2005 e-mail obtained by Environmental Science and Technology Online, which first exposed Wigley and his organization. "We changed the way we talked, too: The Healthy Forests initiative is about protecting habitat for wildlife, the air we breathe, and the water we drink." The group spent $2.9 million on advertising to get its message out.
Wigley is spearheading a new organization, Save Our Species Alliance, and this time he has the Endangered Species Act in his sights. SOSA's Web site explains that the organization wants to "modernize the act in ways which will help recover more species." However, the revisions to the act proposed by Representative Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), an admirer of Wigley's, have little to do with species recovery. The Pombo bill would make habitat preservation voluntary, lift regulations on pesticides, and require the government to pay property owners for complying with the watered-down law.
Sometimes called AstroTurf organizations, ersatz environmental groups like SOSA come and go. SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, tracks these industry front groups, including Smart Growth Madison (a real-estate-sponsored organization that opposes affordable housing) and the now-dormant Environmental Issues Council (sponsored by the beef, oil, timber, and farm industries), National Wilderness Institute (which had Pombo on its advisory board), and Greening Earth Society (which was funded by coal-burning utilities and claimed that global warming will improve the planet).
"They really rely on a hesitancy on the part of journalists to ask, 'Where is your money coming from?'" says John Stauber, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy. "What they're hoping is that their industry connections won't be exposed." --Dashka Slater
Doomsday Bank After Armageddon, Norway will be ready to reseed the world
Fear not--come tsunami, asteroid impact, nuclear skirmish, or global climate change, gardeners will still be able to grow zucchini. The Norwegian government is planning to stash seeds from every one of the world's known food crops in a frigid vault 600 miles from the North Pole.
The seed bank will be located behind thick walls of reinforced concrete, two air locks, and blast-proof doors, inside a sandstone mountain on the icy island of Spitsbergen. Designed to withstand natural and human-generated catastrophes, the cache is envisioned as a backup to the world's 1,400 existing seed banks, many of which are vulnerable to war and natural disasters. The bank will be large enough to hold 2 million seeds, to be used only if every other specimen has disappeared. In the case of zucchini at least, that seems an unlikely scenario. --D.S.
Illustrations, from top: Debbie Drechsler, Josef Gast
Photos, from top: Elizabeth Maclin, Competitive Enterprise Institute