fieldnotes

energy policy
Operation Self-Reliance

Since September 11, Democrats and Republicans alike have called for a national energy plan that reduces America's dependence on foreign oil. "Without energy security, you can't have national security," Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham warned Congress last fall, while pushing the Bush administration's proposal to open Alaska's pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The controversial initiative to drill ANWR is the centerpiece of a Bush energy plan that seeks to ramp up domestic production of oil, coal, and natural gas.

But many energy experts assert that self-sufficiency would be better achieved by making cars more fuel-efficient and by investing in conservation-minded renewable sources of energy, such as wind, solar, and geothermal. A study released in October by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimates that if clean-energy policies were adopted today, by 2020 the use of natural gas would drop by 31 percent and coal by nearly 60 percent--compared with government projections for energy requirements during this period. In addition, if these policies were adopted, the United States would save more oil in 18 years than it could tap from ANWR in 60 years. "These options clearly do far more for energy security than drilling in the Arctic Refuge," says Alan Nogee, a coauthor of the UCS study and director of the group's Clean Energy Program.

Taking on the Bush administration and congressional Republicans, Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT), chairman of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, has proposed legislation that emphasizes energy efficiency and conservation initiatives. Nogee contends that Jeffords's bill, which is called the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Investment Act, would save consumers as much as $70 billion by 2020. But the Bush administration has thrown its support behind an energy plan, already passed by the House of Representatives, that a recent editorial in The New York Times called "an alarmingly one-sided bill that contained $27 billion in subsidies for traditional energy producers and only $6 billion for conservation."

Such criticism hasn't deterred many members of Congress, predominantly Republicans, from sharpening their drill bits. Nor are these members above playing the terrorism card to trump any objections. "At a time when our national security is threatened, I don't believe it is appropriate for the United States to be in a position of begging Middle Eastern countries for energy," says Senator Larry Craig (R-ID). The reality, however, is that less than one-quarter of America's oil is imported from the Persian Gulf; the rest of it comes primarily from Canada, Venezuela, Mexico, and Nigeria. Moreover, the United States possesses a mere 3 percent of the world's known oil reserves, so drilling in places like ANWR doesn't exactly ensure long-term energy self-reliance.

Many Democrats, including Senator John Kerry (D-MA), are bristling at Craig's argument. "I believe it is a false patriotism that tries to suggest to us that--as a matter of national security, for energy independence and economic growth--we should drill in the pristine wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Kerry says.

--Keith Kloor

 

Environmental Law
Bearing Proof

Since its creation three decades ago, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been hailed by biologists as a lifeline for thousands of imperiled animals and plants. In recent years, however, a debate over the controversial act's implementation and success rate has fueled calls by some longtime critics that it be substantially weakened. Now, in an upcoming issue of the scientific journal Conservation Biology, two ecologists have supported the act by providing concrete evidence that the Yellowstone grizzly bear owes its survival to this landmark law.

The peer-reviewed report, written by David Mattson, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist, and Troy Merrill, an independent researcher, concludes that the estimated 400 to 600 grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem would not be there today if not for the bear's listing under the Endangered Species Act a quarter-century ago. Using a sophisticated computer model, the two scientists compared the grizzly's range and population trends before and after federal safeguards were put in place. They found that without the ESA's protection--which spawned changes in land management--the grizzly would have a "one in quadrillion chance" of still existing as a viable population. "This research provides an essential historical context and highlights the modern necessity of the act," says Tim Clark, a conservation biologist at Yale University.

Back in 1975, though, when the bear was put on the ESA's growing list of federally threatened or endangered species, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists feared the worst for Yellowstone's rapidly declining grizzly population. (Currently, there are 1,807 species on the list.) Habitat destruction and hunting had plunged the bear's population to fewer than 200 individuals in the Yellowstone ecosystem. "The future looked bleak," says Chuck Schwartz, leader of the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.

Of course, now that the bear is finally on the rebound, the governors of three western states--Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho--are angling to have it pulled off the list of federally protected species. In addition, Wyoming officials are looking to again allow sport hunting of the big bears.

Not surprisingly, many biologists argue taking the opposite approach. "This new research makes a compelling case that we should not back off," says Clark, "but be doubly vigilant."

--Todd Wilkinson

 

dumb cars

chart

Today the average American-driven vehicle is bigger, faster, and roomier than ever. But all that extra power and comfort comes at a price: the worst fuel economy in 21 years, down to 20.4 miles per gallon, according to a recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency. (Predictably, SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks are the worst culprits, clocking in at 17.3 mpg in 2001.) This slump in efficiency does not come from a lack of technology, however. If automakers would increase fuel economy by just three miles per gallon, U.S. drivers could reduce the country's reliance on foreign oil by a million barrels a day, save themselves as much as $25 billion a year in fuel costs, and cut CO2 emissions by 140 metric tons a year.

--Shervin Hess

 

Biodiversity
Earth's Catalogue

Move over, Lewis and Clark. The All Species Inventory, a newly launched initiative to document every living species on earth, may go down as the greatest survey of all time. Led by an all-star cast of prominent scientists and media barons, including biodiversity champion E.O. Wilson and Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired magazine, the grand venture is expected to cost between $3 billion and $5 billion and take 25 years to complete.

"Now is the time for this project," says biologist Brian Boom, who is heading up the survey. "Many species are becoming extinct from habitat destruction, and we have the technology to make this [survey] happen." Scientists guess that there are anywhere from 3 million to 100 million species left to record on earth, including aquatic species, plants, and microscopic life.

The survey, whose supporters see it as both a nexus of species data and a guiding hand for new research, is expected to attract biologists and even citizen scientists around the world to its cause. Much of the effort will be carried out with cutting-edge technology: remote viewers to scan ocean depths, electron microscopes to scrutinize insects, and GPS receivers to pinpoint the locations of undiscovered species.

Project leaders will post new species on the survey's web site as they are discovered. In addition, several international environmental groups, including Conservation International, have pledged to work closely with the project to help ensure that the newly discovered species are protected.

"This project will provide a true encyclopedia of life," says Wilson. "And it will be one of the great adventures of science in this century."

--Ryan George

Profile
Eco-Provocateur

His friends call him a heretic, his colleagues give him the cold shoulder, and at a recent speaking appearance in England, protesters threw a pie in his face. But Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish scientist, former member of Greenpeace, and author of the controversial new book The Skeptical Environmentalist, is not backing down. "You have to call the shots as you see them," says the 37-year-old professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus, in Denmark. An overnight media darling, Lomborg has barnstormed U.S. and European colleges and has appeared on Nightline and Politically Incorrect.

Of course, in calling every major environmental problem grossly exaggerated--as Lomborg does in his book--he might as well have drawn a bull's-eye on his forehead. "Acid rain does not kill the forests," he writes, "and the air and water around us are becoming less and less polluted." Marine ecosystems aren't collapsing, and forests aren't shrinking, he insists. As for species, they're not dying off in alarming numbers, after all.

To inoculate himself against critics, the self-described "data-head" offers nearly 3,000 footnotes based mostly on statistics from the United Nations and other world organizations. But experts accuse Lomborg of selectively mixing and matching his numbers to build a phony case. "It's sloppy scholarship and full of inaccuracies," says Anthony Janetos, senior vice-president of the World Resources Institute. Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Columbia University, says, "The book reads like a collection of term papers prepared the night before they were due."

Lomborg's adversaries take particular exception to his claim that only 0.7 percent of species will become extinct in the next 50 years, and to his general downplaying of extinction as a legitimate concern. In a recently issued joint statement, Pimm and three other top conservation biologists--Harvard University's E.O. Wilson, Jeff Harvey of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, and Thomas Lovejoy of the World Bank--charge Lomborg with misrepresenting the data on biodiversity loss. They take special offense at his 0.7 percent figure, saying that it "is strikingly discordant with the 10 percent to 40 percent of well-known species that teeter on the brink of extinction . . . and that ranges of current extinctions are 100 to 10,000 times the pre-human level."

Meanwhile, angry colleagues at his university have posted their own critiques on the political science department's web site (www.au.dk/~cesamat/). And English environmentalists have a web site to rebut what they describe as his "greenwashing" of environmental issues.

Lomborg is taking all the heat in stride but insists he is being miscast as an enemy of the environment. "I'm not some free-market demon that wants to dismantle all the things that environmentalism has achieved," he says. "But we only have so much worry to go around, and I would argue that we overworry about the rainforest and underworry about other pressing issues in the world, like the lack of clean drinking water, basic sanitation, and food for the developing world."

Experts aren't buying that argument either. "Lomborg's dichotomy between saving the environment and saving people is false," says Pimm. "Billions of people suffer when forests are cleared and their soils are eroded. All humanity depends on the environment, which, if current actions continue, will impoverish countless generations to come."

--Keith Kloor

 



© 2002  NASI
 

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Weed Eaters With Horns

They may not be as cuddly as Smokey the Bear, but a voracious crew of California goats has become the state's latest fire-prevention tool. Officials at the Sunnyvale Landfill, near San Francisco, recently called on the horned groundskeepers to munch down dry vegetation that had caught fire on several occasions. The city, fed up with using mowers, sought a gentler approach to gardening on the sanctuary-like landfill, which harbors burrowing owls, egrets, and even a young golden eagle. The landfill was fenced off into two-acre sections. The goats were put in the first parcel; then, after several days, the whole operation was shifted to the next weedy plot. "We've got the place open for recreation, and the sight--and smell--of goats on a hillside is much more pleasing than a tractor," says Bill Theyskens, Sunnyvale's environmental engineering coordinator.

--Shervin Hess

 

Swamp Sweetener

For the past 60 years a 500,000-acre sweet spot between Florida's Everglades National Park and Lake Okeechobee has been contaminating the surrounding ecosystem. Half of the nation's sugarcane is produced here, and fertilizer runoff from the cane fields pollutes the fragile marsh. Now a new campaign spearheaded by longtime Everglades champion Mary Barley is urging consumers to "fight sugar with sugar." To this end, the Save Our Everglades Sugar campaign offers a more environmentally responsible product, grown in Texas and Louisiana. And all profits generated by the campaign's brand of organic sugar go directly to Everglades restoration programs. "If consumers are buying our sugar, then that's good," Barley says, "because it's taking money out of the pockets of people destroying the Everglades."

--Shervin Hess

 

Zebra Zapper

In recent years zebra mussels have been one of our most troublesome invasive species, wreaking havoc on U.S. waterways. Now researchers at Purdue University think they have met the challenge: Using a technique that's part hi-fi and part sci-fi, chemistry professor Matthew Ryan has invented a tool that blasts low-frequency electro-magnetic waves at the mollusks with a radio transmitter. The waves weaken the mussel's shell to the point where it can no longer retain nutrients. The death-ray-like weapon is apparently harmless to other marine species, so it's an ideal solution for lakeside industries that have traditionally used poisons and laborious removal techniques to rid their intake pipes of the mussels. Similar technology is currently being used to kill weeds and remove barnacles.

--Shervin Hess