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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Are we really heading for a coal-free power future in the U.S. or is this just an environmental pipe dream? -- Jack Summa, Boston, MA

Far from just an environmental pipedream, the coal industry in the U.S. and around the world is in the midst of a major downswing. In 2011, coal dropped below 40 percent of total U.S. energy generation for the first time since the late 1970s, while in 2015 coal accounted for only 33 percent. And given the influx of cheap natural gas and the ascendance of renewable energy sources—not to mention recent coal mine safety lapses with tragic consequences—coal might not be able to mount a comeback.

“Technological advances have made natural gas, wind and solar—and efficiency—increasingly competitive,” reports John Brinkley in Sierra Magazine. “The once-robust overseas demand for coal is disappearing.”

Brinkley adds that a decade of sustained public advocacy for clean air and clean energy has left coal out in the dark. The Obama administration’s landmark Clean Power Plan that forces big coal fired power plants to clean up their acts dramatically or shut down has been one major factor in coal’s slide, while the Paris climate accord has sped up the process even more by taking a huge bite out of potential U.S. coal exports.

Over just the last five years, fully one-third of U.S. coal plants, some 232 different facilities, have been closed or scheduled for imminent retirement. Plans for another 184 new coal-fired plants have been shuttered—activists claim credit but the development of new technologies that make harvesting natural gas that much cheaper may have more to do with coal’s death knell. For the first time in 200 years, no new coal plants are on the drawing board in the U.S.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which collects data and reports on energy statistics for the federal government, some 13,000 megawatts of coal power went offline in 2015 as a result of coal plant retirements, while wind energy added 8,600 megawatts and solar tacked on another 7,300 megawatts. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign reports that coal’s downswing is just beginning, with another 50,000 megawatts of coal power predicted to go offline by 2030.

And the trend isn’t stopping at the border. “Many countries that used to be reliable customers for U.S. coal just aren't into it anymore, partly because of last year's successful UN climate change conference in Paris,” reports Brinkley. Even before the Paris agreement, China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, had been scaling back production and imports drastically in efforts to clean up urban air pollution and reduce its carbon footprint. In 2015, China cut imports of U.S. coal some 86.5 percent from 1.7 million tons to only 229,000.

Of course, coal is still big business in the U.S. and beyond, and it isn’t going away overnight. But how long it can stick around as a viable contender for Americans’ energy dollars is anybody’s guess. “The trajectory for the coal industry is clear, but the timeline is not,” sums up Brinkley.

CONTACTS: Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal, www.content.sierraclub.org/coal; Energy Information Administration, www.eia.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: Have environmentalists started using Virtual Reality (VR) to further their cause?
  -- Benjamin Pine, Forest Hills, NY

Virtual Reality (VR) is no doubt the hottest thing in electronics and entertainment today, with “immersive” 360-degree experiences increasingly available via the click of a mouse or tap of a screen. And while it’s hardly a replacement for getting out into nature and experiencing life itself, environmental advocates are starting to use VR as a tool to help everyday people appreciate the natural world around them and the environmental challenges we face as global citizens.

One of this trend’s leading lights is Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), which works to “design, test and distribute virtual reality interventions that teach the concept of empathy.”

“Virtual reality can give everyone, regardless of where they live, the kind of experience needed to generate the urgency required to prevent environmental calamity,” Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson told Yale Environment 360. “One of the greatest challenges to staving off irrevocable climate change isn't simply getting buy-in from skeptical politicians—it’s getting people to visualize how driving a gas-guzzling car or living in an energy inefficient home is contributing to a problem that may only manifest itself completely in future decades.” Earlier this year the lab unveiled a short VR documentary and interactive VR game to help explain ocean acidification, a slow-motion and hard-to-explain process whereby excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in the ocean, upping acidity levels and altering marine habitats accordingly.

Google Expeditions, a VR educational program from the Internet giant, has shared sections of VHIL’s ocean acidification documentary with over a million school children around the world as part of its beta release, and will likely reach many more as the program is rolled out to new audiences in coming months.

One of VHIL’s earlier experiments asked participants to either read a description of the experience of cutting down a tree, or to chop down a virtual tree using VR. “In following tests, those that took part in the VR simulation reduced their usage of paper products by 20 percent in comparison to those who did not,” reports the Triple Pundit blog. “In another experiment, test subjects were asked to virtually eat coal while bathing in order to fully understand the amount of resources they require to enjoy a hot shower.”

Yale Environment 360 reports that VR is also now being used more often in academic circles and to support policy initiatives, such as to create 3D representations of pollution or other human impacts.

Not to be outdone, famed nature filmmaker David Attenborough has kicked off a new series of VR nature films by documenting a recent dive expedition into Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in VR. Attenborough hopes to spark interest in protecting nature and wildlife by producing and distributing VR experiences that entertain and educate viewers through immersing them in some of the world’s most iconic environments. 
 
Given the popularity of VR and the increasingly lower costs of producing content, we can expect to see many more immersive experiences to stir up enthusiasm for reducing our environmental impact and protecting vanishing nature and wildlife.

CONTACTS: VHIL, vhil.stanford.edu; Yale Environment 360, e360.yale.edu; Triple Pundit, www.triplepundit.com.

Dear EarthTalk: I find it hard to believe that Flint, Michigan is the only city or town in the U.S. with lead contamination of its water system. Has anyone looked at where else this could be a problem? -- Jason K., Clearwater, FL

A new analysis of data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 18 million Americans live in communities where water systems contain unsafe levels of lead. In “What’s In Your Water: Flint & Beyond,” NRDC reports that 5,300 different water systems across the country either shirked responsibilities to treat their water supplies to reduce lead levels, failed to monitor water supplies for lead, or neglected to report unsafe lead levels to the public or regulators. “These violations were recorded because the systems were not doing everything that they are required to do to protect the public from lead issues,” added NRDC.

“Imagine a cop sitting, watching people run stop signs, and speed at 90 miles per hour in small communities and still doing absolutely nothing about it—knowing the people who are violating the law…” said Erik Olson, NRDC’s health program director. “That's unfortunately what we have now.”

Even more surprising to NRDC is the fact that Flint didn’t even show up as having violations for lead in the EPA’s database, illustrating “the serious problem of underreporting and gaming of the system by some water supplies to avoid finding lead problems, suggesting that our lead crisis could be even bigger.”

Of course, Flint is far from the only metropolitan area with contaminated water supplies. Researchers believe thousands of water supplies across the country have been “gaming” the system for decades, with the EPA turning a blind eye to the situation.

“Cheating became something you didn't even hide,” Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech researcher credited with exposing water supply management issues in Washington DC and later Flint, recently told CNN. Some of the most common “bad practices” by water supply managers include testing only homes that are unlikely to have high levels of lead, asking residents to “pre-flush” their taps, and taking water samples slowly to reduce lead levels.

For its part, the EPA says that individual states are responsible for the majority of drinking water enforcement actions and should continue to be “the first line of oversight” of drinking water systems. The agency adds that “many of the drinking water systems that NRDC cites in its analysis are already working to resolve past violations and return to compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

So what’s to be done? According to NRDC, fixing Flint—with both emergency relief and long-term infrastructure and systemic improvements—should be priority #1. Beyond Flint, NRDC says that the EPA should be taking a hard look at the rest of the country’s water infrastructure, removing lead service lines and fixing other water problems, especially in underserved communities.

To find out if your community is affected, check out NRDC’s interactive map showing which communities’ water systems were in violation of the EPA’s “lead action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb) and which have failed to monitor or report on lead levels.

CONTACTS: NRDC’s “What’s In Your Water: Flint & Beyond,” www.nrdc.org/resources/whats-your-water-flint-and-beyond; EPA, www.epa.gov.


Dear EarthTalk: Why do environmentalists consider Hawaii “ground zero” in the fight against genetically engineered crops? -- Michael Van, Poughkeepsie, NY
 
Most of us think of beaches, surfing and luaus when we think of Hawaii. But the constantly warm and moist climate actually provides some of the most productive land in the world with a never-ending growing season. As a result, Hawaii has become a major player in commercial agriculture, and is frequently used to test new farming techniques.

Large agricultural companies moved in on this productivity by using Hawaii for trials of new genetically engineered (GE) crops. Monsanto and DOW Chemical both produce huge numbers of genetically modified seeds in Hawaii for distribution around the world. Some of Hawaii’s more common GE crops include corn, sugarcane, and papaya, among others.

But not everyone appreciates how widespread GE crops are in Hawaii. Many local Hawaiians are upset that their homeland, otherwise a natural paradise, is used for such risky activities. Most GE crops are designed to resist intensive chemical pesticides that kill most other plants. Around the state, vulnerable populations including kids and the elderly have suffered the effects of this type of chemical exposure resulting from the over-spraying of pesticides.

These issues aren’t unique to Hawaii. People all over the world are increasingly wary of GE products, even as the chemical companies insist they are safe. However, the information on long-term effects is still inconclusive. Consumers want to know what’s in their purchases. Chemical companies are denying them this right by refusing to label those products containing genetically modified ingredients.

Unfortunately, the state of Hawaii has hesitated to enact any legislation banning some of their most lucrative business ventures. Responsibility has fallen to the counties. Three Hawaiian counties initiated ordinances and moratoriums against additional GE crops and pesticide use in 2014. However, large companies like Monsanto and Syngenta sued to prevent these measures from being implemented, temporarily postponing these bans. While they did win their initial suit in late 2014, the counties have appealed the decision through the federal 9th circuit court of appeals in a trial which started this past June. The cases hinge on the concept of preemption, i.e. does the county legislation conflict with state rulings? The counties believe that the state’s acceptance of genetically engineered products does not mean that the counties cannot implement their own harsher regulations.

Whichever way the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decides will set an important precedent. If the court decides the federal law allowing GE products preempts the rights of the Hawaiian counties, any future GE bans would likely experience a similar ruling. However, the converse is also true. The judge allowing the counties to construct their own regulations regarding genetic engineering would pave the way for other counties and states to do the same. The cases will hopefully be resolved before the end of 2016. Safe to say, Hawaiians, chemical and agricultural companies and the rest of the nation will be watching. 

CONTACTS: DOW Chemical, www.dow.com; Monsanto, www.monsanto.com; Syngenta, www.syngenta.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org  For questions: question@earthtalk.org


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