President Obama has just announced a controversial decision(because we're all paying close attention over the Labor Day weekend, of course) not to raise the ozone standards for air pollution–in spite of pressure from environmentalists and his own head of EPA, Lisa Jackson. He is responding, instead, to requests from House Speaker John Boehner, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; opposition to the regulation was focused on the expense to businesses of meeting it, which they claimed was somewhere in the range of $20 to $90 billion annually.
I'm not going to jump into an Obama Bash here. Maybe it's the sunny skies, but I'm remaining deliberately optimistic. Perhaps the president is getting ready to do some political horse-trading. By being responsive to business concerns about what opponents claim would have been the most expensive regulation to come out of E.P.A. by far, he can't be called a Democrat who supports any and all regulations. The thinking might go: You can have those ozone regulations–which are set to be revisited in 2013, anyway–but I want those new mercury regulations for coal-fired power plants. We can afford those.
The flip side of my optimistic argument is that the White House is buying into the "regulations cost jobs" trope; many politicians now link "job-killing" to every use of the word "regulation", regardless of the inaccuracy. So far, there hasn't been any proof that the implementation of ozone standards would have cost jobs. In fact, it may well have added employment, and driven engineering innovation. Any way you look at it, this is a huge win for polluters.
Horse-trading or caving: we'll see a clear trend over the next few months, as other pollution regulations come up for discussion. The ozone decision bodes ill for those who are opposing the upcoming Keystone pipeline, despite an impassioned letter from the governor of Nebraska. If the president is accepting the "jobs versus environmental protection" framework, he will be forced to choose jobs, and get that pipeline built. That jobs v. environment framework is not, and has never been, accurate. It is a spin imposed by corporate polluters and their lobbyists, one that is all too easily understood and accepted by voters–and it is gaining traction. Enviros have not done a good enough job explaining why and how regulations actually create jobs.
One thing is clear, regardless of the smog. Now, more than at any other time since President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law, we have to keep the pressure up on Washington to remind everyone that clean air is a priority. Like they say in Texas, Ya gotta dance with the one that brung ya. We have to support the president in doing the right thing–and pressure him relentlessly when we think he's doing the wrong thing.
Join Moms Clean Air Force to send a strong message: Air pollution isn't just dirty. It's toxic. Let Washington know that we want regulations that protect the health of our children.
Recently, I attended the kickoff for an EDF Climate Corps training session in Boston. Sitting in a classroom full of disconcertingly young and bright MBA students, we were presented with this question:
Do you know the difference between energy conservation and energy efficiency?
Here’s a test: Which actions have to do with efficiency?
EDF's Climate Corps fellows: They make things better
Installing solar panels
Using different bulbs for the same amount of light
Using the best technology [check]
Making fewer copies of documents
Properly using existing equipment
Installing sensors for lights
There was a buzz as the students responded. Hands went tentatively up and down. But within 15 minutes, they (and I) were getting it — the key to one of EDF's most innovative projects is helping companies maximize energy efficiency.
"You are creating a movement," Victoria Mills, EDF's managing director for corporate partnerships told the 57 new Climate Corps fellows. "Business is an important force for change, especially at a time when legislative activity around climate change is stalled." (Read Victoria Mills' reflections on three years of EDF Climate Corps results.)
Her message fell on receptive ears. "We need change," said Esra Kucukciftci, who was looking forward to evaluating the energy efficiency of Facebook's new headquarters in Menlo Park, CA, this summer. "We need to reach a tipping point on energy use. We need social momentum. What better place to get that conversation going?"
Being a change agent is a high-flown ambition. But at Climate Corps, that means getting down to the nitty-gritty. The summer program embeds MBA students, called Climate Corps fellows, at major corporations, where they ferret out opportunities for increasing energy efficiency.
As soon as they arrive at their sponsoring companies, the fellows dive into the daily, even hourly, details of heating and cooling systems, when and what lights are on or off, what sort of automated controls govern computer terminals.
They must find mentors, partners and guides on the inside, who will help them understand the infrastructures they are dealing with, and champion their cause with other employees. They are expected, at the end of their ten-week stint, to submit a formal report to their superiors, with a list of energy-efficiency recommendations and estimates for how much money and carbon pollution will be saved if they are adopted.
Now, back to our quiz.
Conservation involves using less energy: Wear a sweater so you can turn down the heat; make fewer copies so you use less paper. Efficiency means using less energy while maintaining or enhancing productivity — getting more bang for your buck.
Both approaches can be helpful to any company looking to cut costs and reduce its environmental footprint. But efficiency is key to doing that and growing at the same time.
It's amazing how much money literally flies out the window in an inefficiently run building. As Gwen Ruta, EDF's vice president for corporate partnerships, put it: "It's as if companies across the globe were walking around with holes in their pockets, with coins dribbling out nonstop."
In fact, the Corps slogan could be: Buildings Matter. (And there's a lesson here for all of us as we look at our electricity bills.) Fellows pore over facilities' spending records, but, like anthropological sleuths, they also pay attention to how people actually behave.
In 2009, for example, one fellow couldn’t understand why an area in the building she was studying was always very cold. Her supervisor had noted the mysterious deviation, but no one could figure out the problem, which was costing a great deal of money.
One evening, the fellow, working late, took a stroll around the hallways and noticed an intense Ping Pong game in that room. As she watched, one player, overheated, jumped on the table, pushed up a ceiling tile, and changed the AC setting. Only when the game was over, the players forgot to switch the AC back — that's why it stayed so cold.
The fellow solved the problem by first putting up a sign by the AC thermostat to remind employees to return to the original setting after their games. Then, in her final report she recommended a longer term solution: installation of programmable thermostats that would allow the facilities team to program a schedule to automatically adjust the temperature.
Faces of EDF Climate Corps
During the three-day training fellows are trained to be sensitive to the culture of their host corporations.
"This is where MBA culture meets Old-School facilities culture," said Trish Kenlon, a former fellow who is now the manager of sustainability for Ann Taylor. "People are anxious about conservation. They see you coming, and they think they will be less comfortable, or less safe, or less productive. Your job is to communicate why your ideas are going to make things better."
So far, EDF Climate Corps has racked up an impressive record. Since 2008, the program's first year, the fellows have identified opportunities for companies to save $439 million in net operational costs and cut the equivalent of 985 million kilowatt hours of energy use annually — enough to power 85,000 homes for a year. The fellows' recommendations could also avoid 557,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually — equivalent to taking more than 86,000 SUVs off the road for a year.
In fact, eBay's senior manager for operational sustainability said he feels like he got ten months of value from eBay's EDF Climate Corps fellows in the ten weeks they spent on the job.
That kind of success is fueling growth. The first EDF Climate Corps class had seven fellows; this year, 57 MBA students will join 49 companies, half of which are repeat participants. Among the new companies that have signed on this year are Citigroup, Microsoft, Union Pacific and Facebook.
Three fellows are headed for Facebook to study their new campus in Menlo Park, CA, noted an excited Esra Kucukciftci. "People in the Bay Area have an ethos of caring about the environment," she said, "and it is important for a company like Facebook to make a big statement by having energy efficient buildings. Think about it: 600 million users. That's their reach. That's the kind of platform it is going to take to reach a tipping point on energy use."
Why, given the success EDF Climate Corps has had, aren't companies doing the job themselves? After all, it's entirely in their interest to save money. Jason Jay, a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, tried to answer that question in a talk he gave to the fellows in Boston.
"You would think EE [energy efficiency] is a nobrainer, right?" he said. But he pointed out that many companies, while they may form "green" teams or committees or councils, aren't really focused on getting results. The only way to get "high organizational capacity for EE [energy efficiency]," he said, is by setting goals at the highest levels of management, with clearly delineated lines of authority to make changes and motivate staff.
"I remember when we didn't have IT departments," Jay added. "Now, no one operates without one. Soon, all companies will have EE departments. Best energy practices will be captured — and spread."
Listening to the MBA students talk about their hopes for their fellowships, I was struck by another EE factor: emotional energy. EDF Climate Corps fellows are investing themselves in the future of our environment. They are optimistic. And they are looking to drive change on a large scale. They see a bright green future.
Cynthia Shih, a student at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, said it best. "I plan to make energy efficiency….really cool."
I'd like to invite you to take a little walk with me.
It's hot where we’re going…really hot. We're in a rural area but it's fairly densely populated…it's clear the people are very, very poor. This is low-lying country, most of the land is really not much above the rivers and the sea at all. See those levees and small mud dikes over there? See the huts clustered on those mounds? That's to try to escape the water when it floods—which is often.
We're in Bangladesh—the largest poor country in the world, or, if you prefer, the poorest large country in the world. The bay out there is the Bay of Bengal.
We walk now into the home of the Rayak family. We are here to see their biodigester.
With microfinancing for projects like biodigesters (above), farmers in Bangladesh are helping reduce global warming and avoiding illness. Credit: David Yarnold.
This is a cement vat that holds their animal waste. Actually that odor you're smelling is unmistakable, so you know darn well what it holds. In this case, it's not cow dung, it's poultry waste…chickenshit, to use the vernacular.
It's a three- cubic-meter tank. (This is a relatively large, souped-up biodigester model, so to speak, like a car with an overhead cam or turbocharged engine.) The waste runs from under the laying area of the chickens through a banked cement funnel into the biodigester, where it…ferments. I believe that's the word the connoisseurs use. It ferments anaerobically, and presto! It produces…methane. A fair amount of it. This is trapped under pressure beneath the lid of the biodigester, and it is piped, in a simple plastic line hung from the trees, right into the Rayaks' home. The methane is used for cooking and lighting. It's essentially natural gas–clean, odorless.
The Rayak family is moderately prosperous by Bangladesh standards, although you would find them very poor. I saw at least six children, there may be more. They have a serious chicken farm. And now that they have clean energy, they're no longer chopping down trees and shrubs for fuel, their children don't have respiratory disease, and people emitting carbon in far away places like you and me are helping them to buy the biodigester – by buying the credits for avoided carbon generated by the Rayaks, aggregated by our partner Grameen Shakti, bought and underwritten through our partner E&Co and marketed to corporate buyers by one of our other partners, Ecosecurities. (And Grameen Bank is making a micro-loan to the Rayaks to help them finance the purchase of the biodigester.) It's really quite a virtuous cycle, if you break it down and look at it closely.
Here is a family that either used expensive, carbon-emitting kerosene, or burned wood from shrubs and trees that also emitted carbon, and — worse — filled the house with smoke and particulates, putting the children at serious risk of ARI. Now they have clean, affordable energy – that emits a fraction of the carbon that was emitted before. So let’s add this up:
less carbon emitted
cheaper energy for the family
the residue is a very powerful fertilizer, which the family can use or sell
and indirect benefits: higher literacy, lower fertility
Now maybe you begin to understand why EDF is working in this village with Grameen, helping monetize the avoided carbon to make the biodigesters cheaper and more acceptable – and using carbon financing to help Grameen take the whole system to scale.
But wait. Look overhead. Right there, on the tree branch over the biodigester — do you see the plastic lines? I see 14 lines spreading out through the trees overhead…What is going on, Mr. Rayak, I ask? It turns out that Mr. Rayak – who as you may recall had a deluxe, V8 turbocharged jumbo-sized biodigester, is selling methane to 14 other families. He has become, in fact, a clean energy entrepreneur. No one has anticipated this.
When I have dinner with my old friend Mohammed Yunus, the founder and head of Grameen next evening, he smiles knowingly and instructs me that this is not at all surprising…that of course, we were trying all along to tap into the initiative of the poor, that they are good credit risks (he slips into his basic Grameen shtick). I think he is full of…well you know, what we were talking about it earlier, and politely I tell him so. "Come on, Yunus, neither of us saw this coming." He beams, and we both laugh. We both like this unanticipated dividend to our project.
Does all of this seem far away? Not much to do with cap-and-trade? Hard to fit the Rayak family and you and I into the same frame?
But that's the whole point, isn't it? The Rayaks and you and I are all in the same boat. That is the crux, the brutal reality of the enormous adventure on which we have embarked: a race to see if we can get enough carbon out of the human economic enterprise to allow the atmosphere to stabilize before the most catastrophic consequences of global warming occur.
Seeing all of these pieces — the huge oil majors; Gazprom; the automobile industry; the assembly-line of Chinese coal plants; buildings around the world that leak huge amounts of energy; the vast deforestation underway in Indonesia protected in some places by the army; and the Rayak family, and his 14 neighbors who are buying methane from him — seeing all of this in the same frame – that's what's required, isn't it?
We are trying to convince, coax and cajole six billion people to get on the same road and face together in the same direction: to choose the road of low-carbon, high efficiency, economic growth and individual opportunity.
If you tell me that this is difficult, I will nod in grim agreement.
If you tell me that it is idealistic, I will tell you that it is essential.
If you tell me that it is romantic, I will tell you that no door ever opens unless you knock.
The BP Gulf Oil Gusher has shown the whole world the nightmarish risks of deep sea drilling. But there is another, older, story of environmental destruction in the Mississippi River Delta wetlands—and it, too, is related to offshore drilling. This tragedy will continue long after BP's well is shut down, and it's another accident just waiting to happen.
As long as we demand oil,
oil companies will venture into ever-trickier waters to find it.
The first offshore well was drilled in fourteen feet of water off the coast of Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana in 1937. In the decades that followed, a dense infrastructure was thrown up to support a booming offshore oil business—which was rapidly moving into ever-greater depths. Some 30,000 to 40,000 miles of underwater pipeline were laid—maps show a dense thicket of infrastructure—and navigational canals were cut through the wetlands for shipping. Most of these pipelines and canals that service the roughly 4,000 active wells in the Gulf were built long before environmental laws were passed and agencies were created to protect the wetlands. This oil infrastructure has cost Louisiana dearly, and it will threaten the Gulf coast for years to come.
Since the early 1900s, Louisiana has lost 2,300 square miles of wetlands to the sea, an area roughly the size of Delaware. Paul Harrison, a senior director in EDF's Ecosystems program, explains several causes of the state's vulnerability.
First, the Mississippi River has been separated from the wetlands by the levees and jetties that were built to keep shipping channels open. Fresh river water, carrying its rich load of sediment and nutrients, no longer reaches and replenishes the wetlands. Along with the infrastructure that supports the offshore drilling industry, this has severely compromised the resilience of the Delta ecosystem.
Louisiana's Shrinking Coastline Since 1930, 1.2 million acres of coastal wetlands have been lost. (Maps: Courtesy Windell Curole, SLLD/Joe Suhayda, LWRRI)
Second, the straight, wide industrial canals have disrupted the hydrology—the water flow—of the wetlands. Normally, bayous are full of small, winding channels that keep saltwater from running inland. The manmade canals, in contrast, serve as conduits for seawater, which kills the freshwater marsh vegetation that holds the land together, leaving it to wash away with the tides.
Third, the Geophysical Research Letters will soon publish a paper revealing that the pipeline along the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico, much of it old and decaying, is extremely vulnerable to hurricane-induced currents. In 2004, during Hurricane Ivan, sensors placed on the ocean floor showed that underwater currents put considerable stress on the oil infrastructure. More hurricane-resistant design of this infrastructure is needed before the next crisis erupts.
And the last, and largest, problem for the Mississippi River Delta wetlands is global warming. In low-lying places like Louisiana, you have to consider relative sea level rise. Because the land is subsiding at the same time that the ocean is rising, Louisiana faces the most severe consequences of climate change.
Lance Nacio's story vividly illustrates the impact of land subsidence in the Delta. For more than a century, his family has owned a couple of thousand acres of freshwater marshland, about thirty to forty miles inland, in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. His grandparents lived off the land—they were self-sufficient. They raised cattle for food, grew crops and fished, hunted duck commercially, and trapped animals like nutria, muskrat, otter and mink to sell to furriers. They carved dugout canoes out of large old felled trees. Photographs from the forties and fifties show a land so fertile that, as Nacio says "it breaks your heart to see it, compared to how it looks now."
This beautiful land is rapidly disappearing. Since Nacio inherited it 21 years ago, he figures about 30% has vanished underwater. As saltwater rushes into his marshes, the freshwater grasses die off and grasses that thrive in saltwater haven't grown in fast enough to stop the land from eroding. His land was once protected by barrier islands further south in the Gulf, but they have subsided, leaving him increasingly vulnerable. Now his land is also subsiding into the water, literally sinking from sight.
Lance Nacio recounts decades of wetlands loss that has taken his land and put the region at even greater risk of oil spill damage.
Nacio, who is 39 years old, has tried to adapt. In 1998, when roughly 60% of his land became water, he started running a commercial shrimp boat to make a living. Since the BP Blowout, Nacio can no longer fish. "We've been shut down for a more than a month here," he says. "The oil has contaminated the fishing areas."
It is hard to imagine how families like Lance Nacio's can survive. The BP disaster is already creating severe economic hardship for everyone whose livelihood depends on these oil-soaked Gulf waters. But even after the Gusher is capped, the tens of thousands of miles of pipeline and canals will remain. The next Gulf tragedy waits its turn. That's why the urgent work of EDF and its allies to replenish and strengthen the wetlands that nourish and protect the Gulf Coast should become America's priority.
This magical, rich, fertile, wild and abundant land must be thought of as a national treasure. Losing it would leave us all that much poorer.
But there is a larger issue that we Americans must confront. Regardless of our collective fury over the environmental nightmare in the Gulf, as long as we demand oil, oil companies will venture into ever-trickier waters to find it. Now is the time to support energy and climate legislation that will shift our economy to safer energy sources. We can be energy-addicted. We cannot afford to be addicted to filthy fossil fuels.
I went to Franklin, Tennessee for a visit that was supposed to end last Saturday, but I was marooned by flooding from the unprecedented deluge that pummeled this part of the country over the weekend. We got more than 15 inches in two days—a record high. The rain came stunningly fast and furious, buckets of water pouring down from the heavens. Within hours, dry creek beds became raging rivers. As a friend and I were driving from downtown Nashville at the start of the storm, it began to dawn on us that things were much worse than the prediction of "severe thunderstorms" might indicate.
Will we learn from the terrible disaster in the Gulf?
Winds were gusting wildly, trees were toppling across roads, water was spilling over banks, asphalt was crumbling, and cars around us were stalled. We got to a dip in one street and saw a woman pacing back and forth, her hands folded in prayer in front of her face. A man just ahead of us had been told not to drive through the water spilling across the road, she said, but he had ignored the warning. "His car washed away. He's hangin' in the top of a tree, hangin' on for dear life," she said. "Pray for him. Please."
I don't know if he was rescued, or if he became one of the 24 people who died in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi when rivers flashed through towns, washed away cars, houses and commercial buildings, and buckled bridges. When I wasn't watching the downpour or warily eying the creek behind my friends' house, I was following the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Within a week, what had been described by BP as a containable spill coming from the sinking Deepwater Horizon rig had become three "leaks"—a maddening description.
May 4th satellite image of the Gulf Coast oil spill. Source: NASA
What's going on cannot possibly be called a leak, nor can it be called a spill. Leaks are gradual and spills imply the emptying of a container. Instead, what we have are underwater geysers of oil that are spewing rust-colored crude; and there is no known end to the supply. As of Monday, BP estimated that 210,000 gallons a day—five times the company's original projection—were spilling into the Gulf's tricky, frigid waters. The oil slick on the surface covers more than 1,800 square miles and Interior Department officials are estimating it may take 90 days to stop the flow if BP has to drill a "relief" well to intersect and cap the out-of-control well.
The weather has not been cooperating with containment efforts, which were slow off the mark. As of Wednesday, BP said 100 miles of floating booms had been laid out to keep the oil from spreading, but they were severely compromised, and outright destroyed in places, by winds and waves. Eighty percent of the booms protecting Alabama's coast are damaged. Meanwhile, crews are spraying tens of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants onto the oil to break it up into droplets that can sink to the bottom. We can only guess what havoc this will wreak on the Gulf floor; the chemical dispersants are of "low toxicity"—in other words, some toxicity—and have never been used before in such large quantities. The only sure thing is that the damage won't be visible to the public eye.
The harm will be more visible, and devastating, to the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on Gulf waters. They've been called off their boats at the start of the season for many valuable species of fish, while NOAA tests sea life for contamination. What's heartbreaking is that these are the very fishermen who recently responded to depleted stocks by becoming leaders in adopting new systems to manage their catch, with EDF's help. Red snapper, grouper and tilefish have been coming back—and the fishermen have benefited economically. The fishermen themselves have become stewards of the Gulf. Unfortunately, not everyone working in the Gulf has been as conscientious.
Gulf life cannot compete against an enormous oil spill. When the oil reaches the wetlands, it can coat, suffocate and kill the grasses whose web of roots holds the marshes in place. Then all that will be left is mud, which will simply sink into the seawater. Marshes buffer the region from storm surges—unless the marshes are so depleted that they wash away. Normally, the marshlands would naturally replenish themselves with sediment that washes down the Mississippi River—except that sediment has been channeled away by levees built over the years to encourage sparse barge traffic. The costs of compromising these natural storm barriers became tragically evident during Hurricane Katrina. So today, barrier islands are sinking and disappearing into the Mississippi River Delta: nearly 25 square miles of critically important wetlands disappear every year.
EDF staff on the ground in Louisiana
to see the oil spill impact on the wetlands and local fishermen.
Sadly, the oil is gushing into the Gulf during peak nesting season: This area is prime breeding ground for countless sea turtles and birds such as the American oystercatcher, who lay their eggs in the sand. Millions of dollars, and countless years of work by EDF and other organizations have been poured, heart and soul, into restoring those vital but now imperiled coastal lands—for the sake of wildlife, and human life. Once again, we are reminded that we are dependent on one another. All that work may be washed away by gushing oil.
Meanwhile, in the peculiar ecosystem that is the political world of Washington DC, the fate of months of negotiations over a bipartisan clean energy/climate/jobs bill hangs in the balance. One of the central compromises made in the hope of the bill’s safe passage was the significant expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling. Now, that grand bargain is jeopardy.
May 5th photo of Nashville after the flood. Photo: Les DeFoor
What a strange and terrible confluence of events! I believe the disasters of this week will prove to be of profound significance. People in Tennessee are saying that they didn't have a 100- year flood; they had a 250- year flood. What does that really mean? Now that the flood has happened, it won't happen again in their lifetimes? Is that wishful thinking?
Let’s remember that climate scientists predict that one effect of global warming will be more extreme weather patterns: sudden severe flooding in some areas, and intense droughts in others. In other words: global weirding. I have a feeling there's worse to come. Nature is unpredictable, as we can see from the constantly changing direction of the Gulf gusher.
It is way past time to connect the dots. Responsible climate scientists have been unequivocal: the burning of fossil fuels has contributed significantly to global warming. And global warming is dangerous. Then take into consideration the significant degradation we have visited upon our earth in harvesting those fossil fuels, with sloppy, irresponsible, and perhaps even cynical greed. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Gulf rig lacked a $500,000 remote control shut-off switch required by other major oil-producing nations as last-resort protection against underwater spills.
Humankind has been able to alter the course of something as unfathomably large as the climate. But we're reminded, over and over again, that plain old weather can—and will—undo humankind.
Take action! Tell the Senate we must transition to clean energy with a strong climate and energy bill.