Topic: Energy and Environment

Sorry, George Carlin, Plastic Is Biodegradable

Remember George Carlin’s hilarious skit about plastics? Here is the transcript:

“The planet … is a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed. And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, ‘Why are we here?’”

Not so fast! According to a new study published in Environmental Science and Technology by co-authors Professor Jun Yang and Yu Yang of Beihang University, and Stanford University engineer Wei-Min Wu, plastic is biodegradable.

“Plastic, long considered nonbiodegradable and one of the biggest contributors to global pollution, might have met its match: the small, brownish, squirmy mealworm. Researchers have learned that the mealworm can live on a diet of Styrofoam and other types of plastic. Inside the mealworm’s gut are microorganisms that are able to biodegrade polyethylene, a common form of plastic.”

Good news for the planet and for humanity.

The Nation’s Worst-Managed Transit Agency

Eight years ago, I argued that San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority was the nation’s worst managed transit agency, a title endorsed by San Jose Mercury writer Mike Rosenberg and transit expert Tom Rubin.

However, since then it appears that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or just Metro) has managed to capture this coveted title away from San Jose’s VTA. Here are just a few of Metro’s recent problems:

  1. Metro’s numerous service problems include a derailment in August that resulted from a flaw in the rails that Metro had detected weeks previously but failed to fix;
  2. Metro spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fare system that it now expects to scrap for lack of interest on the part of transit riders;
  3. One of Metro’s power transformers near the Stadium/Armory station recently caught fire and was damaged so badly that Metro expects to have most trains simply skip that station stop for the next several weeks to months;
  4. Metro’s fleet of serviceable cars has run so low that it rarely operates the eight-car trains for which the system was designed even during rush hours when all the cars are packed full;
  5. WMATA’s most recent general manager, Richard Sarles, retired last January and the agency still hasn’t found a replacement, largely due to its own ineptitude;
  6. Riders are so disgusted with the system that both bus and rail ridership declined in 2014 according to the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership report;
  7. Metro was so unsafe in 2012 that Congress gave the Federal Transit Administration extra authority to oversee its operations;
  8. That hasn’t fixed the problems, so now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress to transfer oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, which supposedly has stricter rules.

A complete listing of Metro’s problems could fill a book (and in fact have already done so). The “solutions” implemented so far have been ludicrous. That idea that giving FTA safety oversight over WMATA would solve any problems relies on the fantasy that top-down bureaucracy works better at the federal level than the regional level. Meanwhile, NTSB’s proposal to transfer authority to the Federal Railroad Administration is more rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship than providing any real fix.

On the Bright Side: Tropical Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal During Warmer and Colder Phases of ENSO and the PDO

While the hypothesis that tropical cyclones will become both more frequent and more intense as planetary temperatures rise has long been debated, real-world evidence has consistently refuted it (see, for example, the many reviews of this subject posted under the heading of Hurricanes at the CO2 Science website). The latest example is the work of Girishkumar et al. (2015), who examined over five decades of tropical cyclone (TC) data from the Bay of Bengal (BoB) in the Indian Ocean. Specifically, the authors “investigated how the relationship between ENSO and TCs activity in the BoB during October–December varies on decadal time scale with respect to PDO.”

More Buzz About RICO-Ing Climate Skeptics

In June I took note of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-R.I.) op-ed “urg[ing] the U.S. Department of Justice to consider filing a racketeering suit against the oil and coal industries for having promoted wrongful thinking on climate change, with the activities of ‘conservative policy’ groups an apparent target of the investigation as well.” I pointed out that this was a significant step toward criminalizing policy differences and using litigation and government enforcement to punish opponents in public debate, and meshed with an existing fishing-expedition investigation of climate-skeptic scholarship by Whitehouse and other Democrats on Capitol Hill. Others had already gone farther than the senator himself, calling for making “climate denial” a “crime against humanity,” holding public trials of fossil fuel executives for having resisted the truth, and so forth. (Gawker: “arrest climate change deniers.”) And I noted a recurring argument – “we did it to the tobacco companies, so there’s no reason we can’t do it here too” that tended to confirm my fears that the federal government set a dangerous precedent back then when it “took the stance that pro-tobacco advocacy could amount to a legal offense.”

Now there are further signs that a concerted campaign is under way. “Letter To President Obama: Investigate Deniers Under RICO” is the headline over a letter from twenty scientists, most at respected institutions, endorsing the Whitehouse idea and calling for the federal government to launch a probe under the racketeering (RICO) law. The letter was soon being widely promoted around the web, even at BoingBoing, often regarded as a pro-free-speech outlet.

China Recycles: Another Attempt at Cap and Trade

China’s announcement of the implementation of a cap and trade system is not the first we’ve heard of their efforts to combat their rising carbon emissions. In November, China and the United States hyped an agreement in which China “intends” to curb emissions “around” 2030. Reproduced below is an article on that “agreement,” which will certainly be greatly referenced over the course of Xi Jinping’s visit.

For today’s announcement, as with all international pronouncements on climate change, we must wait until we see the fine print. The road to global warming has traditionally been paved with good intentions.

On the Bright Side: The Stability of Glaciers in the Astore Basin of Northwestern Himalaya

Glaciers have long been viewed as vulnerable to CO2-induced global warming, as many have experienced declines in thickness and/or extent over the past century. However, there remains much to be learned about this topic and how glaciers may respond to climate change in the future, as evidenced by the recent work of Farhan et al. (2015).

Introducing the rationale for their study, the team of five researchers write that it is “difficult to develop a clear understanding of climate-change impacts in the Hindukush–Karakoram–Himalaya region” of the Tibetan Plateau because of “substantial variability of glacier changes within the region (Fujita and Nuimura 2011), uncertainties related to the contribution of glaciers to runoff (Immerzeel et al. 2011), variable retreat rates (Kumar et al. 2008) and strong spatial variations in glacier behavior related to topography and climate (Scherler et al. 2011).” They also note that “uncertainties in projections of glacier changes (Cogley 2011; Lutz et al. 2012), controversial and erroneous reports stated by IPCC (2007) and revealed by Cogley et al. (2010), lack of knowledge, paucity of long term records (Kaser et al. 2006), unsuitable or uncertain data and methods, failure to publish existing data (Barnett et al. 2005), very limited mass balance records particularly in the Upper Indus River Basin (UIB) (Bhutiyani 1999), and even excessive classification and secrecy regarding fundamental hydrological data collectively make these problems much worse.”

Inconsistency on Oil Sands

Hillary Clinton had a big announcement the other day, declaring her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.  Her decision stems in part from her view that the particular oil that will be transported through this pipeline is “dirtier” than other oil, because it comes from “oil sands,” and thus we should not let it enter our pristine country.  In this regard, she said:  ”We shouldn’t be building a pipeline dedicated to moving North America’s dirtiest fuel through our communities,” and “American energy policy is about more than a single pipeline to transport Canada’s dirtiest fuel across our country.”

As it turns out, we also have some oil sands here in the U.S., out in beautiful, pristine Utah.  And guess what?  Someone is about to start producing oil from them (a Canadian company!): 

… the first commercial oilsands mine in the United States is just months away from starting up after receiving final regulatory approvals from officials in Utah late last week.

“We’ll be in production later in the fall with commercial production before the end of the year,” U.S. Oil Sands Inc. chief executive Cameron Todd said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Calgary-based U.S. Oil Sands is working through the summer to complete a 2,000-barrel-per-day oilsands mine in eastern Utah,  which would make it the first commercial oilsands mine in the United States when it begins producing later this year.

It sounds kind of inconsistent to block the transport of this oil through the U.S., while allowing its production in the U.S.  No doubt this inconsistency will play a role in any international litigation under NAFTA that might be taken against the U.S. government’s failure to approve Keystone, which is already being talked about by some international lawyers, if it comes to that.