Wind turbines DON’T lower property values – Gasp!

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You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan said. But whether or not it’s a good idea to build wind turbines to harness wind energy has been a matter of some debate in communities throughout the country and world.

One of the main arguments used by those who oppose the turbines is that they decrease property and home values. But a new study effectively puts that argument to rest.

The study, published this month, looked at more than 50,000 home and property sales near 67 wind facilities in nine U.S. states and found no average decrease in home properties when windmills were built nearby. Study author Ben Hoen, a policy researcher…at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said it’s the second large-scale study he’s been involved with that’s shown such a result.

“Regardless of the home’s model and construction, regardless of how we slice the data set, we still ended up with the same result: We cannot find evidence of an impact that turbines have on nearby property values,” Hoen said…

Most windmills aren’t placed in densely populated areas, however. In this case, the argument can become a matter of aesthetics, with some claiming they are eyesores. But many also see them as beautiful kinetic sculptures, John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told LiveSience.

The fact that windmills usually don’t affect home prices suggests that the other concerns (annoyance, potential health effects, etc.) aren’t widespread enough to have an economic impact, Hoen said. Or widespread enough to detract from their environmental upside.

Studies have shown, however, that windmills may in some instances have significant impacts on birds and bats. Usually, though, “there are ways to find proper sites for wind farms to avoid, minimize or compensate for the impact it might have on wildlife,” Rogers said.

Some of the new coastal offshore wind farms have become tourist attractions. Of course, the answer to that from some Luddites is that “those people” haven’t good taste. Uh-huh.

The internet is good for the planet – and let’s keep it that way

Is the net effect of the internet on the Earth’s environment positive or negative?

That’s the million dollar question that a group of about 100 people, including Vice President Al Gore and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, tackled at a Google event this week. It’s also the question that I’ve spent about six years thinking about as I’ve written about the evolution of cleantech innovation and how digital technologies can drive efficiency.

The rub of the internet is that it is a collection of data centers filled with computing gear, networks that weave across continents, and a growing amount of battery-powered devices; all of these things need energy to operate. The disturbing part is that the energy consumption of the internet will only grow as the population hits 9 billion in 2050, and all of these people get connected to the internet.

But on the flip side of that energy suck is the idea that the internet can make processes and systems significantly more energy efficient, from transportation to shopping to the electricity network itself. Sustainability wonks call that dematerialization, or replacing atoms with bits. A study called Climate 2020 found that information and communications technology could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors of the economy, below business-as-usual growth, by 15 percent.

Other than that seminal report, there’s been a trickle of research that has reached conclusions along the lines of the notion that buying digital music online is a lot more energy efficient than driving to the store and buying a CD. Data center energy guru Jonathan Koomey, who’s a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance and Stanford University, has led a bunch of this research, particularly around how the trend toward cloud computing has increased the energy efficiency of the internet. The web sharing economy is another much talked about trend that is indirectly making the use of goods (like cars and apartments) more efficient…

Then there’s the soft effects of the internet on the planet that don’t have to do with energy consumption at all. The high level visionary speakers — both Gore and Schmidt — focused more on the internet’s ability to open up access to information and organize people, which could be used for environmental, and climate-fighting, causes. Gore said that the digital revolution and the explosion of data are some of the most powerful tools that can be used to help solve the climate crisis. It’s hard to quantify such soft effects, but they could still be very powerful.

The main issue now will be as internet access grows, mobile phones connected to the web proliferate and internet companies build ever more data centers, how does the industry maintain sustainable growth so that the equation doesn’t flip, and so that the internet doesn’t start to have a negative effect on the environment? There’s going to be 9 billion people on the planet by 2050 that could have a handful of connected devices each, and some of them will be spending their lives immersed in digital data 24/7…

Going forward, I’d like to see a hub grow at a university or research center that can act as a collection point to draw together this type of research, and also to help validate it. I’d also like to see more mainstream attention on this topic of the intersection of the Internet and the environment. At the Google event, it was invite-only and had about 100 people that had been thinking about these topics for years. This topic is important enough that is needs more mainstream attention and discussion.

This is why Katie Fehrenbacher is one of the core attractions at GigaOm. Though best known as an analyst and writer on subjects environmental, she has sufficient command of social and scientific matters to bring all the pieces together.

Or in this case, ask the right questions about how to bring them together.

Brazil’s Rousseff signs new forest law opposed by farm lobby

Brazil enacted a controversial law on Thursday meant to protect forests and force farmers to replant trees on scattered swathes of illegally cleared land totaling an area roughly the size of Italy.

The law, signed by President Dilma Rousseff, overhauls the “forest code,” a set of laws unchanged for decades that dictates the minimum percentage and type of woodland that farmers, timber companies and others must leave intact on their properties.

The new code, following years of tense negotiations with Brazil’s powerful farm lobby, is considered necessary to help establish clearer rules for the ranchers, soy growers and other producers who pushed into the Amazon rainforest and other sensitive climes in recent decades, enabling Brazil to become one of the world’s biggest exporters of food…

But the lobby, which fought to keep the law lenient, now says it could challenge the final version in court after Rousseff late Wednesday vetoed a handful of congressional changes.

Environmentalists have opposed the bill because it reduces the total forest area many farmers are required to keep intact. Many critics also believe the law does too little to punish those who have conducted illegal clearing in the past…

Brazil is a global commodity powerhouse and a major producer of soy, corn, sugar, coffee, oranges, cotton and beef. Illegal land clearance has enabled cattle ranchers and producers of soy, the top export crop, to expand into the Amazon basin.

The rate of deforestation has slowed in recent years because of tougher law enforcement and the use of satellite imagery to track areas with the most troubling rates of clearcutting.

But environmentalists fear that trend could reverse as Rousseff dismantles longstanding environmental policies in a push to further develop the economy, which began to slow last year after nearly a decade of steady growth.

RTFA for the details. A lot of this sounds just like another day in the life of our American Congress. Lobbyists buy and sell our elected representatives. Passing laws that should benefit the lives of citizens and future generations is like an episode from one of our wars. Corporate lobbyists, profiteers present themselves as defenders of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – simply aiding poor little mom-and-pop farms.

I wonder when they’re going to discover Clean Coal?

Modern Meadow and their plans for producing lab-grown leather

For many people, meat and leather are an ethical and environmental nightmare, causing misery to billions of animals and wreaking havoc on the planet’s ecosystems. While mankind is unlikely to turn entirely vegan in the next generation, a more humane and cleaner type of leather could become available in the near future (and meat a few years later) thanks to the development of an in-vitro version of the material being developed by Modern Meadow.

The company’s founder and CEO Andras Forgacs recently revealed to Txchnologist, a GE-sponsored technology online magazine, that Modern Meadow has focused on leather because it is a simpler structure than meat, although he’s also working on the latter (and he’s not alone there)…

In reality, the process would not be completely animal-free, since it would start with a puncture biopsy of an animal. The extracted cells would be isolated and possibly genetically modified (not for meat, though). They would then be reproduced by the billions in a bioreactor and centrifuged to eliminate the agent that supports cell growth. Next, they would be lumped together to create aggregated spheres of cells, which would be then layered and fused together in a process called bioassembly.

The layered and fused cells would subsequently be placed in a bioreactor to mature, where they would be fed for a few weeks. The skin tissue would evolve into hide, and muscle and fat would be harvested for food. Here comes the good news for environmentalists: because the hide would not have hair or a tough outer skin, the tanning process would be shorter and require fewer chemicals…

Livestock accounts for nearly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, besides polluting waterways, causing soil erosion and being the main driver of deforestation of the Amazon forest, not to mention the immense suffering it causes to animals. Leather is also the source of massive pollution by chemicals, especially in India, and the production cycle involves a great deal of waste.

Global demand for meat is expected to double by 2050 and considering that currently we farm, feed, transport and slaughter around 70 billion land animals per year, the topic has gained momentum amongst the international environmental community. True, in-vitro meat and leather have an ecological footprint as well, but it’s insignificant compared with the devastation caused by livestock. And there’s no slaughtering involved.

The decades I’ve lived in the American Southwest have mostly been spent in regions differentiated into two categories: areas where the landscape has been negatively affected by grazing and overgrazing – and areas where the landscape has been to all intents and purposes destroyed by overgrazing.

There is a fair piece of terrain in New Mexico absent the ravages of cattle grazing and the ideology of those who profit from that traditional business. It is a constant political battle trying to maintain and defend that land.

Harper gets pompous about getting Canadian oil to China


I’ll build the tubes myself – it can’t be harder than Legos

As the United States continues to play political Ping-Pong with the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, Canadian officials and companies are desperately seeking alternatives to get the country’s nearly 200 billion barrels in oil reserves — almost equal to that of Saudi Arabia — to market from landlocked Alberta…

To hasten development of new export routes, the Conservative government is streamlining permit processes by accelerating scheduled hearings and limiting public comment. The government has also threatened to revoke the charitable status of environmental groups that are challenging the projects. And Public Safety Canada, the equivalent of the United States Department of Homeland Security, has classified environmentalists as a potential source of domestic terrorism, adding them to a list that includes white supremacists.

Canadian Conservatives have learned their lessons well from the Bush/Rove/Cheney cabal.

After President Obama refused to grant a permit for Keystone XL in January, Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister…said Canada would redirect oil that had been destined for Gulf Coast refineries to other countries, particularly China…

Which is where the US owners of the Gulf Coast refineries intended to sell the oil, anyway.

Three new pipeline network proposals — two that call for heading west and the other east — have been put forward…The new westward pipelines would carry more oil than Keystone XL would. But even with aggressive government backing, creating new pipelines may prove as difficult in Canada as it has been in the United States, though for different reasons.

Indigenous groups must be consulted if new pipelines cross their land. To gain coastal access, pipeline companies must also navigate the politics of some of the most environmentally conscious Canadian provinces, British Columbia and Quebec, where public opinion tends to be against both pipelines and further fossil fuel development…

In Canada, environmental groups and opposition politicians say Mr. Harper’s government is trampling on civil liberties and due process in its rush to get bitumen to market….Under Canadian law, aboriginal groups must be consulted about pipeline projects that cross their lands. Enbridge has offered many tribes a 10 percent stake in its westward pipeline project; Graham White, an Enbridge spokesman, said about half have accepted…

None of these proposals, Canadian or American, provide for more than new jobs building the pipelines. Which end when construction is complete.

Looks like Canadians might try to build a refinery to get the goo to useful consistency and composition – to export to China. Especially since China is also invested in the oil sands. The Oil Patch Boys in America want to get the sauce down to the Gulf Coast to refineries which will do the same – including shipping it to China after processing.

At the moment, we’re already producing more oil domestically than any time in the last 12 years – sufficient to put us swapping forth-and-back with Russia every month as the world’s largest exporter of petroleum products. So, please, don’t kid yourself into thinking any of this will make a difference in gasoline prices at your neighborhood filling station.

Love motels rescue UN environment summit shortage of beds


A place to relax after a hard day of diplomacy

Rio de Janeiro motel owner Secundino Lema is gearing up for a different kind of guest in June when thousands of visitors will be in his city to discuss the future of the planet.

The erotic chairs that usually grace the rooms in his three establishments, Hawaii, Skorpios and Serramar are going. But the mirrors on the ceiling and jacuzzis are staying.

Mr Lema, along with other owners of Rio’s 320 “love hotels”, is stepping in to help the authorities fill a huge need in the Brazilian city – the chronic lack of accommodation.

It is estimated that some 50,000 people, including world leaders, will be in Rio de Janeiro for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, but there are only 30,000 rooms available in what might be termed more conventional hotels…

He agreed to charge $160 a night, much less than what is now being asked by the few hotels still with rooms available. It is also less than he would expect to earn from the couples who usually pay to rent his rooms for periods of four, six or 12 hours.

Mr Lema, who says he is doing this “for the city”, also agreed with the authorities that he would not offer rooms by the hour while the UN summit was on. That means turning down the 2,000 guests he would normally put up in his 170 bedrooms.

It will be awkward not being able to receive our usual clients during this period, but I hope they understand the need to host people from abroad,” Mr Lema said.

The sole exception to the motel owners’ response to civic need is the day before the conference begins – Dia dos Namorados or Lovers’ Day is an annual tradition that brings love motel occupancy to a peak.

A brief huzzah for civic good coming from a part of the business community rarely recognized for positive contributions by the political establishment of any country.

Uranium Mines remain unsafe, untouched and unclean throughout the Navajo Nation


An abandoned uranium mine in the Navajo Nation

In the summer of 2010, a Navajo cattle rancher named Larry Gordy stumbled upon an abandoned uranium mine in the middle of his grazing land and figured he had better call in the feds. Engineers from the Environmental Protection Agency arrived a few months later, Geiger counters in hand, and found radioactivity levels that buried the needles on their equipment.

The abandoned mine here, about 60 miles east of the Grand Canyon, joins the list of hundreds of such sites identified across the 27,000 square miles of Navajo territory in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico that are the legacy of shoddy mining practices and federal neglect. From the 1940s through the 1980s, the mines supplied critical materials to the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

For years, unsuspecting Navajos inhaled radioactive dust and drank contaminated well water. Many of them became sick with cancer and other diseases…

The E.P.A. filed a report on the rancher’s find early last year and pledged to continue its environmental review. But there are still no warning signs or fencing around the secluded and decaying site…

“If this level of radioactivity were found in a middle-class suburb, the response would be immediate and aggressive,” said Doug Brugge, a public health professor at Tufts University medical school and an expert on uranium. “The site is remote, but there are obviously people spending time on it. Don’t they deserve some concern?”

Navajo advocates, scientists and politicians are asking the same question.

The discovery came in the midst of the largest federal effort to date to clean up uranium mines on the vast Indian reservation. A hearing in 2007 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform led to a multiagency effort to assess and clean up hundreds of structures on the reservation through a five-year plan that ends this year.

Yet while some mines have been “surgically scraped” of contamination and are impressive showpieces for the E.P.A., others, like the Cameron site, are still contaminated. Officials at the E.P.A. and the Department of Energy attribute the delay to the complexity of prioritizing mine sites. Some say it is also about politics and money.

“The government can’t afford it; that’s a big reason why it hasn’t stepped in and done more,” said Bob Darr, a spokesman for the Department of Energy…

For some Navajos, the uranium contamination is all of a piece with their fraught relationship with the federal government.

They’re making excuses, and they’ve always made excuses,” Ms. Lucy Knorr said. “The government should have had a law in place that told these mining companies: you clean up your mess when you leave.”

Even if the law was in place, the history of dealings between the US government and any of the Indian nations isn’t worthy of a well-contrived lie. The government cares as little as do the mining companies for the dangers left behind on Indian land.

Anyone who’s ever worked and lived in the medical community in the Navajo Nation knows of Navajo neuropathy. A generational illness that has distorted the lives of the children of uranium miners with genetically-distorted nervous systems. A result of parents who worked the mines.

Does anyone believe the radioactive waste, the radioactive sites remaining are less important to the health of the First Nations than, say, a couple extra aircraft carriers or a bombing wing dedicated to preserving the income of oil companies in the Middle East?

Our government is represented by at least as many hypocrites as the mining industry. In truth, I’m not certain I could tell them apart. They all look – and sound – the same to me.

UK schoolchildren adept with iPhone — can’t tie their shoelaces

Future tree

British schoolchildren are more confident using a DVD player or iPhone than tying their shoelaces, research claims

As many as 45 per cent of children aged between five and 13 can’t tie their shoe laces – but 67 per cent can work a DVD player, according to a poll. The study showed a large proportion can log on to the internet, play on computer games, use an iPhone or iPad and work satellite television services like Sky Plus.

But 65 per cent can’t make a cup of tea, while 81 per cent can’t read a map and 87 per cent wouldn’t be able to repair a bicycle puncture…

And when asked if they cared about the environment a third said ‘no’ – with half of these saying it was because ‘in the future we’ll be able to live in space.”

Survival expert Ray Mears said he was shocked by the findings, from electricity provider npower. He added: “I can’t believe our young people are so ill-equipped when it comes to practical skills…

“Simple skills like putting up a tent can teach you important lessons that can’t be learnt without doing them yourself. “You learn how to work in a team and communicate with your peers as well as how to work under pressure and use logic. Most importantly, you also learn how to look after yourself and know your strengths…”

Working with Mr Mears, the company hopes to inject a passion for the great outdoors back in to the heart of the country’s children.

Clare McDougall, from npower, said: “These figures show that there has never been a better time to teach our young people some great new skills. “We really believe that if young people spend more time outdoors they will learn to love and respect the environment and they’ll want to preserve it for future generations.”

RTFA for the top 10 things British kids can do – and can’t do.

Reflect upon your own children, kids in your neighborhood. How well do they stack up?

In Louisiana, farming family contests a battle against two branches of the same oil giant

It began as a landlord-tenant dispute, Louisiana style.

The tenant was Texaco; the landlord the Broussard family, heirs of a Cajun rancher, who claimed that Texaco’s operation of a gas plant on its property had left the land contaminated. The lawsuit, of a kind not all that rare in these industry-heavy parts, had dragged on so long that 13 of the heirs had died.

But it took a sudden and bitter turn in recent months, when another company — a company that, like Texaco, is a subsidiary of Chevron — sued to condemn most of the disputed land and expropriate it, arguing that it was acting in the national interest…

The Chevron subsidiary that sued to take the land, Sabine Pipe Line, had quietly operated a pipeline hub across the road for nearly 60 years. In June, Sabine sent a letter to the family, saying the 14-year legal fight with Texaco was threatening the continued operation of one of the most important natural gas pipeline hubs in the country. The family could agree to sell the land, the letter said, or be forced to do so.

The Broussards say the timing of the letter and the scope of the demand are more than a little curious. They contend that Sabine’s actions are not to protect any pipeline, but are simply a pretext to shield Chevron from millions in environmental damages…

Even though some members of the family worked on the property — some still do — they have never entirely been aware of what went on there. They knew that there were some places in the pasture where grass did not grow, and that pipelines crossed their land so thickly that Texaco simply paid them not to graze cattle in certain areas.

But it was not until a legal argument broke out between Texaco and another company working at the site that the family learned that one of the wells had blown out in 1997…

In a lawsuit, the Broussards argued that the contamination was so bad that Texaco had breached the lease and that they would try to kick the company off the property unless it was cleaned to their standards.

Then, another subsidiary shows up to throw them off their land.

Under the arcane laws governing mineral rights, living as landowners in a state where even the local dog-catcher can get oil company money to run for office – the Broussard family will have to fight for their rights in a court system that doesn’t consider the common law of the United States of America as relevant.