Category Archives: Pollution

China Poised to Lap U.S. in Race for Climate Leadership


This morning, we woke up to the news that President-elect Donald Trump had nominated former Texas Governor Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy. Social media was instantly abuzz with the irony: In the 2012 Republican primary, candidate Perry had vowed to kill this very agency, although he infamously couldn’t remember its name.

Next came comparisons to the two most recent energy secretaries: Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate physicist, and Ernest J. Moniz, a distinguished nuclear physicist from M.I.T. By contrast, Perry was his class “social secretary” and “Yell Leader” at Texas A&M, on the way to earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science.

But Perry’s nomination is particularly notable in light of the current episode of “Years of Living Dangerously,” which premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel. With help from Sigourney Weaver and America Ferrera, “Years” examines the diverging climate-response paths of the world’s two largest polluters – China and the US.

Latest episode compares climate responses in U.S. and China

Viewers may be surprised to learn that China is taking enormous steps in transforming its economy onto a post-carbon footing. Whatever we may think about the alleged “War on Coal” here in the States, China makes no bones about it. Just last year, China abandoned construction on thirty new coal plants. Together, those plants would have had a greater generating capacity than all of Great Britain. And they’ve become the largest worldwide producer of solar electric power.

By contrast with A&M “social-secretary” Perry, China has entrusted its energy program to Premier Li Keqiang, the second most senior leader in China, ranked by Forbes as the 12th “Most Powerful Person” in the world.

How are they doing it? “Years” explores China’s new carbon “cap & trade” program which is being rolled out nationwide next year. The CEO of China Power & Light offered Weaver a perspective echoed by virtually everyone she spoke to: “I actually welcome the clarity brought about by a price on carbon. It makes our job much easier….”

Back in the U.S., actor America Ferrera explores a very different struggle. Where pollution is unpriced, it is the poor and powerless who suffer the worst impacts – respiratory diseases and other ills. Ferrera’s trail takes her to Waukegan, Illinois, where one of the oldest coal-fired power plants in the country stands cheek-to-jowl with a Latino and African-American community. In Waukegan, one-third of all children suffer from asthma.

Ferrera follows a citizen action group seeking desperately to address municipal leaders and the plant’s corporate owner, NRG Energy. They’re seeking relief from the pollution that is sickening their community. And we feel the maddening frustration of citizen activists rebuffed by a wall of rejection from those in power. Even their cleverest strategy, becoming small shareholders and packing the NRG annual meeting, produces only empty promises that the CEO will visit Waukegan at some future date.

But in fact, the Waukegan story is repeated in study after study across the US. The United Church of Christ has found over more than 20 years that racial minorities and poorer communities comprise the majority of populations living near hazardous waste facilities. The University of Pennsylvania has shown that African-American communities are twice as likely to suffer toxic accidents as in other places. And UCLA  found that low-income and minority children are disproportionately exposed to hazardous vehicle exhaust. Poor kids and children of color – these are the ones who get the asthma and emphysema, and who live with hazardous toxins.

Waukegan Generating Station.   Source: Midwest Energy News

Despite this depressing tale, we take some real hope from the nexus of today’s news about Gov. Perry and the narrative explored by “Years.”

First, China is moving ahead aggressively on climate, and is becoming the world leader in clean energy. Of course, we all benefit from a world with fewer greenhouse gases, no matter where we live. But of equal importance, competitive impulses will surely lead the US eventually to take steps to salvage some leadership in the energy of the future, rather than squeezing every penny from an aging oil industry.

And second, the looming prospect of an American petro-state cabinet typified by Perry at Energy, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at State, and Oklahoma oil champion Scott Pruitt at EPA stands to spur citizen action groups – like those in Waukegan – in every community.

It’s time for citizens to demand that our leaders assert our country’s greatness by moving forward into the clean economy that the world desperately needs. And in the process, to hear the cries – and wheezes – of our neighbors in poorer communities. Maybe then, we can call ourselves “great” again.

Who Pays for Smog?

In the lead-up to his 2012 reelection campaign, President Obama faced a ticklish problem. Under the terms of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency was required to issue rules governing industrial emissions of smog, that murky ozone pollution driving an epidemic of respiratory diseases and birth defects in our country. But compliance with the EPA rule would have been costly to coal-fired power plants in key electoral states in the Midwest Rust Belt, and the president needed them to remain in office.

So, in a bow to political expediency, Mr. Obama instructed the EPA to delay finalizing the smog rule for several years. Well, several years is now up. This Thursday marks the court-ordered deadline for the EPA to publish its smog rules. And industry-backed groups are pressing an all-out campaign to make them as weak as possible. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, and the National Association of Manufacturers are pushing for a relaxed standard of 70 parts atmospheric ozone per billion. The American Lung Association and environmental groups are advocating a tighter standard of 60 parts per billion.


Thursday deadline for EPA smog rules.

The difference? In health terms, the industry’s proposal would result in 1.5 million more serious asthma attacks per year, and thousands of premature deaths, mainly among children and the elderly.

You might think this would be easy. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 25 million Americans suffer from asthma, and the number is growing rapidly. About half of them experience asthma attacks every year. About 9 people die from asthma every day. And the annual national medical bill for the disease was last estimated at an astounding $56 billion, and that was almost a decade ago.

For each victim of asthma, the personal cost is enormous. Of course, for the 3,600 who die every year, the discussion of cost is hugely ironic. But for the surviving sufferers, average individual yearly medical costs ran at $3,300 a decade ago, and we all know what’s happened to medical costs since then.

But asthma sufferers aren’t the only ones talking about cost. The industry lobby claims that tighter ozone standards will cause electricity costs to soar, as smokestack scrubbers costing tens of millions of dollars will need to be installed in many plants. They’ve been joined by dozens of mayors and governors from both sides of the political aisle in their appeal: It’s too expensive. We can’t afford it.

But this debate illustrates one of our great American industrial illusions, doesn’t it? As long as pollution doesn’t cost me anything, then it must be essentially free. If I can produce electricity at five cents per kilowatt-hour while generating lots of smog, then rules that will cost me six cents are pure losers. Losers to my shareholders. Losers to my customers.

But who are the losers today? Well, there are those 3,600 dead Americans. And there are those 25 million asthma sufferers. There are the families of black children, who have seen a 50 percent increase in asthma rates in the last ten years. And there’s that not-so-tidy sum of $56 billion in US medical costs for asthma, much of which is attributable to ozone pollution.

And – I suppose I should mention – asthma is only one of smog’s ill effects, which also include cancers, neurological birth defects and more. The province of Ontario alone counts 9,500 premature deaths per year from all effects of ozone pollution. There’s that too.

So maybe it comes down to this: Who should pay the cost of smog in a just country? Should it be the children and the elderly? Or should it be the people profiting from its use?

Just like you, we don’t want higher electric bills. But we’ll solve our problems (see below) without asking the kids, the aging and the poor to pay them for us.

Note: At Good Hand Farm, we generate most of the electricity for three houses and field irrigation pumps from solar arrays. The balance, we purchase from wind farm generators. It isn’t always easy, but it’s doable.

Oh, Canada! An Earth Day Lament

Today is Earth Day. I’m not marching, or celebrating, or even planting a tree (my latest dozen hazelnuts haven’t arrived yet). But I am sending you a sobering article from Sojourners Magazine on abusive and unjust mining practices worldwide by Canadian companies.

Last year, I spent a week in Fort McMurray, the heart of Canada’s tar sands petro-state of Alberta. I reported the horrors I saw there in several posts (see here, here, here, and especially here.) And while I lamented the poisoning and cultural genocide of peaceable First Nations in Alberta, I also mourned the apparent transformation of Canada from a relatively peaceable steward of its land and people, to a cynical state committed to the destruction of God’s most precious gifts for the enrichment of the powerful. I felt like I was watching the movie “Avatar,” but in real life — with real children, parents and elders as the real victims.

downloadNow, Rev. Emilie Teresa Smith, a Canadian Anglican priest, has detailed horrifying accounts of Canadian mining companies exploiting and poisoning the poor in less-developed countries. “What? Canadians?” she asks. “We’re supposed to be the good guys in the story. Well, not anymore.”

Please, read Rev. Smith’s article (and consider subscribing to Sojourners while you’re at it!). And for meditation and thought on this Earth Day, here’s the way she concludes her article:

“The Earth is not a thing to be bought, sold, used and destroyed. Our eternal connection to the dust is that we are dust. We are not the Creator, but frail creatures, utterly dependent on the care of the Earth, her mountains, her water, streams and deepness underground. As the psalmist reminds us, the Earth is not ours, but God’s; we live with tender mercy and grace upon her abundant belly.”

I pray that you are blessed this Earth Day, and are looking for new ways to tend and keep the garden in which God has placed you.

J. Elwood

Exxon’s Home-Run Investment in Governor Christie

We hope someone is around, one day, to record what happened to American democracy.

Never a perfect system, its death spiral could have been obvious to anyone who knows how to use a calculator. First came the super-PACs with their millions of dollars for attack ads, always under the veil of nominal independence from any particular candidate.  Then came the “charitable” super PACs, which hid from scrutiny the identity of the political puppet-masters. Then came the billionaires, like Charles and David Koch, buying virtually any election they pleased, and neutralizing the millions of citizen contributors who could pitch in twenty or fifty bucks to their favored candidates. Then came congressional redistricting, which made it all but impossible to replace incumbents. Then came the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and a host of state-backed measures to discourage voting by marginalized communities.

And most of this was made possible by the highest court in the land, which enshrined as “free speech” the use of unfathomable wealth by the richest corporate “persons,” to make sure that democracy didn’t infringe on their profits.

The energy industry featured prominently among those big spenders. In 2012, they gave $143.7 million to political candidates, with 80 percent of it going to Republicans. Of course, that doesn’t count the soft “issue-spending,” on things like fracking, offshore drilling, mountain-top-removal mining and the Keystone XL pipeline.Picture1

And if $144 million sounds like it might buy an election or two, get ready for much, much worse. The biggest energy-industry political bankers, Charles and David Koch, have announced plans to spend nearly $900 million in the 2016 election cycle – almost a billion dollars from two unfathomably rich oil guys. That $20 click you made to some worthy cause last year is about to be overwhelmed 45 million times over.

American voters: You never stood a chance. Against this money, your candidates are being swept away, or are cutting their own deal with the devil.

And with that much money being poured into politics, you can be sure that it’s getting a fair return. Consider Exxon Mobil.

Exxon had a problem in New Jersey. For decades, they had poisoned Newark Bay and Arthur Kill, plus more than 1,500 acres of wetlands, from their two refinery sites in Bayonne and Linden. Eventually, the state sued the oil giant for $8.9 billion in damages. The lawsuit went forward under the administrations of four different governors. Exxon denied any wrongdoing. But the court saw through the denials, and found the company liable for the pollution. All that remained was for the court to settle on the numbers.

Now, $8.9 billion is a pretty big loss, even for Exxon. And even if the award were cut by half or even more, it could spoil their whole afternoon. But Exxon lays out a lot of money to influence lawmakers. In 2014, they spent $12.7 million on political lobbying (admittedly, way down from the $29 million they spent in 2008 when faced with the threat of an Obama presidency).

Exxon's Bayonne Refinery : "Staggering and unprecedented environmental damage."

Exxon’s Bayonne Refinery : “Staggering and unprecedented environmental damage.”

It’s worth noting that in 2014, New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, was the head of the Republican Governor’s Association, charged with raising money to elect GOP gubernatorial candidates. Of course, Governor Christie was also in charge of New Jersey’s huge lawsuit against Exxon, although it was being handled by the state’s attorney general and career state employees who had developed the case over years. So at first, no one gave much notice to the $500,000 donation that Exxon gave to Christie’s GOP governors group.

But then something really amazing happened. Christie’s own chief counsel took a sudden interest in the case, and reportedly muscled aside the attorney general, to cut a deal with Exxon. The judge was believed to be ready to announce the amount of the award against Exxon. But the Christie administration asked him to defer his ruling while they worked on a settlement.

Settlements happen all the time. Exxon was guilty. Naturally, they’d rather settle than be hit with unknown billions in damages. So maybe this would be all for the best for New Jersey’s beleaguered taxpayers.

Well, for Exxon, it was definitely all for the best. Better than their wildest dreams. The Christie administration settled for a mere $250 million – on an $8.9 billion claim. On a claim where Exxon had already been found guilty. That’s three cents on the dollar. Three cents.

Now, in order to send someone to jail, you’d have to find a direct link between Exxon’s $500,000 pocket change for Christie, and Christie’s $8.65 billion claim release. And they’re way too smart for that. But the message to the state’s taxpayers was cruelly clear: Polluters, come to our state and do whatever you want; as long as you take care of our politicians, we’ll pick up 97 percent of your clean-up costs. The profits are for you; the costs are for us. So long as you keep the campaign funds rolling in.

At Beloved Planet, we’re not out to enshrine anyone’s national myths. But much of what was once noble about the American experiment is now at risk of being drowned in a flood of political cash. Our water, our atmosphere, our wetlands – these things belong to all people and all God’s creatures. But with the collapse of virtually all limits on cash to control our lawmakers, we fear that these common blessings are in peril as never before.

Sooner or later, those who believe that this world belongs to God – and not to the rich and powerful – are going to have to take a stand. God help us.

May I Please Have a Water Bottle?

On a recent Sunday morning, September 21, we were packing up with about forty students from Christian colleges as far away as Indiana and North Carolina, headed into New York City for the People’s Climate March. As usual, I bellowed out to everyone as we were walking to the vans: “Make sure you go to the bathroom! Anyone need anything? It’s going to be a long day!”

Sure enough, several of the students did indeed need something. “May I please have a water bottle?”

Oh…. Ah, yes, water bottles.

Let’s be clear. These are absolutely fantastic earth-keeping college students. Many of them are studying environmental biology, or peace and reconciliation issues. Some are just back from studies in post-genocide Rwanda, or are planning organic farming internships for next summer. All of them care enough about God’s creation to have traveled for hours to sleep on the floor for a weekend of climate action. But water bottles?

“You know,” I stammered after an awkward moment, “plastic bottles are something we just don’t use much around here. Um, could we lend you an aluminum canteen?”

Photo by Chris Jordan and The Midway Film Project, who are raising funds to launch a film on Midway plastic pollution.

Photo by Chris Jordan and The Midway Film Project, who are raising funds to launch a film on Midway plastic pollution.

Thank God, awareness of plastic pollution is growing among young people. Many have read about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” They’ve seen images of decomposed sea birds whose stomachs were filled with brightly-colored plastic bottle caps. They’ve seen photos of Midway Island or the Maldives, beset by an unending sea-borne plastic tsunami. These are the remotest places on earth, and our plastic is all over them.

In our family, we kicked the plastic bottle habit years ago. It’s not always easy, but we manage.

And some major jurisdictions are already taking action. California has now banned single-use plastic bags, following the lead of Mexico City, Dehli, Mumbia, Bangladesh and Rwanda. Here in the U.S., Portland and coastal North Carolina also restrict the use of plastic bags.

But for real change to happen, average Americans like us are going to have to change our attitudes toward packaging – bags, bottles, boxes, and all, and especially plastics. Maybe our hearts need to change, and that might happen if you take a moment to watch a trailer for the Midway film about albatrosses and plastic pollution. Or take three minutes and watch the little film below about where our plastic ends up.

Because your plastic water bottle will still be here for your great-great-great grandchild to deal with. Please watch.

Cheery Energy Ads? Look Out!

I force myself to listen. Believe me, it’s not easy. The mute button is right there, and I could spare myself the indignity. And yet I grit my teeth, and listen to the peppy music, watch the smiling faces, and follow the actors portraying happy American energy workers telling us how good it all is.

Of course, we’re talking about those oil, gas and coal ads that permeate the news-hour airwaves. First, it was the “Clean Coal” people touting a carbon-capture technology (that actually didn’t exist at operational scale). Then it was ExxonMobil telling us how clean their Canadian tar sands operations were (I’ve been there, and the scale of pollution is terrifying). Next came the natural gas people telling us how smart and safe it is for America to inject toxic chemicals below our aquifers in the current fracking boom. And permeating them all, that lovely promise of jobs, jobs and more jobs.

And finally, there is BP.

BP, those wonderful people who brought us the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re still not finished blanketing the airwaves with those “Look! All better!” ads. “Today the beaches and Gulf are open for business,” says the narrator, “and many areas are reporting the best tourism season in years!”

Maybe we’ll forget that in May 2010, BP fouled much of the immense Gulf of Mexico, in the worst oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up, killing eleven workers and opening a deep-water oil gusher that flowed unabated for 87 days. An estimated 219 million gallons of oil escaped into the Gulf waters, followed by 1.84 million gallons of chemical dispersants which may have been even more damaging. Crude oil from the blowout has been found as far away as Tampa Bay.

In the wake of the disaster, BP pled guilty to criminal charges, and to two felony counts of lying to Congress. The company was fined a record-setting $4.52 billion in fines. And the company was forced to set aside a total of $42.2 billion for cleanup and damages to people and businesses.

But you’d never know it from the ad campaign, would you? “Two years ago, the people of BP made a commitment to the Gulf, and every day since we’ve worked hard to keep that,” says one ad. “I want you to know that there’s another commitment that BP takes just as seriously – our commitment to America.”

It all sounded so nice.

But the U.S. District judge presiding over a suit under the Clean Water Act apparently wasn’t swayed by the ads. Yesterday, Judge Carl J. Barbier found BP guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct in the blowout, exposing BP to as much as $18 billion more in civil penalties on behalf of victims. In a 153-page decision, Judge Barbier recounted “a chain of failures” – including skimping on safety tests and dishonest analysis of results – resulting in the explosion and spill.

There is still much that remains unknown about the effects of BP’s actions in the Gulf. Some cite evidence that the well is still leaking. Others point to mortality of baby dolphins, which increased by a factor of ten after the spill. Oil-related carcinogens in the Gulf have increased by a factor of 40, with unknown impacts on humans and marine life. Deep coral reefs have suffered significant damage, with largely unknown impacts on ocean ecosystems. Many of us have been to the Mississippi Delta to witness first-hand the damage to local fishing communities. It may be many years before we really know the true cost of the BP Gulf spill.

But one thing that we can know beyond doubt it this: All those cheery fossil-fuel ads have had only one purpose—to mask the extent of the damage and the ongoing risks of tar sands mining, fracking and mountaintop removal coal. And now, ever more clearly – of deep-water oil drilling.

It’s up to you whether you hit the mute button on those commercials or not. But I suspect that, whatever they’re saying this time around, we should take it with a huge grain of salt.

Does the Earth Have AIDS?

If it’s ever fallen to your lot to care for someone with advanced AIDS, you know this feeling: It’s not fair.

It’s really not fair. With a weakened immune system, the illnesses just line up to attack. No sooner do you fight off pneumonia, then mycobacterium avium attacks. And right behind it comes a wave of candidiasis or wasting syndrome. Eventually, you just can’t fight anymore. It’s just not fair.

Together with my brothers, Chris and Rob, I saw this first-hand some twenty-five years ago. We survived the last attack after weeks of treatment and struggle, but what’s next? Sure enough, something with an unpronounceable name – cytomegalovirus or something – was waiting to pounce.

I will admit, I thought those days were behind me. But I’m having an eerie sense of déjà vu as I watch the almost daily developments in the natural world. Something’s happening, and it looks like the earth’s immune systems are failing. We just came off a winter of brutal extremes: Alaska was broiling, while the East was locked in a deep freeze from the once-unknown “polar vortex.” California is now in the grip of the worst drought ever to hit the state, hard on the heels of the record multi-year drought in Texas. Thousands of square miles of American forests have fallen to the now-rabid pine bark beetle. Washington’s governor is sounding the alarm that rising ocean acidity is destroying the state’s oyster industry as the seas soak up so much atmospheric carbon. Flood insurance rates nationwide have skyrocketed with rising sea levels and increased storm intensity.

And that’s just here in the U.S.  Globally, last month was the hottest June on record for land, following the same record for May; and it was the hottest of any month ever for oceans. We’ve now had 352 consecutive months of global heat exceeding the 20th Century average. Massive droughts have hit exports of Russian and Australian wheat and American corn in the last two years. Global food prices have spiked repeatedly, stoking food riots and conflict throughout the Arab world. Central America’s devastating storms have undermined social structures to a point where hundreds of thousands are migrating in a desperate search for food and safety.

I wonder if the young among us even know that it wasn’t always this way. Maybe plagues of biblical proportions have always been the stuff of ordinary life, no?

Well just this week, a new plague has appeared on the scene, in a place where I wasn’t expecting it. We heard in yesterday’s news that the city of Toledo has just lost its drinking water. About 400,000 Ohioans have been warned not to drink their tap water because of a dangerous toxin called microcystis that’s spread all over Lake Erie and other Great Lakes.

Courtesy Circle of Blue

Courtesy Circle of Blue

Microcystis is a type of algae that’s been going wild in recent years. If consumed, it affects liver function and causes diarrhea or worse. You can’t get rid of it by boiling; that even makes it more toxic. Even skin contact can be harmful, causing burning and rashes. Some people are even warned not to wash their hands under the tap.

And that’s just the people. The algae-choked water can also kill livestock and pets, not to mention the thousands of species of animals that rely on the lake habitat. And in the lake, the algal blooms result in enormous “dead zones,” where bacteria, feeding on dying algae, deplete all the oxygen in the water, killing all fish and other marine life.

Oh goodness! Another random freak event besetting the good American people?

Cytocystis algae make water toxic

Microcystis algae makes water toxic. Courtesy Tom Archer

Almost certainly not. Experts tell us that this is caused by two principal factors. The first is runoff of chemical fertilizers from Midwest corn and soybean fields, and wastewater from sewage treatment plants. But climate change is making it much worse, according to scientists from Oregon and North Carolina: Microcystis bacteria thrive in warm weather and high CO2 concentrations; and today’s increasingly torrential rainstorms wash more farm fertilizers and city sewer runoff into the lake, fueling the algae’s growth.

So in our impaired natural systems, microcystis water poisoning looks to be the plague-du-jour. Sure, it’s only a half million people losing their clean water, and by sometime in September or October, the algae should be gone for the season. But these almost-daily plagues could well be the groaning of a global immune system that has been severely damaged by our abuse and neglect.

We’ve heard that word – groaning – before, haven’t we? St. Paul wrote it almost two thousand years ago: “The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). I don’t know how things sounded like in Paul’s day, but the groaning is getting pretty loud in ours. Isn’t it maybe time to ask whether we need to change the way we’re treating the Creation?

Because what we’re doing to it is not fair.