From the early 1970s into the ’90s, Texaco pumped 1.5 billion barrels of oil out of hundreds of wells dug in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest.
The company disposed of billions of gallons of toxic oil waste from each well into nearby waste pits. Most of those pits are still there, mixing chemicals with groundwater and killing fish and wildlife. Birth defects and cancers are now common among the native people.
The damage to the ecosystem has upended the way of life of the region’s six indigenous groups and its farmers.
Now, big oil could be forced to pay for the cleanup and damage its wells are causing. With the help of U.S. attorneys, the indigenous groups and environmental community sued. They are now awaiting what is likely to be a landmark ruling from an Ecuadoran judge who may hold Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001, liable for up to $27 billion in damages.
The case, Aguinda vs. Chevron, is emboldening other indigenous groups around the globe to take on multinational companies that have run roughshod over their lands and livelihoods, and it serves as a warning to other companies that are considering projects that would destroy the environment.
As an energy source, the wind holds a lot of promise. It doesn’t pollute, it doesn’t cause climate change, and it doesn’t use or contaminate water.
But wind has a huge drawback: it is unreliable.
More than two dozen states have mandated renewable energy standards stating that a certain percentage of electricity must be generated by renewable sources like wind, and the nation may soon have a similar RES. But in order to meet electricity demand, power generators will have to be able to predict how much power the wind will generate an hour, a day or a year from now.
Stepping in to meet that need is the evolving technology of wind power forecasting.
As the United States sped along the Information Superhighway through the 1990s, it left its electricity grid in the dust.
Now, energy efficiency has become an imperative, and momentum is building to merge information and power into a smart grid that can promote energy efficiency and savings.
Miami became the one of the largest U.S. cities to embrace that shift last month when it announced it would invest $200 million in smart meters for homes. Boulder, Colo., Austin, Texas, Southern California Edison and Duke Energy Indiana are also planning smart grids or smart metering programs.
The federal government is getting on board, too. President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu regularly talk about a smart grid future – built by U.S. innovators. Congress this year has already invested $4 billion in smart grid technology in the stimulus package alone, and federal agencies are getting to work designing an overhaul of the power system.
Smart grid technology will eventually revolutionize how we generate, distribute and consume energy on both macro and micro levels.
To get there, however, the nation will have to get over some significant technological and institutional hurdles.
Governments around the world are beginning to take action on a newly recognized climate threat that has been right in front of our eyes for decades: the soot that spews from diesel engines and that forms hazy blankets over villages using wood- and dung-burning cook-stoves and areas where forests have been cleared by burning.
Soot, or black carbon, is believed to be responsible for 18 percent of the planet’s warming, an impact that wasn't well understood just two years ago when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report.
“Black carbon is now commonly believed to be the second most important climate forcing agent after carbon dioxide,” says Erika Rosenthal, an international program attorney for Earthjustice.
At a meeting of the Arctic Council today in Norway, the United States, Russia, Canada and other Arctic nations took the first step to begin reducing that danger by establishing a task force that will examine ways to decrease the global production of soot.
While Michigan struggles with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, it’s governor has been putting in a foundation for next generation technology that is beginning to draw green businesses and the promise of thousands of new jobs.
This week, the state announced that a set of new tax breaks totaling $543.5 million had lured four manufacturers of hybrid and electric car batteries.
The four companies will invest $1.7 billion and create nearly 6,700 jobs in Michigan; the state will also help them seek some of the $2 billion in federal stimulus money that has been set aside for advanced battery research.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm had declared in her State of the State address back in February:
“We want the batteries here. We want those electric cars researched, designed and assembled here. And we want other kinds of alternative energy jobs.”
She's getting them. But the competition is also heating up.
A favorite claim of the climate change deniers is to point out that in Medieval times, the Vikings built farms in Greenland and Europe was in a warm spell. That, they claim, is evidence that modern global warming is just natural climate variation.
In the latest issue of the journal Science, scientists put that claim to rest.
Using natural records going back about 1,000 years, the scientists were able to pinpoint causes of Europe's Medieval warm spell, and they can show that the mechanisms responsible for warmer temperatures in Europe then are not causing the warming seen today.
Hiding something in the ground is an impulse known to man and dog alike. So it’s no wonder that humans, having realized that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could warm the planet catastrophically, are looking to bury the greenhouse gas deep underground.
In the last few months, that impulse has become super-charged as a result of accelerating government support around the world for CCS – carbon capture and sequestration – a technology that promises to capture CO2 emissions, inject it deep into porous rock and store it there forever.
In the U.S., the potential of CCS has been seized on as a solution to reducing global warming emissions in pending federal legislation.
Coal supporters are using it as an argument against forcing polluters to start paying for power plant emissions now. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) put it bluntly to Congressional Quarterly: “We want to see coal-fired utilities held harmless until such time as the [carbon capture and sequestration] technology is deployed.”
But conversations with scientists and experts reveal that deploying this technology on a wide scale is still at least two decades away in the best of circumstances.
That means, despite the excitement, CCS can’t be relied on in the near term as a climate policy solution.
It’s not news that the Sierra Club can envision a time when no new coal plants will be built. It is news when the Department of Energy agrees.
The DOE’s Energy Information Administration released its Annual Energy Outlook this week, and it anticipates only about two new coal plants being built between 2013 and 2025.
That projection may even overstate the need – the report did not account for the more than $70 billion in funding from the stimulus package for clean energy and transit and energy efficiency or new climate legislation that will significantly boost the renewable energy sector.
When you take future government action into account, there won’t be a need for even those two new coals plants, says Mark Kresowik of the Sierra Club’s Move Beyond Coal Campaign:
“Even by these very conservative estimates, it’s clear that there is no truth behind the coal industry’s claims that we must have new coal to have a secure energy future. This is more evidence for investors that the future for coal is weak."
Ever since the economic crisis hit, lawmakers and businesses have been paralyzed by the fear that if they try to tackle environmental problems more jobs will be lost.
If they step back and analyze the situation, though, they will discover a very different reality.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science advocacy group, recently released a report on the potential impact of establishing national renewable electricity standards. It found that requiring U.S. utilities to obtain 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources would create 297,000 jobs in the next 15 years.
That’s three times as many jobs as are necessary to produce an equivalent amount of electricity from fossil fuels. The net benefit would be 202,000 new jobs by 2025.
With the economy now in crisis, an industry effort to derail the Western Climate Initiative appears to be making some inroads.
In the past few weeks, legislators in three of the WCI's seven partner states – Arizona, Washington and Utah – have taken actions that threaten to undermine the initiative's goal of reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to 15% below 2005 levels by 2020.
So far, each state’s governor is still committed to remaining in the initiative, leaving it intact for now, but the pressure is on.