Energy & the Environment

The Danger in Our Water Supply

A dairy farm with 2,500 cows produces as much waste as Miami. FairWarning investigates how that puts our water supply in danger.

Rex Images via AP Photo
Kate Golden, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism This investigation was conducted by FairWarning ( www.fairwarning.org ) a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues. A s factory farms take over more and more of the nation’s livestock production, a major environmental threat has emerged: Pollution from the waste produced by the immense crush of animals. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that America’s livestock create three times as much excreta as the human population. By the agency’s reckoning , a dairy farm with 2,500 cows—which is large, but not exceptional—can generate as much waste as the people in a city the size of Miami. Yet unlike human waste, which often receives sophisticated treatment, animal waste commonly goes untreated. It is typically held in underground pits or vast manure lagoons, and then spread on cropland as fertilizer. It’s been this way for decades, but worries have grown along...

A River Runs Through It

Everyone agrees that the only way to fix the Gulf of Mexico dead zone—the largest off the United States—is to fix the Mississippi, but not everyone agrees how. 

Dennis Chamberlin
Dennis Chamberlin This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network , an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health. T o get an idea of how American coastal waters might look just before they succumb to all the degradations they have suffered these past five centuries, it would be worth taking a July trip to Mobile Bay, an Alabama inlet that feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. If the air is still and hot, an event may occur that Gulf Coast residents call a “jubilee.” The bottom-dwelling flounder will be among its first victims, growing agitated as each successive gulp of water brings less and less oxygen across their gills. In a panic, the fish will head shoreward toward the only breathable water they can find—the tiny oxygenated riffle the sea makes as it bumps lazily against the beach. At the shoreline, they will find humans waiting for them armed with “gigs,” crude...

I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore, Keystone

Flickr/350.org
AP Photo/Elise Amendola I t’s rare for environmental organizations to lead outside spending in an election. Even the largest don't have that much cash to burn. But in last month's Senate primary in Massachusetts, no other interest group spent more. 350.org Action Fund, the young political arm of the climate campaign group 350.org, picked this as its first race and dropped just over $50,000 during the primary. Hedge-funder Tom Steyer's NextGen Committee spent more than $500,000, according to the Federal Election C ommission—almost half of which went to the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). The LCV contributed a fair bit of its own money on the race, too, with its total spending ringing in around $850,000. All of this money went to support Representative Edward J. Markey or to oppose Representative Stephen Lynch, the two main candidates in the primary to choose which Democrat would vie for John Kerry’s old Senate seat. When climate change was on Congress’s radar, Markey was a leader...

Don't Give Up on Green Tech Yet

flickr/Chris Wevers
W hen in 2008 George W. Bush signed the law creating the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program (ATVM), which gives loans to car companies investing in green tech, conservatives were outraged. They took to talk radio to express their dismay, they introduced bills to dismantle the program, they poured contempt on Bush for trying to "pick winners and losers" with a bunch of hippie-mobiles running on patchouli and idealistic delusions. I'm just kidding, of course. Conservatives didn't actually do those things. It was only when Barack Obama took office in 2009 that they discovered their antipathy to the ATVM (though their dislike of electric cars was evident long before). The program got some scrutiny last week when the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on the dire straits of Fisker Automotive, the recipient of a Department of Energy loan. Despite the fact that a number of the Republicans on the committee, including chairman Darrel Issa, had previously requested...

The Keystone Fight's Labor Pains

The battle over the tar sands pipeline among unions has been XL on drama.

AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File
AP Photo/Nati Harnik “F or too long we have allowed some corporations to hold a gun to our heads and demand that we choose jobs or choose the earth.” That’s what Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers International Union of North America, told green groups and fellow unions at a green-jobs conference in February 2009, just a few months after the union—one of the largest in the country—joined the Blue-Green Alliance, a group organized to advocate for a “clean economy.” But by January 2012, O’Sullivan had made a choice. The climate bill had failed, the money from the recovery act had run out, political tides had turned against government spending, and the union was no longer so keen to partner with the environmental movement. “We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women,” O’Sullivan said. This heady “job killer” rhetoric...

It's Not Easy Being Green

Flickr/CREDO Action/
Flickr/Takver A bout a year ago, on March 26, 2012, Sandra Steingraber, an environmental writer and activist against natural-gas fracking, wrote a public letter titled “Breaking Up with the Sierra Club.” Breakups are never easy, and the letter, published on the website of the nature magazine Orion , was brutal from the start: “I’m through with you,” Steingraber began. The proximate cause of the split was the revelation that between 2007 and 2010 the nation’s oldest environmental organization had clandestinely accepted $26 million from individuals or subsidiaries associated with Chesapeake Energy, a major gas firm that has been at the forefront of the fracking boom. “The largest, most venerable environmental organization in the United States secretly aligned with the very company that seeks to occupy our land, turn it inside out, blow it apart, fill it with poison,” Steingraber wrote. “It was as if, on the eve of D-day, the anti-Fascist partisans had discovered that Churchill was...

The Once and Future Gov

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
AP Photo/Eric Risberg A merica’s most futuristic governor seems borne back ceaselessly into the past these days. As he shows me around his office on a crisp winter morning, California Governor Jerry Brown points out not just the desk that his father, Edmund “Pat” Brown, used during his own term as governor from 1959 to 1967 but also photos of his grandparents and his great-grandfather, who came to California in the gold rush years. “He knew John Sutter,” Brown says. The only two governors in the past half-century who were native Californians, he points out, were he and his father. At 74, Brown has lost little of the intensity that impressed and occasionally discomfited voters during his first tenure as governor nearly 40 years ago. His outfit—an open-collar shirt under a white pullover sweater, blue jeans—may be West Coast casual, his shaved head may call to mind the Zen monks with whom he’s studied, but Brown’s emotional repertoire does not include laid-back, except when he’s talking...

What We'll Be Talking about in 2016

AP Photo/Mark Hirsch
Yes, pundits of all stripes are already starting to handicap the presidential fields for 2016. Yes, that’s a long time from now … although we are under three years to the Iowa Caucuses, and probably just about two years from the first debates, so it’s not all that long. More to the point: as long as the candidates are running—and they are—there’s no reason to pretend the contest hasn’t started yet. While the identity of the next Democratic and Republican nominees is important, what’s even more important is what they intend to do if elected. Indeed: the nomination process is important because it’s how parties sort out their differences and make decisions about who they are, and what kinds of public policy they support. Moreover, the nomination process is the best chance for groups and individuals within the party to have a chance of affecting what the party will do if it wins. In general elections with huge electorates, there’s not much one person can do that makes any difference. In...

A Voice for Climate, 40,000 Strong

Jaime Fuller
Drew Angerer/SIPA via AP Images A llison Chin, president of the Sierra Club, knows now is the moment to think big on climate. It’s been a year of “records”: A record number of droughts have hit towns across the country, record temperatures slowly roast the planet, and storms have left record amounts of snow and rain in their wake. Finally, too, a record number of people have conceded that we’re changing the environment for the worse. “Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, businessmen, people of the faith—it’s not just environmentalists that are affected by this,” Chin says. She knows that environmentalists need to be practical—they need concrete demands that all people left adrift by a changing climate can endorse. But facing such long odds and high stakes, how can they be anything but ardent about the environment? Yesterday’s climate rally, which supporters billed as the largest in history, proved a near perfect mix of the practical and the passionate. Facing a chilly February...

Keystone XL: A Year in Review

What has happened with the pipeline in the year since the Obama administration rejected TransCanada's original permit?

Flickr/Bold Nebraska
Flickr/M.V. Jantzen I t’s been just over a year since the Obama administration rejected TransCanada’s original permit application for Keystone XL. On the surface, it might seem like nothing much has happened. The State Department has yet to release its assessment of the environmental impacts of the new, revised pipeline route, which TransCanada proposed on May 4, 2012, only four months after the initial permit rejection. None of the many attempts by Republicans in Congress to force through approval of the pipeline succeeded, and with the slow fade of Mitt Romney, one of the projects’s self-proclaimed biggest fans, the project’s best chance to pass unimpeded through U.S. bureaucracy was lost. But in this period neither TransCanada nor Keystone XL opponents have been at rest. Construction on the southern end of the pipeline began in August, and protesters, hoping to budge an administration that has turned stalling on environmental action into a specialty, have amped up both their...

It's Worse than the Status Quo

AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File
In the midst of dealing with the fiscal cliff, Congress passed a one-year extension of the farm bill that eliminated funding for almost every even vaguely innovative agriculture policy and kept in place expensive and outdated subsidies that benefit big agribusiness. From the perspective of anyone interested in making change in America’s farm and food system, it was a disaster. “There's much isn’t to be happy about with this extension,” David deGennaro, a legislative analyst with the Environmental Working Group, said. “If you care about conservation, food production, or reforming the farm bill, this is a bad deal,” said Justin Tatham, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ senior Washington representative for food & environment. “It's worse than the status quo.” “They took all the newer, smaller, but most innovative programs and left them out of the extension,” says Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. At the same time, lawmakers left in...

Fracking versus the Boondocks

Promised Land bills itself as an environmental movie, but it’s far more concerned with preserving Dan Barry-esque small-town America mythology.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File In this April 22, 2008 file photo, a natural gas well pad sits in front of the Roan Plateau near the Colorado mountain community of Rifle. Opponents of a law restricting federal oversight of injecting fluids underground to boost oil and natural gas production hope a new bill and a new administration will tighten regulation of the practice called fracking. T he first sentence of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring proves a good template for most stories about the environment in America: "There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. … Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change." Promised Land , which opens nationwide today, begins its story about fracking, the drilling technique that’s...

Making Liberal Hearts Bleed in Anytown, U.S.A.

What is the purpose of didactic movies like Promised Land?

Political issues come and go, but message movies never change. Thanks partly to a relatively novel subject—fracking—and partly to an elliptical set-up, Gus van Sant's Promised Land , written from a story by Dave Eggers by its stars, Matt Damon and The Office's John Krasinski, varies from the norm only in fooling you for almost half an hour into thinking it actually might be up to something interesting. Too bad the movie turns into the same Ibsen for Idiots combo of a burning deck and a stacked one that was creaky when Jane Fonda was just another lonesome gal with a few New York modeling gigs to her credit. His brow as furrowed as if he's just woken up in a voting booth with no pants on, Damon plays Steve Butler—as in "loyal servant," no doubt—who's snapping up mineral-rights leases on behalf of a corporation unsubtly named Global somewhere in generic, Great Recession-ravaged Heartland, U.S.A. The setting's lack of specificity is your first hint that flyover country will go on looking...

Making Liberal Hearts Bleed in Anytown, U.S.A.

What is the purpose of didactic movies like Promised Land?

Political issues come and go, but message movies never change. Thanks partly to a relatively novel subject—fracking—and partly to an elliptical set-up, Gus van Sant's Promised Land , written from a story by Dave Eggers by its stars, Matt Damon and The Office's John Krasinski, varies from the norm only in fooling you for almost half an hour into thinking it actually might be up to something interesting. Too bad the movie turns into the same Ibsen for Idiots combo of a burning deck and a stacked one that was creaky when Jane Fonda was just another lonesome gal with a few New York modeling gigs to her credit. His brow as furrowed as if he's just woken up in a voting booth with no pants on, Damon plays Steve Butler—as in "loyal servant," no doubt—who's snapping up mineral-rights leases on behalf of a corporation unsubtly named Global somewhere in generic, Great Recession-ravaged Heartland, U.S.A. The setting's lack of specificity is your first hint that flyover country will go on looking...

Under Water Pressure

Nearly 400 years after the first Thanksgiving, the Navajo and Hopi are fighting the coal industry for rights to their land.

(Canadian Press via AP Images)
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, center, accompanied by Senator Jeff Bingaman, right, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, October 1, 2009, to discuss future activities relating to the Navajo-Gallup water supply project. F ive years after the Wampanoag tribe shared a three-day feast of maize, venison, eel, and shellfish with a hapless group of English separatists in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Dutch governor of New York bought the island of Manhattan from the Canarsie tribe for $24 worth of gold. This week, thousands of New Yorkers will fly out of La Guardia for Thanksgiving, and those fortunate enough to do so in the evening will enjoy a spectacular view of the return on that investment; phosphorescent skyscrapers and over a hundred-thousand streetlights trace a real-estate market valued at just under $1 trillion. Nowhere else has the memory of conquest been so thoroughly blotted out, and perhaps as an extension, nowhere else...

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