Category Archives: Green Energy

Nuclear Energy: An Environmental Quandary

“I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened.”

Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of what will be the first new nuclear power plant in more than 30 years – and this over the objection of its chairman.  In opposition, and invoking the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Chairman Gregory Jaczko asserted that any future construction or proposals should be carried out with the utmost attention paid to safety, particularly to avoid the problems that came to light in Japan.  As the International Atomic Energy Agency reported last year [PDF], the nuclear crisis in Fukushima was precipitated in part by 1) insufficient tsunami preparations; 2) miscommunication between the government, regulators, and plant operators.  Presumably, Jaczko’s safety concerns and demands for further oversight would delay the construction of the reactor at the Vogtle site…

Nuclear Power as an Environmentalist Solution?

…but it wouldn’t necessarily stop it entirely.  In fact, Jaczko, calling the vote “historic,” has couched his opposition primarily in terms invoking mismanagement and a concern for proper safety oversight.  At the same time, those in favour of nuclear energy have supported it on the basis of its environmental benefits.  President Obama and his administration have argued that the push for clean, low emission energy would mean “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”  Low emission energy sounds really attractive right now, particularly in light of the non-stop increase in global GHG emissions (and, if you’re in Vermont right now, apparently bizarre deviations from the climatic norm).

But the Obama administration and the NRC aren’t the only agencies in favour of nuclear development!  What I find really interesting is that several environmentalists, including Mark Lynas, George Monbiot (both from the UK), and Bruno Comby from the US have echoed these claims, arguing that clean energy through nuclear power is a no-brainer.  While Lynas and other pro-nuclear greens have publicly worried that their position “would be the end of [their] reputation as an environmentalist,” they have remained steadfast in their position.

Or A Faustian Bargain?

For other greens, this is a tough sell.  Globally, most of the world’s public is opposed to nuclear power, with clear majorities in France (where most of the energy is nuclear) and Germany (which has recently announced a plan to completely phase out nuclear power by 2022).  As the Sierra Club points out, nuclear energy may be considered clean, only if you ignore 1) radioactive tailings; 2) exposure to radioactivity for workers; 3) the problem of storing radioactive material with long half-lives; amid other concerns.  So, can these concerns be weighed against what often seems like the more pressing issue of climate change and energy independence?  Is opposition against nuclear energy on environmental grounds misplaced?  Is there a way to promote greener behavior and consumption without resorting to a process that may lead to long term problems with radioactivity?

Never Trust the ‘Win-Win-Win’ Scenario


The Solution to Global Warming

Well, I suppose it’s about time that I started blogging again.  Don’t worry; nothing environmentally bad happened between December 12 and today – or I would have caught it.  Clearly.

On Thursday, I heard an interesting report on NPR.  Climate scientists, such as Durwood Zaelke of the Institute of Governance and Sustainable Development, and Drew Shindell of NASA have suggested a new, effective way to fight climate change: instead of attempting to create treaties or institutions to deal with carbon dioxide, we should focus on reducing our global emissions of soot and methane.

Why Soot and Methane?

The rationale behind doing so sounds very seductive: 1) both these gases have a higher Global Warming Potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide per unit weight – methane is 21 times more powerful than CO2 per weight, while soot (comprised of incompletely combusted carbon, sulfur, organic carbon and other chemicals – also known as “black carbon”) has a GWP of 680; 2) as illustrated by NASA, both methane and soot are potentially harmful to human life – soot, because it exacerbates pulmonary and cardiovascular illness, and methane, as it contributes to ground-level ozone; 3) both soot (despite its carbon component) and methane have shorter atmospheric lifetimes than CO2 – one or two decades, as opposed to hundreds of years.

Consequently, concentrating efforts on soot and methane mean you would be able to discern greater changes in atmospheric CO2e accumulation.  In fact, Shindell was lead author on a paper, published in Science Magazine, that suggests focusing on these two gases would reduce the amount of global warming from the projected rate of increase by 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.  This is no small potatoes, considering that the margin of increase recognized by the IPCC as tolerable for human society is a 2 degree increase over current global averages.  Finally, and I suspect this may be a more important development than anything else, combating soot and methane means you’re less likely to confront the industries – transport and energy – responsible for producing carbon dioxide.  Methane primarily comes from agriculture and landfills, particularly in less developed countries, while it is also a byproduct of coal mining.  Soot comes from biomass stoves, burning wood and dung, which again are largely used in developing countries.

So, What’s the Problem?

Not surprisingly, this idea – treating climate change by focusing on patterns of behavior that are not connected to vested industrial interests – has received a lot of vocal support, including among conservative researchers.  “So rather than focusing only on carbon dioxide emissions, where we have to make a tradeoff with energy prices, this strategy focuses on ‘win-win-win’ pathways,” says Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota.  “This is an important study that deserves serious consideration by policy makers as well as scientists,” says John D. Graham, former OMB head under the Bush administration.

Obviously, the proposals advanced by Shindell and his co-authors, if funded, would provide immeasurable benefits.  Reduce cardiovascular illness among lower income, biomass stove-using populations; reduce ground-level ozone; mitigate short-term climate change.  But, I worry that the attempt to focus on other gases may present a moral hazard, if policymakers and the public lose sight of the main problem, which remains carbon dioxide.  While soot and methane are comparatively speaking, short term problems, ‘solving’ them as issues without dealing with the main driver of climate change will only postpone severe climatic problems.  Recall that carbon dioxide lasts for about 100 years in the atmosphere.  The catastrophic implications of global warming would thus be postponed until well after our natural lifetimes, but what about afterwards?  Surely we have a moral obligation to consider future generations.

Moreover, there is something deeply unsettling about a policy approach that has implications for future obligations on lower income populations, or developing countries, while treating carbon dioxide emissions in the developed world as a fait accompli.  Zaelke, who worked on the UNFCCC, said this in regards to the new study: “I mean, it’s like picking a fight with the biggest bully in the schoolyard.  You know, you get your lunch money stolen, you get your pants pulled down, and you get sent home humiliated. We’ve made about that much progress with CO2.”  That same article goes on to say: ” Few governments have been willing to endanger development with limits on CO2.”

First, that last sentence is misleading.  The entire EU bloc has been more than willing to restrict CO2 emissions, quite sharply, and has done so even in the face of a global recession.  Rather, a few (but key) governments (you know who they are from following Durban, I imagine) have refused to address CO2, leaving us all with the bag.  Second, if we want to characterize CO2 as a bully, I would hope that we as a global society will eventually generate the courage and determination to confront that bully, rather than acquiescing each and every time.

Forcing the President’s Hand on Keystone

This Certainly Won’t Backfire…

In an interesting move, the Republican-controlled House included a measure in the latest payroll tax cut bill that requires the President to decide, within 60 days, what to do about the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.  In short, in order to get the payroll tax cuts approved, the President would have to fast-track a decision that he had previously put off for after the election.  Yesterday, the Senate approved the bill, despite earlier prognostications that it was unlikely to do so.

As discussed earlier, some interpreted the President’s delay of the project as a positive: under increasing domestic political pressure, complaints by the EPA, and evidence that the environmental analysis of the Keystone Pipeline was compromised by vested interests, the President had announced that a more thorough analysis of the environmental implications of the project was needed.  While this would not have necessarily meant an end to the project, it at least indicated that some of the criticism was being taken seriously.  As a result, it signaled to some activists that, once the global, local, and state-level impacts were thoroughly explored, the project might have been halted permanently.

Jobs and the Pipeline?

On the other hand, cynics noted that the Obama decision to punt the final say on the Keystone Project was timed in such a way that it would have occurred after the election.  By playing his hands close to his chest and avoiding a decision now, Obama may have hoped to avoid alienating his environmentalist-progressive base, and the section of the population that sees the Pipeline as a potential source of jobs.  Now, while it is true that the jobs claims made by advocates of the Pipeline have been tremendously exaggerated (and increasingly so!  In this video, claims have shot up from 10,000 jobs to 1,000,000 jobs), the language is still out there.  Indeed, the House passed something enticingly called the “North American Energy Security Act,” explicitly linking the pipeline to jobs in the legislative discourse, and calling for the passage of the Keystone.  I mean, who could be opposed to North American Security, right?  Hopefully not you, citizen.

In any case, now the President will have to come down firmly on one side or the other in a shorter timeframe than he originally planned.  For environmental purists, this may be a good thing.  If he had intended to capture the environmental base for the election, only to abandon them by approving the project anyway, he is no longer able to do so.  For pragmatists, it’s less rosy.  If he quashes the project now, the “jobs-killing” language that emerges is sure to impact his chances for re-election.  While Obama is certainly not the Green President that environmentalists had hoped for, he is by far more environmentally friendly than anyone in the current GOP.  Either way, a decision within the 60-day timeframe will almost certainly hurt the President’s re-election chances.

Is This Progress?

One Tiny Step Forward…

If you’ve been following the Keystone XL Pipeline development, you probably heard two things that seem like positive environmental developments.  First, the corporation behind the development of the project, agreed to reroute the planned pipe such that it will no longer run through the Nebraska Sand Hills region.  Potentially good news for Nebraskan environmentalists, ranchers, conservationists, who raised concerns about the impact of subterranean oil on the Ogallala aquifer, described as “…a massive subterranean waterway that underlies 27% of the irrigated land in the U.S.”

Nebraskan Rancher in the Sand Hills



Second, the Obama administration and the State Department recently announced that the project would be sent back for review, citing the environmental and socioeconomic considerations raised by the specter of continued oil dependency and dirty extraction.

…And One Giant Leap Back

However, any optimism about these developments should be severely tempered.  While the guaranteed protection of the Ogallala aquifer is a good thing, the obvious question that emerges is, why were they threatened in the first place?  Moreover, a careful examination of the State Department’s announcement on the Pipeline clearly indicates that the delay 1) is primarily to find a less contentious route for the proposed oil; 2) times the final decision-making such that the policy will be determined after the election.  A more cynical person than I would suggest that Obama is primarily trying not to alienate his remaining progressive-environmentalist constituency, while intending to go ahead with it anyway.  But, if the next President is a Republican, well, the possibility of the Pipeline becomes a certainty.

An Eminently Reasonable Man

Take a look at the rhetoric surrounding the issue: obviously, you have industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute stating that the Pipeline will create “…thousands of jobs almost immediately,” something that has to be a concern for Obama given his poll figures as of late.

More colorfully, Rick Perry has pointed out that our dependence on foreign oil, much of it produced by nationalized companies in countries such as Saudia Arabia, places American troops and security at risk.  We strengthen hostile regimes, because we fill up our SUVs with their product.  (Ironically, this is an argument made by environmentalists for reducing oil consumption – inimical to the Keystone XL).

Something Else to Keep in Mind

In any case, despite the superficial progress, there are a plethora of well-reasoned objections, on clearly stated environmental grounds, to the project as a whole – not just the proposed expansion through the Sand Hills.  In the Colbert Report, Middlebury’s own Bill McKibben critiques the whole idea of the project.

Adding Insult to Injury: the First Nations and Injustice

One final point: while McKibben’s argument is sound, it seems as if there was not enough time on the Report to get into one of the more troubling aspects (to me) of the whole production of the Keystone.  Even if we were guaranteed that the transit of oil were safe in the US, oil extraction is severely problematic for the people who live near the tar sands: indigenous and First Nations peoples.

As can be seen in this report by the NRDC (TarSandsInvasion-full [PDF]), the extraction of oil from tar sands is immensely hazardous to the local ecosystems upon which indigenous people depend.  Air pollution, and the seepage of toxins into groundwater, aquifers, and local ecosystems have led to high rates of cancer, asthma, acid rain, and the accumulation of toxins such as cyanide and ammonia.  Not surprisingly, and as is the case in the US, indigenous people in Canada are at the lower end of the socioeconomic totem pole.  It is important to keep in mind, when we think about environmental problems, that some populations are more vulnerable than others.  Thinking about the Keystone XL (and other environmental issues) should raise questions, not just about consumption, local ecosystems, and wellbeing – but also about demographics and social identity.  Who benefits?  Who loses?  Do certain populations lose more?  In so doing, we should oppose environmentally harmful projects, not just on the basis of ecological concerns, but also on the basis of human rights, justice, and socioeconomic equity.

The Limits to (Green) Growth


Birds Swarming a Wind Turbine

In The Not-So-Green Mountains (, an interesting thing is occurring: for the sake of clean energy generated by windfarms, Green Mountain Power is razing wild forest in the mountains of Vermont.  This exposes one of the central problems of the modern lifestyle.

Even the most environmentally friendly forms of energy come with some ecological – and often socioeconomic – costs.  In addition to leading to biodiversity loss and deforestation, windfarms can also be catastrophic for migratory species.  Unfortunately, as in the Red Sea/Rift Valley Flyway, the wind conditions that are propitious for energy are also used by migratory soaring birds.  See here (pdf, 1.5MB) for a detailed report.  Similarly, hydropower, while ostensibly cutting down on fossil fuels and GHG emissions, require the transformation of river ecologies, and contribute to eutrophication, and variation in microclimates.  This is not even to mention the dislocation, and occasional human rights violations, that can occur when local communities are displaced for dam construction (pdf, 53KB), as in China.

There are limits to green innovation.  While necessary, it will not alleviate our human impact on the environment.  Perhaps as much attention should be paid to reducing our demand on energy as there is to finding new sources.  In any case, assuming that we can innovate our way to no net environmental impact is deeply problematic.