Friday, January 29, 2010

Feds Aim to Cut Greenhouse Gas Pollution 28% by 2020

By Colin Bennett
January 29, 2010

According a statement released by the White House, President Obama has directed all federal agencies to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution by 28 percent by 2020. Considering the U.S. government is the largest consumer of energy in the country, the results of the cuts have the potential to be significant. In 2008, the combined total spent on electricity and fuel by all federal departments and agencies was over $24.5 billion. If the Feds reach their target they claim that they will save a "cumulative total of $8 to $11 billion in avoided energy costs through 2020." According to the White House, the savings is equal to more than 200 million barrels of oil and taking 17 million cars off the road for one year.

“As the largest energy consumer in the United States, we have a responsibility to American citizens to reduce our energy use and become more efficient,” said President Obama. “Our goal is to lower costs, reduce pollution, and shift Federal energy expenses away from oil and towards local, clean energy.”

President Obama hopes that Reducing and reporting GHG pollution "will ensure that the Federal Government leads by example in building the clean energy economy." Although specific on how the reduction goals will be met are sparse, the White House claims that "Actions taken under this Executive Order will spur clean energy investments that create new private-sector jobs, drive long-term savings, build local market capacity, and foster innovation and entrepreneurship in clean energy industries."

Of the few examples that they do provide, installing solar panels tops the list, although there is no mention of whether or not President Obama will replace the solar panels that Jimmy Carter put on the White House in the seventies (that were subsequently taken down by Ronald Regan). Other examples of emission reducing practices the Feds plan to employ include "tapping landfills for renewable energy, putting energy management systems in Federal buildings, and replacing older vehicles with more fuel efficient hybrid models."

Reactions from most environmental groups have yet to come out but Jason Von Kundra, Co-chair of Mason's Environmental Action Group has a lot to say about the president's goal. "The executive order is merely a baby step toward building the clean energy economy. To establish energy independence, mitigate the impact of climate change, and create new jobs, greater reduction commitments are necessary on the national level. This low reduction effecting only the federal government has a high baseline of 2008 emissions, an inadequate reduction for 2020, and lacks any commitment for 2050." Von Kundra also states that, "According to the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2007 assessment, an 80%-95% reduction of GHG concentration by the year 2050 is needed to stay below 450ppm, which is still dangerously too high if we want to stabilize the climate. I appreciate Obama’s step in the right direction, but I’m holding my applause until I hear a commitment to carbon neutrality that will truly lead the way to a clean energy economy."

Federal efforts to reduce pollution can be tracked at the White House's Council of Environmental Quality website at:

Note: This piece has been edited since its original posting. Jason Von Kundra's quote "This low reduction effecting only the federal government has a high baseline of 2008 emissions, an inadequate reduction for 2010, and lacks any commitment for 2050" was corrected to say 2020 instead of 2010. The remainder of the piece is untouched.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

As Planet Continues to Warm, Mason Takes Action

By Colin Bennett

Earlier this month Mason's Office of Sustainability published its first Climate Action Plan for the school. Essentially, the goal of the plan is for Mason to reach climate neutrality by 2050, not a moment to soon as NASA announced last week that 2009 "was tied for the second warmest since 1880." Moreover, "In the Southern Hemisphere, 2009 was the warmest year on record." In fact, according to NASA, the last decade was the warmest decade on record.

According to Dr. James Hansen, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, "There's always interest in the annual temperature numbers and a given year's ranking, but the ranking often misses the point." He says that El-Nino and La-Nina are responsible for annual variability in global temperature, but he continues, "When we average temperature over five or ten years to minimize that variability, we find global warming is continuing unabated."

Today, as the nation debates the merits of President Obama's State of the Union Address and Congress continues to drag its feet on climate legislation, Mason is hard at work on reducing its climate emissions. According to the climate plan, Mason's target for reaching climate neutrality by 2050 will be via an at least 80% reduction in emissions with the remaining greenhouse gases that the school is responsible for to be offset through an appropriate offset strategy. Technological advances and appropriate policies will reduce the universities climate footprint substantially; however, a significant component of the plan calls reaching out to the Mason community. Specifically, in order to reach the goal every individual at Mason will need to do their part.

A newly formed Climate Action Team overseen by Mason's Office of Sustainability will help with the out-reach efforts around campus. The team will be responsible for helping to organize climate related events, offering presentations on Mason's climate commitment, and disseminating climate messages throughout appropriate venues. Most importantly though, the Climate Action Team will be responsible for getting members of the Mason community to sign the Mason Climate Pledge.

Signers of the Mason Climate Pledge commit to helping Mason achieve climate neutrality with "actions as simple as turning out lights when leaving a room and powering down computers when not in use". To date, almost 1000 people from Mason have signed the pledge, becoming Mason Climate Champions by doing so. With hope, and the dedication of the Climate Action Team, at least 50% of the Mason community will sign the pledge and become a climate champion by this time next year.

This image is a five year global temperature average from 2003 to 2007. Red represents above average temperatures.

Photo Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Powerful Tool to Regulate Greenhouse Gases Under Attack

By Colin Bennett

In early 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. EPA, ruled that greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act, and as such, can be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Two years later the EPA responded by proposing a finding that GHGs "contribute to air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare". Then, in September of 2009 the EPA followed up with "a proposal that is focused on large facilities emitting over 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year. These facilities would be required to obtain permits that would demonstrate they are using the best practices and technologies to minimize GHG emissions." This decision was lauded by environmentalists who were excited by the prospect of the federal government finally taking on climate change. (A summary of the EPA's proposed rule can be found here.)

Specifically, the EPA would regulate facilities that emit 25,000 tons per year or more of carbon dioxide equivalents including refineries, power plants, and cement production facilities. The carbon dioxide equivalents include corresponding amounts of methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride. According to the EPA, "The proposed thresholds would “tailor” the permit programs to limit which facilities would be required to obtain [NSR and title V] permits and would cover nearly 70 percent of the national GHG emissions that come from stationary sources, including those from the nation’s largest emitters—including power plants, refineries, and cement production facilities."

Now, under an amendment added to an unrelated bill, the EPA is in danger of losing its authority to regulate GHGs. According to a press release from the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the amendment, introduced by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), "would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from spending money on regulating carbon dioxide from stationary sources under the Clean Air Act for a period of one year." According to the Washington Post, "two Washington lobbyists, Jeffrey R. Holmstead and Roger R. Martella, Jr., helped craft the original amendment Murkowski planned to offer on the floor last fall. Both Holmstead, who heads the Environmental Strategies Group and Bracewell & Guiliani, and Martella, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP, held senior posts at EPA under the Bush administration and represents multiple clients with an interest in climate legislation pending before Congress."

Fearing that any delay to federal action, especially a delay motivated by the interests of industry, will severely hamper our ability to curtail the worst effects of climate change, many environmental groups are crying foul. These groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, Earthjustice, Repower America, and the Union of Concerned Scientists are calling on the Senate to reject the amendment. Each of them has set up electronic 'action alerts' to allow citizens to contact their senators to voice their opposition to the amendment.

Although both the Post and the N.Y. Times are reporting that Senator Murkowski may end up delaying offering her amendment, groups opposed to the measure are not giving up the fight to see the amendment disappear for good.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)

Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Greenpeace calls on Trader Joe's to stop selling 'red-list' fish

By Colin Bennett

Greenpeace, a sometimes controversial and often successful environmental organization, is calling upon the nation-wide food retailer Trader Joe's to stop selling fish species it claims are being harvested or farmed unsustainably.

The organization maintains a list of fish it says to avoid due to unsustainable harvesting or farming practices. Its list, dubbed the 'red-list' consists of 22 entries including Atlantic cod, halibut, and salmon, yellowfin tuna, pollack, red snapper, and all species of sharks. (The full list can be found here).

According to Casson Trenor, Greenpeace's Sustainable Seafood Markets Expert, Trader Joe's is the "worst performing national seafood retailer". The assertion is based on rating system containing four categories: Sustainable Seafood Policy (Trader Joe's doesn't have one); Seafood Sustainability Initiatives (Trader Joe's doesn't have any); Labeling & Transparency (Trader Joe's doesn't label its seafood); Red List Seafood Sales (Trader Joe's sells 15 of the 22 of the co-called red-list seafoods). The full scorecard, published in a report called "Carting Away the Oceans" contains ratings of the nation's 20 largest seafood retailers. Of all the retailers evaluated, Wegman's was rated the highest with a score of 5.9 out of 10.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "Despite its social and economic importance, attempts to manage fisheries sustainably have been unsuccessful in many parts of the world due to several factors...the underlying crisis is real and an urgent response is required at global level." A study published in the journal Science claims that the world will run out of seafood by the middle of the century if fishing practices aren't changed drastically. "We really see the end of the line now," said the study's lead author Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Canada's Dalhousie University, in an interview with the Washington Post. "It's within our lifetime. Our children will see a world without seafood if we don't change things." Specifically, the study states that "business as usual would foreshadow serious threats to global food security, coastal water quality, and ecosystem stability, affecting current and future generations."

If you choose to eat fish or other seafood, there are several organizations that have guides to help you make informed decisions, including NOAA, the Marine Stewardship Council, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you choose to give up seafood completely, there are dozens of resources that will help you select healthy alternatives to animal protein. Vegan Outreach has a great guide, as does the USDA, and the Mayo Clinic.

If you are interested in contacting Trader Joe's to tell them how you feel about their lack of a sustainable seafood policy you can use Greenpeace's online contact form here. It allows you to write your own comment or submit a suggested comment.

Enjoy this short clip from the mock-website for Traitor Joe's:

Download the flash player

See these other articles related to seafood:

World's Fish Supply Running Out, Researchers Warn- Washington Post

Shrimp On Your Plate? Think Twice (Your Liver, Endangered Mangroves, And Poorly Paid Workers Will Thank You)- Planet Green

Last Act for the Bluefin- New York Times

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Friday, January 8, 2010

New study calls for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining

By Colin Bennett

Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for the losses.

That quote comes from a study published yesterday (January 7, 2010) in the journal Science. The study, conducted by a dozen scientists from universities across the country, clearly shows that mountaintop removal (MTR) is irreversibly destroying large swaths of Appalachia. Furthermore, the authors call for an end to the horrific practice stating, "Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science. The United States should take leadership on these issues, particularly since surface mining in many developing countries is expected to grow extensively."

Last October, as well as in November of 2008, two separate groups of Mason students visited a mountaintop removal site near Rock Creek, West Virgina. The trip was made as part of the annual Mountain Justice Fall Summit, a gathering of students and young people dedicated to doing their part to end mountaintop removal. The event was hosted by a coalition of environmental groups, including Coal River Wind, who wanted to give the participants the chance to see mountaintop removal up close.

"Seeing first-hand the destruction that occurs in order to get coal was an eyeopening experience. Looking at the barren land that was once a thriving mountain was shocking. It changed my perspective and made me more aware of where exactly the energy I use comes from and encouraged me to conserve more," said NCC student Allison Rutledge.

Gopi Raghu, a Junior studying Business at Mason said that he has never seen anything like it before. "Listening to Larry* speak I had the chance to see and hear first-hand the voice of a strong advocate for saving the mountains, often putting his life at risk to do so. It was a wake-up call for me because I didn't know people felt that strongly. After seeing what used to be a mountain I felt like crying. This was the most important part of the trip for me because I wish more people could see what I saw so they'd be willing to take action against mountaintop removal."

Physics major Jason Von Kundra never truly understood the devastation of mountaintop removal until he saw it first-hand. "Visiting Coal River Valley opened my eyes to communities living with the direct impact of MTR and limited ways of coping. Residents told their stories of polluted water, lowered land value, no economic diversity, and other social and economic issues caused by the coal companies. In addition to damaging communities, MTR ravages the land. Standing on the current top of Kayford Mountain, I looked at the unnaturally leveled plateau before me and had trouble imagining the ancient mountain that once stood there. Without vegetation, MTR sites do not support plant and animal life. Even 'reclaimed' sites have limited biodiversity with only one species of grass being planted by the coal companies. This is a tragedy in Appalachia, the most biodiverse region in the United States. I now know my responsibility to stop MTR on ethical and environmental grounds. By putting pressure on the EPA and congress, we can put an end to this havoc."

Clearly, seeing the devastation that is mountaintop removal first-hand makes people think twice about using electricity unnecessarily. Fortunately, for those of us that can't make the trip to see for ourselves, many organizations have put together videos that show what's really happening in Appalachia. Below is one such video from the organization I Love Mountains.

A growing number of organizations are calling for an immediate end to mountaintop removal. President Obama said in a recent interview, "It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient." Hopefully this study, along with the overwhelming evidence that already exists, President Obama and the EPA will give the political will to end, once-and-for-all, this appalling practice.

If you are interested, here is another video made by our friends at Yale:

*Larry Gibson owns the part of the mountain that hasn't been destroyed. The property has been in his family for generations. He refuses to sell to the coal companies because they will destroy the rest of the mountain.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Pictures from the first year of the Mason vegetable garden

Although all of our pictures from the garden an be found on Facebook, we are trying to make them a little more accesible. As such, we are in the process of uploading them to Picassa, the Google photo site. Although they are not in order and some have yet to be edited, the photos can be found by clicking on the link following the sample photos below. We'd love to know what you think, both about the pictures and the garden in general; please comment on the pictures or on this blog post. Or, if you are more comfortable submitting your comments privately, please send them to me at

As more pictures become available we will be posting them as well. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions on how we can improve our outreach, please let us know.


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See the entire album: